Archive for July 5, 2013

Broadcasters of silence – The Hindu.

Malayalam poet Veerankutty’s book in English, Always in Bloom is a reminder that some truths can only be whispered in intimacy, in silence.

Here is a voice so quiet that it could almost be a passing murmur in the mind. A voice that is hushed because that is the only way to talk about an undocumented verandah in a family home or an anonymous old woman with a sack of potatoes walking into a Kerala dusk.What does one say about a voice that doesn’t defend, proclaim, flaunt, attack, chest-thump? What does one say about a voice of conscious vulnerability, a voice that chooses not to raise its voice? To speak softly here is choice — radical choice, not cowardice, not incapability. This is a voice that reminds us that fragility can be its own reward. To underscore some insights, to shout them from the rooftops, to belt them out in a stadium is to distort their integrity. Nothing wrong with rooftops – or stadia. But what of truths that demand other modes of articulation?

The book is modestly produced, as books of poetry usually are. Additionally, as with so many works of translation, there are several bumpy moments — gauche constructions, awkward syntax, proof-reading blunders. But through all the clunkiness, something blazes through: the presence of a poet.

One realises yet again the power of that verbal resource in a poet’s arsenal: the image. For only a poet can tether to the page moments that could otherwise so easily turn into statistic or slogan, headline or homily. Veerankutty reminds you, for instance, that justice and injustice are not abstruse concepts for parliamentary (and News at Nine) debate, but this particular old woman hobbling along with her half kilo of potatoes, hoping to buy her ragi and her eye-drops before sunset.

And it is only a poet who can document a sense of wonder at the ‘precision’ of creation (‘ light staying light/and not slipping into/something else ’); the tenderness one feels at watching two people in love (‘ The world isn’t going to end soon ’); a mother leaving the door unlocked ‘ lest the verandah feel/left out, cold and lonely ’; a forgotten Bisleri bottle capable of producing an entire landscape replete with ‘ birds with sprouted wings…/trees with branches/leaning into the river ’; the need to stand witness to a tree — its grammar of defencelessness and dignity, its fragility and wisdom.

The poet Rilke talked of ‘the news that is always arriving out of silence’. Veerankutty’s volume is one more reminder of the value of that news — and how indispensable its broadcasters are to our lives.

Manohar Shetty’s new book of poems, Body Language (published by the indefatigable Poetrywala), speaks in a different register. The dominant tone is irony — a tone often regarded as a limited and overused resource. But the book testifies to just how polychromatic irony can be — ranging from self-deprecation to searing indictment.Generally, however, Shetty’s irony is less a savage Swiftian affair than a dry, dispassionate, mildly despairing amusement. There is a need to archive — with grim relish — the affectations of a new upwardly mobile Indian middle class. There’s no bookshelf here,/Or paintings…/The plush divan sinks/With a hush and leaves no wrinkles, ’ he says in a poem entitled ‘Luxury Home, Goa’, invoking in a few sharp strokes a particular brand of nouveau-riche abode. The last lines are slyly cruel: ‘ The kitchen/Is crystal rich,/Clinical, and the gleaming/Sink reflects an oblong/Face with a triple/Chin. ’

In ‘Dinars’, the satire is directed at another familiar brand of Gulf-returned Mr. Moneybags: with ‘an SUV’ purring ‘in his garage’; a wife with a gold necklace on her ‘sand-dune bosom’ and children whose voices ‘roar over the choir/ like a sandstorm’. ‘New Chic’ is a piercing lampoon of those who ‘speak soundlessly on their/ iPads’, consider ‘the no smoking sign’ to be their ‘last will and manifesto’ and believe (the irony is delicious here) that ‘Paulo Coelho/is deep, real deep.’

‘Colonial Museum’ adopts the imperialist’s gaze to speak in chillingly dulcet tones about ‘ chaprasis/grinning like langurs ’ and a land that was ‘ divided and sliced so delicately/like cucumber sandwiches ’. And ‘Local’ is an unsparing portrait of Goan small town-ism where ‘ a snide remark/made nine years ago/is a slur against/family honour ’ and ‘ the belle of the ball/is the next Miss Universe.

In Shetty’s finest poems, it is the spare and crafted images that give the irony its charge. There is also a satirist’s ability to read the ‘fine print’ (a recurrent phrase in Shetty’s poems) beneath every label and slogan, and show up the yawning chasm between the two.

What rescues this irony from broad strokes (in a couple of poems, including one about ‘Miss America’, one wondered if the cultural critique ran the risk of sexist stereotyping) are the moments of self-implication. And so there are poems that speak of ‘ our ‘diffident, difficult selves…carefully/counting our loose change ’ or ‘ my hunchback walk/and dragging feet ’ which suggest a personal admission of bewilderment.  One realises, then, that this is not the privileged insider parodying the arriviste. The gaze belongs, instead, to one who knows his position is far from secure; that he, in fact, is the endangered species, increasingly out of step with the times, aware that there might not be any campaigns, any dirges to mourn his passing — nothing other than perhaps a fine print obit in a local newspaper.In ‘Template’, Shetty speaks of ‘ the nervy/blue streak in the ice, its scalding clarity ’. It is precisely this ‘nervy blue’ aliveness that is the poet’s strength. It imbues the book with an ability to dart from biting rejection to playfulness and rueful candour in ways that frequently surprise the reader.

Here are two books completely unalike each other in their poetics. Interestingly, however, both are devoid of effusive blurbs and self-congratulatory author bios. And both reveal a preoccupation with silence — as possibility, as erasure.

You will only be heard, ’ says Shetty, ‘ when the noise/ has died down ’. Poetry, of course, is about keeping that faith, the odds notwithstanding.

If a plastic mineral water bottle can produce a universe (as Veerankutty tells us) and an ‘aloof’ book of verse – ‘an outsider, like Humphrey Bogart’ — can linger on in the memory (as Shetty reminds us), perhaps there is hope for the broadcasters of silence, after all.

Stages of life are like the passing clouds …..

 unwrittennature:Desert moon by:  Jay Z   Excerpt from Poems on the sand

Clinton Bailey gave himself to the poetry of the Bedouins, which defies the harshness of the desert.

Some half a century ago, Paula Ben-Gurion, wife of Israel’s first Prime Minister looked over the hedge while pottering around her Tel Aviv garden and espied a young man. She invited him in and a chance encounter became a calling. The young man was Clinton Bailey, a Jewish American who had been raised in upstate New York and had come to Israel in search of his destiny. A teaching job at Ben Gurion’s kibbutz at Sde Boker in the Negev soon followed where Bailey came in close touch with the Bedouin of the desert, their ancient culture already fraying under the inexorable influence of the forces of modernism. For the next four decades and more, Bailey has studied the Bedouin of the Negev and the Sinai, lived with them months at a time, become their trusted friend and a devoted witness to the passing of a way of life that has survived in the desert since pre-Biblical times. By the time I met Bailey, he was acknowledged as the foremost expert on Bedouin history, culture, poetry and law. Many enriching encounters ensued, culminating in a day-long tour with him in the Negev desert, eating with the Bedouin from a common platter heaped with rice and chicken and drinking strong bitter coffee cooked over coals in a hole in the sand, never mind that many of the tents were now of cement sheets and ramshackle cars jostled with camels in the compound.

One would presume that an unlettered nomadic culture that devoted its energies to sheer survival in the inhospitable desert would not lend itself naturally to the fine art of poetry. Bailey’s monumental work Bedouin Poetry from Sinai and the Negev turns this perception on its head and shows that survival is not only economic but also social, spiritual, psychological and aesthetic. Poetry was for the Bedouin a counter to the stark harshness of the desert: it served as an expression of emotion as well as a practical way of passing a message, easier to remember since it was in rhyme. It was also a vehicle for celebrating traditional Bedouin traits — extreme generosity, hospitality, bravery and honour.

Over two decades, from 1967 to 1988, Bailey recorded 700 Bedouin poems recited around desert campfires. Some of these would be recited by the poet himself (known as shair in Arabic, as in Urdu); others would be those written by revered poets from earlier generations and committed to memory by reciters and travellers, a practice that ensured that a popular poem would travel huge distances from the deserts of Arabia to the Negev and Sinai, or into Iraq and Syria. The present book contains 113 of these poems, chosen primarily for their popularity among the Bedouin. Each poem has a little introductory essay explaining its context and myriad, enlightening footnotes that are testimony to Bailey’s sincerity of commitment and academic discipline.

Divided into sections based on the basic motives of Bedouin poetry — emotion, communication, instruction and entertainment — the book also contains an exciting selection from the eight- year exchange of poems between Anez Abu Salim and other Bedouin. The free-spirited Anez, besides being the finest living poet in Sinai, was also a leading smuggler bringing income to hundreds of Bedouin and had been locked up by the Egyptians. His poems express his pessimism and despair in prison as well as his pain at finding out that two of his wives had proved to be unfaithful. He is informed of their indiscretions by another poet who writes:Tell Anez that with relish they eat what he’s sown/ A harvest of darkened-eyed girls he’d once known.In the end, Anez divorced all three wives, to avoid further calumny and wrote:And, lest every Zed and Abed laugh at me,/ I’ve set my three non-bearing she-camels free.

Anez also wrote many other types of poems, including one to King Husein when he was not allowed to meet him by Mubarak ( Had the luck of Husein and myself so conspired/ A meeting of worthies would have transpired ). And another, full of gentle flattery, to King Abdullah of Jordan in the hope of being presented a fine camel.

Say: O Sir, how you generously offer the glass,/Filled with tea that poets so commonly praise,

So strong that it leaves in the glass a stain;/Even after it’s washed black markings remain.

Then you pour fresh coffee over cardamom seeds:/Coffee that stains with henna-red beads.

And then when you bring your guests what to eat,/Goat-ghee flows through the rice and the meat.

Say: I want a young camel whose ride is a ‘high’:/Tawny, not whiteness that glares in the eye;

With a saddle and saddle-bags fitted just right,/And tassels that sway between his legs when in flight,

And a thigh-rest new, it’s thongs on his withers,/And reins stitched by hands dyed a henna-red hue.

If the king gave me only a pack camel-Fine!/But speedy young mares set me on fire.

abheysingh:Rest on Flickr.

The poems of instruction are enchanting too, hovering around the recurrent theme of hospitality: the host must be overtly available to his guests, light a fire immediately, roast the coffee beans right and then dispense coffee correctly. He needs a spacious tent, a wife of good breeding, enough goats for fresh meat and enough camels for milk. And for power, that would in turn help him make a good host, a Bedouin needs brave sons, a good rifle and a high reputation. An example of a poem on the making of coffee:

Roast me three handfuls, friend, one after one;/Let the beans in hot ghada-coals waft to the mart.

Take care that they neither be burnt nor undone;/While roasting don’t let yourself dream, but be smart.

The cadence and beat of your grinding should stun,/Even out in the waste, weary travellers will start.

In a coffee-pot, tall by the fire, heap the grains;/Then the pot, like a crane, will go round with a tray.

The coffee, poured, will leave dark reddish stains,/Like the blood of a sheep, heart and lungs cut away.

But for the likes of Clinton Bailey, all this would be lost to us.

Free will or Fate ??

Sufi Ways

by Ali Hammad

IMG_0218 - Version 2


Am I to leap and prance?
Stay in a frozen stance?
Move mountains with a glance?
Dance a particle dance?
Am I free or determined?

Photo and poem by Ali HammadRelated:Dilemma of a Modern Person

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A Mixed Bag

My flashes have arrived. My remotes have arrived. So I was having a play with them and managed to set one off straight into my eyes. THAT took a while ease off. Anyway, I decided to have a go at a project that I had been thinking about doing for a while. I showed the photo to my daughter and she said “yes you’ve shown me before” so I pointed to the corner of the room. I know I have to do work with it to remove the reflections. I’ll get there though.

June 28 2013

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