Categories
Stories

Does this Make Me a Psychic?

By Erwin Coombs

Shark’s Teeth. Courtesy: Creative Commons

The credibility of a writer is important. Of course, anyone’s credibility is important because without it, you are keeping time with someone who is a phantom of a personality if they can’t be believed for one reason or another. One must trust that the person telling a story is not sitting in a Starbucks for hours at a time nursing a small coffee and babbling away about things that never happened or didn’t happen that way. Just to put your mind at rest, I’m not currently in a coffee shop, I never linger over coffee and everything I say happened, more or less as I describe.

Here’s where my credibility might be called into question: I am psychic. There, I said it, it’s on the page, a frank admission that makes most people start to wonder where the nearest exit is, or perhaps you are now looking for the nearest recycling bin for this peice. I remember saying this to a fellow at a party once and his expression froze. Not being the most socially adept creature, he was looking for a way to get away from me before I put a hex or curse or whatever it is psychic people do.

He grabbed his cell phone and said, “Sorry, I better take this.”

And as he backed away his phone began to ring. So, either he was pretending to have a call, or he was the psychic — one who knew it was coming. But he found an almost smooth way out of a conversation with someone who might just be an oddball. You do not have to fake a call and presumably you’re reading this with open eyes and an open mind, so let me tell you a bit about this nether, dark world that both fascinates us and repels us like standing naked before a mirror once you’re well into middle age. Here is a story that might not be spooky in the other world sense, but it certainly gave me pause.

It was an overcast fall day in an old room in an old school. How’s that for a spooky, atmospheric set up?  I was teaching another class of basic level grade 10 boys. These poor devils have been committed opponents to English classes likely since their first day in kindergarten. Again, it’s not that they’re dumb, at all. But they sure didn’t like English class.

I came up with a brainchild of an idea to get them to work. I could always keep them quiet and seated, which is a feat in itself. But to get them to work I thought I would go right back to a depression era technique and told them I would give the best student of the day a prize. Now these poor working-class sods were not used to prizes. Mostly at home they got slaps across the head for transgression both real and imagined on the part of parent(s) whose only embrace of parenthood involved forgetting to bring a condom. Their faces lit up at the prospect of a prize. An award! They had spent their school years running into punishments, but a prize!

I felt a little bad when they immediately grabbed their pencils (this time not as a weapon), opened their books (this time not for a pillow), and began to read and write. There is no more stirring or heartbreaking sight for a teacher who cares than watching students try so hard to do something well for which they have no confidence. I sat at my desk and began to wonder.

The first thing I wondered was what could I give for a prize. I assumed they would scoff and make some kind of a sucking noise with their teeth. In 1991, this was a favourite of rappers to display dismissiveness. I had encountered it many times as a teacher. My defense was to ask, in a sincere voice, if they wanted some floss.

“Floss? For what, man?

“Sorry, I thought you had something stuck in your teeth from lunch. I do have some floss in my desk. It’s been there for a while, but it might just do the trick of dislodging that bit of food you feel the need to suck out.”

With a lot of teachers this might well have resulted in a small-scale riot. But my kids knew I liked them, and I tease and, as I said, they might not be bookish smart, but they knew sarcasm when they heard it and they usually just laughed.

But back to the problem of offering a prize that I didn’t even have. I cast a quick look around the room for possibilities. There were some posters on the wall of an educational bent that I could use. There was a lovely one of a parachutist drifting down to earth with the caption below saying: “The mind is like a parachute. It only operates when open.”

I could imagine telling some poor slob that they could take that home for a hard day’s work. I imagine I would eventually make it out of the class, but not in one piece. The pounding I would take would put me on long term disability. Not a terrible idea but the journey to get there would be hard.

I thought about the money in my pocket, full five dollars and some change. But wouldn’t that be a bribe or some form of prostitution? And the next class all behavior and production would come with a price tag. And when the principal got word that I was paying my students, it would mean a different route to long term disability.

I rummaged through my desk drawer when I saw it. My salvation! It was a glass jar of shark’s teeth. Now why in God’s name would a teacher have such a thing on his desk. Simple. It cost me nothing and was a gift. My wife’s uncle was this eccentric but genuinely nice man who collected things. It didn’t matter what, he would collect them. He had scoured the countryside looking for Indigenous arrowheads and tools and guess what? He found them by the hundreds. His collection was so impressive that the Royal Ontario Museum gladly took them when he offered them up out of the goodness of his heart. So, one day we were in his cavernous basement, strewn with rocks and fossils and bits of metal and God knows what else. It was a summer day, and his hay fever had the better of him. He let out a sneeze that no doubt shattered an arrowhead or two.

He blew his nose into a handkerchief that would likely never be used again for any human purpose. He looked down at the contents and said,

“Oh, I thought my nose was bleeding, but it’s snot (instead of it’s not, you see).”

That was exactly the kind of joke this guy made and one of the reasons I found him so much fun to be with. The odd thing was he had survived a German work camp as a teenager during World War II, one in which his brother had died. Yet here he was, in his seventies, bent and old and so full of life and always finding a reason to laugh. How could I not like him?  And now was he related to some of Tina’s family? They were people who could find a dark cloud in the second coming of Christ.

“You know he really should have called first. This is really not convenient.”

Anyway, this jolly old fellow saw me admiring his countless bottles of shark’s teeth lined up on a shelf.

“Geez, just take one. I got plenty.”

“That’s awfully good of you, Bill. But all the work you took yanking them out of their mouths. It just doesn’t seem right.”

He would never laugh at my jokes, but I know he liked them.

“Here, you keep ‘em. Mostly they were lost in bar fights anyway.”

So, thank you very much, Bill. Now I could give my winner a reason to not add my teeth to the collection.

The class came to an end, and I knew I had my top student. I would have liked to have given them all something because they had all tried, and I was very proud of them. But if you give a prize to everybody then it takes away from the very idea of a prize which is a celebration of accomplishment in a field of others. It reminded me of the increasingly bizarre notion that had come up in education in the last few years, namely that everyone is special and stands apart and should be recognised as such. I am all for increasing students’ sense of self-worth but here’s the trick: if everyone is special, then nobody is special. If every child is recognised and labelled as having poor behaviour or attitude because of their genetics or how they were raised or because they weren’t tucked in at night in order to maximise their potential, then they all have an out.

Unfortunately, it gives every kid a playing card that they can pull in any situation. I remember breaking up a fight and as I guided the hulk along to the office, he looked at me wide eyed and said, “It’s not my fault…I have anger issues.”

This was a kid that was not exactly a future student of psychology. A future as a study model of aberrant psychology possibly. But he had been told by teachers and counsellors and no doubt his parents that his ‘acting out’, to put it mildly, was the result of this syndrome. It is to laugh for.

Though I wanted to reward them all, I knew that I had to choose just one. Bobby Mack (yes, it did sound vaguely like a cosmetic line) was the one. I don’t think anyone ever made fun of his name to his face. He was very tall and naturally very strong. His strength wasn’t achieved from holding big books in the library. His love of academics was an empty love. He was, however, a very good future plumber. That’s why he was at school. He was a likeable fellow with a good sense of humour, I knew this because he laughed at my jokes. 16 years old in grade 10, turning his life around to pursue his love of plumbing. It would also help him support the two children he had with two different girls similarly young. Ah, well, he had a goal and I felt he could do it.

With a few minutes to go before the end of class I stood before their expectant faces and said my piece.

“Well, after careful consideration, and after having fed data into the computer, it has been calculated who is student of the day and thereby the winner of a prize that will change their lives.”

I love a big build up, but the faces in front of me told this young teacher that they didn’t use computers, only had calculators for projectiles and didn’t think lives could change. I cut to the chase and told Bobby to come on up and get his prize. He lumbered to the front of the room with a shy smile as the class applauded.  I’m sure the guy never won a prize in an English classroom in his life. When I say applauded, I mean a few did, several whined that they should have won. One fellow called out,

“Oh, sir, that’s not fair. You’re a racist.”

I looked down at this white face, back to Bobby’s white face and wondered where he got that complaint from.

“No, it’s not racist. For one thing I didn’t even know you were Chinese.”

“I’m not Chi…!”

He cut himself off realising that there was both a joke as well as a jab in there for him. Bobby stood in front of me and I slowly, for even more dramatic effect, took out my little bottle of shark’s teeth, took one out and put it in his outstretched hand. The smile didn’t run from his face, it sprinted. He looked hard at the tooth and held it as though he were holding a turd.

“What the hell is this?”

As he was genuinely angry and outraged, I let the swear word go. It floated up into the air not to be addressed by the tough teacher I usually was. It fled the room along with his smile and his joy at having won. He was angry. He was big. I was scared.

“That, my friend, is a shark’s tooth from Florida!” I said, pumping up the item like a door-to-door salesman.”

“I thought I was getting chocolate, or money or something not weird.”

“I want you to know why that is such a prize, far more valuable and lasting than chocolate.”

He still looked angry, but I sensed he would listen. I figured I better talk fast and good or start running. At the Faculty of Education, they taught us that running away from threatening students can chip away at one’s credibility in the classroom. I addressed the whole class as well.

“A hundred years ago there was a shark swimming in the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It didn’t know about death; it didn’t know about anything. It simply existed. That’s all it wanted, to eat and swim and make little sharks, not because he thought those were good things to do. He just did what came naturally to him…stay alive and make more life. But he died, in some way we will never know. And now Bobby here is holding one of his teeth in his hand.

This is a reminder to all of us that life is beautiful, but it doesn’t last. That shark had a last day on this earth and so will we. We don’t know how or when. But one thing we do know is that we should treasure every day we have, and remember, always remember, this is the only life we have and today is the only day we get, so make the most of it. Value it. That shark, though he didn’t know it, has taught us that lesson.”

Bobby now had the tooth between his fingers and smiled.

“Yeah, that’s kind of cool sir…thanks.”

He tucked the tooth into his pocket and took his seat. The bell went a minute later, and I was pleased to see several kinds around Bobby as he showed off the prize that had meant less than nothing to him moments before. I was proud of myself for having taught a lesson, a life lesson that would hopefully stick with those kids for their whole lives.

I know it stuck with Bobby for the rest of his life. For his life ended that night. He was at a party, a drunken argument and another kid came back with a gun and shot Bobby in the head. I like to think he had the tooth in his pocket and that maybe his last day on earth, he might have valued the little things a bit more, his child’s smile, his mother’s farewell hug. I even fool myself into thinking he looked up at the sky for once, not to check the weather, but just to be happy.

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Erwin Coombs is a retired teacher of philosophy, history and literature who has rejected all forms of retirement. He is an avid writer, reader, and observer of life. When not observing and reading and living, he is writing. Erwin has lived in Egypt, Jamaica, England and travelled a great deal but, in his mind, not enough. His writing is a celebration of people and opportunity, both of which life gives in abundance. These stories are from his, as yet unpublished book, Dusty the Cat: Her Part in My Downfall.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Musings

A Writer’s Pickle

By Adnan Zaidi

I don’t remember when I started writing, or why I started writing. I don’t even remember my first poetry, or article, or any write up for that matter. It’s been an eternity. I just know I have been writing from the time when the children of my age were out in the garden playing games.

Writing runs in my blood. No, actually writing is my blood. It is my only escape from whatever exists outside into a magical world of inside. A world where I recline over ostrich cushions, cladded in a robe finely woven by the angels of beauty, wearing a bracelet made of stars, enjoying songs of cuckoo birds who gather to celebrate the baptism of newly born fairy.

Sorry.

I got lost. Now coming to the point.

I am a poet, or at least I think I am. And not a very good one, trust me. I mean no one has ever come to tell me that they enjoyed any specific piece of my poetry that I recited or shared on social media. No one reads my couplets to their lovers. No one texts me to tell me that they were touched by my recent ghazal or nazm.

None of those things happen you see.

But hey, hey, hey, no judging! I totally get it. I do understand. Even sometimes I too get this strong feeling that one of these days I am going to stop writing this stuff that I consider poetry. And I am not even lying.

But then there are two questions — could I really stop? And do I really have to?

And the answer to both of these questions is negative.

I mean whenever I pick up my pen to write, never ever I bother about what people want to read. I just write what my heart dictates ( like 90% of writers out there). It’s more like a revelation of my soul. And I can never stop listening to these revelations. Because I don’t know how to.

I mean, I wonder, if I stop writing then who will tell people about the old Neem tree which was there in my house, and which used to smell like heaven when the spring blooms came? Or those beautiful roses as red as the blood of Christ? Who will write about the lessons my grandmother taught me as a kid, or the lullabies that my mother sang to me?  Who is going to narrate to them my perspective of the Romeo and Juliet? Who is going to write the last verse of that incomplete poem on my desk?

I need to understand the fact that when a poet writes a poem — no matter what — it is something that he has created, and he celebrates it. He should celebrate it! Irrespective of that fact the no one joins him in this celebration.

Because no matter what people say, every story is worth telling.

As I do not remember my first write up, I so don’t want to know my last. I want to die writing it. Leaving a door to my story open for others to enter.

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Adnan Zaidi is pursuing his masters in law from Aligarh Muslim University, India. He has recited his poetry on various platforms and has also been published a couple of times by different magazines. He also writes his own blog, raising social and political issues.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Review

Begin with a Question

Book review by Candice Louisa Daquin

Title: Begin with a Question

Author: Marjorie Maddox

Publisher: Paraclete Press

There are people who write poetry, and there are great poets. By great, we speak of those few capable of transcending above the multitudes with their mastery of the word, imagination and homage to the interior and exterior worlds. An academic and writer, Marjorie Maddox, is such a poet. When you read her, you feel almost angry at her unbridled ability to speak to things you couldn’t begin to evoke yourself. She’s fleet of tongue in her assessment of the world, and does so without a shred of arrogance.

Begin with a Question is a clever collection of spiritual, religious and lived in moments. Whether you believe in a higher power or not, you may find yourself falling for Maddox’s quick wit, keen eye and erasable wordplay. Maddox explores existence from a multitude of directions. These are real moments, most of us have lived in some form. Who hasn’t sunk to their knees and asked;

“affirmation its own negation of belief— ‘no,
I do believe your unbelief’ —the tangles already
tugged and tied into a complicated Yes.” 
-- Begin with a Question

It’s such an honest reflection, painfully so — querying the very reasons we could wish to believe in a God juxtaposed against the real reasons we may not — ending in the all-abiding faith we want to, even if to do so is searingly hard at times. As much here is unsaid as said. There is a sensibility to the journey from first line to last that echoes a refrain, a favourite choral song, something holy and human being implored from a deep place.

This first poem sets the compass for the rest of the journey, this books intention is attuned to the whole with each poem. Structured collections don’t lose something by their intentionality, they often hone the message to greater clarity and this is the case with the poem ‘Begin with a Question’.

“by your own single note of joy: 
You stop moving. And that is when you begin.”  

This deliberation comes from experience, knowledge and the craft of writing. Maddox’s years spent teaching and writing are evidenced in the flow of her message. That said, she’s not sterile in her precision, there is an abundance of passion, intensity and emotion throughout, it’s just placed rather than flung. For some, the adherence to a spiritual theme, may be off-putting, though this would be a mistake, given one’s personal faith doesn’t have to alienate the worth of a story. We can all read about someone who has a different life and gain from it. Whether atheist, agnostic or spiritual, Maddox asks you to consider the story within the story, a story we all share. A search for the meaning of our existence and what matters along the way as found in the poem ‘Your Godmother, almost blind’:

“no promises, 
but it gets easier.
If you are left-
handed, reverse
everything.”

This poem has many layers. The same is true of the poem ‘During My Daily Phone Call to Her Assisted Living Facility, My Mother Explains That She Is Slowing Fading Away …’. The title itself is searing, liminal and the subsequent poem equal in measure. Maddox knows how to open a poem like nobody else with unforgettable lines like:

“And it is not the light but the dust in the light
that rises, plunges, plateaus on the short hhhhh
of my exhale, less final than a sigh that dies
from hopelessness but, still there…”

It’s devastating in its rendering, there are no unnecessary words. This poem is emotions in a capsule that reaches inside and rips out stifled feelings. The power it possesses is otherworldly, magnificent, terrifying:

“And it is not
the distance between words,
between parent/child, not the desert under the plane,
or the plane cursing above and past the jagged mountains,
the wholesome prairies, the vast expanse of flat nothing
I’ve come to expect from questions…”

This poem cuts in half any pretence. You just hang your jaw and drink it in. It’s only once in a lifetime someone can write a poem with this kind of truth.

Maddox knows her history of literature and many will feature in this collection, with the ease of a well-versed lover of stories. Few read like this anymore and even if you are not familiar with all the characters, you may appreciate this nod to them. She does this without a hint of pretension, naturally as if they represent in metaphor, our own lives. From her poem ‘Gardens and Farms’:

“Which we, weary Anno Domini gardeners,
expatriates of Eden” 

Whether you believe Eden on a metaphysical plane, you can appreciate the idea of having fallen to Earth and the subsequent toil, versus the dream of an ideal. Each observation is achieved with the fluidity of a natural observer. Maddox reminds of the pastoral poets of the 18th century who transcended their descriptions with the heraldry of their spiritual quest. When Maddox writes:

“Fear tangles every root of prayer;
all I can mutter is Why? How?”
 -- Without Ceasing

I heard the universal howl into the abyss, the raw cry of pain, unassuaged, lost and wandering. It felt both Biblical, as in Christ in the Wilderness, and also deeply human, the purpose of Christ being among humanity. Without obviating the religious undertones, Maddox piques the question we all have, when suffering, ‘Why? How?’ – echoing the universal refrain when faced with terror, pain, suffering. Paraclete Press who published this collection, is the publishing arm of the Cape Cod Benedictine community. Given that much published poetry today is based upon ‘trending’ themes, I am glad such publishers exist to ensure we are not blinkered in whom we publish:

“No longer partitioned off
by sin, by regret, by self-righteousness...” 
 -- Voices Raised

It could be argued, Maddox achieves the impossible, a meshing of past and present, in appreciating both. Paring a Leonard Cohen song with the story of Joseph and Mary. The poignant story of Mary finding ‘no room at the inn,’ is one that struck me as a small child (even as I was Jewish) because it spoke to me of human cruelty. It is that great story of overcoming, endurance, love, and something more than humanity. When Maddox writes:

“and still
convinced of the predestined
roll of dice chrismated with Miracle—
keeps walking with his-not-his woman
forever strangers in this hometown
that will not welcome them, will 
not lay them down to sleep.” 
-- Traveling Man

It’s truly clever to juxtapose Leonard Cohen’s prescient lyrics against a story we know relatively well. The bittersweet, the ideas of not being welcomed, nowhere to sleep. A powerful parallel between that and other acts of selfishness committed by humanity, how often we close doors and bar entry can be seen. There are universal themes here that haunt and force thought beyond comfort zone, which is exactly what poetry at its most powerful, can do. Saying so much in so little, is both reflective, achingly transposing and deft in its precision. Often, I am struck by how closely Maddox’s work feels like a prayer, incantation, yearning for … betterment. And I take solace in this because I share its intention.

“What does the world weight
slit this way; infused with sorrow?
The bones of betrayal are wood
nailed with pain.” 
-- The Five Sorrowful Mysteries 

Maddox ends with her poem And All Shall Be well. The title alone moved me. It soothes that entombment that haunts our peace, when we have been hurting and believe it will never end. We seek the solace of hope, and kindness. In many ways, whether we acknowledge it or not, this is a step Jesus would have taken, because all who live in the West are influenced by the teachings of Christianity even if we’re unawares. The infiltration of those simple morals and codes to live by, are often a solace without our knowing.

“Begin
where there is no beginning, where refrain neither breaks nor mends
what you once knew as discipline. The middle is where we start from—” 
-- And All Shall Be Well 

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Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.

Categories
Essay

A Tale of Devotion and Sacrifice as Opposed to Jealousy and Tyranny

Sohana Manzoor explores the social relevance of a dance drama by Tagore, Natir puja

Quite a few of Rabindranath Tagore’s dance dramas and poems develop around the idea of Buddhist philosophy that induces people to lead a simple life, to gain an understanding of the injustice and inequality prevailing in society, and to acquire knowledge and develop a deeper insight into the universe. Such a major problem reflected in Tagore’s work is the class and caste system of the Indian society.

It would be relevant to recall that one reason that Gautama or Buddha left home is because he recognised that the traditional religions practiced during his time were unable to absolve the dissatisfaction and frustration that abound in life. The class and caste system that divided and segregated people troubled him deeply. Little wonder that all the principal religions of the world rose for emancipation of people from such bondages.

Unfortunately, the corrupt human heart does not allow such practices to go unhindered. Even though at the root of any religious faith there is a high ideal to free people from evil practices and oppression, they also are used as ideological weapons to control mankind. In every age, therefore, figures like Christ and Buddha rise to remind humanity that there is a law beyond the one practiced through selfishness and pettiness of everyday life. Hence, peace and faith are required to be restored at the price of a sacrifice that shows the significance of selfless love, the futility of social class and caste. Actually, the truth is ever present, but sometimes it just takes one act to see that there is a truth higher than all the material wealth one can ever accumulate.

Tagore explored various perspectives of Buddhism in many of his works. Malini, Chandalika and Natir Puja are three dance dramas that deal with this theme. Natir Puja (Devotion of the Court-Dancer) has at its centre the pure soul of a mere dance-girl who is jeered at as a fallen woman, and who considers herself unworthy of even attending to the words of Buddha. But her humility reflects one of the core ideals of Buddhism and she is called upon by the devout followers of Buddha to perform the rituals of a priestess before the altar of Buddha. In the process, her devotion is preferred over the offerings of the royal princesses some of whom feel insulted.

One of them, the princess Ratnavali, takes measures to punish the court-dancer by throwing a choice before her — either to dance in front of the altar as an affront to Buddha, or to face death. The dance-girl Srimati accepts the royal order of dancing before the altar, but she succeeds in revealing herself as a devout follower of Buddha and embraces death. The storyline also focuses on the nature of the faith of Buddhism through the figure of Lokeswari, the wife of the former King, Bimbisar. Lokeswari’s only son Chitro had left home to follow the path of Buddha, and his mother, who used to be a follower of Buddha, emerges as a frenzied woman. She cannot accept that her only son had left home, and her husband renounced the throne when another son Ajatsatru wanted to be the King. For the first time in her life, she questions the validity of a belief that might want human beings to renounce all their precious possessions.

Through an intricate series of events Natir Puja unfolds and delves into several significant aspects of human dilemma. First, through the figure of Srimati and Lokeswari, the nature of devotion is explored. Second, the problem of caste system is brought out through characters such as Ratnavali who cannot accept that a lower caste man or woman could be considered more pious than the royal followers in the eyes of God. Third, that the gravest sinner could seek forgiveness and repentance is always a possibility.

Natir Puja is a tale elaborated from another longer poem by Tagore titled, “Pujarini” (The Worshipper). At the centre of both tales stands Srimoti, who claims to be “Buddher dashi,” or a handmaiden of Buddha. The term “dashi” should not be considered derogatory here but one that focuses on the nature of humility in Buddhism. The meaning of “Buddha” is teacher and in the traditional Vedic ideology, a teacher claims the highest status in society. Therefore, the chance of serving the teacher is indeed a privilege. And as Srimoti says, “My days of false modesty are over. I would not sing falsely, but you did not grasp what your eyes witnessed.” She points out how the faithful see and hear with their heart. The eyes might see, but they would not always recognise what they perceive.

Lokeswari, on the other hand, reminisces how once she was an ardent follower of Buddha, but it becomes clear from her words that she had thought more of distinction than salvation. And yet, Buddha preached freedom from avidya (darkness of ignorance and limiting of consciousness). A man living the life of avidya, spends his life in a spiritual slumber. Therefore, devotion to Buddha requires spiritual awakening, which Lokeswari fails to comprehend. Her very name, Lokeswari, actually suggests her dilemma — the Queen of the World — and naturally, she could not give up the ownership of the materialistic world. In the end, however, Lokeswari realises her error of judgment, and honours Srimoti’s sacrifice. After all, Srimoti is able to show that for faith and truth one should be ready to offer the highest price, one’s own life if necessary.

As a court-dancer, Srimoti might have received a lot of attention, but her position is still that of a high-class courtesan. There are quite a few references where the royal family members make fun of her. Even the elderly Queen Lokeswari scoffs at the idea that Srimoti might turn out to be a priestess of Buddha and the princesses will be her attendants: “Disciple of this dancing girl! That’s what will happen indeed! Now it’s up to the fallen woman to arise with words of salvation.”

From the onset, the Princess Ratnavali, too, makes fun of the calm and quiet nature of Srimoti who is frequently affronted by the princesses but rarely replies. It is almost as if Ratnavali senses her superior nature and takes her to task by insulting her in whatever way possible. The situation escalates when Srimoti is honoured by the Buddhist monks. At that point, Ratnavali makes snide remarks about the Bhikkhu Upali born of a barber family, or Sunado, the son of a milkman, or Sunit, an untouchable. She forgets that Buddhism is a faith that nullifies class and caste system. Her words also reveal that human psychology is deeply steeped in pettiness, jealousy and arrogance, and it takes sufferings and remorse to do away with them.

So, we come to the last point—the theme of repentance and forgiveness. The figure of Lokeswari is an everyman or woman. She is not an evil person, but nor is she convinced by the words of the bhikkhuni who attempts to make her see that there is a difference between the value of gold and that of the light. In today’s world this is where most of us stand. The materialistic ideology has taken over the ethical and philosophical aspects of life. As a result, we keep on asking for more and there is no end to our craving. In the process of worshipping Mammon, we overlook humanity and humility. We not only forget to look at the sufferings of other, but we choose to ignore them. Lokeswari’s humanity returns to her when Srimoti prepares to dance in front of Buddha’s altar. She offers her poison so that she dies before committing a sin. And when, Srimoti unfolds through her dancing that she never meant to insult Buddha but to honour him, once again Lokeswari joins her in reciting,

Buddham saranam gacchami
(I submit to the Buddha for refuge)

Dhammam saranam gacchami
(I submit to the Dhamma for refuge)

Sangham saranam gacchami
(I submit to the Sangha for refuge.)

Even the Princess Ratnavali, who had insulted Srimoti earlier and is responsible for bringing out the royal order, finally kneels down before the dead body of the dance-girl to pay respect. The play ends with Ratnavali chanting the words of Buddha. 

Tagore’s dance drama has played out beautifully to bring out a historical aspect of the Indian culture. The story of Bimbisar and his son Ajatsatru may not have been represented the way history records it, but the tale certainly brings out the tension and the hostility that poison the world at every age. The corrupt and selfish human heart tends to assume that property and wealth hold the key to success and happiness, but ends up in welcoming segregation, arrogance and jealousy. So, should we consider love, affection and sacrifice as mere human follies, or should we abandon the idealistic notions and consider wealth and control as our ultimate gain? Perhaps, the answer lies in the wasteland of our postmodern civilization, which has already sacrificed or butchered its saviours and is still waiting to be atoned.

Sohana Manzoor is Associate Professor, Department of English & Humanities, ULAB. She is also the literary Editor of The Daily Star, Bangladesh. This essay was first published in The Daily Star.

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Categories
Essay

The Poet as Warrior

                                    (Dedicated to Kai Coggin)

By Dustin Pickering

W. H. Auden’s poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” is often quoted to dismiss the importance of poetry as a form of social justice. The current fashion among poets is that poetry can revolutionize social inequalities, make positive changes, build empathy for marginalized groups, and convey information about causes important to the poet. For example, Robert Huddleston writes in Boston Review, “In its day, W. H. Auden’s claim that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ was a necessary reproof to an ideologically mandated culture of protest that had a chokehold on the literary left in the 1930s, an example it remains important to consider today. Clashes over the political rights and wrongs of poetry, then as now, are often disguised contests over cultural and academic turf, ideological purity, and even the relative priority of criticism versus artistic practice.” He is correct concerning the cultural war that cloaks literary discussion. Literary figures and public intellectuals are often chided for their implicit biases. However, I conceive of the poem as saying something drastically different; I do not see it as being a political rebuttal at all, but rather serving as one within a larger context.

Auden’s poem contains these lines:

…For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives

In the valley of its making where executives

Would never want to tamper, flows on south

From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,

Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,

A way of happening, a mouth.

The poem carefully navigates the terrain of the unchangeable dimensions of political life. However, it clears a safe space for the poem as a thing of its own. Poetry does not instigate events; rather, it is an event itself. The day remains cold for Yeats’s death, and his poetry lives beyond him through the many misinterpretations it will face. “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” defies the culture war to uphold the dignity of the human spirit to which poetry testifies. Auden once defended Pound from censorship by his publisher. He said anti-fascism will become the new fascism. The publisher relented and granted Pound a space in the anthology. In this course, Auden defends the integrity of the poet as a person whose work dignifies the ideal humanity. In this respect he clears a space for poetic license because a poet must spend their life empting themselves.

No, poetry makes nothing happen. It is an event itself. It is the fire of intellect applied to the cold apathy and spiritual destitution we suffer. As protest against the human condition, it becomes universal in its design.

Hence poetry is spiritual warfare. The poet is a paradigm for virtue. The contemporary world now challenges the absolute freedom of the visionary. It is historically stated that the visionary should be exempt from moral considerations. Recent shifts in consciousness concerning this attitude are becoming mainstream. The UK Telegraph reports, “Janet Marstine, Honorary (Retired) Associate Professor, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester, added: ‘The National Gallery has taken an important step in acknowledging that it is no longer ethically tenable to interpret in an aesthetic vacuum. An artist’s position in the Western canon does not make them immune from accountability.’” The visionary in question at the National Gallery is Paul Gauguin. He is under question for exploiting the myth of the noble savage for his sexual and financial gain. The moral dilemma posed by such considerations does not discount the artistry or accomplishments of individual artists. Its intent is to hold artists accountable for immoral behaviour. The hope in the #metoo era is these considerations will keep living artists accountable rather than giving them license to act uninhibited, and influence the broader society.

Vincent van Gogh, a friend of Gauguin who he accused of insanity, wrote, “The way to know life is to love many things.” Van Gogh is historically considered a misunderstood visionary who underwent severe lifetime disappoint and failure. His legacy is a myth of its own. He was expelled from his church where he was minister. His father thought of him as a lunatic with stupid ideas. However, he is also considered a beautiful person who showed the world a light it misses in so much conflict. Don McClean wrote of van Gogh, “The world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”

These two towering figures in art leave us with widely divergent displays of personal conduct. Van Gogh’s misconduct is chalked up to a serious mental health issue, but Gauguin is a sexual deviant who exploited the European assumption of the noble savage. What can be learned from these patterns? Emerging views of artists’ conduct have more at stake than aesthetic considerations. They are the battleground of the purpose of ideas. Gauguin’s art and moral conduct are under question not because his art is unpleasing, but because ideas hold power: we must take into account how ideas can effect culture and the treatment of others. Misconceptions of indigenous people have serious repercussions historically. Our worldview must consider that others are right to their cultural experience without infringement. This is where the culture war stems.

If we conceive a race as inferior, does our conduct toward them change? Gauguin is not being questioned as much as an entire colonialist legacy and how it shapes the behaviour within the culture that adopts it. Human dignity is universal; a person should never be treated as inferior. Perhaps we are right to question history so vapidly, and demand the culture at large change. The most important thing may be a humanist conception of world culture. Those who deny it are perhaps harming not only others, but also degrading themselves.

The culture war is the domain of values and whose values develop dignity in the human heart. Art is one of the most developed and poignant tools to communicate values. The Marshall Plan advanced capitalism throughout Europe using art to influence people. Culture is what stands as testimony to prevalent attitudes, reactions to those attitudes, and the historical presence of a people. We are right to subject it to deeper inquiry.

In fact, I would consider a moral duty to question historical circumstance through art. Duty is defined in the Bhagavad Gita, “It is better to do one’s own duty, however defective it may be, than to follow the duty of another, however well one may perform it. He who does his duty as his own nature reveals it, never sins.” This offers a subtext for individuality. Art is the historical realm of the individual—they who create art are the most developed in ideas. One’s heart will reveal one’s purpose. St. Paul writes in Romans 12:2 (KJV), “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” The world’s major faiths are abundant in praises of nonconformity. As St. Paul carefully describes, interpreting the will of God is a struggle. One must resist pressures external to oneself. Sometimes one must question oneself deeply to find the moral current within. Jihad, or “struggle”, is spiritual warfare in three senses: against one’s own temptations, against one’s peers, and in defense of one’s territory. Aristotle wrote, “Wicked men obey from fear; good men, from love.” The perennial wisdom seems to be of the consensus that morality is deeply personal, and one’s character is deeply revelatory. Art is where the person speaks honestly with high eloquence. Art itself is action. How much of artistic achievement depends on cultural consensus? Is art rather a defiance of consensus, bearing more of the soul of the artist than their times? A moral purpose should derive from the inner life, and counter the wheel of consensus in bare revolt. John Milton writes in Paradise Lost:

“A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.”

Vatsala Radhakeesoon, contemporary poet of Mauritius, grants insight into the nature of freedom, character, and morality of being in her poem “Unconditional Thread”:

Born from
the Divine’s golden thread
Molded with
perfection, purity and grace
I’m the invisible heart –
the unconditional thread
ruling the universe

I’m soft
I’m generous
I’m not from
the Mundane
the materialistic world
the uncanny competitive rules

I’m omnipresent
but recognized, seen
only by the unadulterated

I, Unconditional Thread
survive in immortal realms
and go on whispering
in every ear
“ Love, love and love
discarding mental blocks
and embracing spontaneity.”

A poet warrior embraces compassion, action, duty, and dream. Henry Miller writes, “All growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous unpremeditated act without benefit of experience.” One’s leap becomes one’s light. The darkness illumined is one’s spiritual landmark. To seek beyond one’s perilous comfort is an act of defiance in a world where complacency is sanctified. The artist’s presence stirs the world from sleep if they are securing their foundations. Ultimately, we are clueless about life: where it takes us, what it means, how we cope with it. We engage in symbolic acts of protest and incite civil discussion on important issues. Papers are published on every subject; scholars shake their fists at apathy and ignorance. Theories emerge from data and trends. Life’s most recent turn provides us with newfound perspectives. Once the trend is fulfilled, new storms rage on the horizon. Science is continuously revising and incorporating new facts and figures. There is nothing steady in the order we endure; in fact, to call it order defies its purpose.

In such a world of flux, kindness is even spirited defiance. In “Kindness”, Naomi Shihab Nye carefully constructs the meaning of kindness in counterintuitive language:

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt weakened in a broth.

What you held in your hand,

What you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.

How you ride and ride

thinking the bus will never stop,

the passengers eating maize and chicken

will stare out the window forever.

Walter Pater writes in The Conclusion to The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Ideas, “Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which comes naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion—that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness.” Kindness is passion. Etymologically speaking, “passion” reflects suffering, endurance, and loss. Compassion means to “suffer with”; hence, Nye’s poetic rendering of kindness defines it as passion.

St. Francis of Assisi writes in “Praises of the Christian Virtues” of the three virtues of Wisdom, Poverty, and Charity that “Whoever possesses one virtue without offending the others, possesses them all.” Guatama Buddha is recorded as saying something profoundly similar, “We will develop and cultivate the liberation of mind by loving kindness, make it our vehicle, make it our basis, stabilize it, exercise ourselves in it, and fully perfect it.” In the doctrines of Buddhism, the problem of suffering is rooted in attachment. Attachment pertains to physical things, mental habits, and stubborn attitudes. When one is attached, the object of attachment invokes fear of its loss, and can trap the mind in unhealthy suffering. In Sanskrit, the word samsara translates “it flows together.” In  Hinduism and Buddhism, the concept signifies worldliness, attachment, and the cycle of rebirth and suffering. To be released from this cycle one must be released of oneself and desire. This state of enlightenment is called Nirvana.

Octavio Paz, poet and ambassador of Mexico to India, writes in “Perpetua Incarnada”:

Hour by hour I saw him slide

wide and happy like a river

shadow and light linked its shores

and a yellow swirl

single monotonous intensity

the sun set in its center

Then he writes:

I ask for strength I ask for detachment

open the eyes

unharmed evidence

between the clarities that are canceled

Not the abolition of images

the incarnation of pronouns

the world that we all invented

sign town

and in its center

Solitary

Perpetual incarnate

one half woman

peña manantial the other

Word of all with whom we speak alone

I ask that you always accompany me

man reason

This poem reflects an existential loneliness but it extends into territories much broader. He asks prayerfully that the world be returned to the state of the ‘Word’ from its embodiment of images. Once again, we return to Pater in his essay on Leonardo da Vinci. “We recognise one of those symbolical inventions in which the ostensible subject is used, not as a matter for definite pictorial realisation, but as the starting point of a train of sentiment, subtle and vague as a piece of music.”

 In “Flux and Movement in Walter Pater’s Leonardo Essay” critic Lene Østermark-Johansen writes, “The body which twists around its own spine creates the illusion of moving from one extreme to another thus resulting in a kind of harmony of opposites, a concordia discours.” This statement not only describes drawings and sculpture, but applies to rhetoric also. The concept of Self is illusion because all things contain their opposites. One cannot step in the same river twice. We are the river, and our Self is a form within the flux of promissory existence. We are granted time within this cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. As the Cross represents redemption, one reaches Nirvana by letting go. Christ is reborn to demonstrate he can conquer the forces of death.

 Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche writes, “The Shambhala teachings are founded on the premise that there is basic human wisdom that can help solve the world’s problems… Shambhala vision teaches that, in the face of the world’s problems, we can be heroic and kind at the same time.” A warrior poet sets the world aright through their heroism, but what does setting the world aright mean exactly? According to Shambhala: the sacred path of the warrior, the world must restore its focus to human dignity.

Mirabai writes:

O friend, I sit alone while the world sleeps.
In the palace that held love’s pleasure
the abandoned one sits.
She who once threaded a necklace of pearls
is now stringing tears.
He has left me. The night passes while I count stars.
When will the Hour arrive?
This sorrow must end. Mira says:
Lifter of Mountains, return.

– “The Necklace”               

We cannot restore dignity alone. Existential dread implies that as individuals we are alone to choose and must live with that responsibility. In her abandonment, Mirabai still affirms her dignity as God’s beloved. She calls to God to return. This reflects the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth as eternal flux which harmonises with our physical existence. God is with us. Christ is ever present in our domain of suffering.

It is no coincidence that Paz concludes his poem with the words “I ask to be obedient to this day and tonight.”

U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo writes in “The Myth of Blackbirds”:

“Justice is a story by heart in the beloved country where imagination weeps. The sacred mountains only appear to be asleep…We cannot be separated in the loop of mystery between blackbirds and the memory of blackbirds.”

Myth is a cultural awakening. Being “alone to choose” does not defer human dignity or one’s relationship to the divine because we are creatures of memory. As Plato reflected, learning is remembering what one already knows. Such a cycle is not promising. It is eternal.

 We are ripe with questioning historical errors in this period of history. “The emergence of pessimistic philosophies is by no means a sign of some great and terrible distress; rather, these question marks regarding the worth of life arise when the human condition has been so improved and ameliorated that the mosquito bites of the body and soul are found too altogether gruesome and gory, and in their poverty of experience of actual pain, people will even take being troubled by ideas to be suffering of the highest order,” writes Nietzsche in The Joyous Science. Is our ability and right to assess history as such a privilege offered by our affluence and security? It was the intellectual who once hid in ivory towers. Now, do we all live in ivory towers with epigenetic fears and concerns?

Such a question does not demean our relative poverty, private traumas, failures and shortcomings, or deprivation. What it suggests is we have plateaued to become so complacent and unconcerned that it requires serious tragic thinking to stir our imaginations. We may long for suffering; yes, we may hunger for the cross. As they say, comedy is born of tragedy. Is the opposite also true?

Wendy Chen-Tanner describes Kai Coggin’s collection Wingspan in the following words: “Wingspan is a book about becoming, transforming, and unfurling into the fullness of selfhood in all its disparate parts.” The human soul fluxes and fades with the human condition. Being is Becoming. This discovery of the fullness of being is impressively expressed in “Everything Silver/Artemis and Her Lover.” Students of Greek myth know the story of Actaeon and his tutelage under Chiron. When he witnesses Artemis bathing, she turns him from hunter to the hunted. Coggin’s poem is deeply personal. She observes the two as lovers experiencing oneness together. She writes:

“I will watch them,

the hunter and the hunted,

these lovers mounted in the stars,

I will watch them,

and wish for an arrow to fall from the sky into my open heart.”

Aside from the sheer beauty of these lines, the poet transforms herself into hunted for the sake of the poem. Perhaps it is self-voyeurism—the poem is solitary in tone. Gazing into the attic of her heart, Coggin sees the night sky and the eternal myth of huntress and hunted. The ebb and flow of life enchants the poet deeply and she wishes to be one with it. The opening phrase “attic of my heart” parallels the night sky and symbolically suggests yearning for oneness. Chen-Tanner’s description is impressively accurate. Jeremy Taylor writes in Psychology Today, “The universally experienced world of dreams and dreaming has always been a deep mystery, ever since the first confusing hints of self-awareness arose in our instinctively nervous, curious mammalian ancestors. Awakening and remembering that we were dreaming just a moment ago always suggests that we live in two successively alternating worlds – one of made of dreams, and the other composed of our waking experiences.” The article (“The Expanse of Our Unconscious is as Immense as the Night Sky”) combines psychology with evolutionary principles to explain the interconnectedness of the dream and waking worlds. Poetically rendered, Taylor incidentally offers insight into the importance of myth. Our minds are myth-makers in their own right. The bridge between self-awareness and yearning, our ancestral past and myth, is accentuated in the story of Actaeon and Artemis. Coggin immortalises them in the starry fixtures of night. The hunter and hunted are not only archetypes, but also offer a dialectical conversation with oneself. Akin to Hegel’s master and servant dialectic, the need for truth anticipates struggle and dissipation.

 Coggin’s poems are rich in spiritedness, thoughtfulness, and hope. Hope strives for unity of self, toward knowledge of one’s desires, and deeper into the wilderness of dream. The dialectic flips on itself as the wise hunter becomes the hunted—his desires are too stubborn to resist, and he is transfixed by the translucent beauty of the immortal. He ascends into fatherhood by transfiguration into his master’s image. The transfiguration is an exact mirror-image of his role as hunter. This reversal is symbolically important because it reflects a registry of Becoming. Revolutionary ideas shrivel into double standards, mimicry of their exactness, and memory. Hope is a struggle against the unfathomable and inevitable decline of meaning. It is assertive. Like energy within neurological structures, it dissipates and connects. The mind is forever incorporating the ancient and traumatic into meaning.

 Andrea Gibson writes of Coggin’s Periscope Heart, “Kai Coggin’s Periscope Heart is beauty mapping the dark, a canyon of becoming and letting go.”

I want to learn you like a language,

speak you on my tongue until I am

no longer foreign to your body…

Periscope Heart feels more personal. In “Language”, loving is compared to constructing a language. In a real sense, myth-making is language. Language is universal mapping, constructing roads through the caverns of being, and developing a common language. Powerful insight serves as the poet’s resolution.

Dorothy Day writes, “To offer the suffering of celibacy, temporary or permanent, to the Lord is to make use, in the best possible way, of man’s greatest joy.” Such is the world we live in, Day writes, that “The lack of tenderness in people’s relations with each other, tenderness expressed by warmth of voice and speech, handclasp and embrace–in other words, the warmth of friendship–lack of these things too means a concentration on sex, and the physical aspects, the animal aspects of sex.” Poet and reviewer Jagari Mukhergee writes in “Metapoem”:

“My poems are vinyl dolls that I make for you sketching in eyes and nose and lips with watercolor ink. My poems are glass lanterns — every time one is lit on nights when the soul has no electricity from within… My poems are a dusty tempest seething. Each a life.”

The warrior poet brings light to the world. Her tenderness is chastity and her self-love is universal nature. Her tears water the foundations of our aching existence. Our longings are satisfied in her dissolutions and dreams. The warrior poet is the self within each person.

Dustin Pickering is the founder of Transcendent Zero Press and editor-in-chief of Harbinger Asylum. He has authored several poetry collections, a short story collection, and a novella. He is a Pushcart nominee and was a finalist in Adelaide Literary Journal’s short story contest in 2018. He is a former contributor to Huffington Post. 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author.