Bernard Kops, Poetry & Peril:
PEACE WILL COME, ANNE FRANK INSISTS, YOU WILL SEE
Bernard Kops, the doyen of Anglo-Jewish letters, has responded to a global resurgence of violent anti-Semitism by issuing a new collection of verse called Anne Frank’s Fragments from Nowhere. This is his second major work exploring the legacy of the teenage diarist. Anne was murdered in Bergen-Belsen after hiding with her family for two exhausting years in a secret annex at the back of an Amsterdam building.
She returns in Bernard’s poetry to assure worried Jews everywhere:
… peace will come.
And the tired will lie down and sleep.
And the dreamers will awake
and embrace the beauty
of world, of existence, of love.
And peace will come,
and love and lovers will transcend
the wars of earth.
And they will plant their love.
And the tree of love will grow forever.
And you’ll see. Peace will come. And peace will come.
And people will come and go and live.
And live again and again.
And peace will come. You’ll see!
You’ll see. And peace will come!
And peace will come!
And peace must come.
Bernard, a poet and playwright at last basking in world fame at the age of 89, is slightly older than Anne would be if she had been allowed to live. He is a descendant of working-class Dutch immigrants to Britain, whose entire extended family back in Europe perished during the Holocaust. He is, like all Jews alive today, a survivor acutely aware of a looming, ubiquitous presence of racist intolerance.
Seven decades after the Holocaust and a year after the horrendous Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris replicated worldwide, Jewish institutions in hundreds of population centres survive under armed guard. France, the home of Europe’s biggest Jewish community and the third biggest in the world, has declared a permanent state of emergency. It deploys troops in combat fatigues and wielding automatic weapons to control the wrath of Islamist fanatics encouraging the racist rampage of the native far-right and far-left rabble.
A wide range of xenophobic hate crimes has substantially increased throughout the West. Jewish community leaders perceive a level of existential threat that they have not experienced since the wartime deportation trains transporting the Kops and the Frank families and millions of other civilian captives across Europe to industrially organized slaughter. Jewish emigration to Israel has now also reached record levels.
Anne Frank’s Fragments from Nowhere confronts a crisis that may well intensify following the Great Powers’ dubious new nuclear power development accord with the theocracy of Baghdad. Its immediate effect will be to fuel the perilous conflagrations already engulfing the Middle East and extending to the European Union and Russia. For the compromise agreement has released an estimated $150bn in direct and indirect investment in the terrorist states of Iran and its client Syria, and also in numerous terrorist states within states like Hezbollah and Hamas.
The first German feature film based on the teenager’s Holocaust testimony is titled Das Tagebuch der Anne Frank (The Diary of Anne Frank), released at the 66th Berlin Film Festival during February. A Hollywood adaptation in 1959 won three Oscars.
Bernard’s collection addresses the future by insisting on recording the past. In the poem For the Record, he recalls:
They came for him in Amsterdam, my grandfather David,
and with minimum force removed him from his home.
He surrendered to the entire German army,
and that was that.
It is of little consequence now;
so many die alone in foreign lands.
But for the record I must say
they gave him a number, helped him
aboard an eastbound train.
It was a little overcrowded,
but then they had so many to dispatch…
The poet grew up in deep poverty in the East End of London “as a committed witness for the lost community of Amsterdam,” he recounts, “including my family and Anne’s. Her fate could so easily have been mine…”
He all but met her. He explains: “My first play, The Hamlet of Stepney Green” first performed at the Oxford Playhouse in 1957, “was translated into Dutch by Rosie Pool, an author who joined the Dutch Resistance during the war. She had escaped from the Nazi transit camp at Westbork,” a collection point from which the Jews were being dispatched to mass murder, “and her first task was to smuggle herself back and organize others.
“There she met and tutored Anne. Rosie talked to me endlessly about Anne’s character, personality, dreams and nightmares. All this has fed my imagination, and Anne became my close relative.”
The experience eventually led to Bernard’s play, the Dreams of Anne Frank, which opened in the Polka Theatre, London, in 1992. The play (Methuen Drama, England, 1997) has been touring the world ever since. The Hungarian version performed in 1998 at the Mahatma Gandhi School, Pécs, employed a cast of teenage Romany actors, perhaps a quarter million of whose people had been murdered during the Holocaust. The atmosphere was electric.
In Act One, Anne holds up a star on an empty stage as she turns to the audience. (The following text of her song is not included in the new collection.)
Fate gave me a yellow star.
A badge to tell them who I am.
I’m Anne from Amsterdam.
I’m Anne Frank and I’m a Jew.
And I’m the same as you and you.
Or you and you and you.
But fate gave me a yellow star.
The star to put me in my place,
To wear it as a badge of shame,
But I’m Anne from Amsterdam.
I’m proud of who I am.
We have to hide away from light
Because they come for us at night.
And pack us off to God knows where,
And all we have is where we are.
But fate gave me a yellow star.
Like Bernard, the real-life Anne had consciously prepared for a writing career, and she spectacularly succeeded. Her diary describing the fears as well as the tensions, loves, dreams and irritations of people hiding away from death in a terrorized city was published posthumously in1947 as Het Achterhuis (The Annex). Subsequent editions were titled The Diary of Anne Frank and Diary of a Young Girl. The book has been sold in more than 30m copies.
A fierce controversy is now raging over an extension of its copyright protection that would normally expire 70 years after the death of its author. Another book of the same period controversially just reissued on entering the public domain is Mein Kampf (My Struggle) by Adolf Hitler, a screed campaigning for the annihilation of the Jewish people.
Bernard is one of the best known writers of our time. All his writing is steeped in poetry. He is extraordinarily creative, prolific, fearless and compassionate, the author of some nine collections of verse, more than 40 plays for stage and television, 11 novels and two autobiographies.
Many of his books are constantly in print and his plays in production. His range of concerns is enormous, embracing Jewish identity, the many shades of love, family relationships, aging, fear, passion and mental illness. The Hamlet of Stepney Green, whose roots reach back to the tradition of Yiddish theatre, is widely recognized as an originator of Britain’s revolutionary, new wave, “kitchen-sink” theatre.
A seminal, book-length critical analysis of his growing corpus (Bernard Kops: Fantasist, London Jew, Apocalyptic Humorist, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2014, 168pp.) has been issued by Professor William Baker of Northern Illinois University and Prof. Jeanette Roberts Shumaker at San Diego State University. The monograph describes him as an influential innovator of British drama, an important social critic and a careful chronicler of the Anglo-Jewish society as well as the London Bohemian subculture of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, of which he was a part.
He is also a stubborn optimist convinced that well chosen words are mightier even than fleets of nuclear warheads. With a comradely wink towards Anna, Bernard includes in the new collection one of his best loved, old poems, Shalom Bomb. Here is one timely passage:
…I want a one-man-band-bomb. My own bomb!
My live long and die happy bomb.
My die peacefully of old age bomb;
in my own bed bomb.
My Om Mane Padme Aum Bomb.
My Tiddly Om Pom Bomb.
My goodnight bomb, my sleeptight bomb,
my see you in the morning bomb.
I want my bomb. My own private bomb.
My Shalom bomb.
Thomas Ország-Land is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent who writes from London and his native Budapest. His last book was Survivors: Hungarian Jewish Poets of the Holocaust (Smokestack/England, 2014). His work also appears in the new anthologies Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for Those Seeking Refuge (Five Leaves) and Random Red Candles grouping the best of Candelabrum Poetry Magazine, 1970-2010 (Spinnaker), both in England in 2015.
Anne Frank’s Fragments from Nowhere by Bernard Kops is published by Indigo Dreams Publishing and is available here: http://www.indigodreams.co.uk/bernard-kops/4589983997Read More
If there were ever a case for the physical book over an e-book, Lace is its embodiment. Small is beautiful, in this case: a pamphlet of thirteen short, numbered poems coupled with vine charcoal drawings, made on gessoed wood panels, of tiny scraps of lace held in the ‘hidden’ collections at Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery.
The collaboration began as part of Re:Collections, a commissioned project involving women writers and visual artists, and there are feminine themes running throughout the work. Process is an important part of collaboration, and recreating the lace fragments in soft vine charcoal and rendering them in words is like the intricacy of the lace-making, traditionally crafted by women.
The physical body, menstrual cycles, ageing and depression are found in Wicks’s responses to the lace, which is described with bodily analogies such as “subcutaneous”, “carious as an old tooth.” What is hidden, like the lace fragments trapped between acid-free tissue paper in the Museum storerooms, is brought to the fore in this pamphlet. The monthly bleeding of the female cycle is explicitly addressed in Poem 6, where “the woman’s body” “bleeds / a juice like sap, its head full of light.” Each “unlived life” leaves:
a cavity for heart
and one for stomach, fraying bag of womb
that moves its lips and lines itself with fur
The image that accompanies the poem reminds me of the texture and feel of Dr White’s sanitary towels, which those of us of a certain age endured wearing as teenagers:
The dark flows downwards. No one sees it leave
and wind away, congeal to a dry skein,
the skein of who she was.
The theme is returned to in the final poem, 13, where the line of the outer edge of the lace is likened to the physical ebb and flow of the sea on the shore, and the menstrual cycle:
Low tide and time
is inching shorewards, crawling, curling its white fingers,
and fizzes back
and crawls again
Indeed the bleed of the images across the centre line of each double page, onto the poems’ pages, also reflects this theme.
It is the space between the threads that is often addressed, an absence and a presence at once, a fragility preserved, pulled out of shape, reflecting both women’s bodies and the make-do-and-mend mindset historically held by women. The imagined women, the subjects of the poems, see “the shapes of babies’ feet or leaves, or pods of peas” in Poem 7. The first stanza suggests busyness, growth, work, nurturing:
But here at the centre is a torn space
where she can stand and breathe
… a mental space, as well as a physical one, where she can “resurface, plant her body upright like a flag.”
Maria C. McCarthy is the author of As Long as it Takes, a collection of linked short stories (Cultured Llama, 2014) and a poetry collection, Strange Fruits (Cultured Llama 2011). She is the winner of the Society of Authors’ Tom-Gallon Trust Award 2015. www.medwaymaria.co.uk
Buy your copy of Lace by Susan Wicks and Elizabeth Clayman, published by Stonewood Press here: http://www.stonewoodpress.co.uk/product/lace/Read More
Going through the gorgeous, red-slim book My Glass of Wine by Kiriti Sengupta I am reminded of a few lines by Li Po:
“Since water still flows, though we
cut it with swords,
And sorrow returns, though we
drown it with wine,
Since the world can in no way
satisfy our cravings,
Let us loosen our hair tomorrow
and go fishing.”
Author Kiriti Sengupta first and foremost entreats to be marked as an “Indian [Bengali] author.” Rather he is merely a writer. Because he never worries which genre his work would fit into. “Seeing is believing.” So, he only writes what he sees, believes in, and observes. My Glass of Wine should better be treated, as Sengupta wrote himself, as “a book written in the English-language, and in several ways.” A note to follow-up: “Is it autobiography? Is it non-fiction? Is it poetry? Don’t puzzle over such ‘sensible’ questions, reader. The author did not.” Celebrated Indian poet, Debjani Chatterjee, who is based in the United Kingdom, also picks up the general amazement the readers might experience in this book.
“The author is dead,” when a piece of writing is out of the hands of the author(s) concerned. Now it is up to the readers to deliberate and decide. But why would the readers bother to read a book? Sengupta first makes an introductory “Alap”— a noticeably individualistic stroke applied to communize with the readers; familiarise with his gharana (marked stylistic ideology) of writing. He is a Bengali, writing in the English language. Here he acquaints us with his clarified considerations the issues of “popularity,” “mass,” “class,” “personal,” “impersonal,” “literary” elements of a work, and a few notionally determinant factors that constitute the image of an author. This chapter does not merely introduces the “being and becoming” of the author, “Alap” also brings in the narrative of how Sengupta came into the literary world. He sounds iconoclast when he questions the liberty of a writer to be absolutely him/her-self, and also the liability of the buyers. Thus, his appreciable take:
One must realize writers don’t write bestsellers; it is the readers who make a book popular. If a writer exhibits some control or understanding of the readers’ minds, blame those who have remained apathetic towards the buyers.
Probably Sengupta is concerned about the creation of good literature, not necessarily “great literature.” He puts much emphasis on the practice of “thinking in English,” which, far from merely translating native tongue into English, will certainly enable one to gather the finer nuances of the language.
“Poetry should not mean, but be” is a quote by famous poet Archibald Macleish. Sengupta offers his advocacy for poetry to “be.” His mission seems to be targeted to prepare a stronghold for poetry, irrespective of whether it sounds clichéd, nature-based, or modern. He rather adds the idea of “new-age poetry,” nor does he even miss out on to mention referentially Eliot’s theory of impersonality in poetry. Moreover, Sengupta proposes a zealous appeal for poetry that will “linger over the decades” and that should not read too “abstract.” Sengupta aspires to write some autobiographic shreds of his life, through some “prose weaved into poetry.” He not only inspires the upcoming poets to come up afresh, anew, Sengupta also stays tuned with Baudelaire, the renowned French poet: “Always be a poet, even in prose.”
Sengupta names his next chapter, “As I Traversed.” Of course he traversed, but all along on his own into the realm of literature, and Tagore’s landmark novel, Shesher Kobita, as the author informs us, opened for him a new gateway. Although readers may smell a bit of Platonic ideation of poetry, when Sengupta logically establishes that the firsthand role of literature is to entertain, and poetry does not necessarily do that. Does he, in any way, propose to exclude poetry from literature? We lay nonplussed observing his stand:
Poetry delivers. Poetry communicates. Poetry bridges up. Poetry inspires. Poetry evokes. Poetry provokes. Poetry enlightens. Poetry illumines. Poetry heals.
Needless to say, poetry entertains through all these facets. It is said, “What you are is God’s gift to you, what you become is your gift to God” [Hans Urs von Balthasar]. Author Sengupta opens up his long-closed window of spirituality, and responds to the clarion call of God — he picks up the creator’s choice, and suddenly “becomes.” By getting “spiritually baptized,” drinking wine, and thus, by de-constructing his deep-rooted ancestral practice, he actually re-constructs himself, explores the journey he is sent for. Benjamin Franklin sounds perfect when he says: “Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.” Not only Sengupta, his older sister too finds peace and things worked out well for them. Truly one can assure himself thus, “In wine, there’s truth” (Pliny the Elder, Natural History). The concept of “blood relation” looks a bit different in Sengupta’s words, as his idea encompasses a large area of probabilities:
“You and I
The Father and son
the legacy goes on
Inevitable – impeccable,
blood relation …”
We name; we are also names! Title of something is the marker of its content. Similarly, a name of a person roughly hints at his supposed nature or behavioural pattern. Awfully true is, “fame” is credited not with the person, but with someone’s name. “My Sister’s Bhaiya” is such a chapter that is enough to give a hard blow, at least to the Hindu way of naming the new-borns, for they are preoccupied with a prejudice of remembering and chanting the names of the divine prowess:
“Significant indeed – carrying yourself
‘Crucify’ is Christ-filled
I remember, and my mind turns candle-lit”
Who we address genuinely as our “Master?” He, or she, or it? Well, irrespective of the varied choices ascribed, Sengupta directs us to a new horizon — the “soul,” which establishes our existence philosophically. He is again the “Guru,” whose preaching reads thus:
“Open your heart, and
Use your brain;
you will reach beyond
the humanly plane.”
Sengupta narrates how he was initiated to yoga — Kriyayoga, but enigma pervades as to what kind of initiation actually it is! Is it the initiation of discovering one’s self, or the initiation into writing? Arriving at the closure of his exposure he succeeds in consummating his notes, notices and messages within a very philosophical framework. Evident is his voice, which is crucially unconventional! People often get perplexed with certain issues and elements, and wrongly associate them with other ideas, but here Sengupta does not fail at all even to justify the philosophic and spiritual contextualization behind the vertical lines as noticed in the cover of the book. Aristotelian dictum, “Know thyself,” finds perfect parallelism in his words for self-analysis. The disability to connect spiritual and real, as he exemplifies, leads to the end. Conclusively, he reverberates his Master: “Reach the void, and see the cage.”
My Glass of Wine results in the manifestation of the words by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Sengupta could easily arrive to this tranquil essence as “in MGOW he is essentially interviewing himself,” as suggested by Don Martin in his foreword to this book.
Tanmoy Bhattacharjee hails from Raiganj, West Bengal, India. A teacher of English language and literature, he writes English poetry and literary nonfiction. Tanmoy has authored a book of poems, Heights of Life (Hawakaal Publishers, Kolkata), which has been a best-selling title on Amazon (United States). Tanmoy’s poems have appeared in acclaimed journals and webzines like Asian Signature, The Contour, The Literary Herald, Tuck Magazine, to name but a few. He has co-authored Sankarak — The Literary Fusion, an anthology based on Hybrid Literature. Besides, his papers have appeared on well-known journals like, Wilderness House Literary Review (Massachusetts, USA), Muse India, among other places.
Order your copy of Kiriti Sengupta’s My Glass of Wine (Hawakaal Publishers, Calcutta) here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/My-Glass-Wine-only-glass/dp/819316668X?ie=UTF8&*Version*=1&*entries*=0
Picking up this slim collection of poems, one wonders whether the dainty yellow paper boats peering at you from the cover are just delicate and frangible or symbolise strength by daring the elements with their fragility and how these connect to the contents of the book. The effect of the poems by Sanjeev Sethi in This Summer and That Summer, however, is not the same as the short and succinct poems leave no doubt about the poet’s ability to express complex emotions with simplicity.
They say true ‘poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful’ and this is precisely what the poems present. In each of the 51 poems in this collection, exquisite wordplay complements the intricate weaving of thoughts, impressions and sentiments.
The poems carry a heady dose of alliteration and assonance lacing the bitter-sweet cocktail of emotions dished out by the poet. But nowhere does he allow the alliteration to get monotonous and tedious. So one can marvel at the pithiness wrapped in the silken-smooth flow of words whether it is the ‘Scratch the scab, and sanitise the skin.’ (Life’s Lesson), The celestial sphere sutures me to its stole (Fingerprint), An uncluttered brain is the boulevard of bliss (Worlds) or Goaded by grog music and machismo merge (Tavern Tale). But his skill is not limited to this, Sanjeev virtually paints with words in poems like Pigeons, Garrison Report and Nocturnal Activity.
While the diversity of content dipped in nostalgia, disillusionment or irony keep the freshness of the familiar alive, the arresting opening lines keep one glued to the pages. The poet beautifully describes the experience of enjoying poetry in one of the poems:
‘If you enter poetry like a nabob before a nautch
it will leave you listless.
When you peruse a poem perpend it like a psalm or salat.
When faith is installed guerdon is assured.
…When you undress a poem with dignity, delicately like a lover, it will disrobe you of excess, accessing your inner feelings’. (Conduction)
Thus, as the ‘words slither and startle’ and the poet ‘caress syllables to complete the emptiness of your experience’ a reader can savour the sublimity of lines such as ‘Some wounds require healing of the hurt’ (Life’s Lesson); ‘…is there a pesticide for the past?’ (Nocturnal Activity); ‘He didn’t know, I know, /baggage is not spatial’ (Ascot) or ‘We had window-shopped love in frippery of feelings’ (In the Plaza of Prejudice) or ‘Not remembering is a way of telling oneself, it did not happen/ Brutal echoes are best treated this way.’ (Winters).
These surely make the poems more than just ‘tercets from This Summer and That Summer’.
This is Sanjeev’s third book of poetry after Suddenly For Someone and Nine Summers Later and with this, he establishes himself as a craftsman who knows his art and his tools as he goes about his task diligently delivering one masterpiece after another. Like droplets of emotion and reason soothing the singe of experience, his verse leaves an indelible impression and one gets the feel of being on one of those pretty paper boats traversing a stream of emotions.
Order your copy of This Summer and That Summer by Sanjeev Sethi here http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/this-summer-and-that-summer-9789385436703/
Note: This review was first published in THE TRIBUNE, CHANDIGARHRead More
This is Padrika Tarrant’s third book, Fates of the Animals, following Broken Things (Salt 2007) and The Knife Drawer (Salt 2011), also published by Salt, the alkaline in Cromer’s cliffs, comes this book of very short stories that live in a mixing bowl of clipped fairy tales, fag butt fables and the animals associated with them, the barking of the dog is relentless as choking. Tales of hyacinth girls expanding on Eliot, love stories of daughters of reputable figures and angels with Kleptomania. It is at turns delicate, creepy and always with a wink to the camera knowing that there’s diamonds in the stone cold ground beneath the ink. Through it all there is a sense of a unifying force, like the Marvel comics universe, and Tarrant is Stan Lee. Excelsior true believers!
I’m going to focus on two shorts here, as I could write a whole book about Tarrant’s world, but we are fools to the word limit. The book begins with The Music of the Foxes, a Hughes-esque tale with traits of Crow.
There is a strange relationship between humans and foxes, in their cries in the night, like a babe that’s been snatched, a child crying in the alley at midnight. No wonder that the fox is thought to have served as a witches familiar, even as the form into which a witch transform. Perhaps that anxiety goes back to the goddess Hecate, fond of the black she-dog, indeed the core of a foxes being, to humans, is otherworldly, and this is echoed in Tarrant’s first line:
When all the world was bald, flat path, the vixen trotted its length like the grin of a god.
The music of the foxes is considered as one word filled with pins;
Shak. The noise that a fox makes when she sings is a Shak, shrill and high; sharp at its core, rich as Ribena.
Rich as Ribena? Ribena isn’t particularly rich, it’s sugar that stains the lips and makes the throat sore. Why not rich as claret? Simple really, it wouldn’t sound right. The language flies with music.
In the last passage we see that the vixen has formed the earth and the old oil paint melancholy of jealousy of creator and created, the son eclipses the father and on it goes. The world is made in the vixen’s wake, roads are laid behind her and the detritus of the earth, bus tickets and cars, follow.
Shak! Spoke the vixen, streaming her song down her back behind the flow of her tail, and everything in the world shone pale and black and red, just as glorious and cruel and full of jealous beauty as can be.
I imagine that all sounds of the world are animated with the vixen’s final unheard Shak, it’s there in the paint.
The Little Boy Who Lied is woven with ethereal materials; the decreasing glow of a flash bulb’s element, yellowing paper, attic dust and memory’s flimsy grasp of a person’s past lives – Trapped between the film and the cardboard, the cracks and the tea stains and the gelatine-silver years, there is a sepia child in a sailor suit
This short leaves a copper taste of The Shining at the back of your eyes, you could turn around the corner and encounter the mangled Grady twins, you feel the urgency of a missing child. A disembodied child searching for eyes to see through – But the eyes; he squeezed his fingers tight against the palm of his hand. He wanted the eyes. They had sharp edges and were drawing blood inside his hot fist.
One could happily wallow in the deep imagery of Tarrant’s prose: They searched a long time for Amelia, lifting bedcovers as gingerly as grave-robbers
Tarrant’s book of stories claps in blacked rooms, has a smile as wide as the Ripper’s blade, prowls in midnight back alleys until the threadbare structure of the world’s bones has some meat. It’s not jaded, it has wonder, she would stop to gain knowledge of leaves ballet dancing down in a purple sky, and that’s a rarity nowadays in this cynical world of austerity and celebrity. They could even be read to children as bedtime stories, and that is the greatest compliment I think I could give.
Order your copy of Fates of the Animals, published by Salt, here: https://www.saltpublishing.com/products/fates-of-the-animals-9781907773587?variant=3892849793
Reading Kiriti Sengupta’s translations of Bibhas Roy Chowdhury’s poems is an exercise in self-introspection. It’s a journey that allows one to have experiences of translation, trans-literation and finally, trans-creation. For all functions of attempted translations are, in effect, a concatenation of all of these three modes. It is a kind of self-introspection because one discovers layers of embedded meanings of the poet’s self (here, selves) as well as relate them to one’s personal experiences. Reading Roy Chowdhury’s poems that smell of his thought-ridden soul – his anguished response to the holocaust of the Partition (in Bhatiyali), his painful awareness of a poet’s predicament in today’s society and refusal to conform to pre-conditioned roles (in Bibhas) or his interpretation of relationships as an intimate experience such as those of water-droplets caressing the body while bathing (as in Ashram) – all these arouse us, his readers, as it possibly did Kiriti, to the intense thrill of a life beyond … of a life where every moment encompasses a myriad lives, some colored as dark as pain, and some as mysterious as evening rain. Sengupta’s bold attempts have not only succeeded in unraveling some layers of meaning Roy Chowdhury’s poems contain in themselves, but also compressed some meanings of his own in the process of reading, re-interpreting, translating and trans-creating some poems.
Why does one write poems? What dis-ease prompts him or her to trans-literate his or her thoughts? While penning down the thoughts, does a poet think about his intended readers? Is his or her act of writing a conscious artistry or is it something more organic? As a trans-literator of thoughts, as a person with poetic inclinations myself, I feel that just as no symphony is designed for the listener or no painting for the viewer, no poem is also written keeping in mind who would read them, and as such the poet is under no compulsion to cater to his or her readers, or explain him or her to them. A translator who attempts to translate a poem from one language to another, however, treads a more risky slippery terrain. Why does he translate – not a story or an essay but a poem or poetry? He is not imparting information encoded in the poems in another tongue, or merely trying to make available the essence of the poetry in another language, possibly for a broader audience. Most importantly, if the translator is not a poet himself or herself, the translated work merely becomes an inaccurate testament of an inessential content. The translatability of a work connects the original with the translated text, which obviously comes later than the original. In many ways, the translator’s work is problematized because the vitality of a work in its original can never be reproduced in the translated work, ostensibly because the original and the translated work are two individual entities. However, the translated work has a life of its own, a vitality and life of its own, and in a way, also enriches the after-life of the original. Walter Benjamin in an introduction to a Baudelaire translation in 1923 spoke of an investigation to grasp the genuine relationship between an original and a translation; it was his view that ‘no translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original.’ He believed – as most translators would, that words with fixed meaning can undergo a maturing process, and that in the renewal of life a poem undergoes in its translation, the original too undergoes a change.
I must admit that I am not very sure about either Roy Chowdhury or Sengupta’s personal connect with the humungous tragedy that the Partition of India unfolded, and my own responses are mediated through my grandmother’s narratives of her painful brush with history. Almost seventy years after the event, we still experience the intensity of the horror in every cricket match or diplomatic tightrope-walk with our neighboring country. In a book I recently edited on the Partition of India (Rethinking the Partition of India: Historical & Literary Perspectives, Avenel Publishers), I noticed how people’s responses to the Partition still perceive it as living, throbbing with pain and oozing tears that taste of blood. Roy Chowdhury’s Bhatiyali is a poignant response not just of a soul scarred by history, but also of an ardent wordsmith, a lover of dreams whose dreams know they are breaking apart. To translate these emotions to a language intricately associated with those who engineered this butchery of men and dreams needs a lot of conviction and courage. Sengupta wrote:
An eye in my heart … in the eyes of courageous Bengalis
Countless patriot camps along the alphabet list
So many broken banks … several lightning … much cyclone
Dream filled hearts and melodious Bengali tone.
Somewhere, the Bengali lust for the language in Roy Chowdhury’s lines has been transformed to the Bengali lust for courage in Sengupta’s lines, which I feel is also correct and possibly a post-modern evaluation of the quintessential Bengali lust for both language and courage, as we are the only people in the world who bled and died for our maatri-bhasha (mother tongue)!
Sengupta’s rendering of Bibhas as Illumined Expression is very close to my heart. The stark refusal of the poetic self to register pain or insult or suffering on the canvas of poetry, and even more aggressive denial of any attempt to trade one’s poetic expressions in a few re-gurgitated praises or accolades (‘Aami toh noi mugddhotaay kena’) is as much Roy Chowdhury’s as Sengupta’s own. The translated line “I have been the future-poem/ of much insult, and devastation…” rings of a rebellious voice, which keeps resonating in the mind long after the actual reading experience. In a way, this constitutes the after-life of a translation perhaps.
The English poet, John Keats, had talked about the concept of ‘negative capability’ in relation to the poetic self’s capability of ‘becoming’ what it perceived in Nature, negating the subjectivity of the self that perceived. In conversation with Sengupta, I discovered how close to Keatsian Romanticism was Roy Chowdhury’s “Jakhon ekla laagey, /Shunyo pokar kaachey jaai/boli, Utthey esho…aamar pata ti khao” became “Come here, eat my leaves,” and the fervent plea “Why couldn’t I become much lonelier?” The human desperation to be one with Nature is so touching, so personal that it almost resonates with the universal cry for oneness.
The anchor to our being in the social matrix is our family. The loving yet inquisitive probe into familial affections as evinced in the original poems is maintained in the translated works as well, as is evident in poems such as Birth Of A Legend, Ma And Her Eldest Son, or my favorite True And False For My Father. The mother as rain and the father remaining engrossed in monsoon is the tribute both poets pay to the almost elemental connection we have with the pillars of our lives. The words from languages of the original and the translated tongue are not interchangeable, but the foreignness of English is hardly noticed when one reads “Mysterious rain arrived after a few days, but Ma never returned” bringing out the pathos Roy Chowdhury’s lines also reverberate with.
Bibhas Roy Chowdhury, whom I do not know personally, has been ascribed to be a private person who shies away from publicity, by the translator himself. Sengupta, on the other hand, is a media-savvy person. Possibly, somewhere in the translations, therefore, the intensely private emotions recorded in Roy Chowdhury’s poems get transmitted in the glaring glamourous arena of public attention that comes naturally for English poems. The acceptance of a poem like Lunatic in the United States as Sengupta informed me possibly is an index to this fact – its distinctly Eliotian preoccupation with metaphysical imagery and a ruthless honesty of expression must have enamored a readership who enjoyed an aftertaste in a Bengali poem that came filtered through an English idiom, much after Eliot. The modernist trend that he (Eliot) pioneered has left an indelible print on our collective unconscious, and may have touched sensitive personalities like Bibhas Roy Chowdhury and Kiriti Sengupta alike. As a reader, I do not presume to evaluate either the original or the translation – the fidelity to the original and freedom to be original both have, I believe trans-created the original poems. So, it’s actually, reading the translation that leads to a revelation of the original. It speaks volumes about the creative fecundity of both – the original poet and the translator or trans-creator of his works.
Dr. Rumpa Das is the Associate Professor and Head of the Department of English in Maheshtala College, Calcutta. With her research interests in Women’s, Post-colonial and Media Studies, she has bundles of publications to her credit.Read More
Jacqueline Saphra’s most recent collection with The Emma Press is the result of an inspiring and eye-catching collaboration between the author and award-winning visual artist, Mark Andrew Webber. The successful pair have won the 2015 Saboteur awards for best collaboration and also share the award with composer Benjamin Tassie, who created a soundscape for the poems to produce what Saphra describes as ‘haunting miniatures.’ Grant-funded live performances are underway. Together with the book’s use of the prose poem form (and Saphra is still one of the rare author’s in the UK to use the form exclusively in a collection), this book is travelling and transcending boundaries, gathering increasing recognition in its path.
‘Haunting miniatures’ is exactly how I would describe Saphra’s prose poems – their box-like shapes containing the unnerving recollections of a child’s upbringing, told from a child’s perspective, but using a language that moves with eerie fluidity between adult and child. Webber’s linocut of a female figure in a womb-like position on the front cover, a red moon in the background, gets to the heart of the book’s point of view with its clearly lit explorations of power and vulnerability; namely blurred boundaries between the roles of parent and child. The prose poems and accompanying images unfurl like scenes in a play, the author’s background in writing plays for stage and screen apparent here. The atmosphere of the poems is further created by the tension between the tight justified margins of the prose poem’s form and the extremely carefully chosen handful of words to describe the chaos and mess derived naturally from being brought up by a series of parents and step-parents. Their eccentricities are perhaps harmless in public, but less so at home for a child, particularly when home is consistently sacrificed for work:
‘…. Our house was filled
with cookers, stethoscopes, fridges, small
hammers and secretaries taking dictation.
I sat quietly on an ink blotter while
Mother plaited my hair and father
listened to my heart.
The author is perfectly disciplined in her rendition of this hectic and at times disturbing childhood and at no point allows that experience to rattle or over-emotionalise her prose. Humour is also evident, but used wisely and the measured tone of the narrator’s voice and unfussy density of her style (in keeping with the prose poem) is brilliantly pitched against the meetings and clashes between disorder and control throughout her upbringing.
The book is full of strangely tender moments between parent and child, all of which are presented with an almost objective clarity and unemotional distance. Saphra manages to balance the narrative consistently between poignancy and hindsight, most effectively through the choreography of objects and people; their dance is a finely tuned masterpiece of her following them and they being led by her. The objects are used artfully as mouthpieces for what isn’t said:
‘My mother began to throw pots. The
walls of the kitchen were studded with small scraps of clay
… The pots would not shape up… Pouring water at mealtimes
From one of my mother’s jugs became a daily trial of nerve.’
The slips between who is adult and who is child are paramount, particularly when it comes to language; at a dinner party, this betrayal of trust and language is pointedly recalled:
My second stepmother understood about
words. She liked some of mine so much
She often kept the best ones for herself.
Once I caught her pulling a whole string
of them out of her sleeve at a dinner party
but I didn’t let on.
Saphra cuts tirelessly to the quick and the book is full of surprising and unusual examples of such sliding and absent boundaries: a stepmother wanders carpetless corridors during the winter in only gloves and slippers, forgetting herself and answering the door to the postman. In another, her father uses his stethoscope to listen to her mother’s nervous heart and brain, placing the instrument in hot water and telling her ‘to think, think hard.’ In another, the examples become memorably surreal: ‘My mother shrank to the size of a small potted plant….There were no buttons left on our shirts. Dust lay in drifts on the skirting boards; my mother was too small to keep up with the housework.’
Our interest in reading about the language and actions of adults through the experience and point of view of a child is timeless. To have this communicated to us through Saphra’s witty eye for detail and skilled and economical use and understanding of the prose poem’s call for density, clarity and ordinary surrealism is a privilege. To have this further communicated to us through illustration and music is a celebration; poetry is here, healthily talking not only to other poets, but to other disciplines and making the most of them all.
If I Lay on my Back I saw Nothing but Naked Women by Jacqueline Saphra (Emma Press, 2014) is available here