Poetry at Sangam



August 2014

We devote this August issue to celebrating translations. From the French, Japanese and Sanskrit. Karthika Nair presents translations from poet extraordinaire Roselyne Sibille’s new collection, Ombre-Monde (Shadow-World) published by Les éditions Moires, Mani Rao’s translations are of Meghadūtam (Cloud Messanger) from her new release, Kalidasa for the 21st Century Reader, and Mariko Nagai translates Shizuko Suzuki’s post WW2 haiku.

Roselyne Sibille is a poet of ruminations, glimmerings and music; her work demands the readers too become figures of thought that glide between the apparent and the unheard to arrive at a quiescence that continuously overflows into ‘the void and its edging of blood’. In the magnificent mirror poem On The Other Side of the Shadow she writes ‘… Who sleeps on the other side of the gaze?/ Who sleeps where nothing/ has been written yet?’ Karthika Nair, poet of formidable rigour, audacity with forms and beauteous depth of thought, previously published here, translates these poems with keen intelligence and tenderness. In her Translator’s Note in Asymptote she writes, ‘These poems, to me, seem as fragile and oneiric as age-old calligraphy, the quest for the perfect curve: they reclaim words to reflect the tumbling and vaulting of the soul… Roselyne Sibille’s world blithely demands both precision and creativity from a translator. Transposing her metaphors and visuals… from one imaginary world to another is an adventure that is often very challenging, but also deeply satisfying when both she and I feel that we have found or built portholes between these worlds.’ We present six splendid new poems.

Mani Rao, a poet of exceptional courage pares emotions and thoughts to their spare luminosity with a range of avant-garde techniques; her work is previously published here. As a translator she is no different, giving us the celebrated Sanskrit court poet Kalidasa in a version we resonate with today. Adopting a variety of poetic techniques to translate his different works as each one employs a different meter, carries different emotions, belong to different genres etc. Mani Rao gives us nuanced tones in his voice that we’ve previously missed. In her introduction she writes, ‘Whereas Kalidasa’s poetry has metrical craftsmanship and intricate design, and features colourful similes, it is also attentive, precise, purposeful – values of modernist poetry.’ We carry excerpts of Meghadūtam from her new book, fittingly title Kalidasa for the 21st Century Reader which carries selections from his plays as well as his early poem, Ṛtusaṃhāram. The excerpts are reprinted by kind permission of the publishers Aleph Book Company. ‘Over the centuries, Meghadūtam became a model for the genre of ‘messenger-poem’ with numerous imitations in Sanskrit and the vernacular,’ she writes, presenting verses that ring with a conversational poetics as the hero-yakṣa appeals to the cloud messenger to carry his missive to his beloved. When necessary, Mani Rao adopts the use of pithy commentarial insertions in italics to do away with odious footnoting. Her translations stun with their immediacy and palpable beauty. Here’s Canto 20: ‘Rain-spent, sip water from this current/ Infused with bitter wild-elephant ichor/ Slowed by rose-apple bushes/ The wind does not shake you when laden, hey/ Dense cloud, everyone’s/ Inconsequential when empty/ Fullness, for gravitas/ Elephants-in-heat exude ichor/ It runs into streams where they bathe/ Such sensuous liqueurs await/ our thirsty cloud’. Without a doubt, as Mani Rao writes, ‘As we enter Kalidasa’s world, Kalidasa’s world also enters ours,’ in an osmosis of scents, sights, thoughts and memories that could well be our own.

Shizuko Suzuki is unknown to most non-Japanese readers of haiku. In Mariko Nagai’s translations she comes through as a rare voice, personal, dark and haunting. Her absence from the canon demands answers. True, haiku has, traditionally, been a masculine and rigidly hierarchical poetic form. Poets worked within a convention of a master and his school of haiku, publishing their books after obtaining their teachers’ endorsements. When Kyoshi Takahama headed the renowned Meji era haiku journal Hototogisu he invited women to submit to the section titled ‘Kitchen Haiku’ which, while encouraging women to write haiku limited their topics to domestic scenes. Yet why are other women haiku poets of the post war period like Ishibashi Hideno, Katsura Nobuko and Yoshimo Yoshiko mentioned in anthologies but not her? On querying Mariko Nagai she responded, ’Shizuko Suzuki worked under a very minor poet, Kyoshu Matsumura, and she sold her first book, Shunrai, directly to a publisher without getting the permission from her teacher. After the book came out and became a commercial bestseller, she became a target of, I would imagine, envy and suspicion by haiku poets of other schools. What compounded the suspicion of other haiku poets is her audacity to go beyond the ‘Kitchen Haiku’ by writing about her own experiences as a dancer (and perhaps a prostitute) catering to the black soldiers of the Occupied Allied Forces – which went beyond the experiences of a ‘good woman’. She, perhaps, showed the darker side of what it meant to be a woman in post war (Japanese) society… a time that is not really explored even today. She was immediately labelled as a ‘panpan poet’ (‘panpan’ is a derogatory term for a prostitute, but during the Occupation period, specifically a prostitute who catered to foreign men) – and in many ways, themes she explored became entangled with the mythology of her life, which contributed to poets not taking her seriously as a poet. I think this is one of the major reasons why she has been dismissed from the haiku canon, and especially from the female haiku canon.’ Pushcart prize winning poet Mariko Nagai’s translations recreate the voice of a woman who made the form her own with a searing intensity and deep knowledge of the tradition she worked in. These are translations that tremble with passion, and tear one as they are taken in as in, ‘I press the lighted/ cigarette against an ant/ and watch it burn,’ and ‘Warmth of the egg in/ my hand, warmed by the egg/ I sell myself.’ If only for a flash, we see Shizuko Suzuki but the after-burn remains.

Do go to the New Releases section for book details.