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Welsh Poetic Forms and Metre- A History

Translations:

Welsh Poetic Forms and Metre

 

A History and a Little Bit More

 

The language of Wales is vivid and vivacious. To hear it spoken is to listen to music and to understand it is to be part of a culture that has existed for centuries. There is more to Wales than its language (and I’m not talking about food), Welsh poetry has been influenced and written in the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd since at least the fifth century.  It is a part of our culture that has evolved directly under the influence of the Welsh language.

 

The cerdd dafod (Welsh poetic forms) and cynghanedd (Welsh metre) remains in use throughout modern Wales, with the most notably example being the annual Eisteddfod. The cerdd dafod comprises of twenty-four poetic forms that involve internal and end rhyme with many stanzas ranging from two to four lines. The cynghanedd is made up of four metres that use alliteration, rhyme and consonantal harmony to balance the sounds within a line. These twenty-four poetic forms and metre date back to when Wales was an independent nation and the courts of the Princes of Wales were informed by the poetic voices of master craftsmen.

 

One of the most famous and earliest examples of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd in Welsh medieval poetry was during the fifth and sixth century where poets such as Aneirin and Taliesin, the great bards of Wales, wrote in these forms and metre. There is no known beginning of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd but it is certain that as the Welsh language evolved Welsh poetry matured alongside it. During the following centuries the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd underwent a critical transformation but it wasn’t to be formally codified until the thirteenth century.

 

The most striking transformation took place during the twelfth and thirteenth century amidst the battle for Welsh independence. Prior to the death of Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in 1282, poets were afforded the privilege of being a respected member of court. These poets were known as the Poets of the Princes (‘Beirdd y Tywysogion’).

 

The highest position that a poet could hold in a royal household was that of the ‘Pencerdd’, a literal translation would be ‘master craftsman’. It was a great honour for a medieval poet and the position would have brought with it many benefits as well as responsibilities: through the patronage of his prince, a poet could trust to receive a formal pay structure, swords and other weaponry but, counterbalancing this great luxury, he would have been expected to participate in battles as a warrior fighting by his prince’s side. It is of little surprise that medieval poetry during these centuries focused predominately on the reality of the battlefield, often describing the aftermath with horrific accuracy.

 

When battles were not being waged the ‘Pencerdd’ held a chair in court. Religion and superstition empowered the medieval court poet: they were believed to be able to predict the future (prophecy) as well have a strong connection with God. The ‘Pencerdd’ would use his position to advise the prince; before battle he would declaim a poem to God and another that would honour the prince or his ancestors’. Royal blood in medieval Wales was cherished. Many held the belief that a prince was chosen by Divine rule and by composing verse that praised his ancestors’, the poet was still honouring the living prince. This form of praise poetry is common in medieval Wales with its practise commanding a great deal of respect. That is not to infer that a ‘Pencerdd’ was a corrupt figure, indeed, many were fiercely loyal to their patrons choosing to risk their life on the battlefield. The elegy was a widely used poetic form during this time. It depicted absolute grief at the loss of a patron. The most beautiful example of an elegy poem was written by Gruffydd ab yr Ynad Coch entitled, ‘Llywelyn ein Llyw Olaf’.

 

“See you not the way of the wind and the rain?

See you not the oak trees buffet together?

See you not the sun hurtling through the sky,

And that the stars are fallen?

Do you not believe God, demented mortals?”

 

There were two lower positions within a royal court for a poet still learning his craft. The ‘Bardd Teulu’, the literal translation would be ‘poet of the household’; the lowest was that of the ‘Cerddor’, the literal translation would be quite simple ‘musician’. All positions within the household would have had formal and informal duties, although the role of ‘Cerddor’ is not completely known but it is safe to assume that they would have required the ability to play the harp or lyre. The ‘Bardd Teulu’ was one of twenty-four officers at court. He was expected to perform his poetry before battles and to entertain the Queen. The duties of medieval court poets would have included the role of chronicler, oral archivist and entertainer, three vital responsibilities to a society that depended on oral traditions for its religion, history and entertainment (which would have most likely been a concoction of praise poetry, history and morality).

 

A court poet did not originate from a position of privilege although they would have been of noble birth. Their training was long and arduous. If they did develop an attitude of self-importance then they could hardly be blamed. It would take nine years to master the necessary skills to become a court poet and upon completion of training a ‘Pencerdd’ would demand twenty-four pence and the right to the ‘amobr’ (the virginity of the ‘Cerddor’s’ daughter). A court poet would be required to recite extracts from the Bible and famous verses from memory; he was also expected to be a master at composing verse written in the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd within his head and at the whim of his prince. For all its requirements and demands, a court poet still held an enviably position within medieval Welsh society.

 

After 1282 and the loss of Welsh independence, the Poets of the Princes suffered a great indignation: they became uprooted and dispersed, thrown out of their royal residencies and into the age of the Poets of the Gentry (‘Beirdd yr Uchelwyr’). To survive they began a tradition known as ‘clera’; this demanded that the poet undergo an expedition, wandering from manor to mansion seeking food, coin and anything else that would assist in their survival. These expeditions enabled them to continue receiving the patronage of their princes, now demoted to gentry by English rule, keeping the practise of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd flourishing within Welsh culture. If the twelfth century established the practises of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd, then the thirteenth century defined them.

 

A Little Bit More…

 

The tradition of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd remains vibrant throughout Wales. It is far from being forgotten, evidenced by the continued popularity of the Eisteddfod. My study, entitled Translations: a poetry project, researches how Welsh poetic forms and metre could be used to reconsider, engage and accurately represent the changing cultural identity of modern Wales. It does this through two considerations, firstly, a critical analysis of three relationships: the coastal and industrial landscapes of Wales; Welsh, Anglo-Welsh and English speaking poets; and, mainstream and grassroots publishing. Secondly, the creative response translates the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd into the English language and applies that translation practically in the shape of two poetry collections each with an accompanying epic poem of substantial length.

 

The project has two aims: to engage with a wide readership by promoting the use of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd through myself and modern poets; to discover all the voices that define the modern Welsh cultural identity; to challenge mainstream and grassroots publishing and by doing so establish a national platform where all the voices of modern Wales have an equal representation.

 

The study is in its primary stage and in order to remain loyal to its values and principles, the project researches and experiments with the ideology of direct translation. It uses a Welsh perspective to inform these translations through interviewing Welsh speaking poets who have knowledge of and write in these forms and metre in Welsh and English. My MA thesis, Grandiloquent Wretches (then titled Hiraeth) translated the cerdd dafod into the English language. It is a poetry collection that combines history, mythology and Welsh poetic forms to create an urban fantasy. It doesn’t focus exclusively on Welsh mythology and history; instead, it draws from a wealth of international identities, all of whom live and contribute to the social, economic and culturally wealth of modern Wales.

 

The cerdd dafod’s twenty-four forms are made up of two to four lined stanzas. The collection reconsidered these forms to develop a modern variation that had a more visual relationship to that of a sonnet. This supported the use of poetic devices, such as an octet and sestet, which provided a formal narrative structure. Grandiloquent Wretches achieved this by experimenting with the stitching together of two complementary and, at times, conflicting poetic forms to create a sound that a modern readership would appreciate. For example:

 

Justice*

 

 

Let us just play this arid game,

if we lose then you should not blame

them, you got cocky, let bedlam

dictate where the pious venom

strikes in righteous indignation;

 

 

war sought the tired Thracian

lilt, invoked wrath from lethargy

and called it justice. Liturgy

transformed from sacred to mundane,

fudged fingers gouged out his left brain.

He had cold justice on his side;

least the Imp took the time to chide

 

 

him with keen doe-eyed promises;

justice lobotomises…conscience.  

 

*Poetic form: Cyhydedd Fer (Welsh sonnet).

 

The Wolf’s Honey**

 

 

The rat snatched the wolf’s honey;

sore, he tore its soft, bunny

flesh into a gunny mess, bejewelled

he bugled an umbrae

with sugar-snapped bayonets;

laced with perse, cloud silhouettes

will make the plaster sweat; hope to previse,

incise these mottled webs;

the spider drank flaxen cider,

drunk, the piper used the barrels

to play a sniper’s tune, cipher

tasseomancy from pyre ashes;

hope that it was not your fault.

Suck a lolly dipped in salt,

thwart their strikes with rumour, club her cries

to equalise and escort

her moans with guided patience,

mistake twists for gyrations

of pain, stained laces tremble at the scream,

cetirizine harks, chases

the tussles that burst the bubbles

as convulsions spilt drooling

from silver buckles, sand knuckles

with piteous justice mewling.

 ** Poetic form: two stanzas of Englyn Crwca; two stanzas of Rhupant Hir; two stanzas of Englyn Crwca; two stanzas of Rhupant Hir.

 

 

The collection is unapologetically baroque in language and style, revelling in its past through the use of Welsh poetic forms whilst firmly set in the present. Translations: a poetry project places a higher value on a cohesive narrative but it does not deviate too far away from its grandiloquent nature. See the poem below taken from The Silver in the Water, Chapter Three.

 

 

Swathes of Empyrean Heather***

 

                                                   Wyled**** curdled the stomach;

                                           Cistern snagged the Bittern co…pse.

                                              Scourge dirge steep like Icarus,

                                                  periwinkle him; skim milk

                   to the broth,                              froth                 this relief;

        temper                                                     this heather                    charnel****

                                                                                                                           with carrion,
virion******

river

     malingers

       and infers

                                                                                                                          sea.

 

 

***Poetic form: Cynghanedd Sain. Seven syllables per line. The poem uses a rhyme scheme between the first and second caesura of the line; the second bar decides the consonantal harmony for the third bar and third caesura creates a bridge over additional consonants to create a harmony with the two. For example: X X dog | bog | B (N D N) B. The final syllable in the second and third is stressed.
 ****“Wyled” means to deceive or entice; it also means sorcerer.
 *****“Charnel” short for charnel house; associated with death.
 ******“Virion” means the complete, infective form of a virus outside a host cell.

 

These poems use internal and end rhyme along with consonantal harmony that has been demonstrated by the use of alliteration. Swatches of Empyrean Heather follows the pattern of cynghanedd sain. The writing of Welsh poetic metres has a strong similarity to a line of music: the line is broken into caesuras ( | ). These sections dictate where the rhyme, stress and consonantal repetition fall. See the example below for a visual breakdown of the poem’s structure:

 

Swathes of Empyrean Heather

 

                                                   Wyled | curdled | the stomach;

                                           Cisternsnagged the Bittern | co…pse.

                                              Scourge | dirge |steep like Icarus,

                                                  periwinkle him; |skim | milk

                                                   to the broth,                        |froth |   this relief;

                                temper  |                                                      this heather  |                  charnel

                                                                                                                           with carrion,|
virion |

river

malingers  |

                                                         and infers  |

                                                                                                                            sea.

 

Ultimately Translations: a poetry project ensures that the forms and metre continue to evolve into modernity. Preserved, not like a museum artefact but as a living organism; an organism that is open to failures as well as successes and, most importantly, informed by its history and culture, constantly evolving, harmonising to the needs of its society.

___________

Rhea Seren Phillips is a Ph.D student at Swansea University. Rhea specializes in the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd (Welsh poetic forms and metre) and is reconsidering them through the English language for a modern Welsh readership.

Twitter: @MissRheaSeren

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/grandiloquentwretch

Website: https://rheasphillipspoet.wordpress.com/

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The Sad Part Was- Prabda Yoon

the sad part was
The book is available to purchase here – The Sad Part Was


The Sad Part Was – Prabda Yoon

 

“They catalysed my consciousness as though it had been struck by lightning, and I briefly became abnormally perceptive, able to absorb information about my environment instantaneously and effortlessly. Thank god I stopped just short of Nirvana.” – Prabda Yoon, “Miss Space”

 

Prabda Yoon’s collection of short stories The Sad Part Was (Tilted Axis Press, 2017) invites the reader into a world of idiosyncratic characters often confronted with the impermanence of experience and the choice of how to view and remember each moment. A short definition of the term “ploang” – to be at peace with letting go of past events, without assigning any negative or positive emotions to them – announces the collection’s most important theme. Many of Yoon’s characters are confronted with situations beyond their control (just as the text itself is beyond the reader’s control), but their emotions and reactions determine how they will cope.

The stories in The Sad Part Was pull us into their various worlds, distilling information about characters that seem both familiar and utterly baffling at times, before pushing us out again to reflect on the act of reading itself. What right have we to assign meaning to a writer’s words? What purpose does it serve?

Yoon’s unusual approach is clear from the beginning. “Pen in Parentheses”, the very first story, immediately subverts expectations by placing the bulk of the text within parentheses, thus creating different levels of reading. “Miss Space” stands out through its narrator’s almost hysterical need to understand a young woman’s penchant for leaving large spaces between words when she writes. Every time he sees her, he launches into an in-depth analysis of all the possible causes for her behaviour, but rather ironically, he never gives her the opportunity (or space) to speak. He is more invested in his own line of questioning than whatever she has to say.

The same occurs in “Shallow/Deep, Thick/Thin”, where a traveller discovers a secret from outer space. The whole world begs him to reveal it, because there are no other secrets left, but the traveller soon realizes his audience is more interested in exploiting the sense of mystery than the knowledge itself. No one cares about the insights he has to offer. People look to others to teach them, when they should be looking inside. They should seek experience, rather than the passing on of second-hand information. Yoon puts forwards the idea that knowing everything does not bring happiness, because then only the absence of knowledge seems interesting… and once it is broken, it cannot be reversed.

Yet the author himself is not exempt from this rule. Cleverly placed near the end of the collection, “Marut by the Sea” acts as a tongue-in-cheek reminder not to take Yoon and his ideas too seriously:

“Don’t waste your precious time with his nonsense. Granted, he might say or do things to amaze you. He might write words that tug on your heart strings. You might find his unusual perspective charming. He might lead you to believe that he has something important to say. But believe me, every single thing that you think you learn from him in fact comes from you yourself.”

Yoon plays with our natural tendency to experience excitement upon discovering new and intriguing ways of understanding and experiencing life. He warns us of the fleetingness of such a sense of revelation and tells us not to trust even our own impressions. This of course calls into question everything we have read so far, but if we do indeed adhere to the notion of “ploang”, we come to realize that judgement of a thing does not change the thing itself. Yoon’s words are there for us to do with as we please. We can draw our own conclusions, without feeling right or wrong.

“The Disappearance of a She-Vampire in Pattaya” is the perfect example of this. The reasons given for Rattika the She-Vampire’s sudden absence vary widely and contradict each other more than once, yet it is still tempting to come away believing one version or the other. At the very least, we understand that something dramatic has happened and that the people interviewed are explaining it in their own way. Truth has nothing to do with it.

As for the language Yoon uses in his stories, it is deliberate and precise. It serves to build an atmosphere in which we must find our own balance, our own understanding. The texts are peppered with Thai words, deliberately left in by Mui Poopoksakul, who translated the book into English. The sense of setting (all the stories appear to take place in Thailand) is thus reinforced in a subtle but effective way. The stories carry a sense of national identity (foreigners, Westerners in particular, are described with a distinct sense of “otherness” and are never given names) while at the same time veering away from more traditional Thai literature, as Poopoksakul explains in the Translator’s Afterword.

The result is an intriguing collection where words and form matter more than coherence. Yoon doesn’t seek to persuade the reader; rather, he invites us to examine his stories without passing judgement. We may find some funny, others sad, but we are free to draw our own conclusions and move on.

____

Zoe Perrenoud was born in Switzerland in 1987. Her work has appeared in Aesthetica’s Annual Creative Works, Crossing the Lines, Delano Magazine (online) and Stardust, Always. One of her short stories was shortlisted for the 2016 Bridport Prize. She has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Bangor University and currently lives in Luxembourg.

The Woman on the Other Side – A Review

To purchase the book from Doirepress, click on the image
To purchase the book from Doire Press, click on the image

 

TS Eliot once remarked:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time” (Little Gidding)

Stephanie Conn’s debut collection “The Woman on the Other Side” is a book of exploration. The poetry invites the readers into a world of fragments, between physical and internal landscapes. The collection is set in various locations and timelines, beginning from the opening passages inspired by the Dutch countryside and drawing a subsequent inspiration from its’ historic painters. However, Conn manages to superimpose her own vision and interpretation onto the paintings and leaves her written version lingering distinctly, like a melodious mid note hanging unobtrusive, in some corner of the readers mind…”He painted the lands lies below -/led us through small windows, into narrow interiors,/half-lit rooms draped with silk and shadow”( Vermeer’s Nether Land). The use of half-rhymes is used masterfully throughout the book to accentuate the significant pause for the readers to appreciate the same vivid details which was emanating from her spurts of inspiration. This reinterpretation is also given to other prominent painters in other locations, such as Chagal who resided primarily in the village of St Paul De Vence in the south of France; “Tell me of the green fields mapped in your mind/and the winding paths that always lead you back,/how your father held a scythe in his dark hands,/” (The Village)

In a 2016 interview with the Irish Times, Stephanie stated:
“Consumed by grief after my mother died, I felt terribly isolated and poetry offered comfort. The fact others had experienced this pain and survived also gave me hope” and the residue of this haunting grief and the resolve of hope can be seen and felt in the simplicity of lines like “it is June/but the curtains are pulled/and the candles lit/ … in an empty room/a fourteen year old girl/pores over her mothers diary” (Her Diaries).

Desolation and Resolution, a constant tug of war between the senses, ephemeral and empirical, act as a constant motif throughout the book. Attempts to balance between allowing the audience to gaze into her psyche and creating barriers play off each other in a manner that is truly remarkable. In Eclipse for example; “They said it would happen,/warned not to observe the sun/directly. I had been indoors” and “June.Again/ There have been too many/ birthdays and deathdays” (Abacus). The lines mimic the motion of a heaving breath but upon its release, we are left to somehow simmer in its bittersweet resolution.

Stephanie Conn was the inaugural winner of the Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing, a prize awarded to her for the poem “Lavender Fields” .The line from the poem that could truly encapsulate the mesmerising quality of this book is summed up here;
“All this grew from a small bag of aromatic seeds”

___________________________________________________________________________

Review by Syed Shehzar M Doja

This review was published in the inaugural print edition of The Luxembourg Review.

Bone of my bone- A Review

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To purchase the book, click on the image.

Cultural critic and media theorist Neil Postman once wrote, “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments… when, in short, a people become an audience… culture-death is a clear possibility.” He discussed the “Catastrophe of Trivialisation” as the constant stimulation of mind in a digitalised western world would end up a utopian apocalypse. Nicole Rollender has similar observations but her outlet is an austere dystopia, but the sentiment of culture-death remains the same…

Bone of my Bone is a deep plunge into the physical and existential predicaments of our collective “Flesh Existence”. It is a frightening, courageous and daunting journey which has the power to force its reader to scurry around the gritty recesses of their own subconscious. However, despite the bleak nature of the work, a fundamental truth about the morose side of human consciousness is discovered. This chapbook strips flesh down to bone and contrasts the classic quandary between mind and body as they form a collective “Primal Fear”, “… God, if it’s you who destroys / if it’s you who spits out ghosts / … then I swaddle you, Lord … / Even if my mouth fills with one hundred severed tongues” (Vespers).

The chapbook begins with the poem “Lauds” which drags the reader into a “Vortex of Uncertainty” as the ineffable juxtaposition between the cosmos and the immediate experience of consciousness are explored consistently, “Outside the birds are dying of cold on their branches, / and you’re looking for a way into heaven” (Lauds, p.1). Rollender burrows into the egotistical nature of humankind, the ignorant destruction of our “Neglected Earth” and all which inhabits it for the gain of personal salvation. She achieves this with trademark intensity and graphic imagery which uncovers the precarious modern fears of lost individualism in the swathes of a dying planet. Bone of my Bone not only exposes our deepest fears, but confronts them directly. Rollender writes with clarity despite her use of challenging metaphorical imagery. Her poetry flows from an anxious mind, “if I can’t speak more sweetly, will they cut my tongue from my mouth?” (Tongue, p.7)

Rollender has the skill and confidence to utilise grim, vivid and disturbing imagery to highlight her nihilistic philosophical persuasions. In fact, the macabre hopelessness forms the anchor of this collection. The “Morbid Fascination” prevalent in the human psyche is revealed through a darkened and catastrophic world – where one is a vicarious voyeur to the experience of lucid madness, as if visiting an asylum in Victorian Britain where inmates mutter scattered verses from T.S. Elliot’s Wasteland.

Rollender likes the reader to play “God” in Bone of my Bone. From the dismemberment of an animal by “God the Butcher” – “He can’t cut these split carcasses on the block – / a butcher must crack backbone and find the deepest vein / to drink” (Lauds, p.1) – or an insect with “God as Nature”, “Dropping the torsos / in the stream, the water performed the final kill” (Disassembling, p.6), Rollender manages to create a distinctive poetic experience. At the heart of the work is a pendulum which dangles on the threshold of humanity’s fragility, “even if my arms are cut from my torso, sing you / into being, // even if my mouth fills with one hundred / severed tongues” (Vespers, p.9).

The Universe in Bone of my Bone is a shadowy place – Rollender employs bleak symbolism reminiscent of Ted Hughes’ pinnacle collection, Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow. She employs mythological imagery – most noticeably Christian – to reference consistently body image and the way it reacts to an existential world devoid of a benevolent Power. She blends effortlessly theological and pantheistic concepts into her work, “What is the divine, but God- / light, thorn and scourge, blood let, that bone / shine? What is also the divine: There is no saint / without a past.” (Sext, p.3), “the one / who cracks my pelvis, / he-who-hollows between / mountains […] Hold me, Lord” (Driving to the Hospital, After My Water Breaks Nine Weeks Early, p.8).

The consistent onslaught of desolation through the eyes of womanhood is a moving experience for reader and writer alike. She highlights a world where bodies are seen as decrepit when mothers are unable to produce milk for their starving offspring, and similarly when their wombs are unable to provide a safe passage between pregnancy and birth. Rollender deals with gateways and passages, blurring the lines between birth, life and death, “A woman’s skin / is one world. The birth canal is another”, “The women who don’t bear children / are held down and singed with black lines before // they return to work in fields, skin a book / of illumination” (Marked, pp.11-12).

The murky philosophy of death and hopelessness are the predominant themes in Bone of my Bone but within it are the occasional glimmers of light which gives the chapbook its substance. The continuity makes it satisfying to read all in one go, as one world a short story – the familiar images sew the collection together into a memorable poetic tapestry. Rollender manages to echo Nietzsche’s persuasions that “All credibility, all good conscience, all evidence of truth come only from the senses”. Bone of my Bone achieves this “Truth”.

Bone of my Bone challenges the reader to uncover the darkness beneath their veils. It reminds us to search for meaning in a world despite its harrowing destitution. This is an important poetic work which demands the reader to claw away their masks, to shock parts of their mind awake as they are too often placated by a digital world. Bone of my Bone is a dismal, chaotic yet worthwhile voyage into the “Concealed Blackness” of human experience, “You, the living / mother, shake salt from the table cloth, teach your / child to nest where it’s warm, tell your dead to head / toward whatever window is full of light” (How to Talk to your Dead Mother).


Review by Nathan Hassall

Paul Valéry in Translation

paul-valery-3
Picture from AbrasMedia

The poems reviewed are found here: Translations

A Review of English translations of Paul Valéry’s “Les Pas” and “Le Cimetière Marin” by David Leo Sirois

 
French Post-Symbolist Paul Valéry’s masterful—even obsessional—crafting of consistent patterns of meter and rhythm presents translators with the daunting task of preserving the integrity of his poetic architecture while upholding the precision and polyvalence of his diction. Translator-poet David Leo Sirois performs this balancing act artfully, if not entirely with ease. Sirois’s translations of “Les Pas” and “Le Cimetière marin,” both published in Valéry’s talismanic interwar Charmes (1922), veer towards literal fidelity to the French originals mingled with gleams of more creative approximation.

 

Published in 1920 by Émile-Paul Frères before its inclusion in Charmes, “Le Cimetière marin” is likely Valéry’s best-known poetic work. Sirois’s translation of the poem, a quasi-histrionic progression of twenty-four sextets planted on the page like as many tombstones, fails to transmit the richness of Valéry’s decasyllabic rhythm, rhyme, and alliteration. However, Sirois’s English version holds strikingly true to the original’s shrill and clamorous tone, drawing readers into the metaphysical drama at the heart of the poem. Sirois’s encapsulation of the poem’s imperative to live in spite of the inevitability of death—and its revendication of the poetic process as a creative act that defiantly embraces life and its struggles—is particularly strong in the final three stanzas.

 

Certain lexical decisions in both translations strip key lines of the ambiguity they carry in French, closing off open ends. For example, Sirois’s translation of the title “Le Cimetière marin” as “Cemetery by the Sea” significantly narrows the breadth of an adjective akin to the word “marine” to a description of location only. In the case of “Les Pas,” Sirois translates the leitmotif of “les pas” as “the footsteps” where it appears in the poem’s title and first and last lines, although he opts for the more literal and less concise “steps,” which might more loosely refer to footsteps as the steps of a doorway, flight of stairs, or choreographed dance, in line six. His translation of the poem’s second quatrain substitutes the superlative “purest” for “pure” in line five.

 

Other choices result in awkwardly stilted language not present in the French poems’ turns of phrase. Most markedly, Sirois translates line 31 in “Le Cimetière marin,” “Beau ciel, vrai ciel, regarde-moi qui change!”, as “True sky, handsome heaven, see me! I change.” Without apparent justification, Sirois radically fragments Valéry’s syntax and inserts a disruptive first-person singular declarative statement where there ought not to be one. In the same line, Sirois sacrifices Valéry’s poetic repetition of “ciel,” inverts the order of the poem’s adjectives, and leaves readers to grapple with the odd selection of “handsome heaven.” Likewise, in his translation of “Les Pas,” Sirois maladroitly retains the literal “nude feet” for “pieds nus.” Here English idiom would favor the more familiar expression “bare feet.” Likewise, the choice of “hurry” for “hâte” in line thirteen has a jarring effect that mars the smoothness of the poem’s syntax. In English we do not commonly use “hurry” in clauses that contain direct objects; we tend to lean towards “rush,” or, in more formal contexts, “hasten.”

 

Such uneasy moments aside, at many points Sirois takes creative liberties with his translation to more effectively reconstruct Valéry’s tone and rhythm for readers in English. For instance, Sirois’s rendering of the final line of “Les Pas” as “My heart nothing but your footsteps,” while omitting the imperfect verb found in the French, astutely conveys the tormented anticipation and yearning of the poetic subject—and of the poem as a rumination on Lacanian lack avant la lettre. Sirois’s mindful translation of this line has the additional merit of mirroring the octosyllabic form maintained throughout Valéry’s poem, anchoring this allegory of poetic inspiration with an eerily calm and measured declaration of desire and expectancy.

 
Review by Adele Okoli

The Earthen Flute- A Review

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To neglect poetry is to neglect a fundamental aspect of the Human Condition. Poetry is a tool used to reflect this, a means of meshing together abstractions to create an experience of continuity. Kiriti Sengupta’s The Earthen Flute is a carefully constructed collection of poetry which fearlessly exposes the Human Condition – brought to life visually with illustrations by the talented Tamojit Bhattacharya.

Sengupta has published eight books of poetry to date, as well as two translations. His proficiency has catapulted him into recognition in India and various international writing circles. The Earthen Flute is Sengupta’s most recent collection of poetry and prose, which focuses sharply on the emotional aspect of the inner consciousness, using a mix of mythology and personal meditations.

On the one hand, The Earthen Flute plays out like a precarious melody sitting on the threshold of our perceived “World” and the “Other”. This articulate collection employs intriguing whimsical poetic techniques which swing the reader into a “Higher State of Awareness”. For example, in the first poem, “Keep an Eye”, Sengupta references the Hindu goddess Durga, whose left eye connotes desire, right eye action and the central eye knowledge. The central eye is fundamental to this particular poem. Sengupta describes the eye as, “… kept open / full or half” (Keep an Eye, p15), which leaves the reader contemplating a world beyond the limitations of their sensory experience. This poem is accompanied with the image of Durga by Bhattacharya, whose interpretation of the third eye is a white void; an open, inviting space which can only be filled by “Knowledge”. This can be seen as the answer to humanity’s spiritual vacuum, where one can awaken to “True Awareness”. In this poem, Sengupta encapsulates delicately a statement from Plato, who believed that “Human behaviour flows from three main sources: desire, emotion and knowledge.” The eye is a key component of The Earthen Flute. It is referenced consistently in a myriad of metaphorical surroundings, as it takes on an omniscient quality, “trust me, the eye can see” (Cryptic Idioms, p37). “My soul seeks, but the eyes fail to see” (Seventh Heaven, p40).

Occasionally, the work in The Earthen Flute feels overly calculated and does not suit the lucidity prominent in the rest of the collection. However, halfway through the collection, Sengupta’s “Dreaming Eye” plunges the reader into an exciting chimera of surreality. In the poem, “Clues to Name”, Sengupta captivates the reader with ethereal yet powerful prose. Each piece is merely titled “#” and manages to remain serene in the context of a chaotic dream. This poem is the most cryptic of the whole collection, a genuine exploration of the Self and its liberation, “Water has no call, no décor either; it floats the bone and the mortal flames free!” (Clues to Name, p33).

Though not often, there are times when airy overtones make it difficult to follow the flow of the poetry. I found the poem, “Womb” – a journey both personal and uncomfortable referencing the concept of birth – difficult to digest, “World, you may comment on material loss / Only the mother understands rupture pain” (Womb, p17). Other times, the poetry can lack the core essence of expression, with occasional cliché phrases like,“We continue to live being frightened”, (Gateway to God, p25) or “I don’t call it a feeling, / I would rather name it / My experience (Experienced Personified, p23). These appear seldom, but are still disruptive to the reading experience. Nevertheless, these are pickings against a backdrop of otherwise authentic work.

This collection pulls the reader through Sengupta’s daily life as he tunes a fine juxtaposition between the outside world and the emotional side of the inner self. The strongest work which juggles the outside world and inner experience is in his short poem, “Envy”, where Sengupta transcends his experiences into a metaphysical observation, “Jealous– / A Dentist can say if you are one // Your teeth deviate from / The occlusal table / And thus, lips suffer from bites” (Envy, p.26). This poem appears lighthearted but honest, connoting a fear of falling short of perfection – an imagery-laden treat.

Although Sengupta is not too concerned with strict rhyme schemes, the clearest use of rhyme appears in the poem, “Cryptic Idioms”, “A flute sounds along the serpentine track / Breath tunes it from mute to high . . . to crack! // For eons religion or its absence / appears back-to-back . . .” (Cryptic Idioms, p.35). Sengupta continues the modern tradition of free verse, not limiting himself to stricter forms of poetry. There is delicate wordplay which bring to life images in a spiritually dormant world, as memory is used as a vessel, “Memories unveil themselves / Through snapshots, even / The moon has its glory / Pinned in poetry” (Moon – The Other Side, p18).

The Earthen Flute is a book of poetry for the spiritualist, or for someone looking to connect with their “Essential Nature”. Its digestible style makes it an inviting collection for both the poetry neophyte and veteran to read. The mix of experience in the context of mythological fantasies form the basis of this intriguing collection. Sengupta begs us to use vision beyond our eyes, awareness beyond our senses, before the abruptness of our part of the Human Condition ends:

“Like an inevitable death / An enormous God steps in” (Gateway to God, p25).

A Review by Nathan Hassall

Of Rebellion, Genesis and Refuge…

The author writes this article “In Honour of Ashraf Fayadh”…

It is simple enough to recognize the poet as a being, as no glamorous exception to that entity of human flesh. We can, of course, eschew variant cases of Shakespeare or Ovid to whom evidences of actual portraitures are lost. One cannot completely discard the wild possibilities of alien mutations. But then, we merely depict ‘WILD’ to push forth such staggering notion. Somehow, the poet is an embodiment of this curious wildness; and it is, in most instants, not simple to recognize him as such. In other words, it is easy to gaze upon a poet, relish conviction and say, ‘This is a man!’ Yet, it is oft a herculean task to demystify the motif around the next evaluation which is: ‘What sort of man is he capable of being?’

This abstract nexus of inquiry is perhaps the essential gulf that lies between the poet and the poem, between one area of identity and another. It is impossible to probe this space without fortuitous inferences from the primal debate of beauty as a poetic component, of whether knowledge spawns imagination or vice versa. In the case of concrete self, it is the debate of whether the poet breeds the poem or vice versa! Such rumination—as is expected of any serious artist to accommodate—begets resolutions which, in turn, beget the very foundation upon which poetic artistry must be consecrated.

Usually, it is a complex phase, one where the poet either steers away from hubristic overtones as escape from that restrictive sedition for logic or surrenders to intuitive powers and risk self-willed severance from real life. And yet the poet does not, for that reason, fail to distinguish between himself and his energies, between his realm and the realities, or sacrifice his aesthetic independence on the temple of a hysterical and heterogeneous audience. After all, poetry is beauty. Beauty is self-terming. To co-opt Lisa Samuels—perhaps, one of the fiercest critics of the vintage Bysshe Shelley—I like to poise the poet on the same axis with the very nature of beauty. The duo are resistant structures, imaginative structures that present an impenetrable model of the unknown. Beauty, like the poet, is therefore endlessly talk-inspiring, predictive rather than descriptive, dynamic rather than settled, infinitely serious and useful.

In morally fragile societies, while every possible effort is made to thaw the pen, to glaze fissures on that creative cauldron of cosmic powers, poets must understand that the communal journey to conscience is not a smooth passage of rapid rectifications, but prone to  the penchant of cynics and invasion of monsters. A firm reconciliation with one’s own ‘ideo-poetic’ choices is thus imperative to transact the business of identity from external interrogations. That principle of reconciliation is every bit as important as the impulse that nerves the aesthetic faculty. The most passionate impulse has not resolved stylistic instabilities, alienation, lingual dissonance and strictures for the poet, not even essentials such as virtues. How then can anyone answer the question of what sort of man a poet is capable of being, or prescribe limited definitions for his limitless artistry if the poet himself has not asked his heart, reconcile demarcations between concepts and non-concepts?

What gives hope for reconciliation is the very unique capacity of the mind for self-dialogue, and the budding poet must indulge. I use the word ‘indulge’ deliberately, because this act of inquiry is internal and inculcates definite methodologies of questioning. These are found within the precincts of what I term the ‘trilogy of poetic identity’. You must exonerate the overreachingness of that coinage. It is amazing that contemporary poetry has contented itself with merely trivializing established valuations—a blind concession to determinism—since it cannot altogether comprehend the ‘rigidities’ of conceptual forbears. Even within the liberal festivities of contemporariness, it is vital to teach identity, to impart the need for poet and poem to reconcile themselves upon the makeup of rebellion, genesis and refuge.

So, what are these terms? What are these stances? What exactly are their imports and how precisely have they sprung into existence as sole determinants of poetic identity, or say, reconciliation?

Well, there are no superfluous denotations to these except that I, a poet, have only asked myself: why are you a poet? Is it fostered or genetic? Assumed, perhaps? Fortuitous ordainment from an anonymous divinity? A poet should be as fascinated with himself as his audience! That self-impelled curiosity leads to direr revelations: I am a poet because I must be; and because I must be, I must also become a rebellion against life’s reality, a genesis against life’s mortality and a refuge against life’s hostility!

So there it goes – the triple bulwark of inevitable circumstance. Should a poet deform his daily challenges or should his daily challenges form him? Should he be a creator of experiences or should experiences create him? Should he console or be consoled?

The poet only begins to exist—that is, transcend the basic recognition of “being”— after he has answered these questions. I have answered mine.

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Oyin Oludipe, Nigerian writer, edits nonfiction at EXPOUND: a Magazine of Arts and Aesthetics. His poems and essays have been published in various national and international journals like Ijagun Poetry Journal and Sentinel Literary Quarterly.

 

An Interview with Gillian Clarke

Born in Cardiff in 1937, Gillian Clarke is The National Poet of Wales since 2008 and a remarkable figure in British poetry. She is a poet, playwright, editor, translator, lecturer and translator. Her work – including Poetry Book Society Recommendations, Letting in the Rumour (1989), The King of Britain’s Daughter (1993) and Five Fields (1998) as well as her T.S. Elliot Prize shortlisted Ice (2012) – are emotionally laden with feminism, politics, life events, and are heavily centered around the theme of Place. Clarke is a poet who’s cultural upbringing in Wales shines through her work. Her work is studied in the GCSE and A-Level curriculum and she was on the panel of judges for the poetry competition named Anthologise, where school students aged 11-18 sent anthologies of their own poetry. Her contribution to the arts are widely recognised. She received the Wilfred Owen Association Poetry award in 2012.

Clarke provides The Luxembourg Review answers to questions about life as the Poet Laureate of Wales, the inspiration of traveling and its effect on poetic practice and advice to young poets who are interested in practicing the craft of poetry.


How much does the natural world inspire you?

I live in Ceredigion, 900 feet up, 6 miles in from the Irish Sea, which is visible between hills. We have 18 acres of land, and live several miles from the nearest village. This is our life. Being alive is what I write about. Wales has a low density population, and most of our towns and cities are close to the coast. Even when I lived in Cardiff we were surrounded by the countryside, in sight of mountains, and the sea visible from everywhere I have lived.

Is poetry an extension of our relationship with the physical forces of nature which govern us in our day-to-day experience?

I am sure that is not true. Poetry is art, and like all art, it is about what human imagination makes of what we see, hear, think etc. A main characteristic of being human is our pleasure in rhyme and rhythm, and poetry in its simplest forms (nursery rhymes, song lyrics) is natural to all. Its sophisticated forms are refined versions of human language. It’s word-music?

How important is nationality in defining yourself as a poet as your work can be accessed across the globe by a multitude of cultures?

I am Welsh, and I don’t know a life as anything else. I never think of ‘defining myself’, and did not call myself a poet. Other people did. The attention my nation gives to poetry and poets is supportive and nurturing. My parents (not educated people) had a great love for words, books, stories and poetry, in both langages. However, being Welsh is just one way of being human. The best writers are true to their culture, and are most universal when they express themselves through their own culture. W.H.Auden says:

“A poet’s hope: to be, like some valley cheese, local, but prized elsewhere.”

Seamus Heaney is a fine example, most Irish, most universal. Small countries look outward. Because my work is on the GCSE and A Level syllabus, it reaches wherever English is studied. I receive a steady stream of emails from students all over the world, and I answer them all.

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Gillian Clarke with Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Luxembourg Review Shehzar Doja at Chapter 1 bookshop, Luxembourg City.

Do you find that travels away from your homeland – to countries such as Luxembourg and Bangladesh – help your poetry go in new directions? Do you find these experiences pave the way for  new and varied inspirations?

Travel turned my focus from children, home and the domestic about thirty years ago. Every new place is fascinating, stimulating. I am an observer. I write what I know. It’s made me friends in many countries, taught me that the human being is the same everywhere, though coloured by a multitude of cultures, languages, ways of life. I must write from my own version of being human.

In 2008 you became the Third National Poet of Wales. What new challenges has this given you? Has this brought more pressure on you to write your poetry with Welsh readers in mind?

I like deadlines. That goes back to the weekly school essay! Over the past eight years I must have written well over a hundred commissioned poems and poems to support something. The commissioned, or requested poem is a tradition in Welsh culture that goes back to the 6th century. It is a ‘village’ tradition, here in Ceredigion, that poets rise to the occasion, as long as it’s an honourable subject. I write in English, but have ensured that all my public poems are translated into Welsh by a poet-friend whose first language is Welsh. So, on the Literature Wales website the poems appear in both languages. I have several poems placed on buildings, walls, pathways, as part of public places, and I usually use both Welsh and English in their writing –  except the most recently completed work by an artist in a long wall in a car park, in Newport, Gwent, five 6-line verses on the Welsh Chartists. In English.

With social media and online blogs making it simple to share poetry across the globe, do you believe the Age of Information has been beneficial to the poet? Do you think this has saturated the market in a way that devalues the art of poetry?

I don’t use social media, so I don’t see these works. It’s an open space for expression, which is good. It will have no effect on great poetry, and its enduring value. The internet as a tool, an infinite library, is wonderful. As I don’t do Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, and delete all invitations to connect, I can choose my correspondents, and my poets.

Some believe that poetic talents are innate or, at least, the potential is. Many fancy themselves as poets. What is your best advice to aspiring poets?

No, it is education, listening, reading, culture and family that make a poet. Had I been the daughter of painters, maybe i would have been an artist.

In a world where we are bombarded by so much information, what advice would you give young poets look to get their work out there and noticed?

Advice: read, and listen. Be alert to language. Forget being ‘noticed’. A real writer wants to learn and improve, rather than ‘be noticed.’ Submit poems for competitions. Book a week at a poetry course at Tŷ Newydd, our beautiful Writers Centre in North Wales, and be tutored by published writers.

Poetry is an art-form that most people believe they can take on. If someone pens a piece with a bit of rhyme and structure, there is a small potential they can claim themselves to be a poet. If someone were to sit at a piano and hit the keys without any prior instruction, I do not feel they would fancy themselves as a pianist. Do you feel the intrinsic nature of poetry is such that it allows people of all abilities to call themselves poets?

It is because language belongs to all humans, and a love of rhyme etc is a child’s natural way forward. Instead of taking the piano as comparison, take singing. All can sing, though not all are the greatest. If a person wants to write, I salute them, and welcome them aboard. Advice, apart from ‘read’: write to enjoy it, and don’t expect fame, money, publication.

Poetry, including nursery rhymes, seems to be loved in childhood. Poetry is read at life events such as weddings and funerals, through which can they leave a powerful impact. The emotional nature of poetry is not the issue, but people’s desire to read or listen to poetry outside of these contexts presents a significant problem in poetry’s popularity.

This is an out-of date view. If ‘poetry’s popularity’ is a problem. how come so many Literary/Poetry Festivals in Britain flourish – more every year? Why do so many young people contact me, all year round? How are so many readings by the best-known poets sell-out events?

Does modern poetry do enough to connect new readers as well as stimulate the majority of existing readers?

I have no idea. It varies from good amateur to truly great poetry, as all art does. A poet has to write true to herself, himself, and if it is appreciated, that is an extra bonus.  My emails from everywhere, those sell-out events, the two hour queues at Hay Festival signing books, the requests for a poet, special poems for events, buildings, public squares, tell how popular poetry is in Britain. It is a phenomenon, and the envy of many other countries.

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Interview conducted by Nathan Hassall.

Pigeons and Peace Doves- A Review

Click on the link to check out the book
Click on the link to check out the book

Pigeons and Peace Doves 

The sadness must have been contagious / I could see it with my eyes / it was covering her skin / like climbing-grey ivy, creeping from her hand’s tips” (The Full Weight of my Head, p.5)

Pigeons and Peace Doves is an award-winning chapbook written by Bristol-based writer and artist Matthew J. Hall. It was published by Blood Pudding Press in June 2015.

Pigeons and Peace Doves conveys emotion through a minimalistic style, which is refreshing in the  somewhat confusing world of postmodern poetry. With each poem less than a page long (one being only four words long), this collection is a light read upon first glance. However, its relative shortness may not prepare the reader for the vicissitude of dark awakenings for Hall. Hall is brutally honest, not shy of addressing the heavier topics from the recesses of thought through poetry.

Although many of Hall’s poems follow this minimalistic form, the imagery is usually quite engaging. A handful of Hall’s poems pull you into the darkness of his room, where he is at his most introspective.  This is best reflected in this passage, “I found a dead moth / and placed it in a matchbox / I put the box in my bedside drawer //… the box had become a coffin” (Many Shades of Brown, p.10) However, there are instances where Hall uses clichés, which unfortunately disrupts his poetic projections. These are relatively infrequent but can taint some otherwise decent poetry.

 In Pigeons and Peace Doves, Hall uses the imagery of the pigeon and the peace dove to bring about a sense of continuity in his work, giving his collection a sense of togetherness. They are used to some success, “I woke up warm / and the rhino was still asleep / his tusks aren’t as sharp these days / the petals and the peace dove have him subdued” (She Sedates the Rhino, p.1) One problem with Hall’s chapbook is that the continuity can become repetitive, with the majority of poems either taking place in his room or on the street. Place is important in poetry, a mix up of images and narratives can throw the reader in unpredictable directions. One of the standout works which breaks this repetition is the poem ‘Dear Confidence‘, where Hall addresses a personified Confidence, with an interesting hook and mysterious ending, “take stock, Confidence / pull from the ground up / reacquaint yourself with Quiet / spend some time with Reflection / let Introspection kiss your forehead and for all our sakes, learn how to cry.” (Dear Confidence, p.7)

Hall’s chapbook is filled with potent lamentations and the woes of loss. Single lines provide an insight into Hall’s mind and there are occasions where shorter passages reflect his most insightful work. Other times, though, the poetry can come across as needlessly in-your-face and not necessarily polished. On the other hand, this works sometimes, as Hall is a poet who is not afraid of telling a story for how it is,“and I wept and confessed / I didn’t want to live // but I couldn’t bring myself to tell her / that I had swallowed every damn tablet in the house.” (The Full Weight of My Head, p.5) “Death is always uncomfortably close / like tight skin wrapped around aching muscle and bone” (The City is Sad and Angry, p.4)

Pigeons and Peace Doves is an exploration of the self and its relation to others. It encompasses the claustrophobic feelings of depression, heartbreak and yearning for love. It is an interesting read but the collection is unlikely to linger long in the memory. Though Hall has put forth a few solid individual poems, future work would benefit from further rumination of concepts so that the writer can have greater authority over his poetic voice. Hall’s work is quite readable but I feel he would benefit from imposing himself more in future works.

Review by Nathan Hassall

Of Gardens and Graves by Suvir Kaul- A review

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Editor’s Note:This is our first review of an essay collection alongside poetry.
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To read “Of Gardens and of Graves” is to witness the coming to life of Yeats’ famous line: “A terrible beauty is born”. It is to be reminded, if ever a reminder was needed, of the lingering pain that seeps slowly and eternally through the flooded scars of Kashmir, the scowl of the last half a century that darkens the fate of every subject, born under the auspices of its melancholic sky. It is hard to classify the book into a genre as it repudiates traditional hierarchies by refusing to be neatly categorized into one – it is simultaneously a memoir, a critical commentary, an anthology, collaboration, and a history all rolled into one, held together by a single source- Kashmir.  An arbitrary classification of the book structure could be that the book comprises of three basic divisions: Essays, translations and photographs. On a reading, though, the narratives under each rubric just blend with each other, without any manifest hierarchy.

However, the essays appear to be tied loosely in a structural evolution, and so it appears fit to discuss them first.  The first essay ‘Visiting Kashmir, Re-learning Kashmir’, explores the identity politics of the valley through a biographical tilt. As the comma in the title suggests, the essay is explores the neat schism between the two eras of Kashmir: pre and post 90’s, an idyllic prelapsarian world of nostalgic summer vacations, harmony and beauty, and a postlapsarian world of bullets, blood and trauma. Unlike most such narratives of Kashmir, the essay doesn’t delve into a comparison of the two states to lament the loss of the idyll and place them on isolated axes of disconnect. The fallacy of nostalgia that Fanon warned against is absent here, the signs of privilege and dissonance are strewn across the narrative. The cloying romanticism of most narratives that deal with Kashmir before 90’s is not found here, and so the reader is allowed to proceed without getting inundated in a surfeit of manufactured memories and claims of an artificial Kashmir without any undercurrents of difference. The prelapsarian world is the world where the grandparents are revered academics, summer holidays are a means of connecting with heritage – a means to temporarily suspend the duality of based in India and identifying oneself as a Kashmiri. The signs are already there – the study of the history of the evolution of the state as a constituent of Indian republic yields uncomfortable contradictions. While, article 370 stands as a reminder of the special circumstances in which Kashmir was ‘acceded’ to India, and a promise of plebiscite placated the international community, the history on the ground followed a different trajectory. Manipulated elections became the norm, and any attempt to reinforce the autonomous character of Kashmir is met with derision, as Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah learnt to his chagrin in 1952.  The 1990’s arrive with the KP exodus, and so Kashmir disappears off the radar, as the pushes and pulls of a life in US take primacy.

Fast forward to 2003, the comparative subsiding of armed militancy allows the family to shift back to their ancestral home in Srinagar. The essay traces the descent of the pastoral idyll into an anarchic state where unaccountability rules the roost. The hierarchies of power have clearly been established, as the elite have’s zoom past the perplexed commoners in elaborate cavalcades that have the right of way – a lesson that is even forcibly reinforced as a university professor learnt the hard way after being dragged out by hair for failing to give way to an official vehicle. The former infamous torture centers – the twin Papas (Papa 1 and Papa 2 – translated ironically as Father – a way of accepting suzerainty as in the popular slang: Who your father?)  have been transformed into official buildings but they serve as a monument of Kashmiri trauma – the conceived space scarcely having undergone any change to merit any change in the lived space, to borrow Lefebvre’s analogy.

Another, metamorphosis that plays out is the appropriation of KP identity as jingoistic national identity – an aspect that plays out repeatedly on social networking sites. All the KP sites have been militarized with large hoardings erected by armed forces appear en route shrines like Amarnath welcoming the pilgrims, thereby indicating the exclusion of the Kashmiri Muslim from the networks of empathy. Identity has been irretrievably tied with religion and religion is synonymous with nationality. All identity markers: accent, dress and appearance are measured on these axes and determine whether the subject will be the recipient of an angry bullet or a friendly smile. So, it comes as no surprise when the author’s mother who wears a sari, is on familiar talking terms with the soldiers, allowed to walk about when the same privilege would be denied to an ordinary Kashmiri Muslim. The narrative is secessionist Kashmiri Muslim fit to be crushed and disenfranchised versus Indian Hindu nation. This binary was never more apparent during the recent floods, when the common perception was that the ‘Hindu’ non-local labour force was the only beneficiary of the official rescue efforts, along with the elite of the land. The diaries of 2010 catalogue the travails of both sides of the conflict – the hapless angry victimized Kashmiri pitted against an underpaid, overworked and sometimes underfed force, and the ensuing result is tragic.

This premise is explored further in the second essay “My heaven is Burnin’…” that delves into the origins of the Kashmir conflict. The essay traces the emergence of the state of Jammu and Kashmir set against a general shift in the world towards a post-colonial global order as the sun faded on the imperial regimes of yore after the world wars. The essay makes a compelling argument about the substitution of post-colonial utopias by neo-colonial dystopias which replicate the modus operandi of their colonial masters.  The imperialist intervention, the essay points out, forged a loose alliance of disparate communities yoked together by the agency of and consequently opposed to the imperial force, in this particular case – the British, to fight for nationhood based upon the premise that local aspirations would receive more recognition in new post colonial structures of governance as compared to the colonial centripetal systems.  In the case of Kashmir, a vassal state, the anti-colonial movement rose against the Dogra regime, who obtained the absolute power over Kashmir, as a British vassal, through the infamous Treaty of Amritsar. The “historically abysmal levels of formal learning among Muslims” thwarted their emancipation. The Kashmiri Pandits, however, prioritized literacy and acquired an advanced level of literacy such that they were impossible to ignore in the administrative setup – being adequately literate and possessing local knowledge. The Hindu connection and literacy didn’t catapult them to higher levels of administration, though as the Dogras were determined to preserve their exclusive Rajput-Hindu identity as their claim to superiority. Discrimination against the local populace was existent at both covert and overt level, covert in case of Pandits and overt in case of Muslims who were additionally subject to an aggressive system of taxation and forced labour (beggar). The Muslim majority state thus suffered the double ignominy of being ruled by a regime, intent of preserving and promoting its Hindu credentials in scant regard of majority, and being further isolated from its ‘empowered’ Hindu minority who comprised no more than 5% of the population. The anti-colonial movement, the essay argues was therefore a confluence of several shifting strands – a demand for Muslim empowerment, class empowerment (the local peasant and artisan being the most impoverished and affected populace) and an identification with the larger anti-British struggle enacted outside the state by the Indian National congress.

The essay traces the various political and ideological contours that evolved in Kashmir after its interaction with the catastrophic accident of partition. The unusual events and startling claims of the treaty of accession, startling in the sense that they would drive hyper-nationalists to severe hysterics today, like a refusal to be assent to any future constitution of India, are sufficient to suspect any claim of willful integration of the state with the Indian republic.  Over the next three decades, “politics in Kashmir continued to be a powder keg of repression”, which finally culminated in the explosive 90’s. By this time, the political issues had been simply relegated to a law and order issue and thus could be conveniently brushed aside by mobilizing a vast array of armed forces backed by the discourse of aggressive nationalism. The shift is painstakingly covered with a rich texture of detail and lucid language that leaves the reader with a profound sense of unceasing regret and loss signified best by the dotted line – a marker of continuity that completes the title.

The third essay “the Witness of Poetry” seeks to examine Kashmiri poetry as a chronicle of grief, decline and pain that serves to mould the discourses of future to some degree by serving as a means to transform consciousness – a refusal to write back into hegemonic discourses of guardianship, mentoring or regency that have variously been used as pretexts by neo-imperial regimes of Post-Colonial India. Taking its cue from the contemporary trauma theory, the essay seeks to examine what political positions can be mapped from the Kashmiri poetry, written as a response to 90’s. Elsewhere, I have pointed out that “traumatic memories are interpretative accounts and so liable to endless interpretation – “trauma is a crux, speaking to the undecidability of representation and the limits of knowledge” (Lockhrust, 2006). The narratives that emerge either in prose or poetry are therefore a belated response – an attempt to make sense out of the omissions and representations of a particular historical narrative; the disparities in the narratives only highlight the desire for creating a suitable defense mechanism that is in consonance with the prevailing socio-political mores. The literature of the 90’s reflects a sense to give form to orature – the narrative that precedes the written form, and so clear the ground for a new world order that assimilates the past[1].”

The essay then seeks to examine two poems that cover two narratives – the Kashmiri Muslim voice of trauma due to displacement from an idyllic past, and a Kashmiri Pandit voice lamenting the exile from homeland. Both voices are united in trying to seek solutions to the jigsaw – “the compendium of the sights and sounds, relationships, and every day practices” that lies shattered in the wake of armed insurgency. The Kashmiri Muslim voice represented by a ghazal by Mohiuddin Masarat is examined as cataloguing the dissonance, the rupture from normatively and hence evolving a “poetics of victimage”. The argument is scholarly and indeed well thought out except for a small issue that clouds the whole argument. The word ‘mot’ is translated as the lunatic (seer) in the ghazal, and the argument revolves a juxtaposition of the poet-lunatic in evolving a poetics of resistance. The term is often used in Kashmiri poetry as a reference to a beloved, a vernacular substitution. Will the argument of juxtaposition still hold if the meaning of mot is altered?

The argument will suffer to a minor degree, but the larger premise of a narrator engaged in ‘solipsistic disavowal’ will still hold. The Kashmiri-Pandit voice represented by a ghazal by Brij Nath Betaab is typical of Diaspora discourse, and the approach adopted by it can be traced to the famous poem by Akhter Shirani – O des say aanay walay bata (O traveler from my land, speak). The poem presents a series of images that constituted the idyllic pre-exile past, each stanza interspersed with the realization of the impossibility of fulfilling the erasure enacted by exile – does the practice still continue in the present. For the Diaspora, the homeland frozen in time and space, the incongruity of the alien Indian culture repeatedly evokes a memory to lacerate the wound of impossible history as it unfolds.The fourth essay “Indian Empire (and the case of Kashmir” completes the remarkable quartet of essays.  It makes a well wrought answer to the question that every inhabitant from Kashmir faces in a lifetime: Why have progressive Indian intellectuals and politicians found the Kashmir problem puzzling? An analysis of the practices of Post-Colonial nations especially India reveals that the colonial imprint is too indelible to have allowed a complete break from colonial pasts as independence is imagined to have enacted. In the case of India, and other Post Colonial nations it has only served to induce a nationalist amnesia that refutes any interrogation of practices that allow suspension of fundamental principles of democratic functioning. The aggressive nationalism left as a residue of the post colonial mobilization has only served to negate any compromise on the definition of the external boundaries of the state as outlined by the departing British. This paradox of legitimizing the writ of the colonial master deemed illegitimate otherwise for administering the state informs the practice of converting the state into a massive security apparatus to contain the restive populations that refuse to abide by these boundaries. The negation of the aspirations of the local populace, a key characteristic of the transition from colonial to post-colonial highlights the absurdity of imagining a break from past – only a transfer of power took place, in reality.

UntitledThe Indian state is placed in the context of global politics, to assess the conditions that negate any adaption of the post colonial ethos. The essay sets its argument upon a scathing analysis of a comment by C Raja Mohan – an eminent strategic affairs editor of Indian Express and a former holder of Henry A Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International relations at the John W Kluge Center, Library of Congress.  C Mohan argues for the evolution of an India center to facilitate the return of a Raj, enlisting the colonial period as a catalyst of bringing stability and peace to the warring and chaotic 19th and 20th centuries, overlooking conveniently the wrenching of the social fabric it caused apart from all hues of exploitation. Espousing an alliance with the primary global superpower –United States, he imagines India acting as a vassal in establishing an India center in the subcontinent giving India unparalleled access to the resources and routes of the subcontinent. India, therefore, is only following the global lead where the state is expected to modulate its policies to facilitate corporate trading and promote industrial interest. Rather than enacting transfer of democratic functions to the local constituents, the modern state acts only to extend capitalist principles set up by colonial trans-national companies like East India Company. The state’s capacity for violence directly determines its ability to exploit its resources both local and abroad to the hilt and any resistance, e.g. by Maoists only serves to invite state retribution. The political imagination is restricted to only two options: either accept economic development, surrender any attempt to wrest autonomy, or face military action.

The essay makes an extremely valid argument, about Kashmir, by placing it as a site of challenge to the Indian state’s “twinned powers of the state and multinational capital.”  An analysis of the electoral trends shows the degree to which the Indian state imitates its colonial master to protect the interests of its mainland that include access to cheap hydropower, water and potential mining reserves. In a direct replication of the colonial strategy to maintain a vice like grip on its colonies, the Indian state has not permitted the state of Jammu and Kashmir to build or operate dams like Kishenganga and Baghlihar- both are built and operated by NHPC – an unit administered by the center, which charges the state for its operations, besides transferring the major chunk of power generated to mainland India. Another important and valid reason, pointed out by the essay is the mapping of Kashmir as symbolic of India’s purported secular syncretism that occupies a cherished place in the national imagination – tampering with the state’s current combination of Muslim (Kashmir) – Hindu (Jammu) and Buddhist (Ladakh) populace is irreconcilable with the nationalist-ideological imagination, and so begets no solution in the near future.

A word on the translations – though my Kashmiri especially perception of Kashmiri poetry is limited, yet I couldn’t help feeling that many translations appear to be poor cousins of the originals. There appear to be some glaring omissions and mistranslations. In Bashir Dada’s famous ghazal Bless him now, matio is translated as lost one and explained in a footnote as superseding rationality. That the word refers to beloved e.g. in matio dil ne rozan danjay (Beloved, the heart is all aflutter), as I explained earlier, has simply escaped his attention. The lost one last line in Ghulam Hassan Taskeen’s nazm: chon akh akh  tsuih tse kiut bari giraan: is translated as Each one of your young, is for you, a great burden. Tsuih translates literally into breath or moment of lived existence, and so the line ought to read as as Each one of your young, is for you, a great burden. Zahirialmasa (zeher-e-almas) is inexplicably translated as Poison of diamond. Zahir-e-almas is a commonly used trope in Kashmiri poetry literally translatable into caustic poison whose effects are unbearable and painful to extreme. Some lines like so greedy I am for money I have my vision pawned, sound alien to the cadences of English poetry, to my ears. However, it is a subjective judgment and the readers will judge for themselves whether or not the translations appeal to them. Credit must be given where due, and that lies in anthologizing the works of Kashmiri poets for a larger readership. Though the selection is by no means exhaustive, as the preface confesses, yet it is a laudable attempt at examining the evolution of Kashmiri Resistance Poetry. The omission of Rehman Rahi and Naseem Shifai is certainly intriguing. Both are recognized widely as powerful voices engaged in recovering the voice of censored Kashmir. The omission of Naseem Shifai is even more surprising since her poetry is heavily influenced by feminist concerns and seeks to dramatize the severe trauma of the double subaltern – the woman, one of the worst off sections of the conflict ridden state. The book would have been the better for their inclusion. A final word on the powerful photographs of Javed Dar: they complement the narrative well, the black and white texture suits the narrative even better as the absence of color blends well with a lack of detail and life in Kashmir – a monotonous tale of death and destruction unfolds here on day to day basis, and the photographs present just that.

Overall, the book is a compelling but extremely painful read; it snuffs out any hope that we, the subjects of the beleaguered land hold that things might soon turn for the better. It appears that Marquez’s might have the final laugh: Races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth. I fear the book validates this view point, and not entirely without justification. The book is a refreshing change from the myopic narratives of Kashmir, which one comes across at every juncture. Scholarly, balanced and extremely readable, the book is a welcome addition to the corpus of reading on Kashmir that includes Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects by Mridu Rai and Langauges of Belonging by Chitralekha Zutchi. Kashmiri scholarship is in safe hands, one wishes the same could be said about the administration.

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Lockhrust, Roger. “Mixing Memory and desire: Psychonalysis, psychology and Trauma theory.” Literary Theory and Criticism. Ed. Patricia Waugh. Oxford University Press, 2006. 501.

Huzaifa Pandit is a research scholar working on resistance poetry at University of Kashmir. His poems and essays have been published in various national and international journals like Indian Literature and Papercuts.