Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Attachment

I'm using this post as a think-through, and not to arrive at any conclusions, so it's going to be problematic to think of this as anything but a sort of purging or catharsis.

Sometimes I feel very close to an anthropologist--the emic kind, not the etic kind. The emic kind is the person who is so involved within or implicated in the culture they are studying that their observations stem from close knowledge, involvement and even experience of the culture as a subject themselves. (If I'm reducing the definition, dear Sarah, you must forgive me). The same applies for me as a person. I am an emic person. I don't merely observe people as spectacles or as objects of study; I try becoming them. This becoming is not a literal thing--I have no desire to be in anyone else's place, but I wish to be part of an experience larger than the confines of my closed physical and mental space. So when I meet someone interesting-- a potential friend, a mere acquaintance, a friendly child, an interesting old man--I am drawn to their own interiorities. I implicate myself in their being by becoming more than a spectator. And clearly, this is a very rigorous and very exhausting process because I can only involve myself in so many people at once. The most invested and yet the most complicated of all these subjects, is of course, the person who borders on more than a friend, and more than a mere acquaintance. What do I do with this person? How much do I moor myself in an emic attachment? How much is the problem of falling in love a problem because I am just so completely lost in someone else's mental processes? Or worse yet, more. What really gets me is when I become the subject so fully in the process of this emic excavation that this other person has really taken over my role. How, then, do I stop being the observed?

What is worse is that I have begun to write love poems. After what seems like forever. And I really find that detestable. To write for him is to desperately use those words to grasp his face, some kind of futile attempt to circumscribe his presence in these letters, and that is totally frustrating. At some level, this truly is me, but at some other level, this is very unlike me. I detest attachment at this kind of primordial level. It makes me uncomfortable, and it makes me feel as though there is something beyond myself that keeps me grounded. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Just to be clear, I don't feel this way about every person I meet. It's just this one particular person who has had me revise my my-ness.

On another note, also, Mami thaathi passed away while I was in the US and the same thing happened as when thaatha died. I pulled out that book about what happens to the soul after death and couldn't just wrap my head around this absence. Surely it is a filling absence, one that has its presence flourishing elsewhere, but I am just never epistemologically satisfied with these pulls and pushes that emerge from the physical self. And often, I just want to not be me, this enclosure of boundaries, this head full of thoughts and this body that controls everything I do, or at least does so because I have no way of reining it in. Sometimes, and this will sound strange, I spend a lot of time just looking at my hands, and they feel alien. They feel as though they belong to someone else--like they've made from earth from someone else's backyard and as much as amma keeps commenting on how I stare at myself in the mirror, I can't help but feel completely alien in this thing. Sometimes, I think, when I buy a dress or something, how strange it feels to say that I am a size eight or something. I took this Bodylore course in my first semester at Mason and my professor spent a lot of time talking about what makes us us and how we use the body as a way of identifying with us-ness. But is that all I really want to do? Really? Sometimes when the slip disc comes back and the nerves pinch really hard, and I am lying down or something, I try feeling the line between my back and the bed, and to be really truthful, I can't feel it. It's not physical numbness; it's just that in those moments, I have to consciously bring myself to spell out that this is just a symptom, just a thing of physics and anatomy. That is indeed comforting. It is comforting to know that the vehicle is indeed what I am in control of and not vice versa.

Coming back, therefore, to the whole love problem, feeling this strangely comfortable otherness also makes me more aware of how much my own body controls me in those moments. I mean, have they found out where this love thing originates? Random people have theories about it and I remember watching this program on podhigai once where this shastrigal was trying to explain how the tying of the thaali was symbolic of some kind of mooring the self in another and vice versa. (Or maybe my understanding of it is totally messed up). But I found the whole thing amusingly and scarily too close to the truth. What is more confusing than some kind of ritualistically (or better yet, a spiritually sanctioned) otherness?

I am just glad that my subject is being highly recalcitrant and is honestly not interested in taking over the role of observer. Perhaps it is not the time for these kinds of attachments.




Saturday, November 28, 2009

Moving, moving

Prefatory Note

I promised myself that the next piece of nonfiction I wrote would be a "serious" piece that I could add to my memoir-in-progress. (Is it really even in progress?) Oh, well, at least I tried. But the white space on the blog, or perhaps just the possibility of the fictional white space remaining unwritten presses down quite heavily on the mind. So I decided I would write. Also, many thanks to my lovely co-poet Moriah Purdy for her brilliant epigraph idea--looking up definitions before/ as one writes. Needless to say, this one is still in the smithy.

***

move., v.

a. Of a person or thing: to go, advance, proceed, pass from one place to another

b. spec. Of a celestial object: to travel in a regular path or orbit, or to appear to do so because of the earth's own motion; to exhibit real or apparent motion.

e. colloq. To go quickly.

3. a. intr. Of a person, a part of the body, etc.: to change position or posture; to exhibit motion or physical activity. In negative constructions (freq. in imper.): to remain still, not to stir.

d. intr. To bow in acknowledgement or salutation. Obs.

b. Of something mechanical: to revolve, to work. Of something on hinges, as a door: to turn.

c. to move to mind: to come to mind. Also to move of (also out of) mind: to be forgotten

9. intr. To incline, tend (to something, or to do something); to be favourable (toward a proposal). Obs.

10. intr. To proceed, emanate, or originate from. Obs.

--Oxford English Dictionary Online; accessed thanks to GMU's brilliant library

When he came into my life, I think I was most impressed by his ability to not consume caffeine and operate normally. Not even juice, actually. No. Just milk or hot chocolate, and that too, only on occasion. He was reticent and wasn't just someone who grew to enjoy my relatively bland Tambrahm booking, pepper rasams and whatnot; he actually grew to find something in common with me. Of course, we had no idea that this was nothing except a sort of elemental holding together, a sort of containment within a unit that did not draw out our individual desolations. Basically we were both outcasts, or more significantly, fancied ourselves to be. We had our individual insecurities. Perhaps his was the insistence of his family on his lack of academic and overall "achievement." My problems seemed to be quite the opposite-- I was tired of trying to be good. I wouldn't necessarily qualify as an overachiever, but I think I was sort of suspended between my desire to do what needed to be done (get on with life, choose a career and all that delightful growing-up) and what could not be done but lay somewhere just at the horizon, between those gaps, those boundaries, those self-contained vividities.

This Ramzan I felt our differences really consolidate. And I really look at that process as a constructive uncovering of what lay simmering underneath, a legendary, almost cliched clash-of-faiths/ civilizations scenario. One of those days, he came home and we decided to watch a movie. He sat next to me and I switched on the video, but the whole time, we were both thinking of how I was some kind of distraction, an infiltration of this sacred space, this silence that one needed to think about God (not Gods-- "us" Hindus and our postmodern comfort with multiplicity and simultaneity of divine existence confounds others). I withdrew, which I am sure is more frustrating than reassuring for the other people around me, since that only makes me more blatantly aggressive, more prone to clatter dinner plates, open the fridge loudly, spend whole evenings grading three student essays and guilt-tripping people on the phone with allegations that I have been "abandoned." As intensely aware I may be aware of these realities, I am no less inclined to act differently, even though I (in)sincerely try. From the first day we started talking, I spent an average of an hour or more talking to him, giving him updates on purchases, beverages consumed, general people-watching results, poems, etc, occasionally cajoling him into defining the nature of long-term commitment.

That was precisely the problem. In his rubric of existence, there is no place for "long-term" outside of the sacred precincts of the five pillars. This is not meant to be a demeaning statement, as perversely opinionated as it may sound. I empathized with his desire to understand what lay ahead of the lived experience, but I believe I was always the quintessential Balachander side-role character-- occasionally emerging from her preoccupations to essentially steal the proverbial cake from under the lead actors' noses. If you remember the role of Kalki's landlady in the film by the same name, you may recall her transition from being the wallflower, to the abused, the confident and then almost passionately invested mother character. Of course, the main character, Kalki, remains the focus of the film, but this other woman, a mixed bag of happinesses and betrayals comes off as having the richer life. There is an immediacy in attempting to be nonchalant or matter-of-factly while constantly struggling and failing miserably at doing so. There seems more satisfaction inherent in that struggle.

Recently, a friend, and perhaps it is most reasonable to admit that more than one friend, actually, suggested that I loved the drama, or rather, the dramatic itself. I may have tried smiling wryly, but I really doubt it turned out that way, because if anything, I am rather transparent about my insecurities, which is what makes me seem rather dramatic. And besides, the attempt at a wry smile is perhaps more dramatic than actually flashing one. So, what remains is this foiled attempt at being something and this something, I have grown to think, is the notion of the witness. Sometime midway through my writing program, even as I was teaching and learning how to guide my students towards this writing "ideal" that did not exist but had to still be discussed, I read poetry that was constantly called that of witness. The word interests me precisely because it is so closed--a gap, a line, a horizon pretending to be a boundary. For a writer, a poet especially, being a witness becomes an ethical obligation. (I think I've heard most poets in the US echo this sentiment, especially Srikanth Reddy and my guru Susan Tichy). This ethical consciousness becomes not a by-product of the poetry but a necessary consideration for the project of the poem. (The "project" of the poem, loosely put, is that which the poet thinks or aims for the poem to achieve, as broad as that sounds, and also how the poet intends to achieve this). So, in essence, my poems don't just land up being about my experience as a post-colonial female but emerge from a conscious realization of that process. (The Tamil word for realization is very important here-- uNarndhu, which indicates that the process is more dynamic and experiential than "realization" suggests).

However, as the term itself suggests, being a witness also implies that on is to some extent on the sidelines. As Susan Sontag says in her essays on photography, one must relegate oneself to observing primarily even as one experiences physical or less tangible things so that the process of recording begins even at that stage. There is some extent of reflection required, in inward-turning, I suppose. I think it's important, as digressive as it seems, to look back at a review of Rick Barot's book Want that I wrote for Eric Pankey's class called "21st Century American Poetry:"

Yet again, using these considerations of beauty, Barot brings us back to the question of the poetic self and what its “ethical” expression consists of. Do Barot and his poems’ speakers identify with the “old poet” of “Say Goodbye..” who is “so silent with grieving/ that he has to be given the word of his farewell,” or does Barot place himself as the young poet from “Psalm with a Phrase from Beckett” who is grappling between “narratives of desire” and presumably, the “Captivity Narrative” itself? Barot probably wants to reach out or atleast reshape the young poet, by suggesting new possibilities—“Let the offered living hand/ be an oar…/Because that is your singing too.” It thus seems as though Barot has reached a stage between his “old” and “new” poetic selves—a point where he acknowledges that it is acceptable to “drink the blue sludge/ of airplanes” as well as consider the more oblique “words exploding just under/ the ground.” In other words, he may be ready to exercise his poetic will simply for the sake of beauty, for the sake of drawing a picture, for rendering as if on canvas.

Barot also seems to find comfort in the “dark,” a word that he constantly repeats like a mantra and a space that he dwells in. The dark, especially in “Psalm…” is the space where the poet is considering where his ethics lie, and Barot masterfully provides the answer to this question in the title of his last poem—“Like a Fire That Consumes All Before It.” Even as a poem about history—about the beauty of rain and the sheer destructive energy it possesses during a flood—this last sequence of eighteen ten-line sections carries a certain reassurance, an affirmation that the poet is both witness and witnessed, a documenter of history, as well as the documented. Barot reaches this conclusion exactly halfway through the poem, in the ninth section, where he admits:

…There is never

an answer here. Only that you have to need

the justice of looking, even after everything else

you’ve seen.

One could possibly say that Barot’s poetics here acknowledges that the poet must, painful as it may be, see and color the world using the self, and must always be at odds with this “requirement.” After all, if the storyteller doubts himself, how does the listener know where the “truth” truly lies? Yet, that is the implicit level of trust that history places upon poets, and it is this trust that Barot wants to complicate. If this collection of poetry indeed is an answer to the question posed by Antonio Porchia in its epigraph—“I know what I have given you. I do not know what you have received,” the answer is startlingly clear and complicating at the same time—that the poet must continue to invent, reinvent and engage with the world, even if the act of rendering the world is complicated, and possibly even limiting. Poetry, after all, as Barot’s collection would say, may be “bleak with story,” but is one legitimate re-enactment of history by that poet, nonetheless.

The key idea here is the poet's role as both witness and the witnessed. The act of transcribing, representing and presenting experience also makes one a witness of one's own selfhood, one's identity as a person and as a writer. And so, it seems to be that as my own conscious and focused investment in this process increases, my awareness of my own self increases. This is one of the most conscious and studied kinds of meditation one can indulge in, provided there is a near-obsessive need to understand what one wishes to achieve from a poem or why one chooses to place those words on the page in that very arrangement (which is what Jennifer Atkinson tells me very regularly. She is the wisest living poet I have met and is my other guru).

It becomes problematic for me, therefore, to write about my failed relationships in this context. Instead of worrying about what this says about me, the individual, I become more invested in how I choose to present these failures to my fictional reader. But let me address you directly--friend who has known me but have not really known what I have been writing about, friend who is hoping for more than friendship, occasional friend who resents me for this ostensible self-righteousness, friend who will never read this, mother, father-- I write this for you. I write this to tell you that I loved someone, just as you have loved me or loved your own at some point, listened for the occasional sound of footsteps on the porch, the scent of the fall breeze heavy with drying leaves and pine and a sunless clutching. I did not love to lose, or to slam the door in their face. I hoped for the same footsteps to return. I hoped to stand at the door with the same lightness always, the same understanding that bridges had been built, that your prayer mat would fit into my world full of elai vadams and arusi kolams and panchamis and navamis and chaturthis. This constant orbiting of the relationship became my goal. Did I necessarily lose sight of whom I loved? No. Especially not at the cost of the self. Now, I let go, not easier, not swifter, not more willingly, not only because I have to or because it comes naturally, but because there is no natural, there is only the gained, the experienced, the controlled. The choice to hold my breath underwater may seem natural given the construction of the body, but it is a choice nevertheless, and it is made in that instant one steps into the water and sinks lower, to that point where the water tickles the nose. It is a desperate flailing, a slipping between gaps, a pause, a slippage between meaning, between the pasts and the presents, regardless of whether emergence ensues or not.

What follows is not a holding on, not a letting go, not a constrictive word-space that I can use to contain that moment. It is a lived (moment). It is the being (not merely the act of, the process of, the experience of, etc). So, it is not gracefully, naturally or any such adverb-ially that I move on. I move on with misgivings, with a constant desire to understand the spaces within my self, to realize, to rise, to be liberated from all these muliplicities. And, in the process, love again, not only easily or naturally or with the ease of the archetypal perfectly-poised woman, nor with the awkwardness of the archetypal angst-er, but with the simultaneous awkwardness of that imagined horizon.

Welcome to this beauty. Poor Kevin Spacey died in vain at the end of American Beauty, indeed.

Three Reviews-- Volumes of Poetry

(This was written for a course, but it seemed to be a waste to have it tucked away in a file, when there is all this lovely poetry to talk about. I believe all copyrights still belong to me and GMU. It's also rather long, so grab some more coffee).


21st Century American Poetry and the Poetics of Re-Enactment

Literature often attempts to re-enact history, just as the art of painting hopes to re-create or approximate the “real.” However, while these may be controversial statements, the truth is that the poetics of each of the three twenty-first century poets reviewed here is revisiting these very “controversies.” Chris Vitiello’s Irresponsibility is an ambitious and possibly “experimental” re-enactment of language, a language that paces itself so that the reader is constantly catching up. It presents and posits language as an inadequate yet necessary medium for articulating experience, if not meaning (which, it may be argued, poets such as Gertrude Stein and others have successfully achieved before). In his second book of poems, Want, Rick Barot explores similar themes, but the subject this time is not language but poetry itself. The limitations of poetry as one mode of viewing, and the complications of reconstituting and re-enacting the world through the poem are acknowledged and grappled with. Barot ends by making peace with the problematic nature of poetry, by assuring himself and the reader that regardless of where the poet’s passions may lie—narrative, image, lyricism, line, or all of the above—every act of representation becomes “true” by virtue of its own integrity, its own “reality.”

Finally, Sean Hill, in his first book of poems titled Blood Ties and Brown Liquor, executes a different kind of re-enactment. His is the re-enactment of history through poetry, the re-enactment of the written history of the African American community through an approximation of a transcribed oral work. Each voice in his book, part of the six generations of the family of Silas Wright, a fictional Black man, unvoice and revoice history, through what could be called dramatic monologues or straightforward stories. Yet, as mentioned earlier, these are important voices and important renderings of history. They are indicative of the empowering nature of poetry, of its ability to create what was previously held sacred—language, histories, and even its own notions of self.

So it seems that these books are perhaps part of the larger poetic discourse of this century which may involve asking the same questions as before but also simultaneously re-enacting these questions that have always been asked by poets before our time. The poetics of this century may quite simply be called the poetics of re-enactment, which may not be novel, but is atleast highly aware of its own potency as a way of preserving a new enactment of older concerns—language, history, and itself.

***

Irresponsibility by Chris Vitiello; Ahsahta Press; pp 101

Chris Vitiello begins his investigation and active-re-enactment of language and semantic possibility using motifs that he wields successfully throughout his collection—"beachcombing" and an exploration of "experience" using "seeing" versus "saying" as axes. His investigation of the act of poetry, and the problems language poses in order to thwart a process as dynamic and proactive as poetry, begins with idea that both seeing meaning as well as saying it—the acts of reading as well as hearing—are both almost reductionist approaches to poetry. In order for the poetic act to be represented on more than a simply two-dimensional graph, or even a "lyric [that] forgets a category of thought out of reading," one needs to see that "there are many degrees of being open."

Such is the scope of Vitiello's investigation that it constructs or perhaps consciously develops a lexicon—a mathematical, scientific, geographical and even meta-poetic set of symbols, approximations and progressions. And these are precisely his subjects. The space of a poem— the "geographies," –the idea of symmetry and blank space on the page acting as enclosures as much as the text or lines do, and even the idea of left-indenting poems on a page are circled and re-circled in every poem. Titles of poems are places, and they are repetitive, suggesting that the same place is never conducive to the same experience— the same set of material possibilities. Characters reinvent themselves; numbers appear and re-appear, but the investigation of language, through itself as well as symbols and visual re-arrangements, continues.

Vitiello's poems are a syntactic maze; they embody the very possibilities they present and also offer the alternatives that were rejected in constructing the lines the way they are constructed—"Forget how to read this// Forget how to read// Parsimony// Quit." Vitiello concedes that lines are not sacred; "every line simultaneous" is a device, an "enclosure [which] permits the system." This recurrent idea of being and not being—a line including, acknowledging and enclosing what it could be, or the presence of words and combinations that were forsaken in order for the line to exist in its present state, are in keeping with what Vitiello proposes the poem to be—"an oscillating shell."

Equally important to the consideration of the nature of the poem is the consideration of surface. Vitiello posits that "Making an argument is a surface/ Making a mistake is an argument" and thus possibly pre-empts any excessive critical consideration of his attempt to contort syntax and semantics. In addition to using the // symbol to present the reader with a set of possibilities for the same ideas, Vitiello also renegotiates the importance of meaning derived from syntactic configurations. He does that by leaving the "is" out of "every line simultaneous" and by interposing a number series poem in the midst of other poems.

Thus, one could argue that Vitiello is interrogating language in a Steinesque manner by theorizing that "A noun is a process/Nouns is a decision making process." There is definite onus on the collectivizing nature of language; plurality, after all, is the basis for making generalizations, just as the lines above demonstrate. If, then, Vitiello is indeed subverting that process of pluralizing, then he also simultaneously questions if “is” is the same as “is equal to”—"Differentiate is from =." What is the value of a single noun or object or process when it is equated with a collective subject on the other end? In other words, how can "nouns" be a process? Similarly, when Vitiello tells us that "One thing is not any thing," is he presenting a counterargument for "One thing is not anything" where the pluralizing quality of "anything" is challenged?

The theme of accretion and repetition is another a central concern in this work. "Durations are a name," Vitiello says, reinforcing his theory of white-space as well as repetition. The idea of repetition is important for this book, but even more so in poetry, and it pivots on mathematical theories concerning series and the space between the elements of a series. Is that why Vitiello lists the first 1000 prime numbers for us? Is this a distinct attempt to demonstrate that " a series is a defense not a concealment" and that there is "no sequence without duration?" Isn't white space, by these standards, a device that acts as duration in a sequence--a characteristic that repeats itself in order to establish a pattern? Vitiello definitely stresses the need for the act of poetry to be aware of what he calls its "characteristic," which, in this book's case is that of lack of end-punctuation.

Even more delightful that Vitiello's meta-poetic statements about repetition are the measured and delightful execution of these theories that he proposes. On multiplicity of meaning and temporality itself, he says "The gerunds are still a buffer àGerunds are buffersà Gerunds bufferà/I'm seeing instead of elapsing," after already positing that "the site of the poem elapses," distributing the active responsibility of "understanding" the poem between both the reader or "I" and the "site" of the poem or the surface and location of the poem itself. Vitiello also enacts the erasure of stacking of surface over surface by providing us with multiple reading cues—superscripts, substitutions (words written below words to suggest the use of alternatives), popular music, motifs such as hawks and the beach, and his own daughter and friends. Vitiello thus creates for us a surface that is plainly aware of its own multiplicities, as well as its own materiality:

“Sunset” is a lie// Snakes do

not elaborate

By naming the suspension of judgment you

miss the point

There were no single grackles// The understood it

Grackles is singular

It may be very rare for a book as ambitiously theory-reaching as this to meticulously follow the standards it has set for itself; still, Vitiello's book does just that. It consistently shies away from presenting a meta-poetic fact as a "singular" and sacred entity; even such assertions are reasserted and reshaped and torqued to produce moments of surprise. There is a very ambitious expectation of the act of reading, interacting and understanding poetry itself—that "[a]ll you have to do is pay attention and it's not that simple." A book as aware as this of its attention to its own structure—that "each level posits an idiosyncratic attention”—is seldom an "easy" reading experience for the reader, but it is, at the very least, one that challenges and renegotiates our own passivity in receiving poetry. The visceral nature of reading and the physicality of a poem have never been spoken of in as diverse, and yet, in as versatile a manner as this.

***

Blood Ties and Brown Liquor by Sean Hill; University of Georgia Press; pp 82

The lyric as re-enactment of location and history is one of Sean Hill’s primary accomplishments in this volume, where he attempts to document the history of the family of Silas Wright, a fictional black man who lived through both segregation and integration in the United States. For a book that is fraught with history, this composite-voiced set of lyrics (or even dramatic monologues) manages to capture the individually-voiced moment, and not just the “collective” voice or history of a community (which may imply a certain universalization, or dramatization, even, of the events sought to be documented). Every voice in the book, as the book’s jacket claims, is a “response” to a “call” that has issued forth from the mouth of another speaker. One wonders how the poems have the kind of lyric timbre that they possess—richness of imagery and texture, juxtaposition of luxurious sound and musicality with the vernacular—while also sustaining a distinct sense of speakerhood. The formal variations (line breaks and stanza forms) may cue us towards identifying every monologue as being “differently voiced,” but the repetition of sensuous images and color—“rust” and “clay”— that speak to the history of the African American community in Midgeville, Georgia of the late 1800s, sustain the reader’s attention simultaneously; the speakers are different, but perhaps, their voice is essentially the same, and it speaks of the same history at concurrent and varying points of time.

As a reader aware of the political immediacy of the poet’s voice and project, one cannot help but ignore the imagery that is associated with the oppressive past that African Americans, and Silas Wright’s family in particular, seem to have reconciled themselves to in wholly different and unique ways. Silas’ brother Willie is perhaps one of the most intricately sketched characters in the book. In a song-like lyric entitled “Willie’s Say 1954,” one sees a resigned but matter-of-fact voice making admissions about the speaker’s failure to please his parents. “What am I supposed to do when money and honey/ part with me,” Willie says in an almost movie dialogue-like manner. But there is little room for real disapproval on the reader’s part, since he does admit that he “would beg or borrow but not rob or kill/ for liquor or dope.” These almost-earnest lines disarm us in a way that the poem “Learning to Walk” does not; instead, the act of walking is brutalized here—the lines read sharply down vertically and then proceed to the next column, almost as if to approximate the “chain gang” practice in prisons that African Americans were subject to. This poem is a statement on the brutalizing and corrosive nature of “civilizing” techniques—the act of causing someone to forget how to walk by chaining them to others and depriving them of their sanity and their sanctity of space. Amidst all of the various physical hardships borne by the community—burning on roofs, dying of scarlet fever, dying in wars or of childbirth—the most animalistic seems this “undoing” which Hill devotes simply one column poem to. The poem, however, begins with a sequence of images of the speaker “swinging,” while watermelon juice drips on his feet which are in braces (a so-called natural trauma), and then leads us into the more brutal and “unnatural” way of losing one’s mobility—trauma in captivity. But nothing except the form of the poem itself – “short quick” – belabors that point.

In this book, the lyric mode is in capable hands for the most part, reaching some high points in poems such as “Words Like Rivers” and “Lineaments Through the Line of Seasons” which are incisive and yet nostalgic about the act of preserving history through the spoken word. Since almost every speaker relies on what someone else in the family had told her/him, these poems bring forth a culmination of all these individual conditions in a few lines, moving from “I say blood ties is/ like liquor and water,” “[ which]stream words like rivers/ and families riven over centuries” to “lines reveal themselves, remind the face/ what it has done.” Apart from the play on the possible meanings for the word “lines” – lines of the poem, family “lines” or even a reference to the power of the oral narrative tradition that is central to the speakers’ way of life—these poems seem to present the historical lyric as that which takes account of both the immediacy of presenting the “present” moment as well as a seamed series of images that precede this “moment.”

The scope of the lyric, too, as Hill demonstrates, is truly limitless and yet limiting in an undertaking such as this, which is suggested in “Lineaments…”: “Each day Silas revises/ the text underscoring the repetition.” Is this a meta-poetic revelation? Is the moment central to the lyric in a way that the collective experience cannot be? Is the moment when Sam is plucking out “flaming shingles from the steep pitch,” and is the single moment a more immediate historical-lyric representation than the repeated image of the “mocking bird/ [that] greets the morning with many tongues” ? Is the iteration of experience and sensation channeled through another voice in time a “faithful” execution of the lyric in a way that a frozen moment is not? Or, are the frozen moments and images the focal point of the culmination of lyric sensibility in a book such as this? Whatever our answer may be, Sean Hill answers this question by presenting us with a range of possibilities from which to consider the question of time, location, identity, and “enclosure.”

The last poem in the book is a reiteration of its previous version which begins the last section, and chooses to approach the question of the speaker’s birth by solidifying the image of the house he was born in—“a house built by men, all dead now.” Silas Wright proceeds to mention that:

The house was built straight but over the years

it settled crooked. I was born in that house.

Generations all together in that house, still standing.

While it could be argued that this could be a belabored gesture on the part of the speaker to speak about his “roots,” there is a sort of macabre humor to the idea of people “still standing” – the idea of location, physicality and existence (even after death) as a set of voices that the speaker is comfortable accessing in order to define himself. And suddenly, we are able to find a cohesive thread that links each of the speakers in the book; Silas speaking for them or even on their behalf at some points is not merely an artifice. In fact, the lyric renditions of others’ stories that Silas attempts in his self-voiced poems are merely an extension of poems where the others in his family are speaking themselves. Why should “I used to work clay too” and “I sure do miss it—being with them men/ and the clay—making a living” be any different from the repeated image of “Benny’s skin red-brown like rust on a hoe” or even the poem where Silas’ wife laments that “he has to unload/ them kilns there sometimes it be so hot/ it singe his eyebrows and lashes?” While one is certainly aware of either the distance between such a speaker and Silas, or even poems that have no identifiable speaker, it seems to be the author’s very project to bring into relief the “space” that exists between each speaker and Silas, which Silas identifies in the voice of his Uncle Phineas as having a “hollow- not like the dark well…but a hollow like a hug-space enough to climb in and be held.” And it is precisely this sensation of being enclosed, of the family voices “growing” inside him like “watermelon seeds,” that Silas seems to allude to every point. That being the case, as a reader, one feels delight and a sharp sense of surprise at every point that we hear the symphony of voices in this book, each selecting and encasing one hollow, a space where there is a solo tune being played for sometime, before fading into another voice. If the lyric has been said to often represent history as what was ignored, or left unvoiced, it confirms as well as undoes those allegations brilliantly in this book, giving the oral historical tradition adequate space and expanse in these written, or rather, “voiced” lyric outpourings.

***

Want by Rick Barot; Sarabande Books; pp 67

Rick Barot’s second collection of poems, titled Want, is in conversation with his previous book, The Darker Fall, in the sense that it too, like its precursor, announces a certain presence, a here-ness, which the poet describes thus: “What is it to be here but to want.” These poems communicate a desire, and not just ordinary desire, but an ambitious desire towant” and to expose “want;” they are full of sensory and sensuous brilliance—“the body on a canvas/ the incremental layers/ of red. In the end, the blossoming flesh.” Yet, this collection does not limit itself to interactions with beauty, art, literature and nature; it presents an ethical and disarmingly skeptical evaluation of poetic selfhood, as Barot himself says in the poem “Pescadero”—“I turn from/ what I know is there, that true, concluding figure.”

This book is largely free of divisions, sections or compartments, and it is this quality that seems to suggest some connection or even commonality of intent between the speakers in all the poems. The speaker is very often an observer, of art, of life, of life in art—“the horses, even/ in their speed, as though not breathing”—or the observer-self who is becoming painfully aware of the act of exposing the self even as the self sees. In one of the longer poems called “Captivity Narrative,” the observer-speaker’s awareness reaches its zenith at precisely this point—the point when the self is both seen and discovered, and the point when the self and its intentions are betrayed to others:

…You’re walking

not knowing you’re walking, just someone

turning in sleep, someone turning

a corner and appearing unannounced

on a storefront’s dozen TVs.

Barot’s speakers are thus at most points very aware and/or severely skeptical of the self. Yet, this skepticism is accompanied or even followed by a sense of reinvention, of rejuvenation, or even epiphany. Take, for instance, the poem “Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor,” which may be loosely called an ekphrasis, where the speaker assembles the self using his own acute self awareness—“all day I walk around as though/ a bowl were balanced on my head, the fish inside kissing,” incidents from the life of his grandmother, and a commentary on the physical process of the painter himself. At every point, we see the speaker grappling with the realities he sees—the images that play out in front of his eyes. He goes on to admit:

…Tell each

story cold, I tell myself. Tell it dark: the berry eyes of deer

among trees. Tell it without need of an answer…

What could be more ironic than this poet- speaker who transparently projects his own expectations from the poem and his art and simultaneously critiques his own motivations and expectations? And yet, what could be more sincere and self-gauging than this? Barot’s poems are full of desire and sensuousness, indeed, but they are even more imbued with the need to thwart this desire, to remove the self from its involvements with the words on the page. The speaker, therefore, in this poem, consistently reminds himself in imperatives that begin with “tell [it],” thus dividing his self along the edges of his own craft—the need to inform or describe or simply interact, and the need to comment, to talk of how the “clearing’s downed birches are melting into rot, chip.”

This brings us to the question of what a self-aware ethical poetry could really be. There are speakers who are so intent on fulfilling this desire for removal and distancing from the poem that the poem becomes devoid of a certain luxuriousness—of image or lyricism—or even, simply put, the beauty of the line. Yet, Barot maneuvers lineation and stanzas in a measured and taut fashion—whether they are the tercets of “Say Goodbye…” or the lines of the sonnet “Litany” where time and possibilities are reinterpreted and refashioned by using “when” at the start of every sentence, a “when” that without much ado declares that “[w]hen the snow/ is pink, something has been left motherless” and then proceeds to exhorting that “[w]hen singing, think of articulating silences.” Hence, if the pause is what makes music beautiful, and the silence is what seals the edges of a beautiful melody, Barot does exactly that. He moves from spare and perhaps even definitive statements to the more questioning poems, where the self is constantly reconstituted, and where this re-sculpting causes pain, which the speaker acknowledges plainly and directly.

This happens even in poems like “K,” which Barot draws from Franz Kafka’s diary entry proposing that he will be a nude model for Ascher’s rendering of Saint Sebastian. The violence of the act of painting is exposed here; Barot follows and considers the artist’s choices carefully— “how the “rouge of some emotion/ gets slowly placed on the cheek of nothing” and how the “martyr’s accepted/ brokenness” culminates in death due to an arrow in the face, even as a deer nearby is “eating even the bark/ even thorns.” The sheer excess of death—that something should die, and yet be violently targeted again, simply to ensure it has died—and simultaneously, the pollution of beauty that emerges from the deer’s simple act of eating, articulate the dilemma the speaker faces in almost of all of his poems in this book. While there is “want” and near-decadent desire, there is also the decay of self which accompanies this “want” and here is where the poet places himself—at the point where awareness of both beauty and the pain of beauty become acutely obvious.

Yet again, using these considerations of beauty, Barot brings us back to the question of the poetic self and what its “ethical” expression consists of. Do Barot and his poems’ speakers identify with the “old poet” of “Say Goodbye..” who is “so silent with grieving/ that he has to be given the word of his farewell,” or does Barot place himself as the young poet from “Psalm with a Phrase from Beckett” who is grappling between “narratives of desire” and presumably, the “Captivity Narrative” itself? Barot probably wants to reach out or atleast reshape the young poet, by suggesting new possibilities—“Let the offered living hand/ be an oar…/Because that is your singing too.” It thus seems as though Barot has reached a stage between his “old” and “new” poetic selves—a point where he acknowledges that it is acceptable to “drink the blue sludge/ of airplanes” as well as consider the more oblique “words exploding just under/ the ground.” In other words, he may be ready to exercise his poetic will simply for the sake of beauty, for the sake of drawing a picture, for rendering as if on canvas.

Barot also seems to find comfort in the “dark,” a word that he constantly repeats like a mantra and a space that he dwells in. The dark, especially in “Psalm…” is the space where the poet is considering where his ethics lie, and Barot masterfully provides the answer to this question in the title of his last poem—“Like a Fire That Consumes All Before It.” Even as a poem about history—about the beauty of rain and the sheer destructive energy it possesses during a flood—this last sequence of eighteen ten-line sections carries a certain reassurance, an affirmation that the poet is both witness and witnessed, a documenter of history, as well as the documented. Barot reaches this conclusion exactly halfway through the poem, in the ninth section, where he admits:

…There is never

an answer here. Only that you have to need

the justice of looking, even after everything else

you’ve seen.

One could possibly say that Barot’s poetics here acknowledges that the poet must, painful as it may be, see and color the world using the self, and must always be at odds with this “requirement.” After all, if the storyteller doubts himself, how does the listener know where the “truth” truly lies? Yet, that is the implicit level of trust that history places upon poets, and it is this trust that Barot wants to complicate. If this collection of poetry indeed is an answer to the question posed by Antonio Porchia in its epigraph—“I know what I have given you. I do not know what you have received,” the answer is startlingly clear and complicating at the same time—that the poet must continue to invent, reinvent and engage with the world, even if the act of rendering the world is complicated, and possibly even limiting. Poetry, after all, as Barot’s collection would say, may be “bleak with story,” but is one legitimate re-enactment of history by that poet, nonetheless.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

The prof. is back!

Ladies, gents and the odd spectactor: I have decided to put my entire past back on this blog, for your perusal, and perhaps also for my own. I have somehow reached a place where I can revisit the former selves I inhabited and actually enjoy the trajectory of the I.

From here on, I'll be starting afresh. I'm a professor now, aren't I?

Much good karma!

Monday, October 08, 2007

Mysore & Pondicherry, circa 2007

Lacquered and painted
you arrive, embalmed
Ready to be taken apart
by the sequential reels
Running rapidly in the back
Of the eye.
Wet
Blurry
Lost

I bought a blue set
of round cakes
of myriad watercolours
To paint my face on your time
They dripped
And ran into the weave.
Lost
Confused
Taunting.

Our rhythms never matched
Yoked by arcane magnets
Proceeded to cut into raw flesh
Lights flashed when the plane took off
The soil left behind burnt red brown.
The night is often vivid with sensations
Of a warm body and breath lost
Swimming
Dissipated
Alienated.

I woke up to coffee and newspaper and you one morning
And never slept again.



Sunday, August 19, 2007

Untitled

Temple after temple
Every grey stone fighting to tell its tale
Of a king long forgotten
Name etched in the English alphabet in some faraway town
On some nondescript road
Where the flies hover near dyed fried treats
While little boys in cotton shorts
And girls in red ribbons and yellow bangles
Strain their eyes to look at jars of aniseed coated in sugar
While a harried dishevelled mother in a patched saree
Or a father with oily hair and a wobbling potbelly
Drag them to schools where they are taught
To write letters of leave to erstwhile Irish headmasters
Ending in ' faithfully yours, signature'.

Forgotten sunsets

Carved upon your lined face
In fragile haphazard strokes
Is a folly now regretted.
Hot pride now flustered
Cold veins thwarted by feeling
There is nothing to do except bless.
Age is redemption, experience calloused
The time was different then
When the eye could see and stop
At the epidermis tanned despite your threats,
Steel and fire sprayed your myopia
Where it now warms arthritic limbs.
Years turned, days revolved in unfelt patterns
That drew you in
And left you unheard, untouched.
Where was your mind, your cognizance?
Your identity, your music?
Lost, or never heard by the laity
Who sat around you in silent envy
Of sparkling womanhood, embellished, preened
While a girl sat nearby.
Watching the ants on the floor,
Horses in the sunset

That gaped in between the blinds,
Purple eyed.



Accented

I must stop where your line begins.
Fermented snack after another,
Each golden ray breathing fine warmth
Upon rivers of murk lurking in the wayside
Upon supine forms lost in calculated daydreaming
There was no remorse, no looking back
At a gaudy wayside sign reading ' diffin redy'
Highlighting every road trip undertaken in high summer,
The pungent odour of sugary coffee in silver tumblers
Punctuating every stop.

Now there is waffles and syrup
And tranquillity that makes the breath sharp
In expectation of stamping the existence
Of silent footsteps on a polished sidewalk.
The rancour and sullenness of a forced togetherness
The brushing of unknown fingers, sweaty forearms
The acrid foreign breath of aniseed and garlic
Sped away as fast as the salty foam
That splashed our feet tracing formless shapes
Amidst wet, plastic littered sand.

Home came long after the sound
Of your pulse pounding on my face.




Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Autorickshawman that cried 'God!"

I am only human.

First, he spoke to me in what seemed to be ACJ-acceptable English. He said that sixty rupees was 'reasonable' in a tone that convinced me, I figure, and was more difficult to refuse by its implication of reasonability rather than some sort of arbit(rary) demand.

I got in.

Random thoughts. On singledom. Or the lack of it. Duality in singledom. Solitude in relationships. Loneliness in a relationship. Bhel Puri. Umrao Jaan. Wanted touch. Unwanted looks. Pilgrimages. Names. His names. Change as obstinate as the lack of it. Irreversible changes. Proselytization. Coimbatore.

Few observations. Dhaaba spelt as Dhabba.Giggle. Old man in extremely white cap and lady in pink burqa holding hands and crossing road. Unseen faces of children in an auto; little girl in blue uniform making herself comfortable on a little boy's lap, his hand protectively closing around her waist.

A phone call. Electronic concern. Better than mechanical, perhaps.

Another. An infectious laugh.

Signals. Big, small. Red, green. Long. Crowded. Smoky.

The flapping kurta stops.Rummage for a sixty.

He says something starting with 'Madam', involving the words ' I asked for too much', and ending with "Please give me forty-five".

I blink. Squint. I do not like this one bit, though I am surprised and happy on one hand. I shove a fifty in his hand and get out.

Wait.

What now?

A pamphlet. Please give to your friends. Can you read Tamil?

I need to get to work soon. I nod. He doesn't need to know about my abysmal word per minute count while reading Tamil.

Vrooms off.

I am left with a picture of a conductor telling a boy coloured in pink, how we all 'must get a ticket' (front cover). To where? Heaven, apparently, as I found after more squinting. (Not by me, but by a colleague who was handed the task after my infinitely limited reading skills failed me.)

And who gets us the ticket? Kartar. Translation : Jesus Christ.

Great timing. There must be a convention of proselytic-minded people converging on my life.

Wonder why my family astrologer didn't send out a red alert involving abshishekams to every deity in town.

Or wearing topaz rings.

Identity change

Hello, and peace.

Several U-turns later, a new leaf has been turned.

There is a God. And I'm getting there.

Peace again.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Case of the Missing Murukkus

You can run but you can't hide,
Don't you know you're goin' straight to my backside?