Poetry at Sangam



January 2015

We thank the poets, translators, essayists and readers who have stood by us through the last year. In the first issue of 2015 we have the privilege to present new poems by US poets Dennis Nurkse and Dipika Mukherjee; translations from the Gujarati by poet-painter Gulam Mohammed Sheikh collaborating with poets Adil Jussawalla, Saleem Peeradina and Mala Marwah; while Ofelia Zepeda is a poet of the Tohono O’odham Nation, a Native American Nation, who translates her poems from the Tohono O’odham language into the English.

Poet Laureate of Brooklyn, Dennis Nurkse is a poet so numerously honoured with awards, fellowships, citations, ecstatic reviews etc. but quoting from the roll of praises still doesn’t say enough about his searing, beautiful poems. However, here are a couple of pointers. Philip Levine comments, “He (Nurkse) should be the laureate of the Western Hemisphere… No one is writing more potently than this.” While in the Bloomsbury Review we read, “Nurkse is a master at investing everyday objects with tremendous poignancy.” Nurkse was elected to the board of Amnesty International, USA, and has taught poetry at Rikers Island Correctional Facility, as well as at MFA programs in various universities. His first poem, he said in an interview, was published when he was a kid in the international children’s magazine Shankar’s Indian Weekly. Since then he has published ten collections, each of which his admirers waited for with bated breath. With bated breath is anyway the way one reads each of his poems for time doesn’t stop during the reading so much as unfold into a space that is the forever present, funnelled though a vision that is simultaneously vast and harrowingly precise in its details. The poems’ numinous qualities and the figure of God strolling in and out of verses could nudge one to term much of Nurkse’s poetry as religious while, in fact, the poems reside in and sing of the everyday sacred in an imperfect world. His formal mastery of the lyric dazzles; stanza breaks seem to open to other meditations; to reverberations unwritten but heard in pulsations of quietude. In the new poem, The Alder Leaf creatures decide if God should create them, “So God unthought them, with great effort./ A vein pulsed on his forehead./ The wind of unknowing passed…” Here are two new poems plus four others that are among my favourites.

Dipika Mukherjee is an award winning poet and novelist who teaches at Northwestern University, USA and has lived on many continents. These diverse geographies simmer and shimmer in her verse as rivers, mists, alleyways and public libraries, metal, earth; she also turns reportage into evocative poetry. When an interviewer asked, “How did the idea for your poems come?” her reply was, “Travel, lots of it.” Or, as she writes, “Migration, Exile… these are men’s words./ I am a nomad,/ homeless, rootless, I am the zephyr – / the vayu that breezes past rooted trees.” Zephyr she might term herself, as but her voice is aflame, rising into a savage hymn against injustice in Turn Away that was sparked by the recent gang rape and murder of two girls in a village in Uttar Pradesh, India. Though Dipika Mukherjee locates herself in various places, she homes in each time to straddle the palpable and its quivering underside, the ephemeral; the immediate and the yawn of experience; in this sense nothing seems foreign to her. She determinedly roots into the squirmy mess of life as it tries to beat its wings upwards. One might even say the poem is her true home as objects morph before her eyes to eloquently suggest other possibilities of existence and other parallel stories as in Calligraphic Lives: “Even blood/ spilt on white porcelain/ starts looking like calligraphy.” We present three new poems and three previously published by this poet with a fierce, courageous voice.

Among India’s most acclaimed contemporary artists and awarded the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh is also a poet of renown in Gujarat. Over an illustrious career as artist and teacher, Sheikh has worked to bridge a historical appreciation of art and art practice with an engagement with contemporary socio-political concerns. He does this with vibrancy and deep knowledge and reflection, drawing from the miniature painting tradition and songs of the bhakti poets, among others. Pressing detail on detail and past on present, the poems create visions both horrific and tender. As in the tradition of subcontinental art practice each poem abandons the ‘surface reality’ for a deeper reality that the painter sees with his ‘inner eye; one that is steeped in oneiric and timeless qualities. In these superb translations Sheikh’s poems cast a glowing ropeway of near shamanistic utterances between the painterly and the written. The translations, that present Sheikh’s swaying, hallucinatory world were done soon after the poems were written, in the 60s and 70s, by him with poets Adil Jussawalla, Saleem Peeradina and Mala Marwah; we are honoured to republish them after many decades. In Mahabalipuram we read, “Staggering badly, a thirteen-hundred-year-old wind/ passes between a sow’s sagging dugs/ and yesterday’s sculptors’ rough fingers,/ straining to sink inside, are tugged/ into the spotted feathers of hens, purposelessly alive.” This aesthetics of interiority continues in his other poems even as it sharply reflects contemporary cruelties and heedlessness.

Ofelia Zepeda is a poet, the University of Arizona Regents’ Professor of Linguistics, MacArthur Fellow for her work in American Indian language education, maintenance and recovery with three poetry collections, the book A Tohono O’odham Grammar and editor of the publication series Sun Tracks that, for about 25 years, has published Native authors. One of her poetry collections, Ocean Power: Poems from the Desert, which was part of the required reading of the Tucson Unified Public School District (TUSD) was among the books of ‘ethnic studies’ banned in 2012. However, several of her odes to the desert, tributes to Native Americans and rhymes about the local flora and fauna are fittingly etched on large boulders of her people’s ancestral land, primarily the Sonoran desert in southern Arizona. Ofelia Zepeda’s poetic universe includes the human, the animal and vegetal and the elements in equal measure; its holistic vision summons us to hear its frail living charge amidst of the rupture of traditional cultures that we bring upon our unheeding selves. Writing in the Tohono O’odham and translating herself into the English she notes, “it is a language that should be presented in the world’s literature. The Tohono O’odham oral tradition is still rich with songs, oratory, prayers and stories; this is a great gift that many Native Nations across the U.S. have lost due to the great language shift toward English.” She writes as if possessed of a double vision that encompasses both the knowledge of her Tohono O’odham ancestors and insight into her own contemporary world. These poems are maps, compressed elegies and rare epiphanies that straddle twin but torn times with an unusual grace and wisdom. Pulling Down the Clouds, O’odham Dances, The Place Where Clouds Are Formed and Ocean Power are reprinted with permission by the author from Ocean Power: Poems from the Desert, University of Arizona Press, 1995. Jewed I-hoi / Riding the Earth and B ‘o e-a:gi mas ‘ab him g Ju:ki / It is Going to Rain are reprinted with permission by the author from Earth Movements, Kore Press, 2005. Audio link: http://www.korepress.org/catalog7.htm. Here is a visionary excerpt, translated by the poet herself: “She sees herself with her long hair floating,/ floating in the atmosphere of stardust/ She rides her planet the way a child rides a toy./ Her company is the boy who takes the sun on its daily journey/ and the man in the moon smiles as she passes by.”

Through 2015, Poetry at Sangam will present a new issue once every three months. We thank you for your support and yes, look forward to receiving your comments, poems and your heartfelt enthusiasm that keeps us going.

The Poetry at Sangam team wishes each and every one of you a wonderful and creative 2015!