IN MY LAST LIFE I WAS A WOMAN (by James Munro)

In my last life I was a woman.
I lived in India. Uttar Pradesh.

Sometimes I still feel like
a woman who lives in Uttar Pradesh

speaks Hindi, worships Siva
and the local goddess, Lalita as Candika.

Her man went to the city, never came back.
My man. He died. No one told her but she knew.

Her two sons followed him. My sons. Me,
I never left the village. Hardly ever left

that little yard where I squatted in the dust
and ground the meal, thrusting away the hen –

The lurki – the name comes back –
that I would never kill. I never saw traffic, not like now, here,

crowded streets, traffic lights, people thrusting and swirling,
clucking like a thousand greedy hens

pouring down into the underground and onto the train
locked in and rocketing beneath the city like in a submarine.

I want to get out. I want to get back to
my Indian roots. Or my submarine roots.

I never saw the sea then, either,
except in my dreams. In my dreams

I was a fish.

Advertisements

FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS – A Glance at John Donne

This phrase, For Whom the Bell Tolls, kept coming into my head this morning while I was doing my yoga and, as happens, set off a train of thought …

It is, of course, the title of Hemingway’s great novel of the Spanish Civil War. If you haven’t read it, do. And while we’re on that subject, let me mention another unforgettable Spanish Civil War novel, Winter In Madrid, this one by a contemporary British author, C.J. Sansom.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s title, is a quotation from John Donne, the English poet and younger contemporary of William Shakespeare. Some think the character of Hamlet was at least partly based on Donne.

Now what Donne actually wrote was: Send not to ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

Donne was a great poet, one of the greatest in the English language, but these words do not come from a poem, they come from a sermon he delivered late in life when he was Dean of St Paul’s in the City of London. For Donne could not decide whether he was a bohemian poet – on the lines of the French poet Francois Villon – a lover of wine, women and song (which he was), or a devout Anglican priest  (which he became). No doubt a lot of soul-searching and vacillation went on  in The Mermaid Tavern and around the City and Southwark as he gradually gave up the former life-style and devoted himself to the latter. Soul-searching and vacillation which would have afforded Shakespeare and his fellow-actors and writers much amusement. And no one vacillates and soul-searches like Hamlet!

Those lines, as I say, do not come from a poem; but scan them:

Send not to ask for whom the bell tolls.
It tolls for thee.

The first line is a perfect pentameter, and the whole is something Shakespeare would have been proud to have penned.

You can’t keep a great poet down.

But what did Donne mean?

Immediately before these lines comes another much quoted line: No man is an island entire unto himself …

What happens to one, happens to all.

This is not the cold and soulless, so-called scientific, world view. This is the world view of the visionary and mystic. The world view of our ancestors. The view that mind is primary, that matter is a function of  mind, not mind of matter. And minds are, mind is, interconnected. As above, so below. As here, so there. As then, so now.

The bell that Donne heard all those years ago across the roofs of the old city tolls for us.

* * *

I’ll post a couple of Donne’s poems (one of each!) tomorrow and Monday.

from THE FLOWER (by George Herbert)

This beautiful poem was written by George Herbert in 1633 and was described by Samuel Taylor Coleridge as “a delicious poem.”

And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing …

Truly delicious!

How Fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean
Are thy returns! ev’n as the flowers in spring;
To which, besides their own demean,
The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.
Grief melts away
Like snow in May,
As if there were no such cold thing.

Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart
Could have recover’d greennesse? It was gone
Quite under ground; as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown;
Where they together
All the hard weather,
Dead to the world, keep house unknown.

* * *

And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing: O my onely light,
It cannot be
That I am he
On whom thy tempests fell all night.

These are thy wonders, Lord of love,
To make us see we are but flowers that glide:
Which when we once can finde and prove,
Thou hast a garden for us, where to bide.
Who would be more,
Swelling through store,
Forfeit their Paradise by their pride.

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.

I DIED FOR BEAUTY (by Emily Dickinson)

I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

He questioned softly why I failed?
‘For beauty,’ I replied.
‘And I for truth, – the two are one;
We brethren are,’ he said.

And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

This beautiful poem aways reminds me of Keats’ lines

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

from ADONAIS: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats (by Percy Byshe Shelley)

View of the Keats-Shelley House beside the Spanish Steps in Rome. It is the house where John Keats died.

Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep,
He hath awakened from the dream of life;
‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife
Invulnerable nothings. We decay
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.

He has outsoared the shadow of our night;
Envy and calumny and hate and pain,
And that unrest which men miscall delight,
Can touch him not and torture not again;
From the contagion of the world’s slow stain
He is secure, and now can never mourn
A heart grown cold, a head grown gray in vain;
Nor, when the spirit’s self has ceas’d to burn,
With sparkless ashes load an unlamented urn.

He lives, he wakes – ’tis Death is dead, not he;
Mourn not for Adonais. Thou young Dawn,
Turn all thy dew to splendour, for from thee
The spirit thou lamentest is not gone;
Ye caverns and ye forests, cease to moan!
Cease, ye faint flowers and fountains, and thou Air,
Which like a mourning veil thy scarf hadst thrown
O’er the abandoned Earth, now leave it bare
Even to the joyous stars which smile on its despair!

He is made one with Nature: there is heard
His voice in all her music, from the moan
Of thunder, to the song of night’s sweet bird;
He is a presence to be felt and known
In darkness and in light, from herb and stone,
Spreading itself where’er that Power may move
Which has withdrawn his being to its own;
Which wields the world with never-wearied love,
Sustains it from beneath, and kindles it above.

He is a portion of the loveliness
Which once he made more lovely: he doth bear
His part, while the one Spirit’s plastic stress
Sweeps through the dull dense world, compelling there
All new successions to the forms they wear;
Torturing th’ unwilling dross that checks its flight
To its own likeness, as each mass may bear;
And bursting in its beauty and its might
From trees and beasts and men into the Heaven’s light.