Poetry In this room, the poems come and go
Gieve Patel (born Bombay, 1940) is a distinguished presence on India’s cultural scene. Active as a poet as well as a painter and playwright since the late 1960s, he has committed himself to deep and intense artistic exploration in each of his chosen fields. This month, we present a selection from Patel’s Collected Poems (2018), published recently by Poetrywala. This volume brings together all the poems published in his earlier books, Poems (Nissim Ezekiel Publisher, 1966), How Do You Withstand, Body (Clearing House, 1976), and Mirrored, Mirroring (Oxford University Press, 1991). In addition, this Collected includes a suite of Patel’s new poems, and some of his translations of the 17th-century Gujarati poet Akho. By way of introduction to the poet, and to this selection, I offer readers a stack of notations. Thingness and Sight
Thingness lies at the core of Gieve Patel’s poetry. He points towards abstractions of the spirit, but always through a robust materiality of things tangible, palpable, visceral, things with heft and edge. His poems spring from a continuum of sensation and recognition, stimulus and response, impulse to act and current of thought. The interplay of circumstance and choice, the dance of will and limit, define the ground of his poems. Circumstance: that which stands around. In ‘Spider’, the arachnid protagonist’s life is a constant alternation between acrobatic display and a gathered-in stillness.
Mark the interchange of solid and liquid in Patel’s universe, the slow dissolution of the appearances that sustain our sense of the world, and correspondingly, a gradual revelation of the invisible forces that hold it together and guarantee its admittedly unpredictable continuity, underwrite its precarious stability. In ‘The Sight Hires a Boat It Sees’: “a wave of rock”. In ‘Soot Crowns the Stubble’: “a tide of ground”. The sight line, in fact the eye itself, is shaped by these seismic experiential shifts that work their sorcery sometimes glissando, sometimes con brio.
Phrase and Place
Nissim Ezekiel was a key mentor figure to Patel, especially during the early phase of his career (it was Ezekiel who published his first volume of poems in 1966). In ‘The Place’, Patel’s poetry demonstrates the impress of an Ezekielesque phrasing and world-view. As in this line: “The tryst is inward.” The imperative of interiority is emphasised in the face of a world that has been sensuously embraced. Patel’s wryness playfully undercuts the more sententious freight of the Ezekiel legacy. And indeed, as an artful, self-ironic meditation on love, on the words and silences that join and part lovers, on the rigours of yoga and the pleasures of bhoga, ‘The Place’ is also strongly reminiscent of the poetry of the Metaphysical poets, of John Donne and Andrew Marvell.
Elsewhere, phrase takes its cue from place, as words are shaped into the mud-bathing buffaloes in the pond at Nargol, Patel’s ancestral village in Gujarat; the bold squirrels of the Mall in Washington DC; and the streetscape and its changing cast of actors as viewed from what was, for several decades, the poet’s medical clinic on Lamington Road.
Always, the articulation of the tensions between individuals – and within individuals — as they contour relationships through stress, strain and storm. By contrast: the sumptuous, dazzlingly coherent, almost theophanic thereness of place.
Deliberation. This word, which occurs in ‘Fortunes’, in our present selection, embodies a key element of Patel’s approach to experience. To go into outright rapture — over a person, a landscape, a piece of music, a painting — is vital. But so too, in Patel’s scheme of things, is the pause before an impulsive gesture, the consideration that must preface any act that, inevitably, will trigger off a chain of consequences.
An everyday crisis: How the universe and its events conspire against any cogent display of individual agency. On the other hand, how to shake an individual out of some inherited or internalised protocol that imposes pattern on chaos, a charter of rules on turbulence?
Every now and again, in Patel’s poems, we come upon the conflict between the stasis of a prescribed role and the Eliotan “awful daring of a moment’s surrender”. In the early ‘Vistasp’, the poet-persona startles a younger cousin immersed in prayer (the Parsi Gujarati term dayo-damro attaches itself instantly to the dutiful lad). In the more recent ‘All Night’, the poet-persona gains insight into his own repressed or socially monitored self when looking at a tree swaying in a nocturnal gale outside his window.
Charisma and Power
During the late 1960s, Patel’s generation rang a specific variation on the so-called ‘tradition vs. modernity’ debate. On one side: the counterculture, with elements of Aldous Huxley, Woodstock, LSD, psychotherapy, and sexual liberation. On the same side, roughly, but at an angle: the 1967 Naxalite uprising and the 1968 movements of student resistance globally, and the tidal
waves of social and political mutiny rippling out from the protests against the Vietnam War. On the other side — or was there really just one heterogeneous, kaleidoscopic side to this period? — the desire to retrieve dimensions of consciousness and experience that had been lost to cold positivism and corrosive doubt. Thus: Freud, Jung, Carlos Castaneda, R D Laing. And also an attempt to retrieve wisdom from beneath the accretions of blind faith, social custom, dogma. Thus: a turning towards spiritual teachers such as Jiddu Krishnamurti and Swami Prem Krishna (formerly Ronald Nixon) and Swami Madhava Ashish (formerly Alexander Phipps) of Mirtola, who proposed routes to illumination that were more modern and cosmopolitan than traditional and sectarian.
From a reflection on the intimate links between spiritual charisma and temporal power, healing and control, the shifting power dynamic between a leader and his followers: Patel’s ‘The Multitude Comes to a Man’.
Politics and the Parsi
Although a considerable number of Parsis — splendidly out of proportion to the demographic strength mustered by this accomplished micro-minority — have been engaged in public life, the average Parsi’s favoured self-image is that of the genial, non-interfering non-combatant who remains uninvolved in the subcontinent’s deeply entrenched racial, religious, regional, linguistic and sectarian strife. The fence is the Parsi’s throne. The happenstance of foreign descent, the diasporic sensibility, the ability to transit with relative ease among disparate cultures — none of which are Parsi monopolies in South Asia — are cherished as uniquely Parsi characteristics. And as pretexts to stay out of the fray, taking no sides.
So where does the Parsi take his stand in a country whose Independence in 1947 was gained at the cost of Partition? These events were tainted by bloody communitarian violence and an exchange of populations between British India’s successor states on a scale unprecedented in human history. This resulted in the incalculable loss of life, home, and homeland for millions of people. And in lasting schisms that have allowed regressive political forces to polarise Hindus and Muslims against one another. Meanwhile, the Parsi plays at well-meaning philanthropist, steadfast truth-teller, or harmless buffoon.
In a devastating self-portrait that satirises these survival strategies, Patel offers us ‘The Ambiguous Fate of Gieve Patel, He Being Neither Muslim Nor Hindu in India’.
Patel embraces the exclamation — usually derided by more uptight writers — with verve and zest. Look, he’s an actor pointing at things visible and invisible! In ‘How Do You Withstand, Body’, in ‘Soot Crowns the Stubble’, in ‘A Variation on St Teresa’, and in ‘Moult’, the exclamation conveys his curiosity, his amazement at the world’s marvels. And the self’s ability to marvel at its own capacities for self-delusion, self-ambush!
In ‘A Variation on St Teresa’, the exclamation carries the rip tide of passion arrowing towards the ocean of sacred everythingness. Patel works with the woman saint’s famed use of a voluptuary and carnal vocabulary as a path to the transcendent, not by mortifying but by celebrating the flesh. We think of the reluctant St Augustine in his Confessions: “Da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo (“Lord, give me chastity; but don’t give it yet!)”
In ‘Moult’, the Mahabharata hero Karna willingly hands over the armour that is his skin to the god Indra, who wishes to leave him vulnerable, prey to his enemy in battle. Karna is the epitome of generosity, even at the cost of death. But what if, Patel asks slyly, what if Karna’s self-sacrifice were not, in fact, simply the shivering defeat of a flayed warrior? What if the lost armour-skin is, in fact, an emancipation of the body from its straitjacket of duties, ascribed by society or self-imposed?
Even as the exclamation lifts free of the constraints of well-behaved prose, these figures exclaim themselves out of their fate: released from the burden of their contexts, the armatures of social expectation and self-sworn morality, they find their way to a place of spiritual freedom.
FROM: Poems (1966) Spider
Between acrobatics The spider is still, Each stationary spot A central spring Of thought and feeling: Stone wall, warm wood, The flesh on my arm, The stratum’s fervour, Meaning, matter, Distilled, absorbed, Into mind and heart.
I’m certain it was a crow: The letter stamped, licked And ready disappears the Moment I leave the room: Written with such deliberation, Each line a decision, and again The final choice between sealing Or destroying as thin
As a tossed coin; with all along An implicit knowledge: I haven’t The courage to write again.
Though I’m fit for reading fortunes now. *
He was praying before the lamp— Petromax. I crept up from behind, Caught him at his shoulders, Heaved him up above my head. When I put him down, turned him Around, I saw his face: shocked, Speechless, as though he were the very god I had flung into the air; but also
A silent thumping joy
At the outrage.
Now the thing was an impulse— Given thought I wouldn’t do it—
I am not god-destroyer,
I have little against prayer,
But he would have to take account, Accommodate the fact
Of being swung out of holiness Into a meaningless motion,
An arc of time to trace
A future doubt.
Would my silly act have made him A thinker?
Later he came to me, shy and merry: ‘This evening when I am praying,’ he said,
‘do it again.’
* FROM: How Do You Withstand, Body (1976)
How Do You Withstand, Body
How do you withstand, body, Destruction repeatedly Aimed at you? Minutes, Seconds, like gun reports, Tattoo you with holes.
Your area of five
By one is not
Room enough for
The fists, the blows;
All instruments itch
To make a hedgehog
Of your hide. It’s your fate, Poor slut: To walk compliantly Before heroes! Offering
In your demolition
A besotted kind of love: Dumb, discoloured, Battered patches; meat-mouths For monsters’ kisses.
The Sight Hires a Boat It Sees
The sight hires a boat it sees:
A speck, two fin-like sails,
The distant movement enlarged in Imagination as though
One were at the spot—waves Reaching three quarters up the mast, The boat boiling forward Through steam. I on land Watching I
At sea. And where
Is the deck more secure? Cityquake says alas
To one view of that ship
Before eye level sinks
Under a wave of rock.
Soot Crowns the Stubble
Soot crowns the stubble, the grass Shorn off by a wave of fire.
It could’ve been hair off my chest.
That I should seek to equate breast expanse To meadows; claim flying rights
Over a plain ever so often flaming Under the sun’s ignition! Prescribe me A true limitation! Do I not waste years Denying arms and legs permission
To be elsewhere; insisting
Birds alone are agents
Of dispersal, each vulture Sheltering in its gizzard
The eye or the limb of what
Was one corpus? Though even the Monolithic tamarind delicately
Torn by sparrows’ beaks
For miles is dispersed as mere Droppings: flesh first ingested
And processed to dung,
A stowaway in birds’ innards, Levitating from
A tide of down-pulling ground.
The Ambiguous Fate of Gieve Patel, He Being Neither Muslim Nor Hindu in India
To be no part of this hate is deprivation. Never could I claim a circumcised butcher Mangled a child out of my arms, never rave At the milk-bibing, grass-guzzing hypocrite Who pulled off my mother’s voluminous Robes and sliced away at her dugs. Planets focus their fires
Into a worm of destruction
Edging along the continent. Bodies Turn ashen and shrivel. I
Only burn my tail.
The Multitude Comes to a Man
The multitude comes to a man When he acquires the power To heal: slowly the multitude Comes dragging
Its heel. What
Can the multitude want
As I join it to visit
The man who can heal?
The multitude sees its own power Accumulate before
The healing man, and exchanges Willingly power
FROM: Mirrored, Mirroring (1991) The Place
See now, Well Loved, we make
Too much of places where to meet, And why some should seem right, Not others. The tryst is inward.
Any atom on earth should do
To sit by. But we fuss, we cavil,
We make ponderous choices, rejecting That cool well-side for no mortal reason, Favouring instead a lumpy, dusty stone To sit upon, as the one spot
We had been urgently seeking.
And it isn’t as though we were ascetics. Outright beauty too has pleased us. Like that seashore, dense with moonlight Igniting water, sand and air
Into a blind shimmer; our Recurrent wrangling the
One division to mar
That place’s simple perfection.
A Variation on St Teresa
Whenever You withdraw only a little way from me I immediately fall to the ground.
I wait upon the strings You hold. In this equation whatever to make of love? And of any independent performance of a glorious kind? My limbs at best may be infused by an outer force; and so inconsolably
I await Your storms: screaming seas, rippling gales, clouds tumbled across the mouths of valleys spewing lightning, with trees shaken like rattles in a child’s fist!
These then, at last, do move me. Yes, I am moved, indeed I am, I am.
FROM: New Poems (2018) All Night
All night long the tree crackling, shivering, hurled right to left and back again by the dark air. It was bracing to wake up at least four times in the night, each time to listen to its fortunes, then slide back into sleep. How is it that another being’s restlessness could make me feel restful? The tree’s accustomed stately quiet— and maybe it might even wish once in a while to be tossed about the way it was this night, and I could sense a jubilation, an exultant cry splintering its throat. Sensing the tree’s delirium
I was given reciprocal understanding of my own racing journeys night following night, hair all awry, the wild touselling sounding screams I never get to utter otherwise.
for Ranjit Hoskote, for his wonderful Karna play based on Bhasa
The sodden, dripping weight which he moulted and offered to the god who received it in cupped hands — was it skin really, or rather something amphibious, half metallic scales, half mutely screaming integument smelling of fish, while flayed Karna shivered from a cold he had never thought to endure, shivered animal-like, a mere beast prepared for the cooking pot, and walked to the battlefield certain to be pierced by the first lance aimed at him. But the burden! Amazingly it had lifted, and might it not be one’s heart’s desire fulfilled to die unrehearsed of lightness?
The images seen in the background are details from the triptych ‘Joan of Arc after Carl Dreyer’ by Gieve Patel (charcoal and graphite on Arches paper, 2016).The triptych was part of the exhibition Footboard Rider by Gieve Patel, curated by Ranjit Hoskote. The exhibition was on display at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai from 19 January to 18 March 2017. All images courtesy of Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke.