By Mosarrap H Khan
In 1830, the Russian poet Pushkin was torn between a failing engagement to his young, beautiful fiancé Natalia Goncharova and his ruinous finances. Since his mother-in-law demanded a dowry for her daughter’s hand, the distraught poet left to attend to his small estate, Boldino, a marriage gift from his father, in faraway Nizhny Novgorod province, 250 miles east of Moscow. As he set about the task of settling down, the plague of 1830 came calling and the poet was in a state of lockdown, enjoying the freedom it provided him from his material worries. He spent most of his time riding horses and writing poetry, completing a verse novel that he has been working on for last seven years. And then he wrote, “A Feast During the Plague”, inspired by British author John Wilson’s, The City of the Plague, set in London during the plague of 1665. In contrast to Wilson’s gloomy picture of London, Pushkin’s quarantine-induced poetry paints a lively picture of death and of the fatal disease:
“There’s rapture on the battleground,
And in the Plague’s pernicious breath.
For all that threatens to destroy
Conceals a strange and savage joy—
Perhaps for mortal man a glow
That promises eternal life;
We’ll sip the rosy maiden wine
And kiss the lips where plague may lie!”
A young audacious Pushkin found in the plague a way to defy death, a way to steal life faced with an unprecedented crisis. Hibiscus: Poems that heal and empower, an anthology of poems, edited by Kiriti Sengupta, along with Anu Majumdar and Dustin Pickering and published by Hawakal Publishers, is no less audacious in its claim that poetry has a role to play in moments of collective crisis, a pandemic. Poetry ought to not only heal but empower us in uncertain times, enable an inward journey of self-consciousness, and make us rethink our way of life. As Sengupta writes: “Our Hibiscus will bloom amid corona infestation, self-isolation, unemployment, famine and suffering. This anthology will comfort and rejuvenate the readers to step into a world that might not allow reckless lifestyles we were used to. Self-restraint comes with a price” (6).
Many of us are aware of Theodor Adorno’s exhortation, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Adorno later clarified this comment, written toward the end of his essay, “Cultural Criticism and Society” (Prisms, MIT Press, 1981) in order to emphasize the role of the critic in the context of authoritarian societies that absorb the mind entirely, leaving it space enough for a “self-satisfied contemplation”. That is, the mind of the critic is already entangled in a system of cultural production that is driven by the logic of the market. In the context of immeasurable suffering of working class people in the aftermath of lockdown in India, we might as well say, “To write poetry after the plight of migrant workers is barbaric.” Considering the class location of most of our poets, a mode of “self-satisfied contemplation” would indeed appear vulgar and self-indulgent. However, as Jill Pelaez Baumgaertner writes in the context of Brooklyn poet Charles Reznikoff, poetry after Auschwitz could redeem itself by a public bearing of witness to barbarity, distinct from Sylvia Plath’s metaphorical reworking of Nazi brutality within the space of the family, “Every woman adores a Fascist.”
Hibiscus is a potent mix of self-satisfied contemplation and bearing witness to a world devastated by inequality. Each of the poets in the collection works through their privilege, their class awareness, and their creative urge in an altered context to address a pertinent question: How do pandemics inflect the production and consumption of literature in general and poetry in particular?
In Bishnupada Ray’s poem “Telling Images”, the masked sanitation workers erase the distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’: “they were seen cleansing the air/sprinkling the roads and pavements/sanitizing the doorknobs and surfaces/they were fighting an invisible enemy/through telling images of washing hands” (47). The reader is asked to bear witness to an ordinary act of sanitization and then made to invert the gaze to see how we have descended into an ‘OCD’ culture of constant cleansing, undermining the distance between people. Yet Mallika Bhaumik’s “Survival” underscores the impossibility of crossing this physical and metaphorical distance between people as a group of migrant workers are “bathed in chemical sprays” (91). The connotations of being unclean, infected and the reduction of humans to objects are captured in brutal frankness. In the best tradition of poetry written to bear witness to brutal acts, Sutputra Radheye’s poem, “Splatter of Blood”, depicts the distance between a hungry belly and stale chapatis, a train track: “Calm the raging train down./The stale chapatis are left/To be thrown into my stomachs” (171).
Traumatic experiences produce silence, a moment of deep contemplation, verging on Adorno’s idea of “self-satisfied contemplation”. However, the poets in Hibiscus do not speak of silence as a self-indulgent luxury. Each moment of silence and pause is impregnated with an invitation to think what it means to have reached the state of human civilization that we are implicated in. Ananya S Guha’s poem “Silence” ponders over the mind’s (in)capacity for silence, “Silence/My mind is brittle” (28). A pandemic impacts the mind, tears it asunder, rendering it brittle, incapacitating its ability to inhabit a zone of silence. And yet silence, a zen-like nirvana – “Will we let the earth rest/in nirvana…? (“Foresight”, Anju Makhija, 32) – is what we need to comprehend the enormity of the situation. This stillness – “Seek the composure of the great depths, barely moved by exterior storms” (“Peace Prayer”, Michael R. Burch, 102) – is a source of solace when the mind is brittle. However, silence cannot be understood only as a spiritual experience, as human beings are deeply somatic, given to sensory perceptions. Claudine Nash’s poem “Things Without Measure” imagines the experience of silence “in a fistful/of golden berries,/so soft on the/tongue, though/not quite sweet” (53).
From silence to resilience, there is but a small leap of faith. The poets in Hibiscus delve deep into the history of devastation of human civilization to find hope. Aneek Chatterjee’s poem “The Flame” (29) works out a homology between the carnage of Hiroshima bombing and the death dance of corona. A similar sense of desolation pervades Raja Chakraborty’s “Where The Streets Have No Names”:
“Stunned in collective silence
They could not even call out the other,
For they have no names anymore
Just mere streets, identical in death” (130).
Hope is born by dwelling on death, by being acutely aware of what it means to survive death, “I survive the death of dances/Of haunting pestilences/And come to my senses/In liberating séances” (“Rebirth”, Ajanta Paul, 23). For many a poet in the collection, hope in engendered by faith in love:
“The day we went walking
by the lake you spoke of the pandemic
and we recovered from it” (“An Imagined Walk”, Amit Shankar Saha, 26)
“When there’s no other way to love
but with emojis in this virtual world.
But whatever it is, the way this distance
makes our hearts beat, flutter, skip a bit
will not change, will still be the same
even in this changed world of the pandemic.” (Minal Sarosh’s poem, “Emojis”, 105)
“Love rises from my feet up
Pushes my diaphragm to my heart
I hug her and kiss her
Like she’s a child’s soft toy” (“Caring For An Aged Mother”, Bharati Mirchandani, 41)
“In their anchols, mothers carry
love, spices, safety pins, warmth and raindrops.” (“Maa”, Shamayita Sen, 150)
A walk by the lake, a soft kiss on a mother’s face, a mother’s anchol, an emoji on a phone screen – the space and language of love have evolved. What has remained the same is the poets’ faith that love can withstand the perils of a pandemic, that a simple act of mutual kindness can reinforce the boundary between life and death to reach “a promise of daylight, of meadows” (“And We Broke Into Butterflies Yesterday”, K. Srilata, 156).
This pandemic has made us recognize the value of the domestic space more than ever and the poets in Hibiscus are aware of the challenge of negotiation. As the pandemic rages in the outer sphere, we seek meaning in the domestic space of home. Home-making is, however, fraught with tensions, doubts, violence, and eruption of pent-up feelings:
“In the open kitchen un-modular
conversation locked down for years
broke open sluice gates” (“Remedial”, Nabanita Sengupta, 111)
“We could leave the speaking to the eyes,
with words written in kohl, when I see
you from behind layers of doubt.” (“A Home In Our Prayers”, Barnali Ray Shukla, 37)
“When the house grows old
Tomorrow our children will know
With friends of their sort” (“Once Upon A Time In Pasighat”, Mamang Dai, 93)
The art of making home in the time of pandemic is to pick up the ruins, say the unspoken, and believe that it is only love that can heal and reconcile, “Let’s heal cell by cell, Navi, let’s sleep right within ruins” (“Healing Amid Ruins”, Nabina Das, 113). Making home implies overcoming our physical ailments, learning to live with each other’s brittleness, “At last we both settle down with a drink and realize how much we have lost in this game called love” (“Lockdown”, Ranu Uniyal, 136). Making home is also about the ability to look at your little girl asleep, oblivious of the pandemic raging outside. As she rubs the night from her eyes, a father watches her “undone/almost/by it all” (“Dawn”, Steve Denehan, 158). Denehan’s economy of words recreates a beautiful image of domesticity, the power of being undone by a daughter’s waking, something that no pandemic can ever obliterate. It is the home, the domestic – broken or whole – that heals and empowers. Hibiscus is scattered with such profound images of love and reconciliation because “Being human is/a bit more intense than most/of us can handle” (“Inner Climate Change”, Gerard Sarnat, 60).
With the onset of pandemic, we are forced to rethink the ‘real’, what it means to live a wholesome life, if such a thing ever existed. In the age of late capitalism, we are compelled to think of the real because we live our lives in a simulacrum, simulation masquerading as the real, taking us further away from nature, valorized for its capacity to regenerate itself, especially during the pandemic. Exposing the hollowness of a capitalist society’s supposed promise of onward progress, Subha Nilakanta’s poem “Reawakening” asks poignantly,
“Does it take a virus,
Real, though minute and invisible,
To bring us down to earth,
To shake us, wake us, make us
Value our real world’s worth?
Shall we now live the real?” (160)
In Basab Mondal’s poem “The Fight” (40), a GloFish that dodges past pebbles in an aquarium teaches to fight endlessly. In Chandrama Ghosal’s “Dreams”, “The grass with love and finesse buries the decrepit leaves” (50) reminds us how to withstand the power of a gale, “like the buffeting winds of a kalbaishakhi storm that uproots all but also germinates new beginnings” (“Moonlight Seeps Through The Cracks”, Jonaki Ray, 81). In Jack Donahue’s “Message”, “Palliative petals and stones rounded by the sea/cover each self-iflicted wound” (67). Katacha Diaz’s “Lockdown Blues” makes a fervent appeal to “Spend time with Mother Nature, the ultimate/wellness spa for mind, body, and spirit” (84). Linda M. Crate’s poem, “Refreshed”, (88) uses the metaphor of a bird drenched in rain soaring in the sky refreshed. Likewise Sudeep Sen’s poem, “Rose & Walnut” (162) speaks of a Sufi’s sonic healing in nature. The poets in Hibiscus explore the meaning of the ‘real’, mostly through the lens of nature that heals, weathers storms and regenerates itself.
The French poet Rene Char writes, “The poet is not angry at the hideous extinction of death, but confident of his own particular touch, he transforms everything into long wools.” A poet weaves life in the face of extinction. Pushkin wanted to “kiss the lips where plague may lie.” The poets in Hibiscus: Poems that heal and empower fall back on this great tradition of thinking through death in times of pandemic, weaving the “cotton wool of daily life”, as Virginia Woolf describes the ability of the ordinary to preserve a sense of normality in moments of extraordinary devastation. In Carolyn Gregory’s “Knitting the Universe”, the ordinariness of life and death in times of pandemics is knitted within a domestic scene to embody the power of poetry in facing extinction:
“Her husband sits nearby,
keeping the universe smooth
as she shews the mother deity,
flourishing deep in the earth.” (48)
Kiriti Sengupta, Anu Majumdar and Dustin Pickering’s Hibiscus: Poems that heal and empower encapsulates the role and duty of a poet in times of pandemic in much the same way Pushkin imagined doing it: by empowering us to think beyond death.
Mosarrap H Khan teaches at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana. He is a founding-editor at Cafe Dissensus. Twitter: @mosarrapkhan
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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.