In an interview with Julia Kristeva in Positions, Jacques Derrida observes, “Differences are the effects of transformations, ….” (The University of Chicago Press, 1981). A difference is registered when the available elements of life suffer a shift. This shift, in creative writing in general and poetry writing in particular, occurs as a result of the esemplastic imagination, to use Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s term. What happens in the process is a transmogrification. The expressions of the past, the present and the possible futures unify in language and emotion in order to create a unique piece of craft that the world has not yet experienced. The effect of the transmogrification is a difference that affects and is a lingering effect on every word that follows thereon.
A great poet is a prism through which the light of human experience passes. The white light of objective experience contains the rainbow of human existence. The refraction of human experience is registered in the form of a poem that the poet as a prism enables. There is an objectivity in rendering that without being subsumed by it.
This clairvoyant objectivity can become the crux of learned discussions.
Milton was a great poet. However, this objective distancing of the poet from his creations was limited. As Coleridge observes, “All things and modes of action shape themselves anew in the being of Milton.” Propping William Shakespeare as a comparison, he says, “Shakespeare becomes all things, yet forever remaining himself”.
What engages me in this comparison is the possibility that there are variations of greatness, each being unique and relevant. What we can do as individuals in the craft of poetry, is to learn that the limitless emotion which may arouse the poetic self, needs to be honed and trained. It is not only a craft of language. It is a magical craft involving skill and technique, as much as imagination.
The magic of the craft of poetry is a performance by itself. However, it is the process of learning, polishing, and mastering the craft that excites the soul. When a poem is submitted to be considered for publication and is eventually published, like any other craft when put to an audience, belongs no more to the poet. The souls of the readers define the world of the poem.
Being fearful of this gaze is not uncommon. But why are we scared when our poem is beyond our protective hands and hearts? Is it not common sense to let go of something that is already gone? Is it not appropriate that ‘the author is dead’ (as Roland Barthes said) ?
Truth is that, even when we submit a poem for publication, we engage with the poem as one of our own. When it is appreciated, it brings us joy. When it is critically dissected, we feel pain. When it is criticised negatively, we suffer dejection. Our personal self gets attached to our creation. This is different from including autobiographical strains in a poem. While the latter is a logistical aspect – what weaves well with the theme and the form of a poem, the former is a matter of choice.
We quantify our poetic creations and equalise our social selves to our poetic selves. While our social self may be a middle class Indian, imagination gives us the bounty of checking into anyone’s shoe in the universe. While our social consciousness harbours us at one shipping dock of life, our imagination takes flight towards the horizon and beyond. There is an essential element of resistance involved in the process. While the ship of our body suffers from an inertia, our poetic mind belongs in mid-flight. This fact of resistance we ignore as poetic beings.
There was a time when I used to write three to four poems a day. Observing this syndrome, a poet-friend of mine had observed that I was a poet of habit. I had enquired what other types of poets he envisioned. He had replied wryly, “Then there are poets of need.” I barely understood what he implied in those words. I had the feeling that I was writing because I feel the need to express myself. A decade later, as I sat down to write this piece, I realised the difference between a poet of habit and a poet of need.
A poet of habit is by nature a poetic self. She/he/their harnesses all the inputs that the world provides and processes it subjectively, creating a poem that is but an extension of her/his/their being. A poet of need suffers the scarcity of words that she/he/their believes can appropriately convey the meaning towards which the poetic soul grapples. The poet of habit is usually the poet’s younger self. It is like a child experiencing everything for the first time. Hence, with each experience is a tangible emotion. A poet of need is the autumnal self of a poet. Now, the poetic self is “[c]onspiring … how to load and bless” the words in the poem (‘Ode to Autumn’, John Keats).
It is this shift that makes all the difference. At this point in the poetic life, the poet learns that one that is born out of her/him/their is born to fly. From being the individual that quantifies her/his/their creation, the shift to the poetic self of need, one starts to value the process of creating. The need is no longer an external need of gratification. It is the need of creation.
The question that then arises is what constitutes the process of creation.
While imagination is a crucial element, it is not the complete package. In a poetry workshop that I attended in Kolkata a decade ago, poet Joy Goswami shared how a poem often takes shape. The first few lines or words bleed out. At the middle of the poem, the poet re-reads the first few lines and then gains momentum again. It is the ending of the poem that is crucial because the poet is drained. The appropriate words are sparse. At this point comes the critical component of re-working and editing the first draft. Though sometimes, the first draft can be a sharp, precise, finished piece, it is rare. Writing is important, but editing is also important. The version of T.S.Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ that we read is largely because of the extensive revisions and suggestions by Ezra Pound.
If one looks at facsimile manuscripts of Rabindranth Tagore, we see how he transformed his editing process into an artistic one. Lines that he scratched off in a poem, formed the structure for his pen drawings. Editing or re-working is like forming of sediments after a flood that go on to make the rich new cultivable soil. From edited out sections, new poems may be born.
The act of creating a poem is tapping into the universe of possibilities and transformations. Our poetic selves need to trust it simply.
Susmita is a creative writer and independent scholar with bipolar mood disorder with schizophrenic potential. She writes in English and Bengali and is published in “Headline Poetry and Press”, “Montauk” and “Learning and Creativity”. Her published books are Poetry in Pieces (2018) and Himabaho Kotha Bole (When Glaciers Speak) (2019). She is the Founding Editor-in-Chief of The Pine Cone Review. Her personal website is www.susmitapaul.org
Four stories, without a proper beginning or a sense of an ending, begin nonetheless, in medias res (if I am allowed to use something which encapsulates or at least attempts to encapsulate this epic that we call life). They begin like all stories do, with an absence, a gap, a curious suspense, and a need to redress a need to address, a need to recover and a need of becoming complete. Whether it attains completion or not is another story, the suspense is pulled to a high pitch and then the denouement approaches, all of a sudden, all at once, shaking our expectations, taking us by surprise, jarring us to the very core, compelling us to confront and acknowledge the crack that we always choose to overlook.
The one image that runs through each of the four narratives is the image of a child- an unborn, a newborn, a teenaged, and a murdered child. In each story the child has a central role to play, acting as a symbolic connotation of the story itself, a metonymic outgrowth of the very fabric with which each tale is woven.
The unborn child brings a new twist in the life of Babloo and Lipakshi; who’ve been living through a wreck of a marriage in a wreck of a kothi whose extravagance only speaks louder about the silence it tries so desperately to hide. Babloo refused to sire a son to avenge his father who’d refused him a life of his own choice to be spent with the partner of his dreams because of his homosexual preferences. Yet, interestingly, it is a child who somewhat saves his wrecked marriage (perhaps?). The same child who was sired by another man, as an act of revenge on Babloo for having wrongfully punished the former’s father, a man with whom he had tripped and fallen in love, once again, a man who had wooed his wife as well, relieving her momentarily and deceptively seducing her to dare to dream again, a woman, whose life had become a tale of sombre sadness. The child is thus, like his biological father, playing many roles and bringing about the plot to its resolution and offering a new possibility which might be better or worse.
The second story entitled “Khilauna” portrays a game, a mind game, which the storyteller plays with the characters, the interrogators, the accused, and everyone in between, including the audience. Everyone appears to be a toy in the hand of everyone else, and each seems to assume that he/she has the upper hand in the mysterious game: like the policewoman quips how the rich and the poor regard each other to be toys in each other’s hands. Yet, the game had serious consequences, any game which takes a foul turn always do. The new players learn to mimick the tricks and in doing so, often outdo the masters, unknowingly. The dead child is a symbol of the fallout of such a game: and a subtle reminder of what human beings are capable of doing to each other. It foregrounds the death of civilized values and bonhomie in the world ridden with economic divide, social difference and an overwhelming urge to satiate one’s greed. The mystery of the death of the child and the ultimate resolution of the plot is ironically or rather purposively brought about by the most imposing leitmotif of the play- a toy.
The third story is like a beautiful flower, a poem, a song which seems perfect from the outside, but then on closer inspection one realizes, it is devoured by worms, it does not feel that pleasant, it strikes a discordant note. It is like life and like life, full of promises, but has the ring of a sad truth, and like life, extremely satisfying even in its bitterness. It begins with a jarring note, calling out the discrimination against Dalits which is still a rampant practice in India displaying the skeletons inside the closet of “equal” and “progressive” India where caste prejudices are claimed to be a thing of the past. Yet, people like Bharti can only be friends with people like Dashrath, people who might assert that society has become modern yet feel uncomfortable in revealing the surname “Mondal”, taking refuge under the shadow of “Banerjee” in making a new possibly promising acquaintance. Although striking quite a few unpleasant notes, the audience is not allowed to pay much heed to these, as the narrative slowly meanders and takes us through sweet twists and sweeter turns with the blossoming of a romantic bonding between Bharti Mondal and Priya Sharma. So far so good, dark clouds seem to gather in the corner of the pale blue sky when the mother-in-law reminds the daughter-in-law to check the circles in which she is socializing, reminding her of her Brahmanical responsibilities. Priya reveals her insecurities and then inspires her friend to do the same. Just when Bharti musters her courage, the sands of promise slips through her fingers. And the black and white story of a typical lesbian relationship is stopped short of reaching its culmination not because of the family’s interruption, or societal prejudices against homosexuality but because of the structured regimentation of casteist outlook of life on the part of Priya. The call from her boss to surprise her takes the plot in a surprisingly new turn and what started off as a romantic narrative, slowly becomes a tale of revenge. Bharti suggests her to try to become a mother and settle down properly if she wants to be truly happy. The new-born child here, is an instrument of revenge and symbol of entrapment.
Brilliantly interweaving the intersectional themes of gender politics, sexuality, and casteism, the plot makes us think hard about issues which exist right in front of us but no one is ready to talk about. Priya’s subtle change of attitude towards Bharti when she refuses to let her enter into the air-conditioned cubicle of her upper-class coterie, reflects a lot about our society where class and caste prejudices still override and dictate our instinctive approach to life. The last sip from the steel cup while spreading her specialized knowledge on taking care of new-born children strongly portray the dictum: revenge is best served cold and Priya’s helplessness and vanquished sigh is symptomatic of the sadness and despair that can only be reserved for the ones who deprive themselves of being happy because of their myopic convictions and majoritarian reservations, things which almost always lead one to a life of enduring pain and hapless disappointment.
“Ankahi” is everything it claims to be. It’s unsaid, it is that which is perhaps unutterable, that which can’t be perceived, conveyed and thus never spoken, and yet it is something which remains, something which haunts, it’s an attempt to break free and yet at the same time, it is the rope which ties one down more stubbornly. Here, the story and the larger narrative takes a mature turn, a turn towards silence –- rounded with noise—and acceptance. Perhaps this is why the child in this story is not an infant, however a teenaged one whose life is under the threat of being drowned in silence. Natasha, the protagonist’s life seems to revolve round her family, the centre of which is the daughter. Her endeavour to learn the sign language reflects her dedication and unconditional love for her family. However, it is this same language which becomes the root of an ugly argument with her husband, something which results in a failure of communication. This is the same language which takes her towards a new possibility in her life and makes her fall in love with life just when she had felt to be on the brink. The signs of silent exchanges mediated by the twinkle-eyed laughter and hearty exchanges over hearty meals delivers Natasha from the throes of pain which life has thrown towards her and in turn delivers the audience and makes them bask in the warmth of a truly comfortable companionship vicariously. However, life ensures that happiness is short lived and this tale is true to life and thus an odd turn and the possibility of a perfectly happy ending is shattered and we are confronted with a bitter pain that is overwhelming in its intensity. One cannot decide whether to laud her for taking a stand for protecting her doll’s house and ending the pretentious relationship with “the other man” or to feel a gut-wrenching pain and disappointment for making the man suffer yet again, adding to his scars. The last story is one of revelation and redemption, a tale of suffering which makes us question our own convictions and rethink our choices in a very nuanced sort of a way. It’s a story of each one of our lives. It is in its ordinariness, perhaps, in its failure or rather defiance to engage in a futile exchange of words, that it truly speaks and makes one feel a great deal.
To sum it up, one needs to rewind, to return, to the very beginning, where the audience in led into the world of the narrative through the perspective of the animator, the puppet-master, who brings the diverse threads together, all at once, interweaving the four stories together, creating a world which operates simultaneously, yet differently, a world which comes into being before the tales are told, a world which has always existed even before its conception, with all its various possibilities, just like in life (perhaps?) However, one can’t say for sure whether the beginning is a beginning par se or exists somewhere in between, a point of convergence which exists to offer a cohesive conclusion in the garb of a curious introduction to help the readers achieve a finality, and realise perhaps the sense of an ending.
Aishwarya Das Gupta teaches in Calcutta Girls’ College. She is a weaver of words who loves to recede into her bubble of silent dreams. She is an avid reader, lover of cinema and creative arts and if left alone to her own devices, may be found lingering under the shady bough of a lonely tree.
Now I don’t see much difference between you and me.
We are the same.
Except I don’t have tears in my eyes.
Mother’s not here to share my stories.
Usman, times never change,
Only the roles change.
Several years past your death
You’re a wound as tall as a human body.
I’m the wound now
And when I go to sleep
The wounds open their huge doors
And amidst the wounds
I still tease you,
Heckling you: “Ushhhhhmaan….”
Afsar teaches in the department of South Asian studies at the University of Pennsylvania, USA. He writes in Telugu and English. Currently working on the translations of the Telugu poems into English. He has also published a monograph with the Oxford University Press, USA with a title “The Festival of Pirs: Popular Islam and Shared Devtion in South India.”
(This is not a reverse poem that can be read both ways. There is only one way to read this: from the bottom up.)
Know this tree to know Truth.
The Supreme Bliss, the joy that Life is!
The zenith of Ananda, the pure and absolute!
To reach the roots―
Till we have escalated beyond our minds
Mounting the trunk,
And rise up, one footing after another,
from the leaves and fruits and the branches,
As we move on
Let our breath and awareness be our equipment
And scale the tree, progressively.
So, let’s take off those rationalised spectacles,
And claim the tree!
Or ascend all the way to the roots
To descend and live among the leaves and fruits,
The choice being ours, in what we choose to think—
Upward or downward,
Our thoughts streaming along its trunk,
Pleasures and deflections, its leaves and fruits,
Emotions, its branches, spreading at the bottom,
Its roots evolving at the top,
with a paradoxical upward growth—
For, this is the imperishable tree
spectacles of illusion,
wearing those constraining intellect-coated
It seems that we can’t climb this tree
THE TOPSY-TURVY TREE
Vidya Shankar is an Indian poet, writer, editor, English teacher, and a “book” in the Human Library. The recipient of literary awards and recognitions, she uses the power of her words to sensitise her readers about environmental issues, mental health, and the need to break the shackles of an outdated society. Vidya is the author of two poetry books, The Flautist of Brindaranyam (in collaboration with her photographer husband, Shankar Ramakrishnan), and The Rise of Yogamaya (an effort to create awareness about mental health.) She finds meaning to her life through yoga and mandalas.
Content Warning: This piece is about a mother attempting to overcome childhood trauma.
She sat on the floor in the bathroom, door closed, lights off, arms wrapped around her knees. Not a sound she made as tears fell to the floor. She knew she didn’t have much time. Someone would need her soon to help with homework, to bandage a wound, to make dinner or lunch or breakfast. There was always someone, always something. At least, she could keep her promise to herself. No one would know. No one would ever suspect. She could barely remember when she made that promise, but she knew why she lived this life of secrecy.
“So, you claim—” Even his voice wouldn’t loosen its hold on her memory. She needed help. She confided in her doctor who sent her to another who used the word “claim”. That was all the trigger she needed to remember her promise to herself. That was all she needed to punish herself for being fool enough to think she could let go of old promises.
The entrails of the promise ate her, squeezed her heart, her lungs, her stomach, sometimes alternating, sometimes simultaneously. She knew she had to let it go; she had to destroy this matryoshka promise of hers.
“You don’t show any signs.” She was equally proud of and angry with herself for having achieved such a spectacular veil. She had learned well how to hide, how to cover up all side effects of the promise. Unfortunately, she had learned too well. The lack of stereotypical behaviours that usually accompany the promise voided her credibility whenever she let slip statements that should have started to set her free.
“It couldn’t have been that bad.” How often had she heard this when she sought help? Those words punched her in the stomach each time, sent her head reeling into walls. She questioned her sanity, especially when she decided to agree with them, a decision that could only reinforce the quest to keep the promise.
“You’re always happy.” Ah, no amount of makeup could achieve this mask that she wore for most of her life. If she could keep smiling and laughing, maybe she could focus on the here and now, maybe she could continue to suppress the promise no matter how hard and how often it boiled.
When did the promise take hold of her? She sat on the bathroom floor and tried to think back. She thought and thought. And then it came to her.
Elementary school. Beginning of December. She couldn’t hold it in anymore. “Always tell an adult when you need help.” She had gone to three adults that day: her teacher, the vice principal, and the principal. She asked for help the only way she knew how: she spoke a simple statement of fact.
“Such an odd thing to say.”
“What a wild imagination.”
“You’re so funny.”
With each reaction, panic struck. Were they deaf? Did they not understand the meaning of her words?
She walked away that day, head down, a deportment that stayed with her from that day onward. It was this day the promise had been passed on to her.
She had seen every emotion that came from keeping the promise for years on end in her mother’s eyes, in every one of her wrinkles. It was her mother who had passed on the promise to her, not out of maliciousness, but out of sheer love and protection. The promise was the only way to survive their environment.
You see, her mother had once been a free-flying asteroid in the universe. As a young asteroid, she zoomed through a part of the universe she would later come to regret. She was sucked deep into a black hole that she could not escape. All she could do was push pieces of herself to the edge and hope they would escape the black hole, dream they would float happily back through the universe for the rest of their days.
Unfortunately, one of her siblings was sucked deeper into the black hole, never to be seen again. Her other sibling made it to the edge and pulled her along. They would find a way to escape and float free as their mother had dreamed. Even that sibling, however, never made it far, living directly on the edge between freedom and the promise that tied them to the black hole.
She seemed the luckiest of all. It seemed she had made it to freedom; but the promise, that promise tethered her to the black hole, even though there now was some distance.
She sat on the bathroom floor, tears drying up in the newly found sunlight. She may have been born in the black hole, but she had made it to its outskirts; her own children, the ones who would be calling on her any minute now, floated far outside in a free universe. This was the ultimate proof of the matryoshka promise finally breaking.
As India continues to reel under the wave of a devastating second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, people across the country are experiencing unprecedented, limitless suffering as they grapple with a collapsing health system marked by lack of oxygen, lack of beds, lack of medicines and lack of vaccines. Images of endless funeral pyres, reports of struggles over cremation plots and screams of people dying at hospital gates must traumatise anyone with a sensitive heart. At this tragic juncture, we request our readers to offer financial donations to various NGOs and foundations which have been trying their best to offer assistance to people in desperate needs of assistance. Please help if you can, A little assistance will go a long way towards mitigating the misery of multitudes.
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India is going through the worst socio medical crisis since the birth of the nation. Keeping these trying times in mind, we at Plato’s Caves have decided to temporarily suspend all publications. Rather, it has been decided upon that we are going to use this forum to spread information regarding all covid related emergencies, availability of hospital beds, oxygen supplies, (mostly in and around West Bengal) etc. We urge the readers to spread and amplify the posts as much as possible.
We start by providing you with a list of the suppliers of Oxygen, food items and essential Supplies.
Suchita Parikh-Mundul is a freelance writer, copy editor, and poet. She has worked with magazines and websites. Her poetry has appeared in Sahitya Akademi’s Indian Literature, online literary magazines Muse India, Cerebration, Hakara, The Pine Cone Review, and in international anthologies. A collection of poems, Liquid Apnea, was published by Sampark, Kolkata in 2005.