Poetry at Sangam



October 2014

We wish you a happy festive season with a Diwali dhamaka bumper issue: Anglophone poetry, two selections of poetry in translation, both from the Bengali, and an essay on poetics.

Arjun Chaudhuri translates Saudamini Devi’s startling 19th century Bengali Adbutha Ramayana. Chaudhuri resists the impulse to contemporize her voice to retain the shock of the original as it was first received. This is a gamble, as the translations could seem quaint. However the energised goddess Sita as embodied in Saudamini Devi’s sharp evocation is, he notes, ‘different from the… demure, suffering kidnapping victim and is subversive in ways more than one. The epic… does not, in spite of the fact that Sita becomes a martial character… become a Sita-yana…’ His translator’s note contextualizes the poem, the forms employed and his brave choices. Here is Rama, ‘Womankind, terrible/ indeed, faithless/ they are all./ How, being a woman,/ can you go to see a war?// Do you have no fear?/ What heresy is this!’ Later, Sita asks, ‘Rāma how is it that/ you could not even cross/ that ocean of milk!// They say that you are/ the one who helps all cross/ the ocean of this world./ Then why could you not/ cross this small sea yourself?’

In her robust and scintillating essay, Maitreyee B. Chowdhury shares her enthusiasm for the Kavyamimamsa of Rajasekhara translation by Dr. Sadhana Parashar and takes us through a tour of what the 9th century Sanskrit aesthetician Rajasekhara deemed essential qualities of the poet such as a strong constitution (sasthya), a good memory (smritidardhya) and the ability to not be disappointed soon (anirveda). (How true this rings!) Additionally she investigates the role of the secular in Indian poetics through a range of forms and languages from the Tamil Sangam to Sanskrit and Prakrit to Rabindranath’s Gitanjali, quoting liberally in each case and offering useful links. Chowdhury then delves into questions of poetic creation and validates her arguments with a surprising contemporary twist.

Joy Goswami shot to fame in the 70s as an innovator who brought in new styles and techniques to Bengali prose and poetry. Drawing from Dali, his poetry’s quicksilver sliding scale stretches into the surreal, and is vivid as dream as he unpeels the tegument of words to uncover their suggested possibilities; their sleeping core. Sampurna Chattarji’s translations of his poetry, marked by melodic energy and inventiveness that reflect the original’s, skilfully plunges us into his world. ‘As a translator, I feel the most extraordinary, enabling tension,’ she writes in the translator’s note. ‘When I write my own poetry, I am in the middle of a landscape without a single landmark… I put one word after another in order to find my way. When I translate I have the map before me. Relaxed, oriented, located, I begin translating…’ Here’s an excerpt: ‘There’s neither day nor night there, just the frozen/ Jelly of dark time the measure of a beat./ All around him the ash-filled sockets/ Of extinct constellations./ Taking the vast light with me I edge away/ From its circular path, slowly, slowly, towards outermost/ space…’

Tishani Doshi’s poems are radiant acts of attention that draw deeply from her years with Chandralekha, the iconoclast dancer-choreographer, and the practice of dance that Doshi carries forward. Hence each line is taut as a limb stretched to touch the continuous moment of embodiment; words curve towards unexpected beautiful connections as in: ‘And only after touching our heads/ to the diamond back of the earth,/ do we rise again, arched like curls/ of river silk, emptying our souls/ into the sky…’ The first three poems are from her collection Everything Begins Elsewhere (Canyon Press) which is dedicated to her mentor. The next three recent poems ring with a different cadence; in these the immediate is probed with a shafting splintered light. This is from Contract which, again, is intensely visual as it addresses the unknown reader: ‘And when you put your soft head/ down to rest, dear Reader,/ I promise to always be there,/ humming in the dungeons/ of your auditory canals—…’ She is a poet we can trust.

Read on.