Friday, August 27, 2010

Musings on the Muse in Exile

A while back I received a review copy of a 42-page chapbook entitled Muse in Exile, a collection of about a dozen poems (depending on how you count them) by Dilip Bharati, and published in India by Roman Books (and available through all of the major online booksellers).  On their website, they provide the following blurb about the poet:

Dilip Bharati was born in the undivided Bengal in 1934. His profound mastery over philosophy, science and advocacy culminates in his literary talent. His first book in Bengali, published in 1975, was an instant critical success and the novels published thereafter acclaimed him as a noted literary figure. Bharati used to live in a small town near the Bay of Bengal with his wife, children and grandchildren until his sudden death on 9th January 2010.

As for the book itself, they also provide the blurb that appears on the back cover:

The appearance of Dilip Bharati in the Indian literary scene presages new vistas in world literature itself. After writing in his native language for about four decades, Bharati, with this collection, turns to English. Muse in Exile accommodates some of Bharati’s best English poems which question the contemporary mode of writing poetry. The onslaught of faux naïf poets was too much for the inspirer of poetic imagination—the Muse. And she left disconsolate. Out of flux the poet gropes for the Muse in exile. The pen scratches out words that remain a frantic search for a foothold that is mercurial, and the poetic voices are scattered here and there like scraps of paper. The poems on despair, love and beauty are marked off by an exotic approach. In short, Muse in Exile is a soul-searcher’s tour-de-force—an indispensable read for a contemporary reader.

Now, I have to confess to a fondness for the English language poetry of the past, with its formal qualities, as opposed to much of what passes as poetry today.  Not that it's possible today to produce the same kind of poetry that was written, say, in the 18th and 19th centuries without it looking forced and phony, and perhaps that's something of a tragedy, but somehow in the rush to create a new idiom, we've lost the beauty and majesty that  English language poetry is capable of producing.

Maybe many of our contemporary poets have just become too self-conscious, and too infected by postmodern irony, and the informal style of electronically-mediated secondary orality, to find a way to build on the poetry of the past, rather than renege on its promise.  So perhaps, it is only by crossing cultural divides that such traditions can find new life.

My trip to India last October was a revelation, as I didn't expect the level of interest and devotion to the English language and literature that I encountered there (I was also surprised at the affection for and lack of resentment felt towards their former colonial overlords).  Because of that experience, I was not surprised to fine a wonderful merging of traditional British literary sensibility with something fresh and different, both contemporary and cross-cultural, in this little collection of posthumously published poems.

So, for example, the book opens with one of many love poems, "To my Tutan," which begins

How long abreast were we
In weal and woe, still
Never did I go well nigh,
Lest browbeaten be.
More feared I, should ye
Be looking at me!

This is traditional, and yet somehow does not seem out of place, and time, to me.  A second poem, "Re-living You," reflects a synthesis of styles.  Here is the 3rd stanza:

Do you remember the days of
Those 'debatable topics'
'Are the Indian girls going astray?
Singing the song of wilderness
In bikinis gay?'
No.  I mist myself in sandal dew
Of their slender waists!

The 8th stanza employs a metaphor that I can't help but enjoy:

  I had no hard luck though.
My words were written down on your page.
Recorded the re-recorded . . .
  The copy-right of yours
Is surviving still!
The poems in this collection deal with love and loss, with mortality and finality.  A stanza from "Unuttered Melody" is a sample of the poignancy of Bharati's writing:

The silence now is charming more.
The deep roaring of the waves
                                                   broken of the sea,
The great panoramic sound of the universe,
And the unheard sound of the formless cosmos--
Remain latent all
In the elemental physique of human beings.

And indeed, it is the humanity of this poetry that appeals to me, that it speaks to the essence of what makes us human, the sad truth that life is short.  The title poem of this collections speaks eloquently to this--here is how it ends:

  You took your sad flight
Beyond the elegiac country churchyard.
Only a wasteland remained--
And dusty muggy nuclear heat.
A grinding machine extricated you
               from the soul of men.

Now that Muse in exile--
Upholds a theatrical glory . . .  merely
That speaks no more.

The new-age rules; not love.
Now that Muse . . .  is in Exile.

Tagore lent me a sleep
I shall close my weary eye-lids
                                        without a word!

These selections are representative of the first ten poems in the collection.  Following them comes a section called "Journey" that consists of three parts (or separate poems) entitled "Intelligence," "Knowledge," and "Wisdom," and are written in a more familiar, conversational style, and also quite engaging.  And the book ends with a section called "Queer Table Talk," which consists of ten untitled parts (or short poems) that are amusing, and include references to Lear, Helen, Cleopatra, Eve, Pearl Harbor, Clinton, the Berlin Wall, Virginia Woolf, the Mahabharata and Ramayana, and Lara Croft.  Perhaps the last one in this series is worth closing this review with:

We are one in love
One in hate
One in pleasure and pain
Sun and Rain
We are no man and woman
But only Human.

Indeed, in my opinion, Dilip Bharati's Muse in Exile is one of the most human collections of poetry to be published in a long time.

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