Friday, 16 November 2012

Poetry Session ‒ Nov 14, 2012

The poets we recited were from the world over: India – 2, Britain – 2, Canada – 1, and Vietnam – 1. Two were read in translation from Punjabi and Vietnamese. Four poets were women, and two, men. The readers were equally split, 3 women and 3 men.

 KumKum, Gopa and Kavita

The sparse attendance did not diminish our zest for the poetry. The Canadian and the Vietnamese were modern poets whose simple syntax, and direct speech, were nevertheless powerful in what they conveyed. We recalled T. S. Eliot’s maxim: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”

 Sunil and Sivaram

Gopa chose to read a poem which she had prepared for the Sptember Browning session she missed. Its dramatic monologue form popularised by the poet carries searing images and uses several of the devices of poetry: alliteration, enjambment, rhyme, and metre.


There were interesting sidelights on liberated women in India who led life on their own terms and earned the grudging respect of wider society.


Here are the readers at the end of the session.

 Kavita, KumKum, Sivaram, Gopa, Sunil

For a full account and the text of the poems, click below.

Poetry Session Nov 14, 2012

Present: KumKum, Gopa, Kavita, Sunil, Joe, Sivaram
Absent: Bobby (out of town), Priya (sons visiting), Talitha (choir practice), Zakia (unexplained), Mathew (out of town), Thommo (unexpectedly detained at a hospital for a friend)

The next session is the novel The Blind Assassin on Dec 7 (date posted on blog). Please keep the day free and have no scruples about skipping and skimming while reading the book. It’s that kind of novel.

KumKum mentioned that she had selected 12 short stories of Chekhov for the Feb 2013 reading. Our readers overwhelmingly prefer a physical book rather than reading online on a PC,  iPad or Kindle. The readers pleaded that the 12 stories should all come from a single volume available from flipkart or landmarkonthenet

With just six members we barely had quorum. But Sivaram, long dormant, showed up and contributed avidly to our discussions. He mentioned a book about books called Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman, consisting of 18 engaging essays about reading.


Margaret Atwood

KumKum said:”I knew of Margaret Atwood primarily as a novelist. Even before she won the Man Booker Prize for her novel, The Blind Assassin in 2000, her earlier novels were shortlisted for this prestigious award many times.

Margaret Atwood is also an accomplished poet, essayist and environmentalist. She was born in Ottawa in 1939. She is a Canadian by birth and continues to live there.

I enjoy Atwood's poems; they are easy to understand, unpretentious and direct. I have a copy of one of her poem collections called, The Door, which came with a CD of the poet reading her own poems. Her sombre and calm voice delivers each poem with grace.

I selected two poems from the book to read this evening: 1. Resurrecting The Dolls' House, and 2 The Door.”

About the first poem KumKum said it’s in three sections. The first is about the doll’s house a young girl played with 15 years ago. The second is about her daughter using it now, and the third is about a real house. Atwood’s a modern poet, so don’t look for rhymes, but it flows well.

The second poem is about the passage of a life in terms of doors closing and opening. Somewhat allegorical.



 Gopa missed the Browning 200th birth anniversary reading on Sept 19 – she misremembered the date.  She intended to read the poem The Laborratory – Ancien Régime. It is prescribed for the UK GCSE level of English which Gopa modestly claimed is her level, not the A level. Why did Browning write this dramatic monologue, a form he used frequently? It is about unrequited love, said Sivaram. A stanza by stanza analysis of the poem may be found at
A jealous woman has an apothecary prepare a poison to kill another woman who has ensnared her man. The poem has plenty of alliteration for emphasis. Browning uses enjambment at several points and the metre is unusual: it consists of anapaests (SSU – two stressed syllabled and one unstressed). It is a highly metrical poem with a strict rhyme scheme of two couplets per 4-line stanza. Browning heightens the terror and makes the atmosphere more and more creepy as the poem advances. Rather than surprise the lovers, the protagonist prefers to watch the compounder at work in the ‘devil-smithy.’

The group digressed into the practice of chemists and doctors sixty or more years ago in India. KumKum referred to the old-time chemist’s shop where a compounder would prepare a recipe ordered by the doctor, and bottle it with a marked paper strip running along the side to measure the doses. Joe loved the carminative mixture they’d prepare for digestive ailments. Sunil recalled the house-visits by doctors, carrying a black bag with their tools of the trade. No patient was satisfied unless an injection was administered, for which the doctors would reuse the needle swabbing it with alcohol; the more thorough ones would hold the needle a moment in the flame of have a methylated spirits lamp. Sunil dreaded the cholera vaccination which required a circular prick by a reamer and then driving it into the forearm. Sunil would hide in a tree as a lad when the doctor came, but they’d discover his hideout, he said laughing. Dr Raju Easaw, late of Fort Heritage Hotel in Fort Kochi, who passed out of a Bengal medical school (as his board still advertises), reused needles with a mere dab of alcohol, said Sunil. KumKum said the she has also been treated to the protocol of syringes being boiled in water and reused.


Sarojini Naidu - Bombay 1946

 Kavita read In the Bazaars of Hyderabad by Sarojini Naidu, ‘the nightingale of India’ as Gandhiji called her.  The poem is full of precise description of an Indian experience of those times, with the variegated sounds, colours and cries pervading the bazaar. Perhaps such bazaars still survive in mofussil areas, but urban shoppers are sold on malls now. Sivaram noted that the description virtually puts you there, in the middle of the bazaar. Yes, you can visualise everything in your mind, said Kavita. She added that the poem has the feature that all five senses are in play to make the scene come alive. No wonder SN was called ‘the nightingale of India’, said Sivaram:

The apostrophes and the ‘thous’ in the poem point to an olden style which had already disappeared a hundred years earlier in Britain, but Indians imitated that archaic manner, as that was what they were brought up on (perhaps still are, in school).

KumKum asked if ‘cithar’ was the way they spelled ‘sitar’ in those days. Sunil recalled with a laugh that Sarojini Naidu was the only poet he could name when he came to his first poetry session at KRG!

Margaret Cavendish

Sunil read two poems of Margaret Cavendish, who was a philosopher, poet, essayist and playwright who lived from 1623 to 1673. You can read more about her at
She was the first woman to visit the Royal Society (in 1667). The queen Henrietta Maria of whom she became an attendant is probably the wife of Charles II, said Gopa. In the second poem Sunil chose, Natures Dresse, every aspect of Nature is addressed, just as in Kavita’s poem by Saojini Naidu.

Sivaram cited a statement of T.S Eliot that poetry is to be experienced, not understood. I think what TSE said was “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Sivaram quoted these lines from Prufrock:
I should have been a pair of ragged claws      
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

I grow old … I grow old …              
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
to underline the innate sonority and imagery that over-ride the sense.

Amrita_Pritam in 1948

For Sivaram Amrita Pritam is one of the finest poets of India. After partition she moved from Lahore to India; she left her husband and divorced him in 1960. She was a liberated woman. Her most famous poem is about the partition, Aj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu (Today I invoke Waris Shah). You can read all about it at her wiki entry:

Sivaram said AP was beautiful. Khushwant Singh claimed she was interested in him, but Sivaram says it is doubtful, and it was more a case of sour grapes. Some of this comes through in the piece he wrote for a magazine:

The conversation veered to Khushwant Singh and his latest book, titled The Sunset Club, about himself and four friends who meet for walks in Lodi gardens in New Delhi, recalling old times. Naturally, love and lust figure prominently. The 96-year-old writer says it will be his last book. Sunil said it is a wonder that at that age he is still writing.

Maneka Gandhi was a pal of his. She was good-looking someone said. Oh, that was when she did the Bombay Dyeing towel ad, came the alert reply from Sivaram. Of course, they all go to pot as they grow older, women in the derrière and men in the anterior, was Joe’s comment. Noting the resemblance to letters of the alphabet, Gopa commented that women then form a D and men a C. A succinct summary of the way of all flesh (at least in India).

KumKum mentioned Nayantara Sahgal as another liberated woman writer of modern times.  She appeared at the Hay Festival in Trivandrum in Nov 2011, and is reported in another post by Joe:

KumKum bought the book Relationship at the Hay festival. It is an exchange of letters between her and Mangat Rai, an ICS officer, and how she found liberation from her own difficult marriage. Well worth reading, said KumKum, and nobody could be more true to herself as a woman with her own priorities. Isn’t that liberation from being trapped in an unsatisfactory marriage? The painter Amrita Sher Gill was also mentioned in this connection; she was born of a Punjabi father and Hungarian mother. Perhaps her degree of  liberation was of another order. Joe remarked she at least has a road in New Delhi named after her, but perhaps Nayantara Sahgal will get one too after she is no more, being Vijaylakshmi Pandit’s daughter.

Nguyen Chi Thien
The poet was a familiar figure, striding through Little Saigon, LA, sipping tea, sharing wisdom.

Joe introduced the poet he chose:
“When the 2012 Nobel prize for literature was awarded on Oct 11 to Mo Yan (the name means ‘don’t speak’) I was taken aback by one of his reported statements in an interview: "I believe these limitations or censorship is great for literature creation." He reiterated an even more categorical vote for censorship in Stockholm. Censorship is as necessary as security checks at airports, he stated:

Against this background I recalled the death of the Vietnamese poet Nguyen Chi Thien a week earlier on Oct 2. After reading about Thien’s life, I had to read his verse at this session as an antidote to Mo Yan. A short introduction is in order and I will use his own words as far as possible.

He was born in 1939, fondly nurtured by two sisters much older than him. He recalls the famine induced by the Japanese army retreating in 1945 when they used the harvested paddy to fuel their locomotives. In 1954, he remembers the soldiers of the battle of Dienbienphu when the colonial French were defeated; they returned as heroes, and he remembered admiring them, inviting them home for dinner. Thien first got into trouble with the N Vietnamese government in 1950 when he tried to correct a Soviet-inspired text for children which stated that the Soviets had defeated the Japanese in WWII. He got an easy sentence of 2 years.

That got extended to about thirty years, only once relieved. He was often in solitary and said he did not mind the lack of newspapers or reading matter, and even the short rations (a tall man, his weight dropped to 40 kg); but the worst for a poet was not having paper or pencil. He resorted to creating, editing, and formatting his poems entirely in his mind while in prison; when he didn’t like a poem he would clear his virtual storage. And daily he’d test his memory to make sure he remembered. Once on a short release he went out and wrote it all down, several hundred poems, on loose sheets of paper, tucked them into his shirt and barged into the British embassy, upsetting the guards and the staff, and blurted out that he was not a mad man, but a poet and he wanted these poems of his to be sent out of the country. The British agreed but would not give him sanctuary.

When he came out of the Embassy he was arrested and packed off to another long haul in jail. He could have got out any time had he confessed and sworn allegiance to the government; but he didn’t. Finally somebody remembered him in a 1991 human rights effort that permitted some dissidents to leave Vietnam. That’s how he landed in America and discovered that all unknown to him, his poems had been published a decade earlier as Flowers of Hell and he had won prizes too. The rest of his life he lived modestly in California in the Little Saigon area in Los Angeles, occasionally lecturing, and giving performances of his poems, of course, entirely from memory. His total oeuvre is about 700 poems.

I am going to recite three or four poems of his.”

Kavita said of the fourth poem, Inside the prison trap of steel, that she has seen these prisons when she visited Vietnam.. Sivaram asked if we had seen the film, The Killing Fields:

It is about Cambodia under the murderous Pol Pot regime. Millions were murdered for no good reason, and their skulls were found buried in the fields. Sunil said anyone educated was bumped off; as a result an entire generation of the 60s and 70s remained unschooled. At the end of the film the author of the book appears briefly.

Here’s a quote from Nguyen Chi Thine:
During the last twelve-year period of detention I created about 300 poems. I had to keep them in my head. When arriving in the U.S.A. I hurried to write them on paper, fearing that the poems would leave my mind. I closed the curtains to furtively write them down and then realized that I was now in the USA. I opened the curtains.

Kavita, KumKum, Sivaram, Gopa, and Joe


Two poems by Margaret Atwood (1939 - )
Resurrecting The Dolls' House
Resurrecting The Dolls' House
lying dormant for fifteen years,
left behind by its owner,
we unswaddle the wrapped furniture,
wake up the family:
mother and father; a boy and girl
in sailor suits; a frilly baby;
grandmother and grandfather,
their hair white and dusty –
all as it should be
except for an extra, diminutive father
with suave spats and a moustache:
maybe a wicked uncle
who will creep around at night
and molest the children.

No – let’s make him good!
Perhaps a butler, or cook.
He’s the one who can potter over
the real iron stove with lids,
pour water into the hip bath,
dish up the dubious meals
made of baked Fimo:
the gruesome omelette, the meatballs,
the cake lopsided and purple.

Now picture the house all neatly arranged,
the way it used to be:
Dad snoozing in his rocker,
tiny newspaper in hand,
Mother supine with her knitting,
the needles as big as her legs,
grandparents conked out on the best bed,
the butler counting up eggs and apples,
the kids at the dinky piano.

Stand back: now it’s a home.
It glows from within.
The welcome mat says Welcome.
Still, it makes us anxious –
anxieties of the nest.
How can we keep it safe?
There’s so much to defend.
There might be illnesses, or shouting,
or a dead turtle.
There might be nightmares.
Lucky if it’s just the toast
that catches fire.

Madeleine is only three
but she knows already
The bay’s too big for the carriage.
No matter how hard you cram it in,
one day, when it should be sleeping,
it will slip through a blank in your memory
and get away.

The Door
The door swings open,
you look in.
It’s dark in there,
most likely spiders:
nothing you want.
You feel scared.
The door swings closed.

The full moon shines,
it’s full of delicious juice;
you buy a purse,
the dance is nice.
The door opens
And swings closed so quickly
you don’t notice.

The sun comes out,
you have swift breakfasts
with your husband, who is still thin;
you wash the dishes,
you love your children,
you read a book,
you go to the movies.
It rains moderately.

The door swings open,
you look in:
why does this keep happening now?
Is there a secret?
The door swings closed.

The snow falls,
you clear the walk while breathing heavily;
it’s not as easy as once.
Your children telephone sometimes.
The roof needs fixing.
You keep yourself busy.
The spring arrives.

The door swings open:
it’s dark in there,
with many steps going down.
But what is that shining?
Is it water?
The door swings closed.

The dog has died.
This happened before.
You got another;
not this time though.
Where is your husband?
You gave up the garden.
It became too much.
At night there are blankets;
nonetheless you are wakeful.

The door swings open:
O god of hinges,
god of long voyages,
you have kept faith.
It’s dark in there.
You confide yourself to the darkness
You step in.
The door swings closed.

The Laboratory – Ancien Régime by Robert Browning (1812 - 1889)
Now that I, tying thy glass mask tightly,
May gaze thro' these faint smokes curling whitely,
As thou pliest thy trade in this devil's-smithy--
Which is the poison to poison her, prithee?

He is with her; and they know that I know
Where they are, what they do: they believe my tears flow
While they laughing, laugh at me, at me fled to the drear
Empty church, to pray God in, for them! -- I am here.

Grind away, moisten and mash up thy paste,
Pound at thy powder, -- I am not in haste!
Better sit thus, and observe thy strange things,
Than go where men wait me and dance at the King's.

That in the mortar -- you call it a gum?
Ah, the brave tree whence such gold oozings come!
And yonder soft phial, the exquisite blue,
Sure to taste sweetly, -- is that poison too?

Had I but all of them, thee and thy treasures,
What a wild crowd of invisible pleasures!
To carry pure death in an earring, a casket,
A signet, a fan-mount, a filigree-basket!

Soon, at the King's, a mere lozenge to give
And Pauline should have just thirty minutes to live!
But to light a pastille, and Elise, with her head
And her breast and her arms and her hands, should drop dead!

Quick -- is it finished? The colour's too grim!
Why not soft like the phial's, enticing and dim?
Let it brighten her drink, let her turn it and stir,
And try it and taste, ere she fix and prefer!

What a drop! She's not little, no minion like me--
That's why she ensnared him: this never will free
The soul from those masculine eyes, -- say, 'no!'
To that pulse's magnificent come-and-go.

For only last night, as they whispered, I brought
My own eyes to bear on her so, that I thought
Could I keep them one half minute fixed, she would fall,
Shrivelled; she fell not; yet this does it all!

Not that I bid you spare her the pain!
Let death be felt and the proof remain;
Brand, burn up, bite into its grace--
He is sure to remember her dying face!

Is it done? Take my mask off! Nay, be not morose
It kills her, and this prevents seeing it close:
The delicate droplet, my whole fortune's fee--
If it hurts her, beside, can it ever hurt me?

Now, take all my jewels, gorge gold to your fill,
You may kiss me, old man, on my mouth if you will!
But brush this dust off me, lest horror it brings
Ere I know it -- next moment I dance at the King's!

In The Bazaars of Hyderabad by Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949)
What do you sell O ye merchants ?
Richly your wares are displayed.
Turbans of crimson and silver,
Tunics of purple brocade,
Mirrors with panels of amber,
Daggers with handles of jade.

What do you weigh, O ye vendors?
Saffron and lentil and rice.
What do you grind, O ye maidens?
Sandalwood, henna, and spice.
What do you call , O ye pedlars?
Chessmen and ivory dice.

What do you make,O ye goldsmiths?
Wristlet and anklet and ring,
Bells for the feet of blue pigeons
Frail as a dragon-fly’s wing,
Girdles of gold for dancers,
Scabbards of gold for the king.

What do you cry,O ye fruitmen?
Citron, pomegranate, and plum.
What do you play ,O musicians?
Cithar, sarangi and drum.
what do you chant, O magicians?
Spells for aeons to come.

What do you weave, O ye flower-girls
With tassels of azure and red?
Crowns for the brow of a bridegroom,
Chaplets to garland his bed.
Sheets of white blossoms new-garnered
To perfume the sleep of the dead.

Two poems by Margaret Cavendish (1623 - 1673)
Of the Subtlety of Motion
Could we the severall Motions of Life know,
The Subtle windings, and the waies they go:
We should adore God more, and not dispute,
How they are done, but that great God can doe't.
But we with Ignorance about do run,
To know the Ends, and how they first begun.
Spending that Life, which Natures God did give
Us to adore him, and his wonders with,
With fruitlesse, vaine, impossible pursuites,
In Schooles, Lectures, and quarrelling Disputes.
But never give him thanks that did us make,
Proudly, as petty Gods, our selves do take.

Natures Dresse.
The Sun crownes Natures Head, Beames splendent are, 
And in her Haire, as Jewels, hang each Star
Her Garments made of pure Bright watchet Skie
The Zodiack round her Wast those Garments tye. 
The Polar Circles are Bracelets for each Wrist
The Planets round about her Neck do twist. 
The Gold, and Silver Mines, Shoes for her Feet
And for her Garters, are soft Flowers sweet. 
Her Stockings are of Grasse, that's fresh, and green, 
And Rainbow Ribbons many Colours in. 
The Powder for her Haire is Milk-white Snow
And when she combes her Locks, the Windes do blow. 
Light, a thin Veile doth hang upon her Face
Through which her Creatures see in every place. 

The Pariah by Amrita Pritam (1919-2005)
Years ago
you and I went our separate ways
without regret.
Only one thing I never quite understood
when you and I said goodbye
and our house was sold.
Some empty vessels lay outside
in the courtyard
staring at us.
Others lay overturned,
hiding their faces.
A wilted creeper
climbed down the door,
perhaps complaining to us
or to the water tap
about the lack of water.
All these are now mere memories.
I only remember
that pariah
who entered our empty room
for some unknown reason.
And the door was locked
on the outside.
Three days later
when the deal was clinched
our house was sold.
We exchanged the keys for money.
The new owner
was shown each room.
And in one of the rooms we found
the corpse of that dog.
I have never heard that dog bark.
I only remember the smell of its corpse.
That smell still haunts me:
it returns from everything I touch.
(Translated from Punjabi by the poet herself)

Four poems by Nguyen Chi Thien (1939 - 2012)
My Verses
My verses are in fact no verses
They are simply Life’s sobbings
Dark prison cells opening and shutting
The dry cough of two caving in lungs
The sound of earth coming down to bury dreams
The exhumation sound of hoes bringing up memories
The chattering of teeth in cold and misery
The aimless contractions of an empty stomach
The hopeless beat of a dying heart
Impotence’s voice in the midst of collapsing earth
All the sounds of a life not deserving half its name
Or even the name of death:
No verses are they!
1970 (translated by Nguyen Ngoc Bich)

If Tomorrow I Have to Die
If tomorrow I have to die
I still would not regret my springtime
Life no doubt is lovely, inestimable
But suffering has taken its toll – gone is the best part
In the deserted night I look at the distant stars
And let my soul drift into the past
For a minute I am oblivious to the cruel reality
And forget all about hunger, cold & bitterness…
History takes me back in time
To that golden age of sumptuous pavilions & palaces
To scenes of success at the imperial exams with
long chaise and parasols
To scenes of poor scholars reading through the night
Once again, I find Confucians of integrity
Who choose poverty and stay away from the cities
Then I see virginal and virtuous country lasses
Weaving silk on their looms near a pool with water jets
In dream I witness joyous festivals
And paddy threshing on golden moonlit nights
Images I tenderly nurture in my heart
Where there still lingers the echo of immense river calls
And the smooth clip of a shuttle going back & forth
I love the forests dense and dark
Full of dangers and secrets, exuding with life
I love also and miss the gongs that give the alarm
Sinister-looking thieves’ dens & the path thereto
Scenes of war with horses neighing & troops clamoring
Also fascinate me, bewitch my soul!
Why I do so, I know full well
That in old days there were emperors & mandarins
That life was riddled with injustice
Why is it that I dream only of the better facets,
That only glories of the past seep through to my poetry?
That I am forgetting the seamier side?
Can it be that life today
Is filled with poison in its very innards
Whereas the old society’s defects were mere pimples?

They Exiled Me
They exiled me to the heart of the jungle
Wishing to fertilize the manioc with my remains
I turned into an expert hunter
And came out full of snake wisdom and rhino fierceness.
They sank me in the ocean
Wishing that I would remain in the depths
I became a deep sea diver
And came up covered with scintillating pearls.
They squeezed me into the dirt
Hoping that I would become mire
I turned instead into a miner
And brought up stores of the most precious metal
No diamond or gold, though
The kind to adorn women’s baubles
But uranium with which to manufacture the atom bomb.

Inside the prison trap of steel
Inside the prison trap of steel,
I want to see no streams of tears,
And laughter I want even less to hear.
I want that each of us
clamp tight his jaws,
withdraw his hands from everything,
refuse to be a buffalo, a dog.
Soak up this truth: this jail will last
As long as it holds buffaloes and dogs.
Unless we are mere clay
we shall stay men.

Post a Comment