In this room, the poems come and go
Long-lost twins, poetry and architecture are reunited in these pages. Both disciplines extend space and time, explore forms of accommodation, and dedicate themselves to the creation of conditions – and not machines – for living, for the expression of desires, aspirations, relationships. This month, we present a group of poems by the poet, editor and publisher Hemant Divate. Founder-editor of the Marathi little magazine, Abhidhanantar, Divate is acknowledged for his formative role in the emergence of a new literary avant-garde in Marathi during the 1990s. He is also synonymous with the dynamic imprint, Poetrywala: an enterprise that he directs in collaboration with his wife, Smruti Divate, it is dedicated to publishing the work of emerging Anglophone Indian poets. The poems presented here have been translated from the original Marathi by a fellow poet whose own practice is elegantly hybrid: Mustansir Dalvi, the architecture pedagogue and critic, whose literary commitments are recorded in his collection of poems, Brouhahas of Cocks, and his translation of Iqbal’s Shikwa and Jawaab-e Shikwa, which appeared in the Penguin Classics series as Taking Issue and Allah’s Answer.
In these poems, which have just appeared in Man without a Navel: New and Selected Translations, Divate meditates on the placeness of place, as compounded from a familiarity with the strange and an estrangement from the familiar. The poet lays intimate claim to the monuments and writers of Prague even as his alienation from his Bombay neighbourhood wraps itself up in the language of marketing; locality, he seems to argue, can be viscerally mobile just as easily as it can be anchored in space. In this spirit, and in the spirit of innovation, we include a QR Code patch here, which links up to a reading of one of Divate’s poems by Dalvi.
Praha: I’ll be back
1. If, on our very first meeting, I could touch every nook and cranny, I’d forge an eternal bond through easy familiarity. That’s how I now feel about this city.
2. I have never been able to read a woman fluently, as a poem; even my wife, whom I consider entirely mine remains a stranger in the end. How easy it would be if a woman could be interpreted like wine, sipped at a tasting. Like an unfinished poem languishing in my mind, I am made uneasy by my own femininity, inside and outside me. It’s a similar incomplete, unclear and upsetting relationship I maintain with every city But the moment I landed here, I remembered already having spent an entire lifetime, so I return — a substitute for Gregor Samsa.
3. I pace this town, wolf it down like a glutton, as if my father owns this town and everything in it, as if I have been granted a boon: the more I walk this city, the more it will be mine. Shops are stacked up tightly here between coffee houses, bars and pubs. I sneak out of these constricted slivers and slip into a familiar home. I cannot find the bed of my childbirth nor the table, the chair, nor the books, nor the shaving razor, nor its mirror but I can see right through this glass, back a hundred years, where I am abandoned in this blasted cold by an unrepentant, shivering
Kafka, who could not even make good the one life he was granted, while I, steeped in my own ennui endlessly experience birth, death and rebirth in many foreign tongues.
Kafka, you left with so many of my desires unfulfilled, so here I rise, again and again, putting brakes on my bestiality like you killed your own desires and became human. How late was it before you realized the greatness of transforming into an insect? Look up now, to the old clock tower and count – how many writers need to suffer and die to bring one insect to life.
4. I cannot see the numbers. Right now, women and men become numerals on the Charles Bridge. With no choice, I push my way through and descend to a nondescript punt waiting for me, a boat fated to drown fate, time after time. A man waits for me there dressed in a long coat like Kafka. He waits for me, eating chickpeas; the fucker hasn’t rid himself of his old habits.
Am I not going there just to tell him that the remains of his snack should be thrown into the garbage bin? Have I forgotten why I need to meet someone? Who am I supposed to meet, and for what reason?
Or, am I the man in the Kafka coat and while I say that I am moving along, am I actually standing in one place waiting for the punt under the Charles Bridge, while possibly, a man in a Kafka coat is in the boat, slowly approaching me
as I stand here eating chickpeas? And, as I wait for the man to approach the breeze blows dry shells from my hand and you say, don’t you even know how to eat chickpeas? This means that you clearly think I am some kind of arsehole, so let me tell you a story: not one that you should not repeat nor one that no one knows, but metamorphosis means the transformation of a city into an installation in an exhibition hall, a human artwork to be regarded by insects, an insect artwork to be regarded by humans, where a dim light metamorphosed over the installation is the one that bathes the poet’s composition in a soft, linguistic, biographical sheen while the city, as it is now is the detritus of screaming, blood-soaked geography or of raw imperialism that, like a half-done omelette is left to sizzle in the frying pan of history.
. . . and one more thing: Kafka prefers to drink English tea over coffee. There below the Grand Clock he waits to see which will turn into piss first, my coffee or his tea? We have a wager, Kafka and I— while the one who pisses first wins, the other will have to run, micturating all over Prague. It was ten past ten when I met him and all around his coat rose the angel-dust of Prague’s magic realism.
5. From where I stand I can see the impending demise of Kafka’s language. What can you see from where you stand? Can you see the tale of Gregor Samsa or only the ongoing, unending story of Franz Kafka?
6. Wandering through the Josefov quarter, I get this feeling of people screaming loudly in my ear; those who but moments ago walked arm in arm now lunge for each other’s throats; soft voices are now shrieks, russet-tiled homes now collapse into debris. I run, and the whole city gives chase as if I am the alpha and the omega of their destruction.
Inside Café Franz Kafka, I see people drink Coca-Cola instead of coffee. I turn to leave and cups, saucers, chairs, tables, coffee machines rattle and bump and grumble loudly: fucking Coke . . .
Slowly, without fuss, I transform into a two-inch cockroach. Divining with my antenna, I reach the Praha railway station even there, these bloody Coke bottles block my path.
As I turn back, Kafka accosts me, whispers in my ear that scuttling along these cobbled streets with me, for the first time, he realised Prague was sexy.
Fuck! I never once paid heed to the city’s sexiness. Praha, I’ll be back!
This page: Karlův Most or the Charles Bridge: a pedestrian bridge across the Vltava River in Prague (1357-1402), connects Prague Castle and the city’s old town Opposite page: Prague façades on the Mostecká Street, Prague
This page: Karlův Most or the Charles Bridge Opposite page: Piss by David Černý (2004), outside the Kafka Museum, Malá Straná, Prague. Bronze sculpture of two men facing each other, and urinating in a bronze pool in the shape of the Czech Republic