Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Rukmini Bhaya Nair: 'Love'

Apropos of all this kiddiness that come upon this blog like chicken pox, I thought I might have an awwww moment here. (it's more than aw, of course).

Since I'm reading Ayodhya Canto sright now, here's Rukmini Bhaya Nair's poem from it.


my son, not quite seven, said

It was a bad day at school
Six children cried

Why? Were they sick? Did teacher scold?
Which six?

Ishita – two times Ishita!
Actually, three times Ishita!
I can’t tell you about it

Why not?

Neha started it
Rahul and I ran away
It was a madhouse!

A madhouse? Viraj, tell Amma, please.

You’ll scold me. It was in the break
Teacher wasn’t there

Okay, don’t tell me! You don’t have to tell me.

They were talking about


My not-quite-seven son looks sheepish, then mulish

Yeah, love.

But why did everyone cry? Love is nothing
To cry about! Love’s a happy thing
Viraj, you know that

dear god, how we lie to our children
my son, named for procreation

amalgam of wild Aryan rituals
my son, the first Vedic man
stares at me

his glowing rhesus eyes
full of candour, of trust

my son says

Neha said Trinanjan loves Lori
And then Trinanjan started crying
Ishita loves Subir. Everybody says she loves Subir
Even Devika loves Subir
And Ishita cried

Actually, Trinanjan loves Lori, but Lori
Doesn’t love Trinanjan
So Trinanjan cried

And you, Viraj, whom do you love?
You know.
No, I don’t. Who?
And Neha? Does anyone else love Neha?

She loves me.
That’s lucky. How do you love Neha, Viraj?
Do you play with her? Is she your special friend?

No, I just love her.

Viraj, why didn’t you cry?

I was brave

yes you were brave, Viraj
you don’t know just how brave
you’ll have to be

it’s a lonely business – this love
you were the first man, you ought to know

and then I think how primitive
this thing is, how old
what fires have burned for it
what fantailed dances it inspires

neatly segmented into periods, subjects
Hindi, Maths, English
and something mysterious called E.V.S.
but all that method, that learning
those iterated aisles of desks
rows of little chairs
then come to this –
a break at high noon
at recess

Love breaks into that gap in the day
it holds its own classes

Erich Segal, sentimentaliser of a generation
you knew love was about crying, Ryan O’Neal
had to love Ali McGraw, if it was really


you knew about the accusations, the guilt
but you had no inkling that all the schmaltz
the romance, begins with this instinct
for pairing
with recitations, incantations

Neha began it. It was a madhouse.

Trinanjan and Lori, Viraj and Neha, Ishita
and Subir, Subir and Devika, have they all
entered the madhouse?


is not never having to says things
it is to say things, show things
over and over and over again
with all the desperate jazz at your disposal

see, that’s Romeo on his bum guitar
and that’s the moon, shameless mauve
riding the tide – and Neha
you can make out Neha
stirring her amateur brew

O Viraj, step back, step back
from the red-bottomed langur turn-ups
from the aggrieved jackal cries
from the kingfisher’s Dionysiac blue

you are too young for a tragic hero
too young to die of natural causes
O Viraj – you are just too young for words!

words, even words
can tear you apart –
if those are all you have

but today my son Viraj, not quite seven
is indifferent to danger

he is brave

merged with the brilliant sky, the earth’s
dark quilted bracken
he has become his first self –
three thousand, twelve thousand
a billion years old . . .


More poems and essays and so forth here.


??! said...

It was almost an 'aw', but blathered on too much. Now it's 'meh'.

Cheshire Cat said...

"his glowing rhesus eyes"?? Nair could do with a little editing.

And I feel cheated, not knowing why Arjun cried and Jatin cried and Ishita cried thrice

Falstaff said...

Cat: a 'little' editing? I'd estimate you could trim this to about one-third of its current length. And then it might just be a half-decent poem.

Cheshire Cat said...

Falstaff: Yes, it's hard to see how a decent poem could be salvaged from this. Just stopping with "I was brave" and adding a line or two to make the ending less abrupt would improve the poem significantly, but not nearly enough, I suspect. All that folderol in the second half certainly needs to go...

equivocal said...

My my we're SOO sure of ourselves aren't we? How summarily the students of the workshop dispatch the poem! How swiftly the blogospheric literati clump together, like so many bees in the hive of aesthetic certainty!

Well I'm afraid I can't go along, chaps, I think there is something going on here worth noticing. I like the lightness with which she is able to consider her son as evolutionary legacy, and I think the taste of this particular poem rests on plenitude, not quite on pith. And I'm very far from convinced / impressed by the critiques thus far provided...

Cheshire Cat said...

Fair enough. Nair is ambitious, and that's a good thing. But she seems to have little feeling for texture. Puns, allusions, the mixing of registers, playing with geometry - these can enrich a poem in the right circumstances, but Nair offers them up indiscriminately. Clearly a comic sensibility is intended here, but it's not enacted satisfactorily. Comedy is largely a matter of style - witness the Eliot of Prufrock, Steves, Moore, Tate, perhaps even Billy Collins (though I'm not a huge fan). Nair has absolutely no finesse, or at least she chooses to exercise none. Her poems are splatterings, like verbal versions of Jackson Pollock paintings, only less interesting.

All this is rather general, so let me indicate some issues with this particular poem. The way the word "Love" keeps getting the whole line to itself. The reiteration of "not-quite-seven", completely wasted. The cleverness of "looks sheepish, then mulish" (I concede this is clever, but not in a way that helps the poem). The phrase "amalgam of wild Aryan rituals" - fails as history, fails as comedy. How the stanza with 'glowing rhesus eyes" is indented, not to mention the phrase itself. The whole sorry business with "Love Story" and "not never having to say things" seems intended just to bring popular culture into the mess. And where do I even begin with the phrase "Erich Segal, sentimentaliser of a generation'? The play on "too young for words" - Nair can never avoid the temptation of a bad pun. The last line of the poem is just nonsensical - the sudden turn to sentimentality simply takes one by surprise, and why on earth "a billion years"?

There are also issues with the poem as a whole, and maybe I should expand on some of the points above. Maybe later. I've been too harsh. I'm probably more kindly disposed to this poem than Falstaff is; I find the way Nair ventriloquizes her son affecting, and skillfully done. If she would just rein her ambitions in a little, be a little more disciplined, she'd be worth reading.

Falstaff said...

Equivocal: Oh, come on.

The imagery is a hopeless mish-mash of tropes - a "shamelessly mauve" moon, red-bottomed langur turn-ups, aggrieved jackals cry (as opposed to what, a happy jackal's cry?) and the kingfisher's 'Dionysiac' blue (why Dionysiac, why mauve?) And all of this adds up to a 'tragic hero'? In what alternate universe?

Then we come to "words, even words / can tear you apart / if those are all you have", which, aside from sounding suspiciously like something from a boy band is almost entirely unnecessary - everything those three lines say is already implied in "you are too young for words!" isn't it? and why "even words"?

Finally, we get "merged with the brilliant sky" huh? what does that mean? a) How is merging with a brilliant sky being brave and b) who or what is supposed to be merging with the brilliant sky here? And how, exactly, is "the brilliant sky" also "earth's dark-quilted bracken".

I'm not even going to get into the value of addressing half the poem to Erich Segal - which not only seems like a pointless diversion, but also makes several entirely unsubstantiated assumptions about what Mr. Segal did or did not know. Do I have any reason to believe that Mr. Segal had "no inkling that all that schmaltz" "begins with this instinct for pairing"? No. So it's just a claim the poet is throwing in because she wants to evoke Mr. Segal (of all the cheesy figures to evoke) to set him up as a convenient strawman, all so she can put in that line about how love "is not never having to say things". Except, of course, to anyone who cared about Mr. Segal that line would work (and I'd argue would work better) without all that build-up because they would recognize it instantly, and to anyone who doesn't care about Mr. Segal (or is actively turned off by him) it has no impact. And it's a bit much to be describing Mr. Segal as a 'sentimentalist' given what Ms. Nair is doing with this poem.

I'm also unclear where exactly Mr.Segal's version of love is supposed to fit. It involves accusations and guilt, yes, but it's hardly the love of the tragic hero - I find it hard to associate Love Story with langurs, jackals and kingfishers, or with bum-guitared Romeos and shamelessly mauve moons. But it's also not, presumably, the love Viraj and his classmates are experiencing. Presumably Viraj, at not quite seven, has not read Love Story, and has no prior conception of love based on it. So in the contrast between Viraj and co's garden of Eden inklings of what love may be about and love as experienced by grown up (or at least the one grown up who is the narrator - if she can be considered that) as (apparently) a combination of desperate jazz and being a tragic hero where does Mr. Segal fit in, and if he doesn't why did he get evoked at all? Or is it just that the narrator, in the middle of thinking tenderly about her son and the need to protect him from the varied fauna of true love, has wandered off in her head to take issue with Mr. Segal, her son and his feelings entirely forgotten?

Oh, and where did all this stuff about 'recitations, incantations, enchantments, spells' come from? Viraj and his friends are experiencing nothing of the sort. All of that is just romanticism on his mother's part. And isn't the point about what Viraj is experiencing precisely that it's undefined, difficult to understand, a 'madhouse'? Then what does "Love holds its own classes" mean. Isn't the point that Love doesn't hold anything close to "that method, that learning" of the classroom but works through insinuation and rumor - everything, in fact, that is the opposite of holding a class?

And you're not seriously going to tell me you like the way the poem ends, with the phony trailing off of "three thousand, twelve thousand, / a billion years old..."

Just by way of comparison - compare this poem to this. Plenty of awww moments, evocation of childhood, shift from communicating to a child to composing something addressed to your child which you don't say, the need to lie to children and protect them from the realities.

Finally, I don't know what you mean by "students of the workshop" and "blogospheric literati clumping together" - all I see is three people independently arriving at a low opinion of an extremely mediocre, rambling poem.

Falstaff said...

p.s. also, I have to say that the conversation at the start struck me as exceedingly fake.

a) Why would children cry just because they were talking about love? It strikes me as being unlikely. Maybe children have got immeasurably sillier since I was a child, but I can't remember any such thing happening in school when I was six. As I remember it, girls at that age were just things with pigtails you could tease to make them cry. I certainly don't remember anything remotely resembling the steamy soap opera of this particular class room.

b) Viraj knows precisely how many children cried - he says "six children cried" - not "a lot of children cried" or "everyone cried" but "six children" - suggesting that he's already done an enumeration. Yet when he has to enumerate them again he needs to go through the count to remember that Ishita cried thrice.

c) Let's think about Ishita crying thrice. All this happened in break when "Teacher wasn't there" yes? So in the course of one ordinary recess, a six-year old girl went through three unique crying episodes - she didn't just cry through break, no, she cried once, cheered up, broke down and cried again, cheered up again and then broke down and cried a third time. And all this happened before Rahul and Viraj realized that the whole thing was turning into a madhouse and "ran away". What's more, Viraj, who is not in love with Ishita (he's in love with Neha) was actually paying enough attention to her to not only count the exact number of times she cried but actually remember this information and identify them as three separate incidents. I'm surprised he didn't take notes about the exact time of each separate crying incident.

d) Viraj thinks his mother will scold him, yet he volunteers, unasked, the information that six children cried.

e) The whole thing is supposed to be a record of the actual conversation, yes? Am I the only one who thinks that "Actually," sounds totally out of character? For someone who tends to speak in mono syllables to suddenly toss in a four syllable word, not because he really needs it but just as a sort of casual addition to the beginning of a sentence strikes me as strange. (as a matter of fact, Viraj seems rather fond of actually - he uses it again, in the middle of his long litany of loves and counter-loves).

May I also observe that Viraj seems rather easy to please. One minute he looks sheepish and mulish. Then his mother says "But why did they cry? Love is nothing to cry about! Love's a happy thing, Viraj, you know that" and this makes him stare at her with eyes full of candour and trust. I must admit if my mother had said this to me when I'd just sheepishly, reluctantly told her a deep dark secret about how we were talking about Love, it would have made me shut up and not tell her anything more because she was clearly going to be unsympathetic, but I suppose it takes all sorts.

P.p.s. Does Viraj mean procreation? I didn't think so, but apparently Viraj is named for it. Clearly I should have been paying more attention in Hindi. But I was probably too busy with my amateur brew.

equivocal said...

Well, it may well be 3 independently arrived opinions, and of course I highly respect and admire the reading lists of both Cat and Falstaff (and, I suspect, the mysterious ??!), but I can't help detecting a slight group effect here, that glee of a story being told at a dinner party about an absent member, which gets everyone in splits. It can be damaging to a poem, since a poem requires a certain prior openness, and a bit of tuning into tone, which, as even ole Dana Gioia says, is the hardest thing to catch at first in a poet, it's the point at which the poem is completely vulnerable in the face of an primed and macho (male or female) reader.

Tone is also the reason why it's unfair to compare this poem with the Mueller. If I were judging a competition (those artificial things so besides the point of poetry), the Mueller would win, but the gambits and the conceits and the ambitions here are very different.

I'm not saying I really love this poem; I'm not much of a guy for "aw" moments, and my personal preference would be more for the actual Ayodhya cantos themselves, as well as a couple of what might be considered the more difficult other poems in that volume and in Yellow Hibiscus-- also, as I think about it, for RBN's more tightly structured (either in terms of form or in terms of grammar) poems. In fact, if one read her more consistently one would quickly see that the greater part of her poems are actually very tightly structured and not so much in the Jackson Pollock (Frank O'Hara) vein.

Here also, the patterning and the grammatical logic is a lot more careful than it might seem at first (the numbers in the poem too!)-- but I don't have time to address all your points bit by bit, that would have to wait for face to face conversation. And as I say, if I were to spend time writing a detailed defence of RBN's work, this would not be the representative poem I would choose. Anyhow,consider this the larger defence.

Let me try to get at the tone, which, once opened up, I think could suggestively address several of the points simultaneously. Cat says it's a comic sensibility that is intended here; Falstaff seems to think the poem aims at tragedy. That contradiction is telling, because the poem does pull both ways. Actually I think the contradiction the speaker faces is not between comedy and tragedy quite, but between her sentimentalism and her belief in scientific causality, the notion, to put it crudely, that what we experience as love is merely the expression of the logic of the gene and, more broadly, of evolutionary biochemistry. The speaker's own sentimentalism is genuine; one gets the sense that she was indeed completely taken in by Erich Segal at a certain age (the sentimentalised generation is her generation, it's her!) even if part of her is later distant from her younger self being taken in, that even now she is genuinely excited to find her son has discovered love. At the same time the belief in a "cold" evolutionary logic is also genuine, as far as I can tell, that she really does see a pair of rhesus eyes on her son. That looks to me like a true remembered moment, the kernel of the poem as it will later unfold. By the end of the poem, this is not only the logic of species, but of the planet and perhaps of the galaxy as well; this is why we get to a billion years, why the son combines both sky and earth.

These two strands-- one sentimental, the other clinical and at times even cynical run in tandem, the poem constantly going from one base to the other and sometimes fusing both, increasingly towards the end. The teasing, punning distance of "you are too young for words" is then pivoted and replayed in the earnest tone of "even words can tear you apart", which then perhaps becomes the pivot of the poem itself. It could be argued that each strand has its structural and linguistic correlative as well-- there's the ludic soundplay of red-bottomed turnups, aggrieved jackals cry etc all of which, while making sense, have been particularly ordered with excessive, partly comic sound in mind (by the end of the poem this is fused into the much more serious "earth's dark-quilted bracken", my favourite phrase in this poem); on the other hand, there's the word love given a line on its own as a kind of refrain, so that one wants to extend the vowel in performance, a sentimental, almost naive gesture if there ever was one. So it's with this doubling of tone that one has to contend, adjust to.

Through all this, I think yes Nair is very ambitious, and audacious, she starts with her son coming home from school and ends up with the origin of the universe-- but to me that seems somehow genuinely convincing by then, it seems like something the speaker of the poem feels so deeply and naturally and inevitably that, by the end of the poem it's much more than a merely clever setup. I wonder how many other Indian English poets would even dare to attempt such a thing, let alone pull it off.

equivocal said...

p.s. Last year, my niece came home to her mother crying because there was big hullabaloo in her class about who was in love with whom, one in which she was implicated. A little later, a boy in her class (who was very friendly with the girls and a soft and sensitive type) refused to go to school for a whole week because he had been teased about it (and about loving one or another girl) relentlessly.

These incidents had been much talked about among the kids even before the parents got in on the act, with teachers intervening and piecing together accounts and chastising the kids, so by the time my niece got home she had a detailed narrative in her mind about who had done what, how many, etc, because it had been discussed so much.

I was much older 13-- when, on the eve of valentine's day, I was talking innocently to a girl in my class, Shilpa. I was not a very popular kid, so when Shilpa was teased by her friends for talking to me as if we were valentines, she decided to send me a "hate valentine" (fuck you etc) to prove her innocence; this slip of paper was subsequently intercepted by the seniors and was the talk of the school. I was scarred by the incident for years afterwards. (Sob, sob.)

equivocal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Space Bar said...

Whoa. Look what happened here while I was asleep.

This discussion reminds me of nothing so much as the conversation between Mozart and the king in Amadeus: where the king tells Mozart that there are 'too many notes' in (I forget which piece of music). To which Mozart, puzzled, asks which notes his majesty would have him, Mozart, remove.

Not that Cat or Falstaff have any doubts about which portions of this poem to remove. But what would be left standing and whose work would it be.

I like the poem. Not above all others that she's written, but like Equivocal, I think there's a more subtle interplay between sentiment and the bio-logic.

To catch oneself describe the beginning as an 'aw' moment, (for a child it cannot be anything but painful, that conversation. Only an adult would think it cute and make the moment sentimental. Segal has his uses in this poem, if for nothing than to underline what it is we consider 'sentimental' or a debasement of love and what we do not) is to recognise that such a feeling exists simultaneously with a more overwhelming one that knows the large instability of love and protect a child from such knowledge - a child whose very mulishness indicates something of such knowledge.

Union, as described at the end, is not just a biological imperative, it is purusha and prakriti (sky, earth), inevitable. If RBN uses the phrase 'it holds its own classes', it would have to be read ironically in the context.

Equivocal: I do agree about the cantos themselves being an astonishing piece of work, taken together. The last sonnet in that cycle, especially, - 'Rama' - was very moving.

Falstaff said...

equivocal: Fair enough. I haven't read enough of RBN's work to make a larger statement about her work - I've read all of three or four poems and they all struck me as being very ordinary, but maybe I just got a bad draw. So for me it's just about this poem, not her work more generally. Nor am I particularly interested in how ambitious this poem is relative to things other Indian English poets may write.

On tone - I agree with the sentimentalism, but I'd argue that the are too many different sentimentalisms at play here - there's the (to my mind) saccharine, overplayed awwww moment with the kid, there's the evocation of Segal, there's the over the top (and I'm afraid I still fail to see either sense or quality soundplay in the langur jackal kingfisher piece) imagery of love, which is also a kind of sentimentalism, and there's the sentimentally nostalgic portrait of school, which as far as I can tell has nothing to do with Viraj's experience of school. Each one of these is a different kind of sentimentalism, the juxtaposition of which I can't but help see as jarring.

I must also admit that I don't see the clinical strand that you seem to. I see an overblown romanticized version of the evolution story which is every bit as sentimentalized as the rest of the poem. Burning fires, fantailed dances, recitations, incantations, encirclements and spells do not, to me, a clinical logic of evolution make. And it isn't even just evolution by the end is it? It's also the creation of the earth and sky - and I'm afraid I fail to see how that has any connection with the reproductive urge that, presumably underlies the human / animal experience of love. If anything, seeing the universe's entirely insentient expansion as a form of procreation is the worst sentimentalism of all.

Nor does the progression of ideas strike me as deep, natural or inevitable; in fact, I find it decidedly strange that someone should go from a playground crying fit to Erich Segal and then to the big bang. I find it strange that someone who's just had a tender moment with her son and found him confused and anguished would spend her time thinking up vague and ultimately illogical conjectures about the origins of the universe rather than engaging with what he's going through. IF RBN had shifted focus away from her son entirely and moved from the specific to the general, from considering her son's individual 'bravery' to the larger momentum of the universe, I might have been convinced. But she remains focussed on her son throughout, even exhorting him to step back from the langurs, jackals and kingfishers.

As for whether kids actually do this kind of stuff - I can certainly see thirteen year olds, or even ten year olds going through this. I just don't know about six year olds. But maybe I just don't know children. It still seems fake to me. And the conversation, for all its attempted realism, still strikes me as phony.

To be fair, I'll admit that I didn't give the poem anywhere near as close a reading before my first comment as I've done now. The first time around I had a negative reaction to the phony sentimentality of the starting, gagged over the Erich Segal references and gave up at the langurs and kingfishers. Having read the poem much more carefully since, I can't say I think it was worth it.

I agree with your point about needing to get accustomed to the tone of a new poet (though you're the last person I would expect to find quoting Gioia). Maybe I'm being too harsh on RBN. Based on this example, though, I can't see myself making the effort to get accustomed to her tone. I'd rather reserve that kind of effort for poets that I find something to like about the first time around. And god knows there are too many of those as it is.

Falstaff said...

p.s. Oh, and Equivocal, I don't think the poem aims at "tragedy", I think it aims at sentimentality (the awww factor) moving towards sober insight. And I don't think it delivers either.

equivocal said...

well falstaff, I guess all this conversation just goes to show-- poetry can matter, dude.

ciao bella!

Falstaff said...
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Falstaff said...

equivocal: Oh, of course. But surely you don't think I needed to be convinced of THAT.

SB: You did not just compare someone who writes about "Erich Segal, sentimentalizer of a generation" who "had no inkling that all the schmaltz" to Mozart? I'm speechless, I really am.

Also, btw, I'm not saying that Erich Segal doesn't have his uses. I'm saying that a single line that evoked the "love means never having to say you're sorry" cliche would have been sufficient to evoke Segal - we don't need the long winded "Ryan O'Neal had to love what's her name if it was really love" bits.

equivocal said...

;) Toupes can matter too, and the NEA certainly can matter, at least when it comes to funding for poetry.

??! said...

holy fuckamoly. You guys just loooove to nitpick don't you. I'm surprised the Cat actually wrote more than two full paras, given his run of stripped-down posts. Not Falsie, of course. Equivocal, don't you know that he keeps scouring the web just waiting for moments like this?

Right, after all that dissection, here's my one bit -
I didn't like it enough (though I liked some bits) because it just didn't flow.

Plus, it had too much thrown in - rather like a Monday night mixed fridge-leftover goulash.

I'm mysterious? Whooaaahey!

Banno said...

Yes, children of 7 and younger, ARE talking about love, and mostly, it's their parents crying and not them. Perhaps, parents of a boy can gush about their child's discovery of love and the primal instinct or whatever, but a girl's parents only worries themselves sick, when their kid comes back from school talking of love! That's true, even if you want to hit me on the head for saying it.

equivocal said...
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