Saturday, May 26, 2012

For Once, Then, Something : Poem In Your Post

Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
Me myself in the summer heaven godlike
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.
Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths—and then I lost it.
Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.

                                           - Robert Frost

Every moment walking the earth today felt like that final sentence.  Perhaps not what Frost had in mind here, but every turn in the road called one to lose oneself to the other, to what's out there to be relished, however elusive or seemingly quotidian.

Many ways to celebrate this Memorial Day Weekend there may be, but perhaps we could spend a full hour or a full day appreciating the stunning abundance of life in this season.  Perhaps that would in some way honor the sacrifice of those who served to make our lives possible.  Perhaps that would take us out of ourselves and into the world and inspire us to serve as well, each in our own particular manner.


Saturday, May 19, 2012

Special Treatments Ward : Poem In Your Post

So this is where the children come to die,
hidden on the hospital’s highest floor.
They wear their bandages like uniforms
and pull their iv rigs along the hall
with slow and careful steps. Or bald and pale,
they lie in bright pajamas on their beds,
watching another world on a screen.

The mothers spend their nights inside the ward,
sleeping on chairs that fold out into beds,
too small to lie in comfort. Soon they slip
beside their children, as if they might mesh
those small bruised bodies back into their flesh.
Instinctively they feel that love so strong
protects a child. Each morning proves them wrong.

No one chooses to be here. We play the parts
that we are given—horrible as they are.
We try to play them well, whatever that means.
We need to talk, though talking breaks our hearts.
The doctors come and go like oracles,
their manner cool, omniscient, and oblique.
There is a word that no one ever speaks.


I put this poem aside twelve years ago
because I could not bear remembering
   the faces it evoked, and every line
seemed—still seems—so inadequate and grim.
What right had I, whose son had walked away,
to speak for those who died? And I’ll admit
I wanted to forget. I’d lost one child
and couldn’t bear to watch another die.

Not just the silent boy who shared our room,
but even the bird-thin figures dimly glimpsed
shuffling deliberately, disjointedly
like ancient soldiers after a parade.

Whatever strength the task required I lacked.
No well-stitched words could suture shut these wounds.
And so I stopped...
But there are poems we do not choose to write.


The children visit me, not just in dream,
appearing suddenly, silently—
insistent, unprovoked, unwelcome.

They’ve taken off their milky bandages
to show the raw, red lesions they still bear.
Risen they are healed but not made whole.

A few I recognize, untouched by years.
I cannot name them—their faces pale and gray
like ashes fallen from a distant fire.

What use am I to them, almost a stranger?
I cannot wake them from their satin beds.
    Why do they seek me? They never speak.
   And vagrant sorrow cannot bless the dead.

                               - Dana Gioia
So I've been engrossed in John Green's The Fault In Our Stars this week, yet another stellar offering from this young adult author whose work appeals to readers of all ages.  The scenario's a tad more bleak than his previous offerings as the novel's two central characters meet in a cancer support group for teens, yet Green never dips into melodrama or smarminess.  Instead, in his characteristic fashion, he offers up utterly appropriate wit and humor and pathos that's never overdone through two characters whom we'd all wish to know, for however brief a time.
Then, in the way of happy coincidence, my mom sent me an email highlighting the work of Dana Gioia.  Frankly, I hadn't heard of him, so I checked out his work on a variety of sites, and then stumbled upon this one.  His poetry is immediately approachable, so if you enjoy poems you can access on first read, you might want to check out his work: 
            *  His poems at Poetry Foundation
            *  His own website (You'll find some fine essays there too, and links to his favorite poets, many of whom you'll recognize from previous Poem In Your Posts.)
Who's your most recent "I can't believe I've never read"?  What poem(s) did you stumble upon this week?
Thanks, Mom.  And MFB,

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Malayalam's Ghazal : Poem in Your Post

Listen! Someone’s saying a prayer in Malayalam.
He says there’s no word for ‘despair’ in Malayalam.

Sometimes at daybreak you sing a Gujarati garba.
At night you open your hair in Malayalam.

To understand symmetry, understand Kerala.
The longest palindrome is there, in Malayalam.

When you’ve been too long in the rooms of English,
Open your windows to the fresh air of Malayalam.

Visitors are welcome in The School of Lost Tongues.
Someone’s endowed a high chair in Malayalam.

I greet you my ancestors, O scholars and linguists.
My father who recites Baudelaire in Malayalam.

Jeet, such drama with the scraps you know.
Write a couplet, if you dare, in Malayalam.

                                 - Jeet Thayil, author of Narcopolis

A ghazal is poem composed of five to fifteen couplets, often a meditation on love or melancholy or the metaphysical, in which each couplet stands independently yet offers another "puzzle piece" on the theme established in the first couplet.  You might also notice that the last 'bit' - this could be a phrase or word - of the second line in the first couplet is repeated in the second line of all succeeding couplets. 

It's a form that "has roots in seventh-century Arabia, and gained prominence in the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century thanks to such Persian poets as Rumi and Hafiz" ( ghazal).  The form migrated - as so often happens - into neighboring lands and language communities over the centuries, so that today it's truly gone global. 

For more ghazals, you might begin at the Poetic Form: Ghazal page on 

What's Malayalam?  It's the language spoken in Kerala on the southwest coast of India.  Malayalam boasts an alphabet with the greatest number of letters of all Indian languages, and it can express all the sounds in both Sanscrit and Tamil, from which the language is derived.

I just read and reviewed Kerala-born cosmopolitan poet Jeet Thayil's first novel, and grew intrigued about his work.  Hence this poem from Salt Magazine, and likely a few more soon. 


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil: Blog Tour Review

I gravitate toward novels about India.  This year alone I've read four of them, and although that's certainly not enough to make me anything but a dilettante, still it's more than most people I know. 

    The literary dynasty of the Desai's has been high on my list this year (although I haven't reviewed all I read), as has filling in the gaps of my Rushdie reading (ditto: sometimes I simply want to savor a book, not critique it). 

    So when offered the chance to encounter a new-to-me poet-novelist with a decidedly dark yet lyrical take on Bombay's opium-to-heroine culture of the 1970's through '90's, I thought, "Sure. Don't mind if I do."

And, on balance, I'm glad I did.

What it's about (or at least how it seemed to me): Narrator Dom Ullis is a young, educated world traveller who occasionally frequents an opium den in a rather seedy quarter of Bombay in the '70's.  There, he meets Dimple, the eunuch prostitute and pipe-handler.  She becomes the moral and emotional center of the story, a seeker who loves to read and who continually reaches toward spiritual and philosophical clarity. 
   Unfortunately, her life circumstances ebb and flow from bad to worse to slightly hopeful and then down again into tragedy.  Her only mentor, Mr. Lee, dies early in their relationship, and she is haunted by his ghost thereafter.  Yet this is the least of her problems when dealing with increasingly persistent addictions, emotional and physical abuse, and the effects of living from day to day as the 'kept woman' of her emotionally unavailable boss Rashid, who already has two wives and a family of his own. 
    There's a large cast of supporting characters, most drug addicts living in Bombay who visit Rashid's opium parlor, and most memorably the ironically named serial murderer Rumi, who provides a terrifying counterpoint to Dimple's enduring gentleness and generosity of spirit.
   The lives of these folks over three decades or so provide the forward movement for this novel as Ullis returns from time to time to catch up on their devolving lives.

What's unique about Thayil's novel:  If you want to get up close and personal with some of the worst of human nature and the horrors of drug addiction in a poverty-stricken situation, then this is the novel for you.   And there's no doubt it would be a particularly callous reader who wouldn't be intrigued by this novel's setting: One finds oneself trolling the interwebs for photos, maps, and supporting history of Bombay in the '70's through early 2000's.
   Yet there's more here than just that: some characters search for truth, beauty and salvation through art, philosophy, and religion, providing readers with a vicarious struggle for survival and even dignity that's rare to experience in most contemporary fiction.  In Narcopolis, Thayil aspires to explore one of the most trenchant challenges of our age (or any age, I suppose): the quest for transcendence amid the squalor and degeneracy of a near-apocalyptic urban landscape. If you can stomach the horrors therein, you will certainly emerge both troubled and enriched.

And the writing's strong.  Quite.  Lyrical, cadenced, it's the work of a poet-cum-novelist without doubt.

Struggle time for me:  At times, Mr. Thayil's attempts to pursue a chronological narrative line while juggling multiple perspectives severed empathy and continuity for me, especially in the latter half of the book which also demands much of readers emotionally as we encounter the increasingly violent drug culture of Bombay.

How my time interacting with the novel changed me:  To be truthful, each novel I read about India seems to call me back to the present moment; the worldview is so different from my New-England-bred, Catholic-and-Buddhist-influenced sensibilities that I emerge newly cognizant of my own biases and blind-spots, and grateful for the perceptual shift that reading a provocative work from another culture inevitably engenders.     
   And I do believe that any empathetic reader will leave the experience of Narcopolis enriched, viewing the world - at least for a time - as just a bit more tawdry and more miraculous than we had previously noticed.  Certainly, I was offered many opportunities to cultivate stalwart endurance while vicariously facing fearful and violent acts.  That is a blessing, in the end.

My action step:  I will conduct another mini-inquiry about Bombay today, and track down some of Thayil's poetry if I can.  Writer-willing, I'll feature at least one of his works on Poem In Your Post one weekend soon. 

Gratitude to Mr. Thayil, his publishers at Penguin, and Trish at TLC Book Tours for offering me this opportunity.


p.s.  Looking for an alternate view?  Check out the fine reviews of 10 other bloggers on this book tour.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Readus Interruptus

I've been so exhausted and overwhelmed with work lately that only books I've committed to with authors or my students or my book group have crossed my eyes (?).  Other than that, I just keep picking them up and caving under their weight. 

I need your help. 

I need a jump start.

I need a no-fail, gripping, thrilling, brilliantly written book to snap me out of my exhaustion.

Let the passionate biblio-advocacy commence!  (Gush to me in the comments.  Inspire me, blogistas and blogmen!)


Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Wind Blows Through the Doors of My Heart : Poem in Your Post

The wind blows
through the doors of my heart.
It scatters my sheet music
that climbs like waves from the piano, free of the keys.
Now the notes stripped, black butterflies,
flattened against the screens.
The wind through my heart
blows all my candles out.
In my heart and its rooms is dark and windy.
From the mantle smashes birds' nests, teacups
full of stars as the wind winds round,
a mist of sorts that rises and bends and blows
or is blown through my rooms of my heart
that shatters the windows,
rakes the bedsheets as though someone
had just made love. And my dresses
they are lifted like brides come to rest
on the bedstead, crucifixes,
dresses tangled in trees in the rooms
of my heart. To save them
I've thrown flowers to fields,
so that someone would pick them up
and know where they came from.
Come the bees now clinging to flowered curtains.
Off with the clothesline pinning anything, my mother's trousseau.
It is not for me to say what is this wind
or how it came to blow through the rooms of my heart.
Wing after wing, through the rooms of the dead
the wind does not blow. Nor the basement, no wheezing,
no wind choking the cobwebs in our hair.
It is cool here, quiet, a quilt spread on soil.
But we will never lie down again.

                                        - Deborah Digges (1950-2009)

I cannot imagine why it took me so long to discover the poetry of Deborah Digges.  You can learn more about her by visiting her page.  Expect to see more of her work here this month as I'm quite smitten!


p.s.  Who's your current po-mance (your new "poet-crush")?  Tell me about it or post on your own blog, linking here....
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