SPEAKING OF SIVA is a book ofvacanas, religious lyrics written in Kanada free verse by medieval Virasaivas. As the translator, A.K.Ramanujan, says, “They all speak of Siva and speak to Siva: hence the title.”
Kanada is a Dravidian language spoken today by about twenty million people in the South Indian state of Mysore. The vacana poetry, written between the 10th and 12th, centuries represented a breaking away from the rigidity of classical Sanscrit tradition. It is spontaneous free verse written by ordinary men or women – yes, women – of various castes, some even outcaste, some illiterate.
Their leader was Basavanna, whose poems exemplify both the protesting (“protestant”) stance of the movement and its bhakti devotion to one god, in this case Siva. A perfect example, perfectly translated, is:
The rich will make temples for Siva. What shall I, a poor man, do?
My legs are pillars, the body the shrine, the head a cupola of gold.
Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers, things standing shall fall, but the moving ever shall stay.
The second poet represented in this collection is Dasimayya. Whereas Basavanna always addresses Siva “O lord of the meeting rivers”, Dasimayya calls him “Ramanatha”. When he says that to the true Virasaiva
his front yard is the true Benares, O Ramanatha
we hear again the voice of the best of the Old Testament prophets, the truly spiritual man.
But for me the star of the movement, and of this collection, is Mahadeviyakka.
Mahadeviyakka, or Akka Mahadevi, was initiated into the worship of Siva at the age of ten and from then on considered herself his bride; however, she was a very beautiful girl and men clamoured for her hand in marriage. When the king spotted her, her fate was sealed, and she became one of his wives. Eventually, though, she ran away from the palace (probably to the King’s great relief!) throwing off, according to legend, not just marriage but all the conventions (including her clothes) and spent the rest of her life as an itinerant poet and ascetic.
You can confiscate money in hand; can you confiscate the body’s glory?
Or peel away every strip you wear, but can you peel the Nothing, the Nakedness that covers and veils?
To the shameless girl wearing the White Jasmine Lord’s light of morning, you fool, where’s the need for cover and jewel?
Or here is another favourite of mine by Mahadeviyakka:
Who cares who strips a tree of leaf once the fruit is plucked?
Who cares who lies with the woman you have left?
Who cares who ploughs the land you have abandoned?
After this body has known my lord who cares if it feeds a dog or soaks up water?
Do, please, read more of these perfect translations of her poems and those of other great Virasaiva poets by the late Attipate Krishnaswami Ramanujan, a great poet and scholar.
Another beautiful poem by the late Kathleen Raine. “I asked of the rose only more rose, the violet more violet …”
Then, I had no doubt
That snowdrops, violets, all creatures, I myself
Were lovely, were loved, were love.
Look, they said,
And I had only to look deep into the heart,
Dark, deep into the violet, and there read,
Before I knew of any word for flower or love,
The flower, the love, the word.
They never wearied of telling their being; and I
Asked of the rose, only more rose, the violet
More violet; untouched by time
No flower withered or flame died,
But poised in its own eternity, until the looker moved
On to another flower, opening its entity.
What lovely things
Thy hand hath made:
The smooth-plumed bird
In its emerald shade,
The seed of the grass,
The speck of stone
Which the wayfaring ant
Stirs – and hastes on!
Though I should sit
By some tarn in thy hills,
Using its ink
As the spirit wills
To write of Earth’s wonders,
Its live, willed things,
Flit would the ages
On soundless wings.
Ere unto Z
My pen drew nigh;
And the honey-fly:
And still would remain
My wit to try
My worn reeds broken,
The dark tarn dry,
All words forgotten –
Thou, Lord, and I.
For those of you who don’t know this work, a quotation from Margaret Drabble will put you in the picture. It is one of several which feature on the back of the edition I have here.
A genius – a fearless writer, who writes with reckless passion of flowers and graveyards, incest and teacups, property and religion and the occult. Everything is here in this astonishing work. Margaret Drabble, Daily Telegraph, Book of the Century.
Let me start by saying of this 1,120-page novel that the actual story – the action – could be boiled down to, say, 150 pages. If you introduced all the unforgettable minor characters and recounted, briefly, their individual stories – the sub-plots – then perhaps 300 pages. That leaves more than 800 pages of discursive asides and purely descriptive writing. Powys is not a writer to use one word when ten will do the job better, or ten in place of a hundred, or a hundred when a thousand would really do the job properly. But who, on surveying the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican says, or even thinks, Couldn’t he have done this on a square of canvas like any other artist??
The thing is, Powys, like Michaelangelo, was right. Nine times out of ten those discursive asides and descriptive passages are masterpieces. And without those 800 pages, all the rounded and distinctive minor characters would be flat and forgettable. As would the setting and the story itself. As it is, both are branded on the brain and it is as though you not just lived for a while in the Glastonbury of the Crows and the Dekkers and Bloody Johnny (Mayor Geard) but grew up there among them.
I cannot write a full review here – to do so would require a dissertation of many thousands of words – but I would just like to mention something that struck me about the title, “A Glastonbury Romance”. Somewhere in the course of the book (on p778, actually!) Powys refers to “the invisible Watchers of the Glastonbury Divine Comedy” – simply in passing, and not to make a point. But that’s what this work is, really. Not a ‘romance’ in any sense of that term, but a divine comedy: a ‘comedy’ reminiscent in some ways of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”, in others of “Hamlet” with a happy – or at least happier – ending; ‘divine’ like Homer and Blake in that the other world impinges continually on this one. (Incidentally, he also refers to it (p904) as “this modest chronicle”. Hah!)
There is no way I could ever give this book less than five stars although many times I fell asleep reading it and the book clattered to the floor. The fault is in me, not Powys, of whom, as Henry Miller said, “To encounter [Powys] … is to arrive at the very fount of creation.” Believe me, the spirit was willing but the flesh is weak.