A Review of “When God Is A Traveller,” by Arundhathi Subramaniam

Cover

Following up on my review of Where I Live (2009) by Arundhathi Subramaniam, we will next look at her 2014 When God Is A Traveller (HarperCollins India). This book actually contains 22 poems from the “Deeper in Transit” section of Where I Live, thus there is substantial overlap in poems between books. Still, there are 29 new poems in this book, and it is a beautiful hardcover with very attractive cover art, making it a nice little book of poetry to carry around. The 22 duplicate poems are worth reading again, anyway. “Leapfrog” and “Catnap” were quoted in my review of Where I Live. Writing about gods, goddesses, and heroines as well as daily life, and a favourite topic of writing on writing, this little book is well worth reading and travelling along the various textual references which lead to empty space, which is the terrain of gods, goddesses, and heroines.

Arundhathi Subramaniam

In “How Some Hindus Find Their Personal Gods,” Subramaniam answers AS’s question about ishta devas. With so many gods and goddesses to choose from, how does one find one to have a personal relationship with? She advises:

               “It’s about learning to trust

               the tug

               that draws you to a shadowed alcove

               undisturbed by footfall

              and butter lamps

              …

             A god who looks

             like he could understand errors in translation,

            blizzards on the screen,

            gaps in memory,

            lapses in attention,

           who might even learn by rote

           …

          the awkward Remington stutter

          of your heart,

         who could make them his own.

        After that you can settle for none other.” (43-44)

Personal Gods

© D. Kopacz 2018

The book cover features a rich, blue, green, and gold peacock, feathers spread across about one-third of the cover, flowers blooming on a shrub in another corner, above darkness with the silhouette of a hunter shooting an arrow into a stag leaping in death throes. In “Eight Poems for Shakuntala,” Arundhathi Subramaniam pens some modern lines on Shakuntala whose story is told in the Mahabharata. One day King Dushyanta shot a stag with an arrow and pursued the wounded animal through the forest, when instead of his prey, he stumbled across Shakuntala and fell in love with her and married. Dushyanta gave her a ring, but left back to the palace, saying he would return later to fetch her. In the meantime, Shakuntala, pining for her absent love, accidently insulted a holy man who cursed her, that the man who gave her the ring would not remember her, unless she were to show him the ring he gave her. Time passed and Shakuntala lost the ring while crossing a river and when she arrived to court, Dushyanta did not recognize her. Heart-broken, she returned to the forest and gave birth the child she had conceived on Dushyanta’s first visit. A fisherman found the ring in the belly of a fish, presented it to the king, who then remembered his lost bride and searched for her, finding her again and meeting his son, and thus the family was reunited. Poems 3 and 5 in the series capture the longing of Shakuntala whilst waiting in the forest for Dushyanta’s return.

 

              “But all those nights

               when all you want

               is a lover’s breath,

                              regular,

                              regular,

 

               starlight through a diaphanous curtain,

               and a respite

               from too much wisdom?” (III, 50)

               …

               “Nothing original

               but the hope

               of something new

               between parted lips.

               A kiss—

               jasmine lapis moonshock.

               And around the corner

               with the old refrain,

               this chorus,

               (Sanskrit, Greek, whatever):

               It’s never close enough

               It’s never long enough

               It’s never enough

               It’s never” (V, 52).

357px-Raja_Ravi_Varma_-_Mahabharata_-_Shakuntala

“Shakuntala looking back to glimpse Dushyanta,” by Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Subramaniam often writes about the mundane as well as the sublime in her poems, and often there ends up being a poem or two about a cat. In “I Knew a Cat” she writes of the pain of losing a beloved furry friend:

               “I knew a cat

               with a face like a star.

               I waited for her to die

               so my heart would hurt

               a little less.

               Now the nights are darker,

               my life a little easier.” (71)

 

Neo in closet (2)

Neo, d. 2010

In the poem which gives the book its title, “When God is a Traveller,” Subramaniam muses about Kartikeya/Murga/Subramania, my namesake.” Kartikeya/Murga/Subramania is known by all those names, as well as Skanda, and is the son of Śiva, in some legends of him alone, as Gaṇeśa is born of Pārvatī alone, but also often considered the son of both Śiva and Pārvatī. Subramania is the god of war who is also known as Guhā (cave, secret) or Guruguhā (cave-teacher) as he renounces war in some legends and retreats to the mountains. (For stories of Subramania, see Kartikeya as well as the Skanda Purāṇa and for comparison of various legends, Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty’s Śiva: The Erotic Ascetic). Arundhathi Subramaniam writes in this poem:

               “Trust the god

               back from his travels

               …

               Trust him

               who has seen enough—

               revolutions, promises…

               …

               Trust him

               who recognizes you—

               auspicious, abundant, battle-scarred,

                              alive—

               and knows from where you come.

               Trust the god

               ready to circle the world all over again

               this time for no reason at all

               other than to see it

               through your eyes.” (100-101)

Murugan_by_Raja_Ravi_Varma

Sri Shanmukha Subrahmanya Swami by Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906), [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In addition to writing about gods, goddesses, and heroines, in addition to writing about love, Arundhathi Subramaniam loves to write about writing. In “Six About Love Stories,” she writes:

               “Some stories have holes.

               Some don’t join the dots.

               Sometimes the only way from middle to end

                              Is the leap.

               …

               Some stories devour other stories.

               I recognize you.” (96)

And in the closing poem, “Poems Matter,” she again writes about writing and about what it is that gives poems their meaning – not so much because of their substance, but because of the space within them that allows for something more than what we can say:

               “It’s taken a long time

               to understand

               poems matter

               because they have holes.” (103).

Crow Flying Through Dark Matter.jpg

Crow Flying Through Dark Matter, © D. Kopacz 2017

 

A Review of Where I Live: New & Selected Poems by Arundhathi Subramaniam

Where I Live Cover

I first heard of Arundhathi Subramaniam in her role as the editor of Eating God: A Book of Bhakti Poetry (2014). I started reading Sadhguru’s Adiyogi: The Source of Yoga, and to my surprise it is co-written by Arundhathi Subramaniam! I was interested in her journey with this spiritual teacher and her blending of rational skepticism with thirst for spiritual knowledge, and it reminded me a bit of my own work with Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow). This led me to look to see what else she has written, as I like to read all of a writer’s work once I become interested in one aspect of the work. This led me to the collection of poems, Where I Live (2009) published by Bloodaxe Books, in Northumberland, UK. (Please note that 22 poems from Deeper in Transit also appear in her 2014 book, When God is a Traveler).

Arundhathi Subramaniam

Image from Neil Astley @BloodaxeBooks tweet, 10/10/17

Where I Live contains selections from Subramaniam’s earlier works: On Cleaning Bookshelves (2001) and Where I Live (2005). The back cover describes her poems as exploring “various ambivalences – around human intimacy…myth the politics of culture and gender, and the…existential journey…the desire for adventure and anchorage; expansion and containment; vulnerability and strength; freedom and belonging.” This is an apt description of poems that often have a tension within them, exploring the places between contradictions and ambivalences.

The collection opens with “Blank Page” which sets up the Indian writer as a “conquistador of the blank page,” with its “white autocracy of silence,” juxtaposing creativity with conquest. The poem raises the power and omnipotency of the writer over the blank paper, and perhaps the reader as well, who possibly fears that she will “surge/into your frontiers/and claim for my own/the sleeping mohenjodaros of your mind,” (11). Mohenjodaro (c. 2500 BCE) is an ancient city, now an archaeological site, perhaps the home to the ancestors of Dravidian peoples living in the Indus Valley prior to the arrival of the Aryan migration into India. The poem immediately raises issues of race, culture, history, power, subjugation, and creativity in a few short lines, without any sense of resolution.

On Cleaning Bookshelves Cover

I love the poem title, “On Cleaning Bookshelves” which brings up the practical issue of the bother of what to do with piles of books, yet also speaks to the organization and categorization of knowledge. I particularly relate to this poem as I recently had the brilliant idea of turning all my books on their side so as to pack more of them on to the shelves, which is very efficient, but not very practical, as they are now very difficult to extract. The poem starts with the advice: “Begin by respecting the logic/that governed earlier conjunctions,” (30). As the narrator of the poem arranges her books, we get an idea of the breadth and scope of her reading, which spans the globe. She describes rearranging books as a chance to “match-make” which allows

“Kerouac

to nudge familiarly

at Milton,

Mira at Shankara,

watch Nietzsche sniff suspiciously

at Krishnamurti.

And listen close,

as Ghalib in the back row

murmurs drowsily

to Keats.”

There seems to be a conference of books happening, everything is coming together and jumbling up East and West. New possibilities seem to arise from these conjunctions. Goethe’s Faust came to my mind, “Formation, Transformation, Eternal Mind’s eternal recreation,” (cited in Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 196).Yet the poem ends by throwing this off-balance and raising the possibility that the gaps cannot be bridged:

               “And amid the whispers

               of reunion and discovery,

               the hum of interrupted conversations

               resumed after centuries

               know that it is time

               to turn away.

               And accept finiteness.

               Accept exclusion.”

I read “On Cleaning Bookshelves” a few times, both excited and disappointed by it. Eventually I had to move on and read about the inevitability of inner and outer changes with ageing in “By Thirty.”

“By thirty,

you know you want to walk

away from ruined empires of fermented dream

towards lands vast and unchoreographed,

where every step ahead is adventure,

and every step ahead, anchorage, (42).

And then on further to “Arunachala (at the ashram of Ramana Maharshi, Triuvannamalai)” which has, perhaps some hope: “It feels like given time/I could understand something here,” but instead, it is time to move on, “But for now this enough,” (43), ending with:

               “For somewhere here, I know,

               is something black,

               something large,

               something limpid,

               something like home.”

Arunachala

Sakthiprasanna (2015) Wikipedia, “Arunachala”

 

We then move on to Arundhathi Subramaniam’s newer poems. “Where I Live” begins with, “I live on a wedge of land/reclaimed from a tired ocean/somewhere at the edge of the universe” and ends with “where it is perfectly historical/to be looking out /on a sooty handkerchief of ocean,/searching for God,” (49-50).

Subramaniam writes about writing in the collection, from the first poem and throughout. “First Draft” writes about the “old fashioned” way of using pen and paper for writing before putting the words of a poem through a word processor. The handwritten words on paper are compared to spaces in the world: a stream, an alley, a glacier, a chasm. But, eventually, the words must go from individual to mass-produced:

               “when a page I dreamt piecemeal

               in some many-voiced moon-shadowed thicket

               flickers back at me

               in Everyman’s handwriting

               filaments of smell and sight

               cleanly amputated –

   Times New Roman, font size fourteen,” (73)

In the beautiful poem, “Leapfrog,” she states that she does not want to write “scripture,” but rather would capture with words the movements of life, invoking frogs, birds, and childhood memories:

“that allows words

to spring

from the cusp of breathsong,

from a place radiant

with birdflight and rivergreen.

Grant me the fierce tenderness

of watching

word slither into word

into the miraculous algae

of language,

untamed by doubt

or gravity,

words careening,

diving,

               swarming, un-

forming, wilder

than snowstorms in Antarctica, wetter

than days in Cherrapunjee

alighting on paper, only

for a moment…

before

leaping

for some place the voice

is still learning

to reach.

Not scripture,

but a tadpole among the stars,” (104-105)

Arundhathi Subramaniam’s collection of poems, spanning 9 years of work at the start of the millennium, captures the moods and understandings of a traveler in the world and brings together, like a jumbled collection of books on a shelf, different, shifting conjunctions and disjunctions of the profound and the mundane. In “Catnap” she quotes the Heart Sutra, “Form is emptiness/Emptiness is form,” and of how her cat, “Pukka sahib/learns/to purr,” in a shoebox (117). In the final poem, “Swimming,” Subramaniam compares the thrill of carnival rides with a sense of identification with Lord Śiva’s dance of creation and destruction of the cosmos:

               “Because for a moment

               you could even be Him

               the Lord of Tillai,

               birthing, juggling,

               slaying universes

               in an inspired mayhem

               of limb and lust.

               Because deep within your seashell heart

               you hear it again,

               the oceanic roar

               that reminds you

               that it’s happening

               right now.

               Life is here,” (126).

Siva