Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Translating the Divine Woman: Usha Kisore's and M. Sambasivan's translation of Kalidasa's Shyamaladandakam


Shyamaladandakam Kalidasavirachitam. Translating the Divine Woman: A Translation of Kalidasa's Syamala Dandaka. Trans. by Usha Kishore and M. Sambasivan. Rasala: Bangalore, 2015. 96 pp.

Most of us know the poet Kalidasa's work, Shakuntalam. But his work Shyamaladandakam is popular perhaps among musicians and religious folk. Why did Usha Kishore choose to translate this poem? This work is unique in its emphasis on goddess as woman; she is Mahadevi, the great goddess, combining the powers of many Hindu goddesses; most importantly, she can be invoked and be made part of the human female. As Kishore explains in her introduction: "We have translated the Goddess as the divinised form of womanhood." Therefore, the translators address her as "woman" throughout the poem, instead of "goddess" to show that the goddess as woman is a Hindu concept.  In our contemporary context in the West, this transposition creates our feeling of connection with the possibilities available to the woman. "Woman" combines all the qualities ascribed to goddess-as-woman.

The Divine Woman is the daughter of sage Matanga. She is known by various names, Matangi, Uma, Syamala, Kalika, and so on. She is"woman," "muse," "mother," "daughter," "beloved," "maiden," bestowing and fulfilling--thus always acting and communing with her worshipers.

The book is visually beautiful, with each single stanza of the Sanskrit text placed on the left page and the English translation on the opposite page, therefore leaving plenty of white space for the reader to contemplate each verse both in Sanskrit and in English.

The English translation is unique for it tries to capture the essence of the original text while leaning on the poetic possibilities available in English to express the essence of the stanza, its metaphors and imagery.

For example:

"Your alluring eyes
       feigned blooms on tendril brows
arching like the frolicking flowered bow of Kama;

woman,
watering the world with your wined word of wisdom."

The translators pay attention to the alliterative lines, the imagery, and the economy of words of the original text,  At the same time, they make the lines contemporary by their use of line and stanza breaks, other kinds of spacing, English imagery, use the word "woman" instead of "goddess," and verbs such as "watering"and "frolicking" to highlight the stylistic conventions of Sanskrit poetry.

Here is another example that highlights the interesting syntax and line arrangements in the second stanza of the first section:

"Woman,
rapt in the cadence of celestial melody,
its rising notes swaying  your nipa-twined hair around your hips:

O maiden of the mountain."

The word "woman" is a line by itself, drawing attention to the object of the images of her sensuality suggested by the cluster of images--"nipa-twined hair," "celestial melody," "cadence," "rising notes"--transferring our attention from the swaying hair to the swaying hips.

At times, Kishore weaves definitions into the lines, thus eliminating any need for an end note. For example, stanza 5, in section 1, ends with "Rame" in the Sanskrit original, which Kishore translates as "Rama, / goddess of grace," thus accentuating the alliterative beauty of the line. In the following stanza, she does something similar: "susvare" in the Sanskrit original is translated as "woman, / melody manifest," again drawing the reader's attention to the holder of the attribute.

Attentive to sound patterns, nature imagery, mellifluous cadence of the lines, Kishore creates a poem that is pleasurable to read.

Divided into 5 sections, each section offers the reader enough space to ruminate the essence of the meaning of woman: What does woman mean? Who is she? What are her qualities, both physical, psychical, and emotional? How is she connected to nature and the elements? Interestingly, the woman / goddess is associated with water:

"The profound circle of your navel,
darkly ornamented by a ring of fine moss-like hair,
is a lake whirling in eddies."

The navel is suggestive of the umbilical cord which connects us to the source. The lake suggests womb. And woman as water, fluid, ever-flowing, not fixed.

The rapture of invoking her finally highlights her as the icon of verse. She holds the richness of language.She bears the "crystal rosary, book of knowledge, rope, and goad" in her "lotus hands." She is endowed with "sweet speech."

The chapter on Kavya or Sanskrit poetry is a synopsis that is informative, as is the glossary at the end of the book.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Usha Kishore--U.K. Indian poet: Night Sky Between the Stars



Usha Kishore's Night Sky Between the Stars,   exploring stories of goddesses in Hindu mythology, is a powerful testament to female power and energy. She retells the stories of goddesses and places them in the milieu of everyday experiences of women. She writes about women planting trees, laughing, celebrating the birth of baby girls, all this despite misogyny. The baby girl "chuckling in her cradle" becomes the icon of the mother goddess; myth transformed into reality. In fact, Kishore's poems blur the line between myth and reality. For every creative venture to flourish, the universe depends on the goddesses. They are the rain makers--"As rice bowl / after rice bowl dries up in the blistering plains..."--and the truth tellers--"Do the hands that build nations, wreck them beyond repair?"

Invoking Sita and Mira, two goddesses who are separated from their spouses, the poet commands Sita: "Banish him, as he banished you," for Rama has not been her grand savior--"Arms of power / have pierced man's heart / and bled it to stone." Thus Kishore sums up her indictment against patriarchy--it is inscrutable and appears invulnerable.

Kishore manages interesting twists in her explorations, one being "Five Virgins"--Ahalya, Draupadi, Tara, Kunti, Mandodari, "star-crossed women" who "fan fires of revenge." They are fiery stars defying their fate. Kishore shows the underbelly of the myths that are presented traditionally as romantic, female power glossed over in the telling. Kishore's retelling brings the hidden powers of the goddesses-as-women to the foreground. The poet desires "to extol them," not to redeem herself but to enlighten us about their power.

Yet she does not abandon the strength of tradition that lend power to the female voice, as in "Kamakhya." It is the icon of Shakti, the mother goddess, whose yantra or iconography is the yoni or vagina, a triangle. In this concept poem, written in the form of the triangle, Kishore brings to life images of the goddess:  she is "stone.../ incarnadined, fecund," "lush labyrinth of triangles," "fluid spring," "psychic song." Goddess and speaker merge in "My psychic song flows in your veins;" the elements enter the speaker and she is endowed with the richness of the cosmos, thus myth becomes demystified in "laden cloud," "twilight rain," "breath", "fertile hum," and inhabits the speaker composing the words.

In the ekphrastic poems, based on Raja Ravi Varma's paintings, Kishore pursues her quest to understand and reawaken within her and in her poetry the meta-stories of the goddesses. Ahalya's story does not end in her being transformed into stone; she awaits her transformation into "fluid feminine form." Thus Kishore seems to hold on to the hope of a changing patriarchal attitude toward women.  Woman is also part of nature, as we see in the poem addressed to goddess Ganga ("Decent of Ganga"). Woman is not a fixed concept. She is not stone. She is fluid. Kishore asks,"who dares to bind her turbulent waters?" No one can break her spirit!

Kishore's language is flawless; she manages to wed Sanskrit lexicon and imagery with English meter, thus producing lyrical, limpidly flowing verse.

As a lover of Sanskrit poetry and Indian classical music, I am enthralled by Usha Kishore's use of these sources to create beautiful poetry in English. As a feminist, I relish Kishore's delving into Hindu tradition of a living goddess culture to show the path of feminist ideas.

Kishore's poems are a pleasure to read--they are sensual and intellectual at the same time, a rare combination.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Smita Agarwal's "Marginalized: Indian Poetry Written in English"

Here is an excerpt of my review published in the last issue of Ariel: A Review of International English Literature:


"What is the texture of the English that is used by Indian poets? Vijay Dharwadkar’s examination of Arun Kolatkar is clearly a star essay picking up on the poet’s unique use of English. The examples from Jejuri, Sarpa Satra, Kala Goda, and discussion, show the spare beauty of the Kolatkar’s lines. Dharwadkar picks up on key points of Kolatkar’s life to argue the poet’s poetic nexus between English and Marathi, Hindu epic tradition and modern life. We see a similar treatment of Jayanta Mahapatra’s poems by Sachidananda Mohanty that helps us read them with a fresh perspective. As Tabish Khair reminds us, “we have a long tradition of literature in largely textual and standardized elite languages: Sanskrit and Persian. To ignore this tradition is to deprive Indian poetry in English of its heritage—and its voice” (253). Agarwal’s book firmly locates Indian poets writing in English in their rightful places by recognizing the depth of political, social, and linguistic investment they have made, thereby adding heft to the thin skein of critical works on these poets."

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Matwaala:South Asian diaspora poetry festival



Matwaala
Matwaala, a South Asian Diaspora Poets Festival will be held at Casa De Luz, Austin, Texas on August 2, 2015, Sunday, 9am-8 pm. Co-hosted by the Poetry Caravan and Austin Poets International, the festival is the first project of the collective. The Dialogue Institute’s reception, dinner and reading for the poets is slated for August 1, Saturday 6 p.m. Other events will flag off the poets presence in Austin on the morning of August 1st as well.
Matwaala’s first venture is a poetry festival that will be held on Sunday, August 2, 2015, at Casa De Luz from 9am-8 p.m. The guest of honor is the eminent 78 year old Parsi poet Keki Daruwalla of New Delhi and noted poets from the US and possibly Canada will be attending. Keki Daruwalla is considered to be one of India’s leading poets and lives in Delhi. He has over ten volumes of poetry and half that number in short stories. His Collected Poems were published in 2006 by Penguin India. He won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for Asia in 1987 for his book "Landscapes". His novel "For Pepper and Christ"--a historical novelwas shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize (Asia and UK) in 2010. His latest books (2014) are Fire Altar: Poems on the Persians and the Greeks" and a short story volume entitled "Islands". Another Novel on the Parsees is slotted for publication this year. Daruwalla was a Queen Elizabeth Fellow at Oxford for a year. He is also a former Indian Police Service officer, who retired as Additional Director in the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).He was also special Assistant to the Prime Minister in 1979. He retired as Chairman JIC. Recently he was a Member of the National Commission for Minorities.

Noted US poets attending are Pramila Venkateswaran, poet laurate of Suffolk county, NY; Saleem Peeradina, Michigan and others including local youth and adult poets to be confirmed soon. Festival director Usha Akella’s mission in organizing the collective and festival is to bring visibility to the expanding and prolific Diaspora South Asian Poets in the country. The idea of a sole poetry festival emerged after a recent editorial project she co-edited with Pramila Venkateswaran for www.museindia.com.  The issue focused on a project involving Diaspora artists and poets that generated the idea for sustained collaboration and initiatives. She states: “Matwaala, South Asian Diaspora Poets Collective, is a community of poets whose origins go back to South Asia. Our aim to promote South Asian poetry and collaborate with other arts in North America. The mission of our initiative is to encourage solidarity, promote members’ work, and increase awareness of South Asian poetry in the mainstream American Literary landscape.” A group of poets, Saleem Peeradina, Pramila Venkateswaran, Amritjit Singh and Usha Akella form the core team of Matwaala.
Poetry readings, a youth reading, panels and papers will be featured. The evening ends with a reception and a cultural segment. A detailed program will be available closer to the festival.
On commenting on the collective identity, poet and scholar Dr. Amritjit Singh, defines Matwaala as:  The name Matwaala evokes bonding and bonhomie, fun and funk, creative adventure and freedom, artistic assertiveness and non-conformity. A Hindi/Urdu word, it was the name of a radical literary magazine edited by the poet Nirala from Kolkata a century ago. Matwaala is used for someone who is drunk, but the word is used more often in a transferred sense, for someone who is a free spirit. As poets we are, of course, drunk on language and words.

For more information, and to have your kid participate email poetrycaravanaustin@gmail.com or call 914.686.4487

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Rickey Laurentiis' "Study in Black"

In the current issue of Poetry, I read Rickey Laurentiis poems, among which "Study in Black" is particularly striking.
The epigraph," Tu Fu, 'Thoughts While Traveling at Night,'" prepares us for the nature imagery. But Laurentiis' use of unusual line lengths, line breaks, appositives, double dashes, alternating long and short lines and indentation take us into the meditative space of not just Tu Fu but this particular speaker who sees his words as limiting. Not just that. But the speaker calls himself a "spook bird" a violent image of poet and bird roped and alone, rotting.
Ironically, the whole poem has a lightness to it like the "wind in the grass" we are introduced to in the opening line--the lightness is maintianed in phrases like "there here," and the amazing number of internal rhymes--"down"-"ground," "wonder"-"plainer," "injuries"-"me," "know"-"solo"-"roped;" off-rhymes as in "boat"-"mast"-"night," "moon"-"skin," and assonance as in "fame"-"age," "injuries."
 
Although the poet tries not to be dark in the beginning, the poem inevitably arrives there. The sky is a solemn witness. Is this what we feel like when we cannot produce art?

Janet Krauss' "The Lamppost," selected by the Wickford Art Association for their poetry/art event



The Lamppost

Nothing can go wrong tonight---
the lamppost keeps watch,
a yeoman of the guard
making sure we won't stumble,
lighting up the fresh snow
along the sidewalk, the stage
where the snowcapped posts
of the fence stand ready
to dance as the tree lifts
its white gloved branches
toward the light in silent song.
--Janet Krauss 

Janet Krauss' poem packs in much emotion in a few lines. Beginning with the opening line with its firm tone, "Nothing can go wrong tonight," we are made ready to receive the beauty of the world, not pain or sorrow. The lamppost has a role to play here--it is witness to the dance of nature mirroring the joy of the speaker whose inner life is shaped by the beauty around her. The poem invites us to be selective about what brings us happiness--snow capped fence posts ready to dance, the tree lifting its white gloved branches, fresh snow on the sidewalk, and the silent song behind these images. 

Note the quiet tread of the syllables--so many single syllable words like "watch," guard," "snow," "posts" at every line break--as if the words were walking the snow-covered page of the poem, leaving their prints! And on this wintery stage of the poem, the words are spoken in a single sentence. Will a fresh snowfall cover these words?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

W.S. Merwin's unpunctuated lines

I am indeed intrigued by the flow of Merwin's poems. The lack of punctuation does not hinder us from reading his poems. In fact the absence of punctuation creates a natural flow of breath that is calming. Each poem feels like a wind that has gently swept around you.
How does he do this? If we look at his poem, "The Latest Thing," the main clause in the first line that runs to the middle of the second, is followed by two subordinate clauses, which ends I imagine with a colon, because what follows is a list. This is followed by a complete sentence. And there are no punctuation marks to indicate any of this, but the absence of punctuation does not hinder our understanding of the poem.
The opening lines are intriguing: In the cities the birds are forgotten /among other things but then one could say /that the cities are made of absences / of what disappeared..."
We catch are breath a little before the end of the poem in "one white note plays on to prevent memory",
then the final line, "naturally forgetting its own song".

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Vijay Seshadri's "Imaginary Number"

I was pleasantly surprised when I heard last month that Vijay Sashadri won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his book Three Sections. I have ordered the book and am waiting eagerly for it to arrive. In the meanwhile, I am reading some of his poems on the web. One poem that is included in Three Sections and was published a few years ago in Poetry, is "Imaginary Number." It reminds me of poems by Dickinson and Anna Swir, the ease with which they talked about the soul, as if it was their best friend out taking a walk or a child that was up to some mischief. "Imaginary Number" begins with a planetary devastation that leaves only a mountain standing, which therefore challenges the idea of comparisons--big/small, since the there is nothing to compare the mountain to, resulting in the soul feeling appeased. But the poet is not satisfied at voicing this profound philosophical truth that comparisons are relative, they create stress for human beings, and the disappearance of comparisons spells relief. The poet's insight occurs in the turn of the poem:

"The soul,

like the square root of minus 1,
is an impossibility that has its uses."
We are left contemplating the following questions: What is the square root of minus 1? Is the soul an impossibility? Is it an impossibility because it is intangible? Is the soul useless or useful? When does the soul become useful? What are the instances of its uselessness? 
 I like to think that poetry is refreshingly useless.  But poetry could have its uses--such as diverting you from suicide (as happens in The Hours when Laura upon reading Mrs. Dalloway changes her mind about committing suicide). The soul--unlike poetry--is intangible, impossible, has no this-ness, no substance, but keeps us together despite our near-devastating experience of being flung between our largeness and our smallness, between what-a-piece-of-work-is-man and a-tale-told-by-an-idiot-signifying-nothing.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Walt Whitman's Wheeling Eagles

I came across a poem of Whitman I had not read earlier, "The Dalliance of the Eagles." I had somehow missed it in my hurry to flip through the pages to "Song of Myself." Whitman captures the swift movement of eagles, the height of their soaring, and their descent. The lines are long, the verbs capturing the intricacies of the dance of these aerial bodies.  Today when I read this poem at Benner's Farm, I felt involved with the lines. The sparkling blue skies, the tall trees, sunlight streaming down, a slight chill in the air making us hug our coats around us tighter, and cattle lowing in the background--all these made this poem special. I kept peering up at the sky to spot an eagle. Perhaps Whitman's eagle would soar from the poem!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Dunya Mikhail

Dunya Mikhail
I heard Dunya read at the Dodge Festival in 2010 and found her poems stunning. She wrote about the war, about life in Iraq, about how writers met in coffee houses, about her love for language. She told us the amazing story of being separated from her lover during the war for 10 years and how they found each other, magically. And now reading her poem, "Tablets," published in the March issue of Poetry, I see once again the sparkle in the lines when she takes us to the heart of separation and longing. The land cries on the lap of the one that has left. Families want to hear more than what they are told. Language can only reveal so much, we are told in the poem. And Dunya's poem etches suffering and love in tablets so they will stand like edicts or landmarks on our path.