SPEAKING OF SIVA by A. K. Ramanujan (Review)

SPEAKING OF SIVA is a book of vacanas, 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?

Akka Mahadevi in samadhi, nude but draped in her flowing hair.

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.

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EXILE (by Kathleen Raine)

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.

VACILLATION (iv) (by W. B. Yeats)

Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939), circa 1910. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.

While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.

THE SCRIBE (by Walter de la Mare)

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;
Leviathan told,
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. 

THE KINGDOM OF GOD (by Francis Thompson)

O World Invisible, we view thee,
O World Intangible, we touch thee,
O World Unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!

Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
The eagle plunge to find the air –
That we ask of the stars in motion
If they have rumour of thee there?

Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars! –
The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.

The angels keep their ancient places –
Turn but a stone and start a wing!
‘Tis ye, ’tis your estrangèd faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry, and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cry, clinging Heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking on the water,
Not of Genesareth, but Thames!

A GLASTONBURY ROMANCE by John Cowper Powys

powys_glastonburyFor 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.

RUMI’S DAUGHTER by Muriel Maufroy (Review)

Rumi's Daughter coverThis is the story of Kimya, a clever, pretty child given to mystical ‘timeless moments’, growing up in a tiny village in the mountains of what is now Turkey at a time when the traditional Christian families and the invading Muslims are still managing to live peacefully together in such remote parts of the country. Her mother Evdokia is a Christian, her father Farokh one of the newcomers. 

At the age of seven, when it becomes obvious to everyone that she is very different from the other village children, she is taken to the nearest city, Konya, to be educated by Orthodox nuns. However, the nuns are no longer there, and her father leaves her with Maulana (Jalal ud din Rumi) and his family when Kimya seems to recognise the philosopher and to wish to stay with him.

All goes well until the arrival in the city of the whirling Dervish known as Shams, from Tabriz, whose influence on Maulana (and Kimya) is, according to most people, nothing short of malign, though they themselves (Maulana and Kimya) never cease to regard him as a saint.

The whole thing is more than a little reminiscent of Paulo Coelho; even his self-questioning and torment are there in the latter half of the book. But unlike Coelho (I think) Muriel Maufroy believes in the perennial philosophy, the mystical truths that underlie all real religion and make the bloody competition between fanatical supporters of the religion they happen to have been born into so tragic, not to mention the terrible persecution of those (usually mystics) whose beliefs are not considered orthodox.

There is magic in this book, and it is a very real brand of magic.

Under her door was a bright glow. She jumped out of bed and rushed out of her room. The door of Shams’s room was open and it was there that the fire was roaring. She approached, horrified  then incredulous. Inside, surrounded by flames and with his eyes closed, Shams was sitting unconcerned. His face, colourless, seemed carved in stone. Her first impulse was to run inside and help him out, but something about the scene held her back. The flames were rising and falling without touching him, more like a protection than a threat. Aghast, she remained there gazing at him encircled by fire, until she retreated shivering to her room. 

It is beautifully written, but strange. I found the ending unexpected and unsatisfying but that may be me. Certainly I enjoyed the book and now have a far better idea of how people lived and thought in that part of the world during the late Middle Ages. 

If you are interested in mysticism, Sufism and Jalal ud din Rumi, don’t miss it.