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

 

 

Review of Mira Bai, by Saritha Gnanananda

Image[1]

(2010 Kindle e-book)

 

“Sri Krishna alone is my lover. I have gone mad with grief.”

“I will have no peace of mind unless Sri Krishna comes to me.”

These quotes open Gnanananda’s book on Mira Bai, described as having “dedicated her entire life to God and endured all the difficulties of life. Awake or asleep, all the time she thought only of Sri Krishna.” Princess, widow, mystic, poet, musician and Hindu Saint, Mira Bai (alternatively Mirabai or Meera Bai) lived in the 1500s (1498-1546) in Rajasthan (the Northwest of modern India). She is known as a “the most renowned woman poet-saint of India,” (Daniel Landinsky, Love Poems From God). Gnanananda describes Mira as “the very embodiment of Bhakti (or devotion to God).” Wikipedia describes Bhakti as “closely related to Islamic Sufism, which appeared around the same time: both advocated that a personal expression of devotion to God is the way to become at one with him.” Gnanananda expresses this bhakti devotion with loving care of the subject of Mira Bai.

img_2[1]

This Kindle e-book gives a biography of Mira’s life, starting with her birth in a noble family. As a small girl she saw a wedding procession and asked what the bridegroom was and then asked to have one to play with. Her grandfather gave her an idol of Krishna and said “Take good care of him.” Another story tells of her wanting the Krishna idol of a holy hermit. The hermit was visited by Krishna in a dream and was told to give his idol to the young girl. When she was older, Mira Bai was married to a man whose family disapproved of her constant devotion to Lord Krishna. At this point, Gnanananda admits,

“It may seem strange that one should regard God as the husband and behave accordingly. But it is not a new thing in the Bhakti cult. There are several types of Bhakti (devotion). They are classified according to the relation that exists between God and the devotee.”

Vatsalya Bhava: God as Parent

Dasya Bhava: God as Master

Sakhya Bhava: God as Intimate Friend

Madhurya Bhava: God as Husband

Gnanananda states that Madhurya Bhava is the highest form of devotion for it includes all other forms of relationship.

meera-bai-worshipping-krishna-lovely-painting_934492146[1]

This type of devotional love of God has roots in Christianity, as well, for instance in the writing of St. John of the Cross, author of Dark Night of the Soul  (who lived during a similar time, 1542-1591) and John of Ruysbroeck  (1293-1381) in his book, The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage; or even the earlier Old Testament book, The Song of Songs in which bodily love and spiritual love are intertwined. A very nice book of poetry exploring the writing of poets from many religious traditions in regard to different forms of the divine love is Daniel Ladinsky’s Love Poems From God (2002). The Poet Seers website is also a nice place to visit for poems and short biographies of poets.

Mira was thought to be mad by her in-laws, and they attempted to sequester her, poison her, and tarnish her name. However, “she was known among the people as ‘a great saint,’” (Gnanananda). Her fame was such that the Moghul Emperor, Akbar the Great, (who was an integrator of religions) visited Mira in disguise and laid a diamond necklace at her feet. Although she refused the gift, Akbar (in disguise) said “I cannot take back what I have brought for Sri Krishna. Please do not refuse,” (Gnanananda). Thus, she was not able to turn away Akbar’s gift.

akbar-the-great[1]

However this gift made her in-laws even more angry with her and she survived several attempts to kill her. She sought refuge at a holy place, however the leading man at the site refused her entrance as she was a woman. She rejoined, saying, “I thought the only man in Brindavan is Sri Krishna. Now I see there is a rival.” Thus she outwitted the holy man as, “In the Bhakti cult the love of the wife for her husband is said to be the best form of devotion. According to this all are women in this world. God is the only Man,” (Gnanananda). This short book ends with a discussion of the disappearance of Mira, offering different possible ends of her life, for instance, that she was finally merged bodily with Sri Krishna, such was her devotion. This mirrors the story of the Virgin Mary’s Assumption bodily into heaven.

Mira Bai was a strong woman, poet, singer, mystic and Hindu saint. As a mystic, she argues for a direct communion with God and this was threatening to the male hierarchy, both religious and political. She is a champion for women’s (and all humans) rights to worship God directly and her devotional poems blend a physical sensuality and subversive, revolutionary, single-minded love of God which takes precedence over all other laws and hierarchies.

It is fitting to end with a couple of poems of Mira Bai, translated by Daniel Ladinsky.

A Hundred Objects Close By

I know a cure for sadness:

Let your hands touch something that

makes your eyes smile.

I bet there are a hundred objects close by

that can do that.

Look at

beauty’s gift to us–

her power is so great she enlivens

the earth, the sky, our

soul.

 

A Great Yogi

In my travels I spent time with a great yogi.

Once he said to me,

“Become so still you hear the blood flowing

through your veins.”

One night as I sat in quiet,

I seemed on the verge of entering a world inside so vast

I know it is the source of

all of

us.

 

Mira Knows Why

The earth looked at Him and began to dance.

Mira knows why, for her soul too

is in love.

If you cannot picture God

in a way that always

strengthens

you,

You need to read

more of my

poems.

 pt966[1]

Guest Blog Post at the Center for Courage & Renewal Blog

Please see my May 9th guest blog post at The Center for Courage & Renewal Blog (the full text can also be found below)

I wrote this after attending the 2nd Annual Health Care Institute:

Integrity in Health Care: The Courage to Lead in a Changing Landscape

The Center for Courage & Renewal promotes the work of Parker Palmer. I frequently cite Palmer’s work, particularly as it pertains to professional leadership in medicine, in my forthcoming book, Re-humanizing Medicine: A Holistic Framework for Transforming Your Self, Your Practice and the Culture of Medicine.

Another update is that I have been spending a lot of time working on my website, but you can’t tell it yet. All the new content should be posted there before too long.

___________

Recovering Hope, Poetry and Connection in Health Care

I recently attended the conference/retreat “Integrity in Health Care: The Courage to Lead in a Changing Landscape.” I arrived there in the usual state for me, tired, stressed and struggling to balance all of my clinical and administrative responsibilities with the rest of my life. I work as a psychiatrist and as Clinical Director at an inpatient/residential psychiatric rehabilitation program with a population of treatment-resistant clients and a staff group that is going through union action. I took on the job hoping that I could bring a holistic approach to foster recovery and rehabilitation for clients and well-being for the staff, but I am not sure how successful I have been with either the clients or the staff. Many days feel like a constant barrage of worries and concerns about clients, staff and a never-ending stream of emails.

What I found at the conference was not any easy answer or magic solution to my daily worries. What I did find was a chance to reflect on my own situation with a group of supportive facilitators and participants. Having this time and space allowed me to connect more deeply to myself as well as to connect with other health professionals struggling with similar demands. As a result of the conference I felt more hopeful, less alone and that I had more inner and outer resources to bring to my daily work. I think one of the most damaging aspects of our work in health care is the despair that comes from trying to do good work in systems that, directly or indirectly, seem to inhibit good work. We thus have systems in which everyone is working hard, yet no one feels good about the work that they are doing.

The conference was structured around Parker Palmer’s “Five Habits of the Heart,” from his book Healing the Heart of Democracy. These habits are: understanding we are all in this together; an appreciation of the value of “otherness; the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways; a sense of personal voice and agency; and the capacity to create community. For me this boiled down to developing a sense of internal connection and cohesion while also developing connection to others and building community. This led me to reflect that if we can hold the inevitable tensions between individual and community in life-giving ways, the personal growth and well-being of the individual can contribute to the complexity and health of the community.

The idea of embracing tension rather than trying to eliminate it got me thinking of the tension in my own work and life. If I can shift my perspective toward daily stress and tension as a life-giving energy for work instead of as a drain and impediment to my work, perhaps I can more skillfully support the growth of a therapeutic community at the rehabilitation center where I work. The concept of a therapeutic community is that no one individual has responsibility for solving the problems that arise in the community, rather the work is done in open discussion between all members of the community. Palmer’s habits of the heart serve as an excellent guide for this kind of work by valuing the individual and the community and by seeing the tension as a source of life energy. To me, this was the most useful concept from the conference, that stress and tension can be re-framed and used for positive work.

This concept of holding tension between opposites, rather than trying to have one opposite (e.g. hope) overpower the other opposite (e.g. despair) allows for a complex and systemic approach to complex and systemic problems. The idea of tension being life-giving rather than something to get rid of reminds me of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s approach to the problem of opposites, that there is a “unifying third” that unites the opposites into a higher order of meaning. In this conference, we can look at integrity as the “unifying third” that comes from holding the reality of despair about contemporary health care and the need and fact of hope. In practice, integrity is generated from embracing the despair and the hope in contemporary health care.

Where does this hope come from? I found hope when I looked into the eyes of the facilitators and participants at the conference. I found it when I looked into myself. Hope is there, it is a living thing. It is just that there is also so much despair that it is easy to lose sight of hope. Hope is intrinsic to the very idea of health care. We all went into this field because we felt that something hopeful could be done in the world.

I’d like to return to this idea of tension being “life-giving.” The image that came to me was of the poles of a magnet. Electromagnetic lines of force emanate in complex and systemic ways around the negative and positive poles of the magnet. These electromagnetic fields create energy that can be used for work. Cancellation of either the negative or positive pole leads to a collapse of the energy and an inability to do work. To move from the metaphor back to our discussion of hope and despair, it is quite apparent that if despair eclipses hope no work can be done. (I will leave the opposite statement of what happens when hope eclipses despair to the metaphysicians, as this does not appear to be an immediate risk in health care.) If this metaphor holds, we can shift our attitudes toward the reality of despair and let go of our desire to eliminate it. Instead, we can view it as a powerful generator of energy and work when it is in a tension-filled relationship with hope.

We do not need any help to find sources of despair to feed this life-giving tension. However, we do need to periodically renew our sources of hope. Luckily these can be found when we pause in life and look within and look to others who are doing hopeful work. One great place to pause is at an “Integrity in Health Care” retreat.

This conference was not a passive, one-way exchange of information from the facilitators to the participants. We had ample time for personal reflection and small and large group work. The facilitators were compassionate and skillful in stimulating discussion and reflection to promote individual and group work. The other participants were inspirational in their personal honesty, their humanitarian drive to alleviate suffering and the creative ways that they were doing clinical and administrative work. I remember one small group where we discussed how we can facilitate individual and group reflection in busy health care environments. We spoke about mindfulness and poetry as ways to accomplish this. This discussion was very helpful for me and I take away a particular commitment to have more poetry in my life as I find it ignites a dimension in me that I often push on the back burner. As the poet and translator of sacred texts, Juan Mascaró, writes:

“The appreciation of a poem is an act of creation whereby we go towards the greater life that created the poem. An expansion of life.”

There is another tension in health care between the poetry of medicine and the science of medicine. We work in a time when the science (and the business) of medicine often obscure the poetic value in our work. Mascaró further writes that:

“There is inner observation and experiment and outer observation and experiment. From the first comes poetry and spiritual vision and all human values; from the second science and technology.”

What I take away from this conference is an enhanced ability to hold this tension between inner and outer observation and experiment, which allows human values and science to co-exist in the delivery of health care. Practically, this means I have a renewed sense of self-connection, a stronger sense of community and more hope from the work that others are doing in health care. With a handful of poems and a heart-full of hope, I return to my daily life and work.