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Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

The Origin of Wuxing Lyrical

Back in 2012, I started my own small press, a very modest affair indeed, with the main aim of publishing my own short stories. Various publishers had issued slim chapbooks of my tales and these chapbooks had gone out of print. I gathered as many of them as possible together and published them in one big volume as The Tellmenow Isitsöornot, a curious title that probably needs an explanation. Edgar Allan Poe, in one of his strange comedies (he wrote comedies as well as tales of terror and they are almost as disturbing as his more famous macabre and wholly serious masterpieces) invented a fictional tome to match The Thousand and One Nights and he called it The Tellmenow Isitsöornot because those words seem to evoke ancient mystery and cryptic secrets, but in fact if you say them in an Irish accent you end up with ‘Tell me now, is it so or not?’ and as this struck me as a delightful joke, I appropriated the title.

At first, I only published e-books but then I decided that it would be nicer to publish paperbacks too. Also, I wanted to publish writers other than myself. The idea occurred to me of publishing an anthology with a specific theme. I chose to put together a book of cat stories and poems entitled More Than a Feline and so I imagined that this was the start of publishing many such anthologies. But our plans often go wonky. No more anthologies appeared. I published collections of my own work and a couple of volumes of poetry by individual authors, but still I felt the urge to issue an anthology. I conceived a project called Coconut Moon that originally was too ambitious to work well, four interconnected volumes that would be released over the span of one year. The cover of the first was designed and I received lots of good work, but the project soon became disorganised and even chaotic. I lost my enthusiasm for the books, while recognising that I ought to pull my socks up and issue them anyway.

I needed something to perk me up and I hit on the idea of putting together a much simpler anthology. If I could publish this book, then my enthusiasm for the neglected Coconut Moon project would return. The momentum generated would keep me going. But I am getting ahead of myself. The idea of creating an easy anthology in order to get a difficult one moving again came to me because of a happy set of circumstances.

Many years ago, I wrote down a joke and this is something I often do. When I was young, I used to wonder who were the people who invented jokes, little suspecting that one day I would be one of them. I had forgotten the joke but then I was reminded of it. I decided to turn it into a poem. This is a method I use to freshen my old jokes and turn them into a new kind of object. People often seem to prefer my jokes when they take the form of poems. The joke was about my sign in Chinese astrology and how it might humorously be misunderstood. I am a fire horse. What if this was misheard as ‘fire hose’? It could prove disastrous and exquisitely absurd.

I wrote the poem and shared it and, shortly afterwards, a writer by the name of James Bennett responded with a poem of his own about a water rat, which I assume is his own sign in Chinese astrology. It was then obvious to me that a poetry sequence had been set in motion. As I know little about astrology of any kind, I had to do some research to discover that in the Chinese system there are twelve animals that combine with five special elements, giving a total of sixty personality types. Why not a poem for every animal-element combination? This seemed a good objective, but I had no great desire to write all the poems myself. It was clear that I needed to recruit other poets!

I imagined I would be able to assign the animal-element combinations in a rigorous way, but of course this was not to be. My organisational skills are too poor for such a course of action. Poets were asked to contribute and those who agreed were allowed to choose whatever combinations they found appealing. It was a better system for me, but it meant that some combinations were doubled or even tripled. Metal and fire turned out to be the most popular elements while wood and earth were the least popular. Water floated somewhere in the middle. Dragons and snakes seemed to provide more inspiration than rabbits and goats. Instead of insisting on exactly sixty poems for the anthology, I decided that the project would be complete only when every combination had been covered at least once, which happened after I received seventy-eight poems. These appear in the book in the order that I received them.

As for the title, that was easy. I like punning titles. I learned that ‘wuxing’ is an ancient spiritual system connected with Chinese astrology and from there it was a small step to play a word game with the phrase ‘waxing lyrical’. I still needed to design a cover for the book, but I had designed several covers in the previous few months and felt I could accomplish the task reasonably well. It is true that creating an anthology requires a lot of work but only after it has been published comes the truly hard part: marketing it effectively and efficiently. It is an unfortunate fact that books are unable to sell themselves. How nice it would be if they did! Then we could move on to the next project smoothly and without worrying about exposure, reviews, popularity.

Wuxing Lyrical took less than a month from the initial concept to the actual book. It now seems to me that I will be able to return to the abandoned Coconut Moon and get it launched after all. I also think that more anthologies are feasible, and I have been toying with themes for these. Some themes might be broad and open to interpretation while others could be extremely precise and particular. An anthology of mini-sagas seems very likely to happen (a ‘mini-saga’ is a story or a poem exactly fifty words in length). Anthologies with the themes of ‘animals’ and ‘planets’ appeal to me. I am also half inclined to put together anthologies of poems about puddings, chess, robots, weather and islands. Maybe I should seek an illustrator for these future projects. Illustrated books of poetry are nicer than plain ones, especially if the poetry is humorous.

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.

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

Categories
Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

My Favourite Poem

I am not sure it is wise to choose a favourite poem out of the millions that exist. It would seem to exclude all the others from the imaginary summit of a fictional pillar. The circumference of that pillar means that there is only room for one poem up there and it might be better not to erect the pillar in the first place and leave the literary landscape unobstructed.

But it is too late for me. I have already chosen a favourite poem. In fact, I have chosen a favourite several times. The first poet I read in any depth, Edgar Allan Poe, provided me with my first favourite, not ‘The Raven’ but a slightly less famous work called ‘The Bells’. How I loved the tinkle, jangle and crash of the cadences in the stanzas of that piece!

I read it again recently and found that it retains great musical power and it is still a poem I regard with intense fondness, but it is no longer my favourite of all. That is hardly surprising considering I was reading Poe when I was 15 years old. Our youthful tastes change not only according to our experiences but also as a result of all the other literature we consume. There is surely a tendency to prefer narrative poems when we are small and a diminishing reliance on actual stories as we grow older. Yet it was the music of ‘The Bells’ that fascinated me rather than the febrile images it contains.

Jabberwocky. Courtesy: Creative Commons

I think my love of euphony has always meant that I relish the way a poem sounds more than I appreciate any meanings it might convey. This is why it was easy for a nonsense poem to become my new favourite and to gently push aside the Poe piece. Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ became for me the supreme poem and I learned it by heart. It is a poem that makes contextual sense despite all the meaningless neologisms with which it is sprinkled. Somehow, we understand the new words coined by Carroll and there is no need to have them explained. It is a poem that we absorb through osmosis rather than through the normal process of everyday communication. A masterpiece!

When I was 18 years old, I began reading Byron, Shelley, Coleridge and a few other English Romantics, and I discovered ‘Ozymandias’. Now this seemed to me to be a perfect poem. It had music, imagery and a moral, and furthermore it was ironic, an archaic episode with timeless relevance. Again, I learned it by heart, and I found myself in the not uncommon position of reciting it to myself whenever I happened to be confronted with an ancient ruin, whether the blocks of a tumbled castle or shattered torso of a fallen statue. It is a poem that turns a reader into an actor, an introvert into a declaimer. It became my new favourite but only for a short while. The poem that caused it to fall in my estimation was another in the same anthology I was reading.

An Illustration from Kubla Khan. Courtesy: Creative commons

Kubla Khan’ struck me as especially appealing because it has a wildness about it that balances out its sense of control. I am not sure why Coleridge affected me to a greater extent than Shelley (and Byron affected me hardly at all) but I was enthralled by the imprecise exoticism and the intimations of doom among paradise in this poem, which is as menacing as it is delightful, as frantic as it is magical. Coleridge himself regarded it as a work in progress, a frustrated potential, unfinished, a burst dream bubble. I wonder if a continuation might have diminished it? The fragmentary nature of the piece adds to its allure by increasing its strangeness. There is atonality here as well as smoothness, like troubling chords inserted in a serene nocturne.

A few years passed and I discovered a new favourite and had to topple poor old ‘Kubla Khan’ from the apex of that idealised pillar and replace it with The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in the first Edward Fitzgerald translation, but whether this series of seventy-five quatrains can be regarded as just one poem is open to debate. Personally, I regard the quatrains as linked inextricably by mood, metaphors as well as theme, and there is a mini-sequence within the whole that gains significant momentum by being treated as a single creation. My ambition once again was to learn the work by heart and recite it at moments that were appropriate but despite my efforts I failed in the endeavour. There was simply too much wordage for me to succeed.

I tried reading more modern poetry, serious and mature work that I failed to understand at first and had to consider very carefully before I could tease out any meaning. I read Akhmatova, Rilke, Pound, Eliot. I tried (but was generally defeated by) Ginsberg, Olsen, William Carlos Williams. This was all well and good but my candidate for new favourite turned out to be something light, an insignificant ditty dashed off by a poet who wrote it as a gift for a friend, and once again it was the music that won me over, the jangling, tinkling, tingling, clipping, clopping, jingly rhythms. ‘Tarantella’ by Hilaire Belloc imitates the sound of a guitar and clapping hands, it clatters along merrily, nostalgically, a tribute to an ephemeral occasion in a mountain tavern that can never be lived again, and the words and their phrasing evoke much of the atmosphere of that night with an appreciable impetus. A candidate for new favourite, yes, but it ultimately failed to displace the Rubáiyát.

That was in my early twenties and soon after I lost interest in poetry, I have no idea why, and rarely read any. Occasionally I would browse an anthology and discover something interesting, but only a few poems made any impression at all on me, and none became my favourite. The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám remained at the summit of my appreciation by default. My return to poetry was slow and uneven. The work of Federico García Lorca caught my attention and I chose ‘Canción de Jinete’ to learn by heart, which I did, probably poorly (my Spanish was never fluent). A little later I discovered the precocious genius of Arthur Rimbaud and taught myself ‘Le Coeur Supplicié’ because its torrent of fantastical words appealed to my inner ear.

Unfortunately, what I believed poetry had to offer was something I had no great use for. I misunderstood what it had to offer. That is no great crime, but I did miss out on its delights for a long time. Not until my mid-thirties did I start to return to the pleasures of poetry, and it was the humourist Don Marquis who ushered me back into the heaven I had forsaken, yet it is too much to claim that any of his poems became my favourite. I adore his cycle of poems about the cockroach Archy and the cat Mehitabel, but they must be taken as a whole in an evolving mythos. No individual poem of the cycle is worthy of special attention at the expense of the others. All are good, but together they are brilliant and thus they disqualify themselves from the game.

Now that I was reconciled with poetry, my tastes widened, and I read from a broader set of cultures and times than before. Sappho, Ovid, Catullus, Tagore, Basho, Tu Fu, Housman, Holub, Mandelstam, Eliot, Yeats, Edward Thomas, Dorothy Parker, Ai Ogawa, Ogden Nash, Derek Walcott. I was very enthusiastic about the novels and short stories of Richard Brautigan, so I read his poetry too and found a poem called ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’ that neatly summed up my own hopes for the future of the world. Did it become my new favourite? Not quite. I continued reading. Pessoa enthralled me, Cendrars and Queneau dazzled me. Complicated poetry dealing with the human condition and experimental verse based on mathematics made me nod my head sagely in a close approximation of a deep appreciation.

The City’ by C.P. Cavafy became my new favourite. I had heard his name often mentioned but felt no great desire to explore further. Then by chance I saw this particular poem. What a terrific piece! Hard, bleak even, wrenchingly bitter, but it does not depress the spirits of the reader despite its melancholy message. On the contrary it seems to inspire the reader to action. The poem is quietly and relentlessly insistent that you will never change your life for the better, that you can never escape the circumstances that have trapped you. It issues a challenge to the reader. Prove me wrong, the poem seems to say! I immersed myself in as much of Cavafy’s poetry as I could find. I went out of my way to visit his house in the city of Alexandria in Egypt, so wonderful did I now regard his work. Was this the final destination on my poetic voyage?

Not quite. There was another poem by another poet sunk deep beneath the surface of my awareness and it had been there for a long time. I can say that it had probably been my secret favourite from the beginning. I must have read it in an idle moment and forgotten about it, or thought I had forgotten about it, but it remained on the seabed of my subconscious, and ultimately it wrecked all the poetical vessels that followed, for I was never fully satisfied with any of those I called my favourites. I rediscovered it one unexpected day and it returned with unstoppable force into my affections. It was written by a poet who went to sea and saw the world, who travelled rather aimlessly for a number of years before the urge to write poetry took hold of him.

‘Cargoes’ by John Masefield is evocative and beautiful. It is heady and a little regretful at the same time. It contrasts the supposed splendours of the past with the drab present, and yet ironically in our own age we perceive romance even in the grime and smoke of Masefield’s ‘present’. Three ages are given to us for contemplation, a pre-classical time, the golden age of the Spanish Main, and the very start of the 20th Century, and three ships loaded with merchandise to represent those ages. The ships of Assyria and Spain are loaded with exotic and tropical treasures. They are floating envoys of a pair of widely spaced but equally fabulous cultures. The British ship is grimy and ugly and it wallows through a drab sea on a blustery day, carrying cargo that is practically an insult to the taste of the aesthete. The language employed is perfect for Masefield’s purpose. I know of no poem I like better.

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine…

Cargoes (1903), John Masefield (1878-1967) 

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.

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

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Review

Vignettes of Bengal

Book Review by Gopal Lahiri

Title : One Dozen of Stories

Author: Naina Dey

George Steiner says, ‘Every language is a world. Without translation, we would inhabit parishes bordering on silence’. In her fascinating book titled One Dozen Stories, Naina Dey captures the shades and tones of Bengali short stories written by well-known storytellers into the folds of English language and gives it her own distinctive stamp. One can not only see Bengal in her words, but also can smell it, feel its very texture.

Sanjukta Dasgupta, the eminent writer and academician, has rightly said, in her Foreword, “The translator of the twelve short stories in this collection has exhibited both sense and sensibility in her selection of the short stories originally written in by some of the best storytellers of Bengali fiction. Naina Dey’s training as a literary critic and translator become obvious as the authors, whose short stories that have been selected for translation cover a wide trajectory.”

Short stories, can also be a welcome diversion from the barrage of images we’re often submitted to in long narratives. The writers feel sometimes it’s worth showing less and hiding more and that is the essence of the short story. Through the power of observation, Naina Dey takes hold of the essence of the stories “each equally griping in intensity” and gives it to the reader with a power that is, paradoxically both strange and familiar. She portrays the influence of images and their seductiveness and their complexities as depicted in the original with expressionist clarity and feelings.

One Dozen Stories includes translation of selected stories by Rabindranath Tagore, Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay, Ashapurna Devi, Narendranath Mitra, Suchitra Bhattacharya, Nabakumar Basu, Anita Agnihotri and Esha Dey.

The twelve stories offer astounding depictions of desire, dream, love, belief and the power of the natural world and the translator tracks the inner monologue of an impoverished world with skill and purpose. There is no dream fog about these stories. There is no slapdash, no satire, no postmodern signs and flashes either.

Naina Dey has mentioned in her ‘Introduction’, “Edgar Allan Poe, considered the father of the short story and its first critical theorist had defined what he called the prose tale as a narrative which can be read at one sitting from half an hour to two hours, and is limited to ‘a certain unique or single effect’ to which every detail is subordinate.”

The stories in this collection are appealing in their richness and variety, in the sharpness of their perceptions and the clarity of even their complicated psychological unpicking and above all in their stylistic forms.

Tagore is a master storyteller and his stories are associated with events of our life that touched. Dey has selected two poignant and powerful short stories of Tagore. In ‘Shesh Puroshkar’ (The Last Reward), Tagore excavates the flaws and examines the truth to heal wounds and reward thereafter. The settings feel fresh because the author refuses to draw on worn-out descripted tropes with a thing of shreds and patches.

 ‘Streer Patra’ (The Wife’s Letter) is a landmark short story in Bengali literature.In the life of poor Bindu, Tagore has infused portrait of several generations of tortured and exploited women in Bengal. The deprivation and the denial are all encompassing. The protagonist, Mrinal, unearths the suppression that women undergo and renounces the injustice meted out to the young girl Bindu. Mrinal leaves her house, as a mark of protest at the atrocities against the women and becomes a free woman at the end.

You had cloaked me in the darkness of your customs. Bindu had come for an instant and caught sight of me through the hole in that veil. With her own death, she had ripped at the end my veil from top to bottom. Today I emerged and saw that there was hardly any place where I could keep my pride. Those eyes that had beheld and loved my neglected beauty, now look at me from the entire sky. Mejobou is dead now.’”(Steer Patra)

For readers looking for a more interesting story with twist at the end, ‘Chor’ (Thief) written by Narendranath Mitra, an accomplished short-story writer, shows the relationship between two enigmatic characters who embark on unusual life path; the husband, a kleptomaniac, compels his innocent wife to steal. The story shows pleasure cannot sustain either itself or any meaning.

Today Renu was truly her husband’s worthy consort. This was what Amulya had been wishing for all these days. Today was his day to rejoice. But Amulya was frozen stiff in his wife’s tender embrace. It was as if every beauty, every charm had disappeared from this earth. And those familiar arms which encircled his neck were not the bangle-laden slender arms of a beautiful young woman- they had become loathsome, defiled.”(Chor)

Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay’s ‘Puimacha’ (The Spinach Vine) is a captivating investigation of the life. The author depicts human fallibility and the tragic ending with the untimely death of Khenti, the eldest daughter of Sahayhari. Families dissolve through vagrant desire and inner disconnection. Relations between mother and son becomes insensitive and fail to cohere at times.

The depiction of a family’s routines, rituals, and idiosyncrasies in the midst of rule is reflected in Ashapurna Devi’s deft and gripping story ‘Chinnamasta’(The Severed Head). The power of apprehension and its scaring presence is a theme of the story. The broken down, disheartened, surging negative energies emanating from the Hindu widows, echo through the story.

“In the women’s circle, the newly widowed wife’s fare held the same interest as the manners of a newly-wed bride… Frequently therefore, one found Kanaklata, the eldest of the Lahiri wives, Monty’s mother, appearing at opportune moments at Jayabati’s house.” (Chinnamasta)

Nabakumar Basu’s ‘Faydaa‘ (Gain) grapples with harsh effect of generation gap where everyone is under suspicion and the artificiality of the modern life especially while staying abroad. Lives are shaped by ordinary neglect: of spouses, of children and of selves.

Esha Dey’s three stories ‘Anya Jagat Anya Nari’ (Another World, Another Woman), ‘Lapis Lazuli’ and ‘Satilakhi‘(A Devoted Wife) centre on the beliefs and variances in life laced with humour and warmth. Her stories are delicate, unfixed and evanescent. These qualities render it an exclusive place among the narratives and reflect on a way to attain a life without boundaries.

Suchitra Bhattacharya’s two stories are all about the power of life sketches, their lightness and complexities as well. In ‘Atmaja’(The Son), the mother and son relationship being at once compulsive and embryonic, and the mental and physical disentanglement is suggested in unsettling details. It is poignant and the ending is tragic. ‘Ashabarna‘ (Discrimination) portrays the hollowness of the middle-class life with dark undertones of class difference.

In ‘Ranabhoomi’ (Battlefield), Anita Agnihotri conjures a natural chemistry from the start with the historical context of the battle of Plassey and the emblematic mango tree and keeps the dramatic tension till the end. The writer is especially good at capturing its longings while the historical, the political, and the personal overlap within society are clearly evident in the story.

“No one remembers, no one remembers anything. Place, history, time…they themselves get entangled in the web of antiquity and remain silent covered with dust.

Abraham will remember. His mother’s anger, his sister’s ill-humour, his wife’s tears and keep them hidden in his breast like the mango tree struck by the cannon-ball!’(Ranabhoomi).

Translation from one language to other always poses a challenge to convey the nuggets of nuances of the original language. The key to the translation is the choice of words and the need of transporting the soul of the culture into another language. Dey finds her vein of expression by attending to the miniscule details and offers new areas that goes beyond the prevailing.

One Dozen Stories is striking, impressive and of significance even now. The readers will feel the desolation and misery and the sweat and tears that run through the stories. The cover page is impressive. This immensely readable book offers us the chance to escape into a world that is worth a revisit.

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Gopal Lahiri is a Kolkata- based bilingual poet, critic, editor, writer and translator with 21 books published mostly (13) in English and a few (8) in Bengali, including three joint books. His poetry is also published across various anthologies as well as in eminent journals of India and abroad. He has been invited in various poetry festivals including World Congress of Poets recently held in India. He is published in 12 countries and his poems are translated in 10 languages.

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