The Post Office by Tagore was written, translated and performed in multiple languages throughout Europe, eventually made into a Bengali film by Satyajit Ray (Postmaster, 1961). Rakhi Dalalrevisits the original translation done by Devabrata Mukherjee in 1912.
Title: The Post Office
Author: Rabindranath Tagore
Translator: Devabrata Mukherjee
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Dakghar was written in Bengali by Rabindranath Tagore in 1911. Devabrata Mukherjee, an Oxford University student at the time, translated the play into English in 1912. It was first published in London by Cuala Press in 1914 with an introduction by W.B.Yeats. He, along with Lady Gregory, had also directed its first staging in English in 1913 by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. The production then transferred to the Court Theatre, London, later the same year before the Bengali original was staged at Tagore’s Jorasanko theatre in Calcutta in 1917.
This play was translated into French by André Gide and was read on the radio the night before Paris fell to the Nazis. During World War II, there were 105 performances of The Post Office in concentration camps in Germany. Perhaps one of the most noteworthy was its staging by Janusz Korczak, a Polish-Jewish educator who ran a Jewish orphanage in a ghetto in Warsaw. It was there that the play was organised for children just a few weeks before they, as well as Korczak, were deported to the concentration camps of Treblinka.
The story revolves around a young child Amal, an orphan adopted by his Uncle Madhav, who suffers from an ailment. On the instruction of the physician treating him, he is restricted within the house and is not allowed to go outside. In his quest to explore the world beyond the confines of his home, he sits near a window facing a road and talks to people passing-by. He becomes fascinated by the newly constructed post office near his window and imagines receiving letters from the king. The play presents a vivid picture of Amal, his longings, his ideas of life and the limitations that he faces.
Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee, in the introduction to this edition, quotes the bard from the letter he wrote to Andrews in 1921 where he says, “Amal represents the man who has received the call of the open road – he seeks freedom from the comfortable enclosure of habits sanctioned by the prudent and from the walls of rigid opinion built for him by the respectable.”
The narrative traverses through the realms of a mind born free, eager to understand and appreciate the beauty of the natural world and, yet with time, constrained by the ideas fostered as acceptable by societal norms. Amal would rather venture outside and hop like a squirrel than sit at home, toiling at books which his Uncle thinks makes a man learn. He would rather cross mountains and go farther to seek work than be disheartened by their imposing structure. To his Uncle, the hills are barriers whereas to Amal, they are the hands of earth raised into the sky, beckoning people from far off.
The play also explores the nature of human dealings with outsiders, the usual conventions of a society while dealing with persons we may only come across as strangers and seem to emphasise upon the virtue of the sense of fraternity which the otherwise busier life tends to disregard. Amal meets a dairyman, a watchman, a flower gathering girl, a gaffer and a headman while sitting at his window and leaves an impression on each of them. He endears as a persona in harmony with nature as well as in his interactions with other people through his life so that the journey becomes more joyous for everyone.
This play is written in two acts. In the first act, Amal wishes to discover the world outside his restrictions while sitting at his window. In the second act his condition worsens, and he is confined to his bed where he spends his time waiting for the postman to deliver a letter from King. And finally, he sinks into his last sleep.
In its October issue of 1914, The Times Literary Supplement wrote: “This is the first impression that the play gives, as a play should: an impression of actuality, complete within the limits of human life as seen and heard in a real world.” The second act may be seen as a wait for the messenger of God/death which delivers the final fate for Amal. W.B. Yeats says that the “play conveys to the right audience an emotion of gentleness and peace” which is epitomised by Amal’s character.
This play translated by Mukherjee more than a hundred years ago continues to touch hearts to this date. Given our present context, impaired by the excessive capitalistic tendencies of the age, marred by wars, blurred by frenzies of hatred seeping into the fabric of societies, this comes as a gentle reminder of the necessity to live in peace, to approach nature and humans, even strangers, with compassion and to show more consideration in our dealings with them. It helps us understand that a mind that can live in harmony with nature and with humankind, can eventually embrace the final call in tranquillity.
The Post Office is a splendid play written with a poetic cadence which has elements of tragedy and yet manages to leave the reader with a sense of serenity that seems to be the writer’s message for a life to live in harmony with nature, with humankind and with oneself.
Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.
Strider Marcus Jones wrote these lines about an idyllic utopia that was named Lothlorien by JRR Tolkien in Lord of the Rings. Jones writes beautiful poetry that touches the heart with its music and lyricality and recreates a world that hums with peace, beauty, acceptance and tolerance – values that have become more precious than gems in the current world of war, strife and distress. He has created his own Lothlorien in the form of a journal which he has named after the elfin utopia of Tolkien. An avid reader and connoisseur of arts, for him all his appreciation congeals in the form of poetry which draws from music, art and he says, perhaps even his legal training! Let us stride into his poetic universe to uncover more about a man who seems to be reclusive and shy about facing fame and says he learns from not just greats but every poet he publishes.
What started you out as a writer? What got your muse going and when?
In my childhood, I sought ways to escape the poverty of the slums in Salford. My escape, while gathering floorboards from condemned houses every winter and carrying them through back entries in crunching snow to our flat, above two shops for my dad to chop up and burn on the fire was to live in my imagination. I was an explorer and archaeologist discovering lost civilisations and portals to new dimensions our mind’s had lost the ability to see and travel between since the time of the druids. Indoors I devoured books on ancient history, artists, and poetry from the library. I was fascinated by the works of Picasso, Gauguin, Bruegel and many others and sketched some of their paintings. Then one day, my pencil stopped sketching and started to compose words into lines that became “raw” poems. My first mentor was Anne Ryan, who taught me English Literature at High School when I was fourteen. Before this, I had never told anyone I was writing poetry. My parents, siblings and friends only found out when I was in my twenties and comfortable in myself with being a ranger, a maverick in reality and imagination.
When I read your poetry, I am left wondering… Do you see yourself in the tradition of a gypsy/mendicant singing verses or more as a courtly troubadour or something else?
I don’t have the legs to be a courtly troubadour in tights and my voice sounds like a blacksmith pounding a lump of metal on his anvil.
I feel and relate to being gypsy and am proud of my Celtic roots passed down to me from my Irish Gypsy grandmother on my Father’s side who read the tea leaves, keys, rings, and other items telling people’s fortunes for years with scary accuracy. I seem to have inherited some of her seer abilities for premonition.
Like my evening single malt whiskey, age has matured the idealism of my youth and hardened my resolve to give something back to the world and society for giving me this longevity in it. The knocks from the rough and tumble of life have hardened my edges, but my inner core still glows like Aragorn’s calm courage and determination in the quest to bring about a more just and fairer world that protects its innocent people and polluted environment. Since Woody Guthrie, Tom Waits and Bukowski are influences I identify with deeply, I suppose I am a mendicant in some of my poetry but a romantic and revolutionary too, influenced by Neruda, Rumi, Byron, and Shelley shielded by The Tree of Life in Tolkien’s Lothlorien:
THE HEAD IN HIS FEDORA HAT
a lonely man,
in a strange wind blowing
a gypsy caravan
whose journey doesn't expect
to go back
why everyone's ruts have the same
blood and vein.
the head in his fedora hat
bows to no one's grip
brim tilted inwards
concealing his vineyards
of lyrical prose
in a chaos composed
to be exposed,
perfect and flawed,
songs from the borderless
where no one has domain
and his outlaw wit
that hobo fella
a listening barfly
for a while,
the word-winged butterfly
they can't close the shutters on
or stop talking about
when he walks out
and is gone.
whiskey and tequila
with a woman who can feel ya
inside her, and know she's not Ophelia
as ya move as one,
to a closer and simplistic,
when she stands, spread
all arms and legs
in her Eskimo
sharing mithril breath,
no more suburban settlements
and tortured tenements
just a fenceless forest
and mountain quests
with a place to rest
on her suckled breasts,
hanging high, swinging slow.
war clouds HARP
through stripped leaves and bark,
where bodies sleeping in houseboat bones
reflect and creak in cobbled stones:
smokey sparks from smoked cigars
drop like meteorites from streetlight stars,
as cordons crush civil rights
under Faust's fascist Fahrenheit’s.
one more whiskey for the road.
another story lived and told
as he sang and spoke
You seem to have a fascination for JRR Tolkien. You have a poem and a journal by the name of Lothlorien. Why this fascination? Do you think that JRR Tolkien is relevant in the current context? We are after all, reverting to a situation similar to a hundred years ago.
Yes, on all counts. Tolkien and his Lord of The Rings trilogy have been part of my life since I first read one summer when I was twelve years old. My young mind, starved of adventure and elevenses in Salford’s slums, willingly absorbed the myths and magic, lore’s and legends beguiling me to enter the ‘Age of Man’. This living in a time of relative peace alongside other, more ancient races with musical-poetic languages reflected part of my own reality in living through the Cold War decades under the impending doom of nuclear annihilation where daily life often felt the shadows cast by the Cuban Missile Crisis, war in Vietnam, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and famine in Biafra.
Sauron’s evil eye and invading armies echo an outgoing President Eisenhower’s ominous warning to curtail the influence and corruption of the banking-military-industrial-complex. Instead, Martin Luther King and President John F Kennedy were assassinated and a surveillance state and gilded slavery ideology is being imposed globally using artificial intelligence. Ancient civilisations in Iraq and Libya have been destroyed for control of oil and to maintain global Petro dollar power. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings is just as relevant today in Ukraine, Yemen, and Syria and as it was through the slaughters of Verdun, the Somme and Flanders Fields. It is a warning that good must prevail over evil and this burden is borne by those with courage and conviction who cannot be corrupted.
What is your Lothlorien? What does poetry mean to you and your existence?
My Lothlorien is a more peaceful world, with more tolerance of other individuals and cultures. Not perfect by any stretch but a place where people laugh, have their neighbours back and work with each other. A place of social justice and equality, music, poetry and art. It is no place for racism, sexism, ageism, corruption, or war. A kind of homestead with birdsong, forest, mountains and rivers, preferably in the French Pyrenees or Alaskan Bush. A place of words composed into poems and stories read and spoken, passed down and added to by each inspired generation in the Native American tradition. Poetry is all about communication and community in my existence. We are caretakers of our words and the world.
You have used Orwell, Gaugin and many more references in your poetry. Which are the writers and artists that influence you the most? What do you find fascinating about them?
Individuality of expression through fiction, poetry, art and music fascinates me. Now, at 62 years of age so many have influenced my poetry with or without me knowing or realising it. These include:
From the past – Chaucer, Tennyson, Shelley, Keats, Blake, W.B. Yeats, Auden, Langston Hughes, Hart Crane, Sexton, Plath, Kerouac, Heaney, Lorca, Orwell, Dickens, Dylan Thomas, Tolkien, Steinbeck, Heller, Donaldson, P.D. James, Ian Rankin, Vonnegut, Dostoyevsky, Rilke, Rumi, E.E.Cummings, Neruda, Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Dylan, Tom Waits. So many.
From now – They know who they are. I have published their work in Lothlorien Poetry Journal.
You play instruments — saxophone and clarinet? Does that impact your poetry?
Saying I play instruments is a huge stretch of the imagination. I get strange notes out of my saxophone and clarinet that must sound like a hurricane blowing in anyone’s ears. My black Labrador, Mysty, covers her ears with her paws but I enjoy trying to play. I love jazz music, anything from the 1920s to early 70s, but Miles Davis, Monk, Coltrane, Mingus, and Ornette Coleman took jazz music to a level that transcends mortality.
Jazz music continues to be a profound influence in my poetry. I will explain how.
Does any kind of music impact your writing?
In some way, unbeknown to me, jazz music, particularly that of Davis, Monk and Coltrane runs parallel to and interweaves with the rhythms of how I think when I write poetry. It closes my mind to the distractions of the outside world. The sound of those perfect and imperfect notes opens a door in my mind, I close my eyes, float into this dark room and my senses fill with images and words, which hover in the air like musical notes where I conduct them into rhythms and phrases bonded to a theme. Some become poems, others disintegrate into specks of dust, the moment gone. Sometimes, the idea and train of thought sleeps in my subconscious for years. This happened with my poems “Visigoth Rover” and “Life is Flamenco” which come from my sojourns randomly wandering through Spain but were born years later listening to Paco playing Spanish guitar and Flamenco music which is another key influence in my poetry.
i went on the bus to Cordoba,
and tried to find the Moor's
in their excavated floors
and mosaic courtyards,
with hanging flowers brightly chameleon
against whitewashed walls
behind gated iron bars-
but they were gone
leaving mosque arches
and carved stories
to God's doors.
in those ancient streets
where everybody meets-
i saw the old successful men
with their younger women again,
sat in chrome slat chairs,
drinking coffee to cover
their vain love affairs-
and every breast,
was like the crest
of a soft ridge
as i peeped over
the castle wall and Roman bridge
like a Visigoth rover.
soft hand tapping on shoulder,
and beauty older,
the gypsy lady gave her clover
to borrowed breath,
embroidering it for death,
adding more to less
like the colours fading in her dress.
time and tune are too planned
her Trevi fountain of prediction,
or the dirty Bernini hand
shaping its description.
LIFE IS FLAMENCO
why can't i walk as far
and smoke more tobacco,
or play my Spanish guitar
putting rhythms and feelings
without old ceilings
you've never heard
before in a word.
life is flamenco,
to come and go
high and low
fast and slow-
she loves him,
he loves her
and their shades within
caress and spur
in a ride and dance
of tempestuous romance.
outback, in Andalucian ease,
i embrace you, like melted breeze
amongst ripe olive trees-
dark and different,
all manly scent
and mind unkempt.
like i do,
everything about you
when he drew
your elongated arms and legs
around me, in this perpetual bed
for these soft geometric angles
in my finger strokes
and exhaled smokes
of rhythmic bangles
to circle colour your Celtic skin
with primitive phthalo blue
pigment in wiccan tattoo
through thrumming strings
of wild lucid moments
in eternal components.
i can walk as far
and smoke more tobacco,
and play my Spanish guitar
Tell us about how music and language weaves into your poetry — “i’m come home again” — there is no effort at punctuation — and yet the poem is clear and lyrical. I really love this poem – Lothlorien. Can you tell me how you handle the basic tool of words and grammar in your poetry?
In my mind, music is poetry through sound instead of words. Like words, the combinations of notes and pauses have intricate rhythms and phrases. In many of my poems like “Lothlorien” and those above, I weave the rhythms and phrases of jazz music or Spanish guitar and words together with run on lines so there is no need for punctuation. This gives these poems, and many others a spontaneity and energy which feels more natural and real and has a potent, more immediate impact on the senses and emotions when combined with images and happenings. This whole process feels natural to me. It began in my early twenties, when I was listening to old Blues and the likes of Leadbelly and Robert Johnson alongside Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Tom Waits and Neil Young. These are the raw underbelly notes of my pain and anger at the world. Jazz is the mellow top notes. I hope this makes sense. It is hard to explain something that is natural to and part of who I am, so forgive any lack of clarity.
Sometimes, I just like to add a moment of mischievous fun to a serious poem as in these two:
the fabulous beauty of your face-
not always in this place-
it's late, mesmeric
smile is but a base,
a film to interface
with the movements of the mind behind it.
my smile, me-
like Thomas O'Malley
cat reclining on a tin bin lid
with fishy whiskers-
turns the ink in the valley
of your quills
while i sit
with fresh red sepals of hibiscus,
and his Amores
for your stories.
a rest, from swinging bar
and animals in the abattoir-
to smoke in mental thinks
spoken holding cooling drinks.
counting out old coppers to be fed
in the set squares of blue and red
just enough to break up bread in thick barley broth.
Jesus is late
after saying he was coming
back to share the wealth and real estate
of capitalist cunning.
maybe. just maybe.
put another song on the jukebox baby:
no more heroes anymore.
what are we fighting for --
he's hiding in hymns and chants,
in those Monty Python underpants,
from this coalition of new McCarthy's
and it's institutions of Moriarty's.
some shepherds’ sheep will do this dance
in hypothermic trance,
for one pound an hour
like a shamed flower,
watched by sinister sentinels-
while scratched tubular bells,
summon all to Sunday service
where invisible myths exist-
to a shamed flower
with supernatural power
come the hour.
How do you compose a poem? Is it spontaneous or is it something you do? Do you hear the lines or voices or is it in some other way?
Most poems come from life’s experiences and observations of people, places, nature, and events. These can be from the past, or present and sometimes premonitions of the future which often overlap depending on the theme/s and where I want it to go.
When it comes to composing a poem, I am not robotic, and neither is my Muse. I have no set time and never write for the sake of writing something each day which I find disrupts my subconscious process. A poem can begin at any time of day or night, but my preferred time to think and write is mid-evening going through to witching hour and beyond. I put some music on low, pour myself a slow whiskey and sit down in my favourite chair with pen and folded paper. I never try to force a poem. The urge to write just occurs. I don’t know how, or why. It just happens. My subconscious finds the thread, thinks it through and the poem begins to unravel on the page. I care about the poems since they care about the world and the people in it. So, I often agonise for days and in some cases years, over lines and words and structure, crossing out words and whole lines until they feel right. Editing, and redrafting is a crucial part of the writing process and requires courage and discipline. Butchering your own work feels barbaric in the moment but enhances your poetic voice and strengthens the impact of a poem on the reader.
You are a lawyer and in the Civil Service in UK. How does law blend with poetry?
I am a law graduate and retired legal adviser to the magistrates’ courts/civil servant who retired early. I have never practiced as a lawyer.
I never think about law when I write, but I am sure the discipline brings organisation to the orderly chaos of Spinoza’s universe that resembles the space inside my head.
Tell us about your journal. When and how did you start it?
I started Lothlorien Poetry Journal in January 2021. I publish the online rolling blog of poetry and fiction and printed book volumes — currently standing at eight issues featuring established and emerging poets and fiction writers published on the LPJ blog.
We are a friendly literary journal featuring free verse/rhyming/experimental poetry, short stories, flash fiction, and occasional interviews with poets.
We love poems about enchantment, fantasy, fairy tale, folklore, dreams, dystopian, flora and fauna, magical realism, romance, and anything hiding deep in-between the cracks.
I publish Lothlorien Poetry Journal periodically, 4-6 issues every year. Contributors to each issue (selected from the best work published on the Journal’s Blog) are notified prior to publication and receive a free PDF copy of the issue that features their work.
We nominate for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net.
What do you look for in a poet as a publisher?
I look for a poet or writer’s distinct voice, that spark of originality in their theme/s, the rhythm and musicality in their language and phrasing. I have no boundaries as to style, form, or subject – prose, rhyming, free verse, sonnets, haiku, experimental or mavericks who break the rules and write about the darker underbelly of society – if it is good and not offensive, racist or sexist Lothlorien Poetry Journal could be the natural home for your work. The best way to find out is to come to Lothlorien, have a read, and decide to submit.
i'm come home again
in your Lothlorien
to marinate my mind
in your words,
and stand behind
good tribes grown blind,
trapped in old absurd
and selfish treasons.
in this cast of strife
the Tree of Life
embraces innocent ghosts,
slain by Sauron's hosts-
and their falling cries
make us wise
enough to rise
up in a fellowship of friends
to oppose Mordor's ends
and smote this evil stronger
for each one of us that dies.
i'm come home again
in your Lothlorien,
to take wing
and un-fang serpent krakens-
while i bring
all the races
as equals in equal spaces
the chorus of crickets
who cheat them from chambered thickets,
hiding corruptions older than long grass
that still fag for favours asked.
i'm come home again
in your Lothlorien
where corporate warfare
infests our tribal bodies
and separate self
in political lobbies
so conscience can't care
worth and wealth-
to rally drones
of walking bones,
to think things through
and the powerless who see it true.
red unites, blue divides,
which one are you
and what will you do
when reason decides.
IN THE TALK OF MY TOBACCO SMOKE
i have disconnected self
from the wire of the world
retreated to this unmade croft
of wild grass and savage stone
set in sea
blue black green grey
dyed all the colours of my mood
and liquid language-
to climb rocks
instead of rungs
living with them
moving around their settlements
of revolutionary random place
for simple solitary glory.
i am reduced again
to elements and matter
that barter her body for food
teasing and turning
her flesh to take words and plough.
slaps the skin
on honest hands
while sowing seeds
the way i touch my lover
in the talk of my tobacco smoke:
now she knows
like all the drops
of my dreams
falling on the forest
of our Lothlorien.
Thanks for your lovely poetry and time.
(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
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.
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.
‘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 withThe 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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Rakibul Hasan Khandiscusses Sofiul Azam’s poetry collection Persecutionfrom a postcolonial perspective
Sofiul Azam is one of the most important English language poets from Bangladesh. Persecution (2021) is his fourth poetry collection, which has recently been published by Salmon Poetry (Ireland). His poetry has already appeared in some of the leading poetry or literary journals across the globe, including Prairie Schooner, North Dakota Quarterly, The Ibis Head Review, and Postcolonial Text, to name a few. In Persecution, Azam shows an astonishing poetic talent, offering some wonderful poems on the themes of love, war, and politics, among others. If we read the poems of this volume purely from an artistic viewpoint, we will find most of them as what might be called “perfect” poems, but we may find the same poems somewhat problematic if we read them from certain political perspectives.
The volume has recently come to me travelling a long distance from its publishing house in Ireland to my present residence in New Zealand. This journey, which began in Bangladesh where Azam lives, has covered three different countries of three continents. Such a transnational breadth is the main motivation for writing in English for many South Asians today, who have internalised English as a language of their own for their creative expression, inherited from their colonial past.
These poets capture the complexity and multiplicity of South Asian life with the common thread that binds them all — the language, English. Their expressions are somehow distinctly South Asian. This fact makes Azam stand apart from many of his counterparts in Bangladesh. Very few English language poets from Bangladesh, especially those who were born and brought up there, write such “perfect” poems in English. But Azam’s perfectly written poems in “native” like English with somewhat Western outlook and a poetic expression deriving from Western literary canon make some poems of Persecution incongruous in the South Asian context. In this essay, I will shed light on this incongruity while exploring some other features of his poetry.
The most obvious influences on Azam in this collection are Eliot (1888-1965), Auden (1907-1973), and Walcott (1930-2017). Perhaps, among them his true poetic inspiration is Walcott, who is sometimes alleged to be more an English poet than a Caribbean. This is somewhat true about Azam as well, but his situation is, of course, unlike Walcott. Azam is a self-made poet who has mastered his art of writing poetry in English through reading, overcoming his spatial “limitation” of living his whole life in a Bangla dominant country like Bangladesh where English is no more than a foreign language. Therefore, it would be an injustice not to recognise his extraordinary achievement in mastering the language to write like a ‘native’. But his poetry is not all about language. Azam’s success in Persecution lies in the fact that almost each poem is neatly written, maintaining outstanding poetic and artistic expressions. If the poems were decontextualised from their social, political, cultural, and historical backgrounds, this would be a collection of “perfect” poems. Azam in Persecution is like Walcott – more an English poet than a Bangladeshi! It is, of course, an overstatement, but there are some truths behind this assertion. To illustrate my point, I quote some lines from his poetry:
I tell myself that I can afford to be happy
like a grizzly bear only having to feast on salmon
moving upstream through shallow creeks to lay eggs and die.
I need to act like a hiker does, getting all he needs
On the wild shrubbery dense paths in Yellowstone.
(“The Capitoline Wolf,” 14-18, pp. 15)
In the quoted lines, no one can doubt the mastery of Azam’s versification. If one is not informed of who is the writer of these lines, it would be hard to imagine these were written by a Bengali (English) poet. Objects and images like “grizzly bear”, “salmon fish”, “hiking” and “Yellowstone” are so foreign in the Bangladeshi or even in South Asian context that they seem to be incongruous in an otherwise perfect poem.
But Bangladesh is not untraceable in Persecution, particularly in the part entitled “Heat of Interrogations”, where Bangladeshi landscapes reappear time and again through the poet’s nostalgic recollection of his childhood life in his hometown near the Garo Hill. The hill and a backyard pond in his grandparents’ house are the two most frequented places for the poet to escape from the complexities of metropolitan life of Dhaka where he lives. There is a clear undertone of English romantic poetry in the poems of this section. The quoted lines below may clarify my point:
I grew up picnicking in the Garo Hills.
In summer, I saw trees and clustered vines
dance in the wind and get covered with red dust.
One day we will go there, to see together
the rain falling and washing the dust
off their green foliage.
(“Rain,” 28-33, pp. 17)
This superb poem somehow reminds me of Yeats, especially the early Yeats of romantic phase. I quote some lines from “Coming of Age,” another poem from this part, which casts a shadow over a nostalgic recollection of childhood event through the experienced poet’s realisation of its innocent cruelty:
Even as a child, I did atrocities like floating rat pups
in a coconut shell on a pond’s calm water.
I hear their sqeaks though I’m not degaussed
to such evils yet, drifting far from atonement.
(11-14, pp. 12)
Such memories are the backbone of his poetry. In retrospect, he offers a profound insight into his life, which has a general appeal: “What am I but an accumulation of memories, / each of which is surmounted with unsuccess?” (16-17). It is true that every individual is an accumulation of memories.
This is a prominent feature of Azam’s poetry to attempt to give vent to some sad truths of human lives in general terms, especially in this part of the volume. The following lines from “The Pond at Grandpa’s House” may support my claim:
Remain tensed like a hyacinth
Worrying about the lowering water.
(17-19. pp. 19)
This “lowering water” perhaps makes all of us tense, humans whose existence is as uncertain as that of a hyacinth and threatened by the drying up of water – the most vital source of existence. It is more so for Azam who does not want to strike his root in any particular place:
I don’t ever relish
the singular idea of being rooted in just one spot;
I rather feel like a rhizome branching out new roots
from its nodes, trying out its various potential climates
for the plurality is itself a self-renewing adventure.
Losing faith in those too preachy about the singular,
I prefer to be an unpaired jerk lusting for the plural.
If I say this planet is where I began and my windows
open into the universe, would I be allowed to belong?
(“Earth and Windows”, 22-30, pp. 30)
This is an unequivocal statement of Azam’s internationalism or transnationalism, renouncing any specific national identity.
Azam’s preference for a transnational identity is a common choice among many poets and writers of the so-called postcolonial world. It makes them different from the traditional postcolonial poets who usually express their deep desires to be rooted in their lands and cultures. Therefore, Azam’s choice of a transnational identity, against the backdrop of his ancestral home that he often revisits, can be interpreted as the conscious choice of a poet whose writing in an adopted language opens up before him an outstanding opportunity to explore other horizons. But there are scopes for raising questions about the intention of such transnationalism. Is it an opportunity for the poet to make his poetry more presentable to an international audience, since creative writers in English from Bangladesh and South Asia in general inevitably sense the shadow of an international as well as an unknown readership at the back of their minds?
I am aware that I am making a clichéd and contentious claim, and I may even be charged for being a nativist for raising such questions. Therefore, I must clarify my discomfort in coming to terms with the idea of transnationalism, which I think is largely confined to privileged people who can afford to assume multiple identities. This is perhaps a narrow and simplistic view of transnationalism, but it cannot be denied that those who adopt transnational or multinational identities are generally from privileged social positions. However, one particular feature that intrigues me the most is Azam’s romantic recollection of the past often with a profound attachment to nature. It makes him, to me, the last romantic of the post-postmodern age!
Part two of the book, “The Flames of Desire,” also exemplifies his romanticism. It is the spiciest part of this volume, but some of the poems in this part slightly disappoint because they do not fulfil my expectation of capturing the complexities of human relationship that I expect from the twenty-first century love poems. I am quite sure that many readers will differ and I admit that what makes me critical of Azam in this volume is essentially because of our ideological differences; his poetry as a form of art has mostly nothing to do with it. However, an exciting feature of this part is Azam’s experiments with metaphysics. This part brings out the influence of English canonical literature in shaping his poetic sensibility and artistry. On the one hand, the erotic and sensual images that he creates with an abundant use of conceits may remind one of John Donne, on the other, the rendering of the metaphysical elements in a modernist vein will remind one of T.S. Eliot who rejuvenated metaphysics in modernist poetry. The following lines from “Krishna’s Return Home” show evidence of his use of metaphysics:
As I reluctantly walk out of your woolen warmth
far worthier than the promise of a kingship
in heaven, I see washing on the line under the sky
with a few stars peeping like pot-bellied spies
through the curtains of dark clouds. (1-5, pp. 37)
These lines, once again, reflect the impressive craftsmanship of Azam who succeeds in matching the poetic talents of the English poets who influence his poetry.
The extramarital sexual trysts that Azam accumulates in this part may titillate readers. But while emulating the erotic art of a seventeenth century poet like Donne who is notorious for his misogyny, Azam also falls into the same trap of presenting women as an object of men’s sexual pleasure, without any agency. The poem “Who Doesn’t Want to Make Love to Someone’s Wife?” is a case in point, from which I quote the following lines:
Could I borrow you?
I promise you will be returned unhurt to him
who’ll know nothing of rain’s work on a taro leaf.
(10-12, pp. 47)
This wonderful poetic expression is problematic for its gendered undertone. Although it may sound like making a gross interpretation of a love poem, I cannot overlook the fact that the quoted lines’ that show women are men’s possessions and they can be borrowed like any other objects. It sounds like a very offensive idea to me. Similarly, in some other poems, he compares different parts of a female body with fruits to be consumed by men.
The third part of Persecution, “Embers of Disappearance,” contains the most politically conscious and powerful poems. I enjoyed the poems of this part the most, but some of those are, unfortunately, problematic for being Eurocentric in outlook. One example of Azam’s Eurocentrism or a Western attitude is his treatment of wars, which is a recurring theme of this part. Surprisingly, Azam does not look beyond the world wars of the twentieth century to reincarnate the horror of war, assumably because of his politically apolitical and liberal humanistic Western outlook. Here lies the main incongruity of his poetry, at least from my ideological perspective. I think it is incongruous of a twenty-first century Bangladeshi poet to rely so heavily and uncritically on the World Wars to reflect on the horrors of wars, whereas there are so many ongoing and past wars in his part of the world, so many struggles of the oppressed.
Even his so-called transnationalism and lack of belonging to any particular place perhaps do not justify his stand because there are also many poems in this volume that reflect his awareness of place and time. Therefore, his position is curiously ambivalent in relation to his homeland. This kind of ambivalence is often considered to be a quintessential characteristic of the so-called postcolonial poets, but the paradox is that Azam does not seem to be very keen to identify himself as a postcolonial poet.
Azam’s treatment of wars also indicates the influence of modern English poets on him. The following lines from “Requiem for the Undead” reflect his reminiscence of Eliot’s rendition of the horror of the First World War in “The Wasteland”: “A desert greens with corpses planted as seedlings. / Did dry sands wish to be washed out with blood?” (11-12, pp. 76). In the same poem, Auden’s account of his devastating experience of the Second World War in “The Shield of Achilles” is echoed:
Weary footfalls, the oars knifing the watery flesh.
The dreams that linger are burst-out bubbles
or hollowed-out conches washed on alien shores.
Batons, barbed wares, and the cold greet the future.
(21-24, pp. 76)
Similarly, in another poem, he echoes the final line of Walcott’s famous poem “A Far Cry from Africa.” Walcott writes “How can I turn from Africa and live?” and Azam writes “How can I write poems and think of beauty alone?” (“Worries at a Hilltop Resort”, 27, pp. 89). Such kind of “intertextualities” are often intentional. They are undoubtably very artistic and evocative expressions, but the problem is neither the intertextuality nor the art, rather the context of the time and place when he wrote these poems. Do I sound like a nationalist now? I would rather call myself a postcolonialist. However, the influence of classic English war poets like Wilfred Owen or Keith Douglas, or the Cold War period’s poet Boris Pasternak, or the holocaust theme of Auschwitz in his poems indicates not only his inclination to present twentieth century modernist themes but also his Western point of view of meditating on his own experiences and perspectives. In this sense, he is a twenty-first century modernist poet from a postcolonial location, although it is not unusual among the Anglophone postcolonial poets to embrace Western modernism as Jahan Ramzani explains in his comprehensive study on such poets in A Transnational Poetics (2009). The irony is that Azam and many others seem to reject the identity of the “postcolonial,” but that identity persists to hang stubbornly around their necks like the dead albatross.
The most ambitious poem of this volume is “Prayers to the God of Jihadists.” In this poem, Azam deals with the issue of Islamic radicalism, which is a pressing concern for the contemporary world, particularly for the West. Azam also writes the poem largely from a Western perspective, which is evident in his use of the word “jihadist” – a popular Western coinage to describe the radical Muslims, and it is sometimes indiscriminately used to label Muslims in general. For many in the West, Islamophobia has ominously led to suspect every Muslim as a potential jihadist, and by writing this poem from their perspective, Azam seems to simplify a complex issue. The poem thus turns out to be a problematic one despite having enormous potentialities to become a great poem.
Nonetheless, there are many poems or short expressions in Persecution which save Azam from doing injustice to his poetic merit. “Persecution” and “The Photographer” are two such poems. In these poems, Azam offers exemplary political consciousness, being fully aware of his time and place. I quote some lines from “Persecution”:
In the wake of the Confederate flags flying
o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
I know brown won’t ever be de-browned to white.
I’m a genealogist, cracking the encryption codes
of all those suspicions under my critical lenses.
Oh, don’t let colour and culture make distance between us.
Elsewhere lines of sanity are now increasingly blurred.
Erich said Hear, O Israel! A new Holocaust is raging on.
So between an anvil and a hammer I stammer:
For Jews in Hitler’s war my sad tears drip,
Also for kids bombed out in the Gaza Strip.
Not anti-Semitic but you know Zionists never get it.
(43-54, pp. 93)
Whereas the above lines from “Persecution” express Azam’s consciousness of international politics, the “The Photographer” represents his awareness of national politics. In the latter poem, Azam makes a bold statement about political persecutions in Bangladesh. The photographer in the title of the poem alludes to a renowned photographer and political activist in Bangladesh named Shahidul Alam, who was arrested on the ground of sedition during a time of political unrest in 2018. In the following lines from the poem, Azam asserts his support for the photographer, protesting the repressive political regime that restricts freedom of speech:
I want caged birds
to sing their dreams out loud so that captors
feel the horror of wings being of no use.
Palmyra palm trees, though rooted,
make wings of their fronds. And only freedom
gets us on the wing. But in this country,
rules from their laboratory rain down on us
clay subjects and wash away what we made
solid with labour. I wonder if they’ll wise up
to the light brewing under darkness.
Those mute photographs will be vocal soon.
(“The Photographer”, 17-27, pp. 104)
Thus, Azam expresses his solidarity with an artist who fights for freedom of thoughts and expressions through photography. This poem of a national subject matter has an international significance, for nowadays persecutions for dissents are very common everywhere around the world. It also justifies the titling of the volume.
In fine, I repeat that Persecution is a collection of “perfect” poems. There are some problematic areas in this volume, but those are hardly because of any artistic weakness of the poems; rather, Azam’s ideological position sometimes weakens his political stance. His over cautiousness with form and expression is probably another reason of his political compromise. There is hardly any contemporary issue that he does not deal with in this relatively thin volume. Though I have not mentioned it in my discussion, his ecological consciousness is another highlight of this book. Therefore, I warmly accept this collection, keeping in mind the way the speaker of one of his poems asks his beloved to accept him with all his imperfections:
I am not
requesting you to accept me as a gem
you might have lost by mistake on the way,
rather as one humanly rife with imperfections.
(“Who the Hell Benefit from Denials?,” 51-54, pp. 60)
Rakibul Hasan Khan is a PhD Candidate in English at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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
between the clarities that are canceled
Not the abolition of images
the incarnation of pronouns
the world that we all invented
and in its center
one half woman
peña manantial the other
Word of all with whom we speak alone
I ask that you always accompany me
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.
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.