Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry’, wrote W.H. Auden in memorial for W.B. Yeats. The
sentence herds the reader straight into the heart of the matter. It implies that there is a relationship between the poet, or rather poetry, and the social order that condition all literature. In Auden’s overall view, however, this does not amount to much: ‘For Poetry makes nothing happen.’ Further, the question may be asked, did Ireland always have something to do with Yeats’s poetry? What is this relationship between country, history and language? It is often argued that poems are private acts that speak to intensely personal experiences, and should not therefore be generalized to universal conditions.
In this other sense then, poems indeed need not make anything happen. Guru T. Ladakhi’s debut collection of poems, Monk On a Hill, offers an occasion to witness these connections. What kind of spaces resonate within the poems?
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The first section of the slim collection, entitled ‘People’ takes up half the volume. The cast of characters that people this section are varied and wide-ranging. Among them exist family relations, friends, musicians, Vincent Van Gogh, monks, chowkidars, dead kings, and other poets. These are not simple character portraits, but represent in some way a feeling of loss—literally in terms of the death of people close to the poetic voice, and more figuratively, the passing of a way of life. The poems set up a romanticized past as a counterpoint to the ‘Shit, grime, murder, mediocrity’ of the more immediate. The aesthetic of the pastoral, its valorization of nature as a state of innocence, is deployed to offset ‘armpit towns’ where only ‘zealots and martyrs’ survive. Only an air of cynicism it seems is to be trusted when it comes to the present. The very first poem, dedicated to another poet, Robin, speaks of ‘greed, revolution, rape, fear, beauty, pain, hope/ and of a people living on the margins of a nation’s memory.’ Maggie meanwhile in the poem ‘Maggie and I’ declares ‘this place is a piss joint’, while reposing elegantly with a cigarette, the picture of modern ennui.
Flicking lights in a dim groan of saxophones,
you tell me cutely, ‘I’m lonely without my loneliness’,
but I know you are only drowning in your shadows,
your thin arms splaying into the vortex wind.
What is being attempted here? The larger sentiment of the poem indicates how Maggie, who travels back and forth from different lands, is as much a fugitive as the speaker, who we are told has never left this ‘tin pot town’. Both of them, despite that one stays and the other keeps leaving, ‘live fugitive lives forever’. This would be a decent enough idea but the sentence constructions and choice of words keep getting in the way, a feeling that doesn’t go away throughout the collection. It is difficult to get past the word ‘cutely’ for instance. It confuses the construction of Maggie as a figure, and she is unable to come alive or be fleshed out in any real way. Is she a sweet little ingénue? A manic pixie dream girl, someone meant to highlight the speaker’s own interiority rather than express her own? Or is she a slightly potty-mouthed vagabond who, as we see, is bored without her loneliness? But what in the world is ‘cute’ about this? There is a lack of clarity with ideas and inattentiveness to words and the way they are used which blunts what could have become a solid poem about personal crises in a difficult town in a tough political and economic situation. At any rate, the broader theme is not an unusual one: the city offers no redemption; it corrodes the soul.
In contrast to this are figures of old men who symbolize romantic escapism within nature and nostalgia for the past: old monks, old chowkidars, old rulers. In ‘the old monk of Sonada’, the monk is all-knowing and undefeatable. The poet persona wants to stump the wise old man with clever questions but is unable to. Instead he is, somehow, stumped by the monk himself who tells him to ‘be happy!’ The effect of this apparently cryptic message is ‘like a thunder shower’, and suddenly, to paraphrase the last line, he (the poet persona), knows. The poem, structured as it is towards some sort of a spiritual epiphany, does not necessarily yield the kind of thrill it seeks. After all, to my mind at least, to be wantonly told to be happy is more liable to produce frustration and anxiety. If it is meant to indicate religious succor in a chaotic, stressful and violent world, it is a message no different from late capitalist modernity itself. The latter, like the former, advises against trying to understand a social totality and to be concerned with personal happiness alone. Both advocate a determinism, cosmic or historical, whose underlying imperative is to sit back and let things take their course.
The other option is to find a safe refuge, one that exists more in the imagination than in actual reality. Take the figure of the chowkidar in the eponymous poem for instance:
In all his countless summers
he has never ventured beyond a day’s walk.
I cannot relate to him the world without—
of what use is it to him?
He only know these encircling mountains,
he only understands the silence within.
Here I am, far from the clamour of existence,
under a blue vaulted sky
dwarfed by this ageless man
walking tall in all his ignorance.
I often return to his tiny world.
This man’s world is autotelic, a self-sustaining unit apparently untouched by civilization. He is closed off from history and the depradations of modernity, existing in a timeless bubble, merging with the natural geography surrounding him: ‘His voice is a river of calm, his eyes misty twin lakes.’ This is a simple countryman, with no politics or sense of his place in the larger world or a desire to even know it. Besides, the authorial first person voice who is presumably the hardened subject of the world, weary with reason, burdened with knowledge, sees that the old man can have no use for it. The class condescension notwithstanding, this appears to be a poem that believes in earnest that ignorance is bliss.
The yearning for an old order also draws in a complex political history which is implied now and again but never fully referred to. The most explicit political position is in ‘Jhunkyang: The Last Dream’, written in the voice of the last monarch of Sikkim, Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal, who was deposed by the Indira Gandhi-led government and his kingdom annexed in 1975. The poem is elegiac, even as it functions as a farewell note in the voice of an old mythicized king to the ‘doe-eyed children of the mountains’. The editorial footnote reads ‘in recent years, his old subjects have acknowledged his patriotism for his country.’ This is a curious oversight, to refer to people existing under very different political structures and historical circumstance as ‘subjects’. Does it betray a hidden fondness for a benign feudalism? The poem certainly does. But a poem in principle is open to a range of readings, and can and should be read independently of the poet’s intentionality. The editor’s notes, however, are guidelines that tell you how you are supposed to read it. The Chogyal dynasty was not a smooth and loving social contract between king and subjects. Indeed there were efforts to produce a sovereign national identity that resisted annexation by India, reserving the right to forge their own postcolonial ambitions. But this took the form of building a national identification around the Bhutia-Lepcha community, leaving other ethnic groups such as Nepali constituents to feel threatened who then took out popular protests against the monarchy. The period preceding the king’s deposition saw internal unrest and many contestations,
something popular histories and cultural products about Sikkim have tended to overlook.
The combination of the tropes of simple hill folk, a golden ageism and benevolent feudalism is as old as poetry itself, and says something more of the conservative impulse in our present political moment than anything substantial about the past. The wish to retreat into a time of simplicity and innocence, however fictional, does gesture at the difficulty of understanding a fractured landscape.
In many ways, some of the poems advocate a transcendence over this-worldly reason. In each poem, the voice seems to want to point to an essence that defies description. Consider for example, two stanzas from the poem ‘Moonchild’:
Why do you analyse me,
innocent victim of reason?
Your brown eyes can only see,
not perceive this sacred vision
My life is beyond understanding,
above your enslaving chain.
free from the clever grip of pain.
As an innocent victim of reason, one may be persuaded to ask the tiresome, nagging questions: to whom is this directed? What is the sacred vision? Why is the grip of pain so clever? Poems need to be granted a certain degree of license, granted, but where does it end? These lines represent something that recurs throughout the collection, a sense that there will be exemption from close analysis, a resistance to look too closely, as if it is asking us to take the poet’s word that there is depth we may never find, so don’t bother looking for it. This indeed might be the case, however a lack of precision in thought or ideas is often reflected in imprecise language. A poem is the space in which we test the malleability of language, how far can we stretch words to create new meanings, how can we break down the ordinariness of language to arrive at a thought or feeling that that very language hides? It would be in bad form to mistake obscurantism for depth and meaning, in speech as well as in the written word. Put another way, just by being shaped into a poem doesn’t grant its legitimacy as one.
It is in the section ‘Places’, where Ladakhi writes broadly of states from a personal yet zoomed out perspective, that he is most evocative and skilful. We see a raw and honest description of what it means to repeatedly encounter deaths, while watching the news eating breakfast or in person while on holiday in Goa. The muted trauma of those who live in a highly militarized region is highlighted through the controlled language of distance, almost an impersonal curiosity in ‘Manipur’: ‘Manipur, I’ll never pretend to understand you.’ And Shillong, which he views from a bird’s-eye view standing on a peak, while being mindful of his friend who he knows ‘walks the streets of hatred everyday, terror thrashing in his guts’. In Goa, the poet is on vacation and is faced with the untimely death of a couple, strangers to him, who drowned in the seas. There is both quiet poignancy and humour (‘The husband big and burly, braving the waves in his fading underwear, which never elicits raised eyebrows amongst us Indians’) in this poem, as the poetic voice attempts to find ‘words that map the contours of loss’, a loss that is moving but not strictly personal. ‘The Death of a Father’ (Part I and Part II) from the previous section are haunting poems of coming to terms with the demise of a parent, deploying the same distant tone that only serves to move the loss closer into view.
The later sections ‘Seasons’, ‘Haiku’ and ‘Postscript’ dally more with longings and desire, while maintaining the atmospherics of the natural world and nostalgia. The poem that stands out from these sections is one entitled ‘World Cup’. The movement of the text slides startlingly from a fairly mundane scene of father and son headbutting over the volume of the tv into an image fantasy of the father murdering his son with a khukri knife, or vice versa. It isn’t clear who it is that visualizes killing the other. But the poem is impressive in its sleight of hand, it hints at a tense and dark history between the father and son, and elevates it for a second into high tragedy. As a debut collection there are many poems and many elements within individual poems that are striking, but one comes away with the feeling that they could have been honed better for greater precision and clarity of image and idea.
Puja Sen is a journalist based in Kathmandu, Nepal.