#NaPoWriMo: Curated Poetry for Week 3- The Avant-Garde

Clarisse Meyer/ Unsplashed

In honour of the National Poetry Writing Month, April 2017, The Mumbai Meter selects a poem for each day of the month, written by poets from and in Mumbai. This week’s selection is curated by Ishaan Jajodia, the founder & head curator of The Mumbai Art Collective.

This week’s poetry is largely written. It is Anglophone avant-garde poetry, poetry at the tip of the movement when it was written. While many of the poets were or went to become active members of the establishment, these poems represented the radical, the different when they were published.

Many of these poems, like a lot of avant-garde art, is best looked at through the gambit of Difference, Deference, Reference. Keeping this in mind, I encourage you to look beyond my remarks on these poems, and attempt to recognise all three in each of them. Write to me if you’d like to know more about this!

Saturday, April 15: To Name A Sea (Ranjit Hoskote)

Honour the translator,
survivor of cadence:
struck by lightning,
he lives to tell the tale.
Rudderless, no mast:
he steers the boat of tomorrow
across a sea that has no walls.
Dip a seine in its water, you cannot hold
the water. By what name
shall we call its cresting blues?
By what name
shall we haul it in?
Strophe upon strophe
they strike us, the waves.
Courtesy: Ranjit Hoskote via Twitter

Ranjit Hoskote is one of Modern India’s foremost art critics, cultural theorists, and poets. But relatively unknown is his eclectic work as a translator of poetry, translating poetry by Lal Ded, a renowned Kashmiri mystic and poet. Through the poem, Hoskote talks about the struggle of translation in seven couplets.

The simplicity of the language is a moment of leisure from the tedious task of translating, which is harder than it lets on. In the fifth couplet, Hoskote writes, “By what name/ shall we call its cresting blues?” The freedom of interpretation and of choice is one of the hardest parts of being a translator, and Hoskote effectively portrays this sentiment. Despite the structure of the poem appearing seemingly simple, there is a high amount of anaphora that Hoskote uses (Couplets 5 & 6), and other modes of repetition throughout the poem.

Sunday, April 16: The Professor (Nissim Ezekiel)

Remember me? I am Professor Sheth.
Once I taught you geography. Now
I am retired, though my health is good. 
My wife died some years back.
By God’s grace, all my children
Are well settled in life.
One is Sales Manager,
One is Bank Manager,
Both have cars.
Other also doing well, though not so well.
Every family must have black sheep.
Sarala and Tarala are married,
Their husbands are very nice boys.
You won’t believe but I have eleven grandchildren.
How many issues you have? Three? 
That is good. These are days of family planning.
I am not against. We have to change with times.
Whole world is changing. In India also
We are keeping up. Our progress is progressing.
Old values are going, new values are coming.
Everything is happening with leaps and bounds.
I am going out rarely, now and then
Only, this is price of old age
But my health is O.K. Usual aches and pains.
No diabetes, no blood pressure, no heart attack.
This is because of sound habits in youth.
How is your health keeping? 
Nicely? I am happy for that.
This year I am sixty-nine
and hope to score a century.
You were so thin, like stick,
Now you are man of weight and consequence.
That is good joke.
If you are coming again this side by chance,
Visit please my humble residence also.
I am living just on opposite house’s backside.
A Photograph of Nissim Ezekiel in the 1980s/ Unknown

Nissim Ezekiel was Ranjit Hoskote’s mentor, when the latter was establishing himself in Bombay’s Cultural and Literary circles. A member of the Jewish community in India, a dwindling minority that is often overlooked, Ezekiel was rightly so known to be at the tip of postcolonial Indian Poetry. A playwright, author, poet, art critic, cultural theorist, Ezekiel was a one man Renaissance figure, much like Leonardo da Vinci, and his influence continues to shape the Indian art and literary avant-garde.

Bijan Kant Dubey provides a good technical analysis of the poem:

The talks between the ex-student and the retired professor of Geography continues it in a healthy spirit where the latter is a spokesman while the former a mere listener of his. But the professor’s English which he is using is broken English, somehow carried on to show his professorship and professor-liness and the status which he held it once. Even the erroneous sentences have been used in to carry forward the talks. Most of the sentences are of the present continuous tense.

One of the most interesting parts of the poem is the beginning, where Ezekiel says, “Remember me? I am Professor Sheth.” Sheth is a primarily Gujarati surname, a group that does not include Indian Jews. The question that Ezekiel raises here is that of identity, for is the poem an attempt to abandon his proud Jewish ancestry and heritage for a Hindu one, or is it a depiction of the stereotypical Indian professor? The word “Sheth” also translates to Boss, which would make more sense, for the Professor is characterised as a bossy character. But then, why would Ezekiel use first person narration to talk about it?

Monday, April 17: Borders (Ankita Shah)

Ankita Performing Borders for The Poetry Club

What separates Ankita’s work from the rest of the poetry community active in Mumbai is that she is not just a performer, but also a performance artist. The two may seem similar, but are inherently different, for the former performs as a means to an end, but the latter integrates conscious decisions about performance art into the work that is finally produced. Watching her perform the piece for The Poetry Club is an experience in itself.

The visual, importantly, does not overpower the aural, choosing to act as a complementary aid. And it is for this reason why Ankita is conscious of her position as both a performance artist and a poet. The music that accompanies the poem is very mindful of the content in the poem, and therefore works well with the poem.

The poem itself is very powerful. Coupled with smart word play, the strong semantics of the poem lend itself to the topic. The cooptation of the memory of the Nepali schoolchild is ingenious, for the anecdote offers the innocence of the child, coupled with the intelligence and wealth of information that education brings us. Both, however, are incapable of answering the fundamental question that is the premise of the poem: Why do borders exist?

Tuesday, April 18: To Kiss Like Caravaggio (Jennifer Robertson)

is to feel a sudden shove: two
competing notions of
and light: You and I, thieves
and Chiaroscuro love - love is nothing
but little delays
in succulence: an aftertaste
of blood swallowed
and spat out.
Only tongue remains. That
and a three-dimensional
culminating mouth
betrayed like Jesus.

Published in an anthology of contemporary Indian poetry, Robertson’s poem is an ode to Caravaggio in today’s life. The two figures in this poem, Robertson and Caravaggio, could not be more different. Robertson is a former banker from Mumbai, writing in the 21st century, while Caravaggio is a famous Italian Baroque painter who was active in the early 17th century. Separated by four centuries and a continent, the poet seems to attempt to reconcile herself with Caravaggio through love.

Caravaggio’s 1601 painting, Supper at Emmaus

A lot of Caravaggio’s artwork included religious imagery, and tales from the Greco-Roman legends and the classics. It is Caravaggio’s paintings, laced with Biblical themes, that made him central to the Baroque movement. Chiaroscuro translates to “Light-Dark”, and is an italian compound word used to describes works of art with high levels of contrast, like Caravaggio.

One of the most important features of Caravaggio’s paintings is the tenebroso, which refers to the “shadowist” mode of painting, as specifically done by Caravaggio and his followers. The tenebroso between the artist and the poet, is the central theme of the poem, and Robertson makes a conscious effort to contextualise her understanding of love in the tradition of Caravaggio and the history of art.

Wednesday, April 19: Where I Live (Arundhati Subramaniam)

(for Anders who wants to know)
I live on a wedge of land
reclaimed from a tired ocean
somewhere at the edge of the universe.
Greetings from this city 
of L’Oreal sunsets 
and diesel afternoons,
deciduous with concrete,
botoxed with vanity.
City of septic magenta hair-clips,
of garrulous sewers and tight-lipped taps,
of ’80s film tunes buzzing near the left temple,
of ranting TV soaps and monsoon melodramas.
City wracked by hope and bulimia.
City uncontained
by movie screen and epigram.
City condemned to unspool
in an eternal hysteria
of lurid nylon dream.
City where you can drop off 
a swollen local 
and never be noticed.
City where you’re a part
of every imli-soaked bhelpuri.
City of the Mahalaxmi beggar
peering up through 
a gorse-bush of splayed limbs.
City of dark alleys,
city of mistrust,
city of forsaken tube-lit rooms.
City that coats the lungs
stiffens the spine
chills the gut
with memory
City suspended between
 and mortar 
 and foam leather
 and delirium
where it is perfectly historical
to be looking out 
on a sooty handkerchief of ocean,
searching for God.

Arundhathi Subramaniam’s poetry comes from the post-colonial tradition of Hoskote and Ezekiel. Based in Bombay, this poem is an ode to the city of dreams. It is the anaphora based off “City of …” that the entire poem is structured around, possibly an attempt to wrangle with the stereotypes that surround the city.

Subramaniam’s poets are marked by a stubborn refusal to elevate, and this can be seen in Where I Live as well. The second-to-last verse brings this to the forefront, alluding to imagery of death and re-creation in Bombay. Her characterisation of the Mahalaxmi Beggar, too, is vital, because it does not look at the city as solely inhabited by the bourgeois. The personification of the afternoon is neither sublime nor transcendent, it is mystical in a sense that is unique to the city. And it is this refusal to portray as is, that makes Subramaniam’s poetry part of the avant-garde.

Thursday, April 20: Jew (Hoshang Merchant)

Hoshang Merchant reading his poems, “Jew” and “Circulation’

Born the year India became Independent, Hoshang Merchant describes himself as “a male homosexual Parsi, Christian by education, Hindu by culture, Sufi by persuasion.” Salty, sassy, and well-informed, Merchant is articulate in his expression. All of this reflects in his poetry.

Merchant’s role in the avant-garde is not just due to his status as “India’s first openly gay poet”, but also due to the work he does. His work shows an astute understanding of India and its culture, in a way that is not romanticised and fetishised. His masterful use of the devices of repetition makes his poems appeal to me both when they are on paper and when they are read to me.

“Every poet is a Jew.” It is with this that Merchant ends his poem, Jew. The history of Merchant’s persecution due to his sexual orientation covertly seeps into his poetry, while he was a PhD candidate at Purdue during the Reagan Era, and in his home country, India. An Oscar Wilde-esque figure, Merchant takes great care of his poetry, reciting it in a gentle yet passionate form that makes it a pleasure to watch.

Friday, April 21: Who is the inheritor of this Avant-Garde Tradition today?

It’s Ranjit Hoskote. The Mumbai Meter is publishing a profile of him the coming week. Keep an eye out for it!

Until then:

Speaking A Dead Language

I trespass on sentences that ash has muffled,
the lichen overgrown; then re-kindle tropes
that farmers dropped in their kitchen grates
with the husked corn and blue glass beads
when the northmen rode in on champing roans.
Hindsight is a poor cousin to revelation.
Listening to the hiss and splatter of rain,
the crackle of fire between the words,
voicing my breath in strange shapes of mouth
is like looking for you.
The north-rose flowers in every direction
on the tattered map I pull from a chest,
a hidden magnet
around which iron filings frame a crown.
I flatten the continents on a table
and read there of our love,
not lost but translated,
its cadences learned again
in other countries by other tongues.
[From: The Sleepwalker’s Archive]
-Ranjit Hoskote

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