Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Book Of Questions

I can still remember the rush of discovering Pablo Neruda many years ago, when I first read his Residencia en la tierra or Residence On Earth. My favourite poem on cursorily reading first was Madrigal Written In Winter. It begins thus.....In the depths of the deep sea, in the night of long lists, like a horse your silent silent name runs past. These words are recollected here with the flaws memory has.
I will not be brave enough to try to write a critique of Neruda's poetry. And that is not my intention. Before I venture any further, I must quote these lines....
Poetry is white:
it comes from the water wrapped in drops,
it wrinkles, and it piles up,
the skin of this planet must be stretched,
the sea of its whiteness must be ironed

and the hands go and go...........( Full flowers)

Pablo Neruda is the Poet's poet. He is the writer's writer. His influence is far and wide, on writer's in different languages. He carved a new style in poetry, a style that is rich in imagery, in content and in finesse. He is attractive because he is original. He writes in a language at once real and surreal. His poetry is not tame beause it smells fresh from the rigours of earth dug up, from social upheavals, from involvement in politics, from social justice.

My aim here is to draw attention to a poem called The Book Of Questions, published in 1973. These brief poems are written as questions, in all some 320. However as we read, we find there are no answers because the questions cannot be answered.

The imagery evoked is just utterly fantastic and somberly beautiful. This is imagination mixed with melancholy. Most questions are breath stoppers leaving some wound somewhere, inside. As we read, we know they should not be answered, there is no need, let them be, let this wound simmer, let this pain be.
Here are some of the questions that I like most......

Is there anything sadder than a train standing in the rain?
Why do leaves commit suicide
when they feel yellow?
How many bees are there in a day?
Is the sun the same as yesterdays
or is this fire different from that fire?
What will they say about my poetry who never touched my blood?
Why does the earth grieve
when the violets appear?
How does the abandoned bicycle win its freedom?
How does rumour of the sky smell
when the blue of water sings?
Is it true that sadness is thick and melancholy thin?
And why is the sun so congenial in the hospital garden?

As one can see, there are so many images here, of flowers, of sea and of memories. The answers we may give take us to an unknown world or worlds, which we do not know of, only pretend to know.
Where does the rainbow end, in your soul or on the horizon?

What can one say to that, what can one say anyway......
For those acquainted with Neruda's more famous poems, The Book Of Questions allows a more tender feel of his work, work that even under the strain of rigid universalism, retains the freshness of earth.
I will end with a few more questions.........

How is the translation of their languages
arranged with the birds?
In which language does rain fall over tormented cities?
Do thoughts of love fall
into extinct volcanoes?

And many more.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Language As Barrier

The idea of language or the capability of language to help us convey anything must be fallacious. We think of the written word, of what it stands for , in association with other words and on its own and then find that there is a failure, a failure of effective communication. The time that it takes from the cup brimming with words to the lips and from lips soaked with words to the sinister whiteness of paper, inside that time, words lose their capability.
Yet, bravery, bravery to think that we can rise above this barrier and breach what is unbreachable is either vanity or the innate essence of humanhood. I remember silence being extolled, the virtues of silence and the superiority of music over words. However, music can only exist in the shadow of a mood and falls apart, inspite of its verve.
I have always felt the inadequacy of words most at the time to say goodbyes, at times of parting. There is a rush, a rush of emotions, waves more heaving than any wave in any sea tide you over, leaving one suffocated, leaving one struggling with the idea of words. If one cannot say the sayable and leave without having named the pain of leaving, what use words?
We rely on words because that is how we exist. Our world is based on words, on language. We have to speak because we must, we have to. And then, having spoken, it comes apart, it does not make sense because we have not been able to say anything.
Perhaps that is why the greatest loves are the one's where the verbal confession, the desire to break the solitude of loving alone has not given in to the desire of living together. To demonstrate, to show, to feel, to share and to understand....that must be the primary purpose of words. When we metaphors, allegories, symbolism, we fail.
This is not a philosophy of expression or even on expression. I am writing to convey something and am finding it difficult to do so. This is what i meant earlier about failure. However, I cannot say that it is always impossible to express. What I feel is that it is difficult to convey everything.
I digress. I write as I think. Perhaps one should think first and write afterwards. The hallmark of great writing is thinking first, writing later. This is where the language of cinema is far superior to any art form. There, one can build and show, construct the inexpressible, show the sordid and the sublime, show the sunset that makes us go to pieces.
Only cinema has an authentic language. Only in movies, I mean really great ones, has this problem been tackled effectively. More and more, everyday now, words are losing their verve. We start somewhere and end in darkness. But with careful cinema, craft, intelligence and sympathy, words perhaps will mean a bit more, in that cinematic context.
I know that I will surely go back to words and language but in my innermost marrow, I know that a Tarkovsky or any one else is better than any painting, any great writer, any music.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

April Is The Cruellest Month

Having read T. S. Eliot as an adolescent, I always regretfully found his poetry lacking in something ever afterwards as I became older. I don't know Eliot's importance now as a Poet or whether it actually matters to know that. I read Eliot so much then, including his Plays and Literary writings that I felt his achievement was unique. However, I fail to relate to his poetry now, as if it has not been written for me. In other words, the poetry is still great but it does not do me any good.
Auditory imagination as a concept that Eliot talked about is really fine. That is how I coped with poems like Gerontion, Prufrock etc, having never myself walked such streets or been etherized upon a table. I still believe that the Four Quartets are well written though pretentious. It is to the first few lines of the Waste Land that I wish to draw attention to. The first four lines are so etched in my memory, engraved in a way, that when I read them for the first time or now, the thrill is not lost.
April is the cruellest month, raising lilacs out of the dead land
mixing memory and desire
stirring dull roots with spring rain.
With the passage of time, I have always taken liberty with the April of the first line and replaced it with time in general. I give to these lines what they might not apparently mean. Thus, the general becomes specific and the words become a totem for me, written for me, this being the hallmark of great poetry.
Cruellest month.....therefore other months are also cruel. But April is the cruellest.....why? Let us try to find out. It is raising lilacs from the dead land, mixing memory and desire.
what is memory? I find that there can be no memory without a longing or a plea for returning back. Any good memory is an oxymoron. Memories bring pain because they convey loss. Memory is going back in time. Since it has been lost, thus it cannot be regained. But here April is raising lilacs out of the dead land. In this movement, there must be some hope.
However, Eliot says mixing......memory and desire. I personally feel, for what it is worth, that they are the same things. Hence, there cannot be any mixing. Desire for the past and memory from the past are almost the same. The swing in memory that has stopped, the chain from the past that has fallen away, the unretrievable twist in the rope of time........memory and desire, desire and memory. The same.
Stirring dull roots with spring rain.........I will not pretend to forget that the speaker of the lines has borne out a winter, a warm winter, where the earth was covered with forgetful snow. For myself, the warm winter is always the days in the past, lost, lost. However, my memory cries for a specific loss or losses, when I did not know that there could be a forgetting in the memory process.
Naively, memory seemed a shelf from which books could be picked up and facts restored. However, memory has lost its face becuse I have forgotten, I have got covered with forgetful snow. And now, what I think I remember is a mixing either of memory and desire or one of these. And all this is unbearable, all of this brings pain. Hence the cruellest month.
I know that the speaker of Eliot's lines reads much in the night and goes south in the winter. But that is only a way to escape. Yet, there is no escape. We are prisioners of our memory, prisioners of desire. We must pray for snow, forgetful snow.
If these lines have other symbolism, Oedipal, sexual etc, I do not want to know. For me, these words are a swing back in time, to that garden where a magnolia bloomed, where the smells of April had taken over the forgetful snows of winter. I can see all that now, but whether it is desire or memory, I do not know. All I know is that it is quite painful and very cruel.

I Saw Ramallah

I saw Ramallah is a poetic evocation of the return to Ramallah after three decades by the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti. It describes his return to the place of his birth, to longing and memory.

The narration is lyrical and sad. It is also political, inevitably. As the review in Sunday Business Post says, one wants to quote large chunks of it....it is so unsentimental, moving.
Displacements are always multiple
, writes Barghouti. When it happens you become a stranger in your places and to your places at the same time. The displaced person becomes a stranger to his memories. The book is not an obsessional devotion towards the politics of returning but a remembrance of the difficulty of both the return and the suffusion of emotions. It is a reflection of the heartbreak of a dispossessed people, a homeless, landless nation.

Writing, Barghouti is quick to remind us, is a displacement from the normal social contract, from the common roads of love and the common roads of enmity.
Barghouti does not engage in the rhetoric of return all the time, because he says if a person is touched by poetry or art or literature in general, his soul throngs with these displacements and cannot be cured by anything, not even the homeland. Yet, inspite of this, Barghouti the poet is also Barghouti who witnesses, who has witnessed the disintegration and dismemberment of the Palestinian nation. For him, Rabin has taken everything, even the story of our death.
Throughout this poetic encounter, one does not find any emotion suggesting bitterness.

However, the emotions of surprise, affection, nostalgia, melancholy and endless memory find space. Eventually, the return is also a moment of going back, not only in time but in one's own physical state. One finds age in the faces one thought one knew. However, the poet has to leave this land again, a country without a real name now. He feels the pain of seperation again and says
and the distance between my loved ones and me is uglier than a government. He has to leave again.

Barghouti has faint hopes for the future. We do not want to regain the past but regain the future and to push tomorrow into the day after. On his final night in Ramallah, sleep evades the poet. The pillow is the register of our lives. It is the field of memory that has been plowed and fertilized and watered in the darkness that is ours.

This book is not always about politics. It is not simply a dark affair. It is a document of memory, betrayal, desire and that basic of all human urges.......freedom. Similiar travelogues just pale into comparison, considering the poetic worth of this book. The translation by Ahdaf Soueif is wonderful. I will end by quoting this passage.

You question why even the silence in the graveyards is wet. Politics is the number of coffee cups on the table, it is the sudden presence of what you have forgotten, the memories you are afraid to look at too closely, though you look anyway. Staying away from politics is also politics. Politics is nothing and it is everything.

For those who wish to gain a fresh insight into the Palestinian catastrophe, this book is important. But, this book is also important for those who want to understand the questions of longing, belonging, memory and displacement.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Why Write?

Why does one write? I was once told that it is a form of expiation, but of what? In these words, that one chances to write and some other words elsewhere, that we are destined to read, what do we gather to spread?
True writing is never mundane but most writing is barely the essence of things true, something to go insane after. The truest lines are those that tell of saddest thoughts as a maxim is true but what is sadness?

I think there is an obvious difference between a great writer and one who is not, and nobody knows it more honestly than the writer himself. The essence of true writing must come out of a feeling for things native.......language, colours, emotions and ideas. The acid test of great writing is not topicality but permanence. Thus, a great writers work doesn't lose shine, it doesn't gather dust. However, most so-called great works of literature are great from a point of view, from a certain socio-cultural aspect. In other words, they become topical, after a while. But, the claim to immortality lies only in the context of universal themes, of certain experiences that are common between humans. The colourlessness of tears, the colour of pain, the heartache of first love, the tragedies of love and life, the politics of politics, the acknowledgement of politics, because without it there is no romance, no truth, no music in music or anything else.

I also find a cultural oppression in the way worlds apart from those that are accessible in English are ignored. In other words, works known to us are great because they were great when written and became great after they got known. The unknown author, the forgotten language, the inaccessible thought, the unvoiced love, the unseen oppression, the uncatalogued atrocity.......these exist but should they be denied.....?

Heard melodies are sweet, wrote Keats, but those unheard are sweeter. I find it unacceptable when so-called official lists and prizes are used to measure a writers worth. One must keep in mind the King Ozymandias and other such innumerable Kings, who don't even exist now, even on paper apart from Shelley's poem, and in that too the lone and level sands stretch far away.
True writing, I remember reading somewhere, must be a sweet remembrance of our own thoughts. Of course, one cannot claim a universal code for writers, a common language. Far from that, one asks for the sharing of similar pain, of the battles we battle, in our separate worlds, alone.

A language shrouded in metaphysics, difficult language, semantic verbiage, discourses and dialectics, enlightenment and existentialism, what use in front of a shattering sunset?
What worth arm chair schools of philosophy, of carnage with feelings, of acknowledging pain without balm?

We need synaesthesia, poetry, a rain of words, a reign of poetry. But I also remember, sadly though, the substance of clouds. In a short Pasolini film called What are Clouds?, this is the question asked. As a good friend said to me recently, What are books if not clouds?