The grey snow was crisp beneath my shoes.
From within the penultimate pages of a book
I had strayed into a cold world beyond
this side of life.
I watched the characters whom I’d followed
fight off the ghosts who closed upon them
I watched them both return to the story,
vanish in a haze of fog
while the sound of words on the page
subsided into silence.
He had a point, Rupert did. Notwithstanding the sentimental drivel about lost love, heart pain, etc., autumn and winter are months that lend themselves naturally to reflection and meditation. I’ll pass spring, and summer too, for the stillness of the mellower months any day.
“ALL suddenly the wind comes soft,
And Spring is here again;
And the hawthorn quickens with buds of green,
And my heart with buds of pain.
My heart all Winter lay so numb,
The earth so dead and frore,
That I never thought the Spring would come,
Or my heart wake any more.
But Winter’s broken and earth has woken,
And the small birds cry again;
And the hawthorn hedge puts forth its buds,
And my heart puts forth its pain.”
I am reciting a poem to a blue-eyed Adonis
as we walk briskly through a busy London road
The snow on his brown hair flecked with gold
is stardust in the light of the street lamps.
‘That is beautiful’ he says when I finish.
The stars above cannot be seen for the clouds
and yet they are there, each one
of them twinkling like the snowflakes
that surround us, so bright
the darkness of a winter evening seems daylight
They continue to shine and remain suspended in the air
around me for hours afterwards
I soak in their warmth, of the crystals of light
The raw material of art and literature.
12 January 2017
“Guess now who holds thee?”—”Death,” I said. But there
The silver answer rang—”Not Death, but Love.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese, No. I
I admire Elizabeth Barrett Browning in many ways. First, for her poetry that is strong, richly allusive and layered with spiritual and philosophical overtones in places, straightforward and full of candour at others, that reveals a poet’s heart that was concerned not only about love and beauty, but also sought to speak for the silent, suffering humanity around her. Next, for her strength of character which helped her to survive a suppressed childhood that rendered her an invalid, by seeking and finding strength in literature. Above all, as the heroine of one of the most beautiful love stories of all time. The forty sonnets from the Portuguese evoke between their lines, the story of her courtship and secret marriage with the poet Robert Browning, one of the most celebrated literary partnerships in history.
Next to the sonnets comes her verse novel Aurora Leigh which was a bold and powerful stand against Victorian hypocrisy, and raised questions on prevailing norms of the duties of women in society, the conflict between the roles of the artist and the woman, the unexpected impact that a well meaning philanthropist’s work may have on a disturbed society, and the concepts of virtue and chastity, among other things.
“Of writing many books there is no end;
And I who have written much in prose and verse
For others’ uses, will write now for mine,—
Will write my story for my better self,
As when you paint your portrait for a friend,
Who keeps it in a drawer and looks at it
Long after he has ceased to love you, just
To hold together what he was and is.”
Aurora Leigh, First Book 1- 8.
Browning called it ‘the most mature of my works, and the one into which my highest convictions upon Life and Art have entered’. I read Aurora Leigh in school and remained as though in a trance through the days I read it, my mind overflowing with the lines of free verse, enchanted by the beauty of the lines and struck by the many thought-provoking questions raised through the story.
I have re-read the book several times since then, for the pleasure of revisiting lines as these:
“And truly, I reiterate, . . nothing’s small!
No lily-muffled hum of a summer-bee,
But finds some coupling with the spinning stars;
No pebble at your foot, but proves a sphere;
No chaffinch, but implies the cherubim:
And, — glancing on my own thin, veined wrist, —
In such a little tremour of the blood
The whole strong clamour of a vehement soul
Doth utter itself distinct. Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God”
Aurora Leigh, Seventh Book.
As a poet and a woman who believed that her literary aspirations were as important as that of her suitor’s life mission, and expected her husband to support her chosen vocation, Aurora‘s voice was a pioneering one for her time, and remains relevant to the present day.
“At last, because the time was ripe,
I chanced upon the poets”
Aurora Leigh, First Book 844-845.
In February I made the pilgrimage to St.Marylebone Parish Church, that I had dreamed of visiting for several years. Passing Wimpole street on the way, I imagined I was tracing the footsteps of the two who must have hurried down that very road, so many decades ago. I was distracted for a few minutes by a sculptural plaque proclaiming that Charles Dickens wrotes six of his novels in that building, but I hastened on, for that day was all about the two poets.
The service was in progress when I entered the church. I spent some time in the pew, closing my eyes to the hymns and imagining myself in Victorian England, witnessing a secret marriage. Then I found my way to the little chapel that I had gone to visit. The Browning room was much smaller than I expected, littered with toys and baby strollers. Behind an elevated platform, a stained glass window flanked by angels proclaimed that the poets had been married here. Elizabeth and Robert Browning looked down curiously from the walls at the reader who took selfies with them and then proceeded to sit down and read sections from Aurora Leigh and some of the sonnets from the Portuguese. I like to think that they gave me their blessing. I bowed to them before I left, my heart singing with the joy of having fulfilled a beloved wish from my bucket list.
A poet once sang, that when
pain finally finds a voice,
at that moment, art is born
Benumbed beyond the reach of pain,
I flailed my arms against the vacuum
within the bell jar which held me, for a decade.
Words were the window through which I
Caught glimpses beyond the dark
Words that kept my heart thawed, if not warm.
On a day when the words shone
bright enough to see, I opened the window
and walked out into life. With a fifteen year old
Mind, in a decade older body. Free
At last, from the darkness that had fed upon
Many of those whose words freed me.
While my wings were tied, I had still dared
to dream of the skies. But once free, I could barely
walk and fell many times before I found my voice.
The detour from regular paths of life that I may
have walked otherwise turned the lost years into a voice
strengthened by a decade of singing in the dark.
A voice that now colours each moment gold.
Each breath a swig of light, each word a blessing.
I had assumed that words would bring
Catharsis – an uncomfortable word
But I sing, and find with unexpected joy
That it is alchemy that goes into making a voice.
(4 September, 2015)
At least in my last hour when before me it lies
Allow me a meeting, with those blue eyes
Together we walked, half sharing an umbrella over which soft rain
fell like dew through the grey afternoon. The conversation that filled
the way, made my heart overflow and ache. Of uncertain flights,
musical languages, noisy friends, healthy food. You were pleased to see
the sphinxes I pointed out. ‘I’d never have noticed them’, you said.
A hush fell, a silence we shared with the smiling sphinxes, in which
our footsteps on the leafy lane synced into the lines of another idyll.
You’ll never know what those stolen moments mean to me.
Walking with you, my spirit flew, hovering above us. To walk,
talk with someone who smelled of good cheer and cigarettes,
whose laughter flowed into, evoked, echoed mine.
It made the short path, shorter.
You wanted to give me a hug. Your presence was enough.
How it warmed my frozen heart. In another world, another life, perhaps,
We might have shared more than a hug. More conversation, perhaps.
But the walk remains. Your gift to me, so precious, it shines
along the lines of this poem as I write it, like silver
on rain clouds as they pass above a parched desert.
This is one of those long poems that compel the reader to stay on the page, from the first line to the thousandth, in a whirlwind journey through images of time as it has evolved through a millennium. The poem starts by introducing a freak monkey shaped life-form that has evolved from technology and has a voracious appetite for the news. From there, it turns a panoramic eye on the world as it stood at the end of the twentieth century, making observations on political conditions, war and peace, consumerist culture, the environment and humanity, exploring the nature of time and the meaning of truth through current events of the period as well the many dimensions of civilisation.
Time is explored through metaphors, such as a reality show trying to recreate how civilisation adapted and evolved, two boys who distribute flowers in their school (a chilling reference to the Columbine high school shootings) and two men observing the world below from a hot air balloon. Universal truths come through from between the sharp images and the intrinsic rhymes, of how water holds memory that can restore history and conjure up ‘whatever is unseen and unsung (Killing Time, 31)’. Also how one day to the Universal Spirit is as thousand years, and thousand years as one day. And how while millions partied in a frenzy on the millennium’s eve, a million people and more kept away with the awareness that this was but a fictional time and date far removed from the world’s real pulse.
Sixteen years after it was written, ‘Killing Time’ remains more relevant than ever, in a world where everything has a price and few things have real value any more, where cameras and microphones work 24 x 7 in every nook and cranny manufacturing news, where time continues to build up thicker and faster than ever, and time or the memory of a richer time that is held between and invoked between the lines of poems such as these, seem to be the only time that really counts.
I wrote this in a recent poetry class, where I arrived at the word ‘garden’ after cross mapping several related words. This ghazal is inspired by Voltaire’s ‘You must cultivate your garden’, words that have echoed back to me from a number of other books, besides life.
At the end of the day, man or woman,
You must cultivate your garden.
With fancy designations, in corporate suits
You must still cultivate your garden.
Step out of luxury cars and branded boots,
You must work barefoot in your garden.
Take pride in your art and its pursuits,
Yet you must also attend to your garden.
In sunshine and storm, in rain and snow,
You must faithfully tend to your garden.
The answers you seek to the meaning of life
They are all there for you, in your garden.
The music that will soothe your soul
You will find it within your garden.
At the end of the day, Indu, madwoman,
You too must cultivate your garden.
For years, I have tried to comprehend the difference between prose and poetry. Textbooks and Google searches reiterate much of what every reader instinctively knows: prose is continuous text while poetry is split into individual lines, prose tends towards the factual while poetry is characteristically embellished with elements of style, poetry has a sense of underlying rhythm which is absent in prose, poetry focuses on the moment while prose spans time and space and so on. Somewhere it is even mentioned that prose is communication, while poetry is art.
Nevertheless, prose can be written as beautifully, can focus on any point in time and can be as rhythmic, and as much of an art form as a poem. While poetry can as easily convey facts, tell stories and do almost everything as well as prose. What is it then, that distinguishes the two, and when does a piece of writing get defined as a prose poem ?
As an eclectic reader of prose and a longtime lover of poetry, to me what makes poetry stand out from prose is the immediate intimacy in the lines of a poem that generates a surge of energy that carries the reader into the poet’s mind, through a series of images both strange and familiar that the reader sees through the poet’s eyes, images that are brought into life by the poet’s words that thereafter become part of the reader’s life. While reading by itself is an intimate, personal experience, reading poetry is perhaps the most intimate experience that can occur between the reader and the writer as their thoughts merge between the lines.
To quote from the celebrated ‘Ars Poetica’ by Archibald MacLeish,
‘A poem should be motionless in time
as the moon climbs,’
The words of a poem, whether they are free or structured in rhyme and meter, whether they are stark and clean or adorned with words constructed with the many tools of the poet’s trade, speak the truth of the poet’s heart.
The prose poem too, clasps the reader gently within its lines as it brings the reader to fleeting moments from the poet’s mind. The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams suggests countless possible stories behind the vivid image that it evokes.
So much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Carlos Williams muses on the nature of prose and poetry in the lines following the above poem, ‘Is what I have written prose? The only answer is that form in prose ends with the end of that which is being communicated’, further saying that ‘the purpose of prose is clarity to enlighten the understanding’ while ‘poetry has to do with the crystallization of the imagination’.
Drawing upon this prose poems then, are conversations by the poet addressed to the reader, communicating ideas, thoughts, and stories using images embedded within flowing words. It is perhaps why the ancient epics were often written in this form, combining the fluid beauty of verse with the factual strength of prose. Also, the intrinsic rhythm of prose poems might have rendered itself naturally to the orally transmitted literature of yore.
‘In spring it the dawn that is most beautiful. As the light creeps over the hills, their outlines are dyed a faint red and wisps of purplish cloud trail over them. In summer the nights. Not only when the moon shines, but on dark nights too, as the fireflies flit to and fro’
The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon might not have had the same effect on the reader had these words been expressed in prose or pure poetry. In spring it is the dawn – with these words Shōnagon waves an elegant hand, inviting the reader to sit by her side and listen to her musings on nature, people and life, offering a window through her eyes into courtly Japan of the fifteenth century.
In her book Not Springtime Yet, Priya Sarukkai Chhabria describes an almost diametrically different world from that of Shōnagon, a world in which the minstrel sings loudly and ceaselessly against the backdrop of passing time, the sense of urban alienation between the lines of the prose poem heightened by images such as the ‘TV tower’s warning to the plane’s tail light curving along to some far-off place‘ and ‘dish antennas turn like hibiscus, tracking signal beyond the clouds.’
In the Tamil epic Silappadikaram by Ilango Adigal, the heroine Kannagi stands on the streets of Madurai, lamenting her dead husband who was unjustly convicted by the Pandya King for theft.
‘I will see my beloved husband, alive, hear him speak. If I don’t, then make jest of me as one who brought pain to her lord while he lived.’
Seeing her speak thus through a surge of tears, the citizens of Madurai said, ‘she weeps over the wrong our ruler caused her, our sovereign of the noble sword, whose righteous sceptre is now bent, the royal umbrella wonted to dispense cooling justice having scorched her, who in her sorrow seems a goddess bearing a golden anklet.’
The intensity of emotions in this short excerpt would be too straightforward in prose, too diluted in metric poetry. As a prose poem, it tells the story with just the right amount of pathos and sentiment even as it transports the readers to the setting of ancient Madurai.
The prose poem allows feelings to be expressed evocatively and yet without the excess sentiment that might have crept in between the lines of a poem. In Refuse / Refused, Sarukkai Chhabria imagines the feelings of old widows who were abandoned by their families thus, ‘I walk now as refuse that has refused the world. In this rustling I will make my home, become rustling, a torn plastic bag. For trash is the renouncer’s last desire, the last touch of homeland…’.
The form lends itself naturally to the writer’s exploration of the craft. In 29TH June: Writing, Naveen Kishore paints a picture with words about the agony and ecstasy of the act of writing, ‘Exhilaration. When the white drowns in ink. Breathless and expanding. Like spreading bushfire. Devouring the blank spaces as it hurtles forward and sideways. Leaping. Dancing. Jumping over hurdles. Unstoppable. Words revealing their secret. Line after line writ in stone. Tablets that rise like a tower. Brick upon brick of glowing prose.’
The prose poem serves as an elegant vehicle for a writer to explore the questions of self and identity. ‘Writing is a way of dancing with a not so perfect body for jumps and pirouettes.‘ Birgit Kempker muses in Birgit Kempker Translates Herself. ‘Now all my writings try to reach feelings, thoughts, space and bodies. I like to touch the border in every sense. The skin, if it is a body. The madness, if it is the mind. The stillness, if it is sound. The clouds, if it is the ground. The non- understanding if it is words.’
In the prose poem novel Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Browning, Aurora’s need to find self-actualisation as a writer is equally intense as her cousin Romney’s aspirations to uplift the underprivileged and change the world. Her journey after she rejects Romney and pursues her calling in art, her limited brush with fame, her disillusionment on not being able to produce great intellectual work and her Voltarian realisation that in the end, all of us need to cultivate our garden – all of this would have worked as a prose novel but the blank verse lifts the narrative and thereby reader’s experience into a different level.
Sometimes, prose and poetry cross boundaries between the pages of a book, merging naturally into each other as in these lines from Robin Sloan’s novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, ‘A man walking fast down a dark lonely street. Quick steps and hard breathing, all wonder and need. A bell above a door and the tinkle it makes. A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.’
These lines from the fast-paced literary novel may be equally categorized as prose or inspired verse, or prose poetry that marks the transition of sentences grouped into paragraphs to interlinked lines that flow in rhythm.
Poetry has often been called the purest form of writing, and it is said that poets make some of the best writers of all. Prose poetry blends the best of both forms – a story narrated in a reverie, a moment frozen in time, a visual of life described in images that carry the reader on their lines through time and space. A reader who walks on the firm grounds of prose and soars on the wings that only verse can give, floats through the streams of prose poems, each of these journeys equally capable of inundating the reader with the pleasure that only words can give.
Elizabeth Browning asserts,
‘What form is best for poems ? Let me think
Of forms less, and the external. Trust the spirit,
As sovran nature does, to make the form;
For otherwise we only imprison spirit,
And not embody. Inward evermore
To outward,–so in life, and so in art,
Which still is life.
Five acts to make a play.
And why not fifteen? Why not ten? or seven?
What matter for the number of the leaves,
Supposing the tree lives and grows ? exact
The literal unities of time and place,
When ’tis the essence of passion to ignore
Both time and place? Absurd. Keep up the fire
And leave the generous flames to shape themselves.’
(Aurora Leigh Book V.223-225)
Whatever be the form that the creation may take, all that a writer needs to do is to keep the fires of inspiration burning, leaving the flames to shape themselves.
One of the many pleasures of reading is to find the echoes of a beloved writer’s voice subtly reflected in another, such as how Hamlet’s soliloquy finds a response in Vikram Seth’s poem ‘Switching off’. I enjoyed writing a response to both the bards – Shakespeare and Seth through the voice of one of my characters in an early version of The Reengineers.
‘To be, or not to be: that is the question:’
Hamlet ponders whether to live or to die, thereby ending the suffering caused by ‘The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ and listing ‘the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to’ such as ‘the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s ‘contumely, The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office and the spurn’ he fervently wishes to end it all.
But uncertainty of the afterlife stops him.
‘For in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause:’
‘But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;’
In the poem ‘Switching Off’ by Vikram Seth, the poet-narrator believes that ‘this life is all there is’ and chooses to be not so much for fear of the afterlife, than the hope that things may get better someday, concern for his family and idle curiosity about the happenings on earth, among other things.
‘There are no fears of undiscovered countries
Or bournes from which no traveller returns
To one who knows this life is all there is;
So when he feels it has become oppressive,
The effort of drawing breath exhausts and strains him
And dispriz’d love, and whips and scorns etcetera
Have mangled him, why does he not switch off?
Perhaps the thought that, having once been happy
(and stirred by the analogy of life
Being a wheel) he will be again be so;
Or some imagined, as yet unseen sight,
Like Halley’s Comet lighting up the sky
For which he’d have to wait till ’86;
Or else objective curiosity:
Who will be President in ten years’ time?
Who’ll win the hockey in the Olympic Games?
And then his family: although he knows
When dead there’s no remorse, he cannot bear
` That they, remaining, feel he did not love them –
It is such things that hold him to the earth
And not the dread of something after death.’
From Mappings by Vikram Seth
In an earlier version of The Reengineers, the character Siddharth responds to both the bards in his poem ‘Inertia’.
What prevents one from switching off –
Reluctance to leave the entities that’ one
Has grown to know and love?
Or fear of the unknown after death?
So the bards sang. But the flowing breath
Surely might continue to remain
Dynamic owing to inertia
Than any fear of physical, mental or spiritual pain?
For a depressed person neither cares about the world in which he lives in, nor is he worried about the afterlife. Most of the time, all he wants to do is to keep breathing to stop his body from going as numb as his mind.
Inertia kept Siddharth alive when he was depressed. That was until he found A. Chatterjee’s poems, which kept him alive for a while before he finally woke up from the darkness of depression to the light and warmth of life. The Reengineers narrates the story of how he did it, crossing over from the cold, dark country of depression to a fulfilling life.