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).
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.
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
to nudge familiarly
Mira at Shankara,
watch Nietzsche sniff suspiciously
And listen close,
as Ghalib in the back row
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.
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.”
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 like home.”
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
from the cusp of breathsong,
from a place radiant
with birdflight and rivergreen.
Grant me the fierce tenderness
word slither into word
into the miraculous algae
untamed by doubt
than snowstorms in Antarctica, wetter
than days in Cherrapunjee
alighting on paper, only
for a moment…
for some place the voice
is still learning
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,
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
Life is here,” (126).