Saturday, March 28, 2015

RIP Tomas Tranströmer

The Swedish Nobel Laureate Tomas Tranströmer has died

People are tweeting beautiful lines but ones mostly tinged with melancholy, as if a poet's death deserves lines that are prescient.

I was looking through my copy of the Penguin Modern European Poets series, with poems by Paavo Haavikko and Tomas Tranströmer, and I wanted to post this one.

Face to Face
translated by Robin Fulton

In February living stood still.

The birds flew unwillingly and the soul

chafed against the landscape as a boat

chafes against the pier it lies moored to.

The trees stood with their backs turned towards me.

The deep snow was measured with dead straws.

The footprints grew old out on the crust.

Under a tarpaulin language pined.

One day something came to the window.

Work was dropped, I looked up.

The colors flared. Everything turned round.
The earth and I sprang towards each other.


When I read the news this morning, it was via a link to the NYT, whose title of the obit described him, rather hilariously (and inappropriately) as a 'crystalline Swedish poet'. No doubt they realised that he wasn't quite the Swarowski statuette they had thought him, and the NYT has since changed its headline.


Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Sideways Door: March Response Column

I won't say I was disappointed by this month's submissions, precisely. But you know that feeling when you've waited and waited for a letter and it arrives, but it isn't all you'd hoped it would be?


Here's the column. I wanted a one word title but apparently that is not possible - or at least, not advisable. So it's a bunch of words containing the one word I wanted. Eh.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Thinking is invisible: Hannah Arendt by Margarethe von Trotta

I saw Margarethe von Trotta's film Hannah Arendt a few days ago. I'd intended to blog about it as soon as but life got in the way and now I have my scribbles and the briefest impressions about the film. So this is not a review, just a bunch of thoughts.


I last saw a von Trotta film more than 20 years ago at FTII. It left no impression on me. She was name a put along with Wenders, Fassbinder, Herzog and Sanders-Brahms and that's it. Now Helma Sanders-Brahms I remember. i remember being horrified and strangely moved by her Germany Pale Mother. 

But von Trotta's film I don't remember. So I watched Hannah Arendt with not too many preconceptions and even with some anticipation. I'd done no reading before - no New Yorker articles of the Eichmann trial, no quick read of Banality, nothing. 

If a bio pic is made at all, surely it must be made for people in my pristine state? I was a blank slate on which to impress whatever the filmmaker wanted to say about Arendt.

The film was screened in an upstairs room at the Goethe Zentrum. It was 11.30 in the morning and nearly summer. The room was insufficiently darkened and the first scene was in low light. I know there was a torch swinging a half-circle as it was left on the ground after sounds of scuffle; and I assume, from what followed that it was Eichmann being captured by Mossad. 

Other low- lit scenes followed and I struggled to see what was happening. 


The film follows a fairly straightforward narrative. Eichmann's capture, the news of it, Arendt's volunteering to cover the trial for the New Yorker, the visit to Jerusalem, the trial (with intercuts between images of the actual trial and reconstructions of the courtroom and the press room), Arendt's return, her (much-delayed) articles and the backlash. 


I want to talk about bio pics and how, as a genre they are interesting for how little is possible within the framework. Or how little filmmakers achieve. There is a life and there are significant points in the narrative that are public knowledge. But those aren't interesting in themselves because they point to nothing new about the human being involved.

So bio pics devolve into a narrative about the minor events in the life of a person that contribute to their 'growth' as a character and the detail the ways in which small, throwaway events influence the larger events we're somewhat familiar with. 

In Hannah Arendt, for instance, an incidental  conversation in which Mary McCarthy corrects Arendt's use of English ('It's when the CHIPS are down. Not SHIPS.') pays off in the final scene in what is practically the closing line of the film, when Arendt gets it right and the audience (in the theatre; not in the film's lecture room where the scene takes place) laughs. 

No growth there, certainly, but an indication that the character is listening and learning. That she is behaving like characters should in good fiction - creating an arc for herself and her life. Getting from here to there in a neat progression of stimulus and response. Of what use is a bio pic in which the central character learns nothing and changes in no significant way?

The main problem with the film - which I will confess to not responding to very well - is that it's a film about a thinker. And thinking is invisible. How does a director rise to the challenge of showing a person for whom all the drama and the movement is in the head?

Traditional montage, that we're so used to now we know what it's doing and how, finds visual representations that the character responds to. We know what they're thinking by how they respond. There's a lexicon of visual and aural codes that's been internalised from culture to culture in cinema's swiftly-moving century.

Chance conversations, and observations made in idle moments, the visible sharpening of the character's attention, the connections being made - this is how we know what's going on in the head.

In this film, von Trotta chooses the flashback; she chooses to have Arendt build her theories by remembering her interactions with Martin Heidegger. It's an interesting solution. For one thing, it's not clear what it is that she learns from remembering each of these interactions, so there are no clear lines drawn between the two things. The process of thought remains mysterious, which is as it should be. 

Also - less interestingly - it serves to point out Arendt's capacity for feeling at a time when she is, in her writing, being detached and refusing to be ruled by her passions - a thing that the Zionists in both Israel and New York are unable to understand.

There were things about the film that felt very old. The intercut trial in black and white and colour (well, that could hardly be helped, I suppose); the sound design that had sirens, the sound of military boots and such-like to signify a transition into the past - other things I'm forgetting now. 


It made me wonder why this film and why now. What about Arendt and the Eichmann trial is worth revisiting now? 


Yeah - I don't really have any more to say about the film other than that I was disappointed in its predictability, in the way it hit plot points and tried hard to find narrative tropes that were primarily fictional. There was nothing interesting in it as a film. 

If I wanted to revisit the Eichmann trial, I think I would prefer to go read Arendt's articles in the New Yorker rather than watch a film about it. I have no doubt that I would find her own words more worthwhile than the 90 minutes that tried (and failed) to convince me that this was an important moment in 20th century history and philosophy.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The New Life of English Poetry

A double page feature titled 'The New Life of English Poetry' in this Saturday's Mint Lounge which also features yours truly. 

I'm happy to be featured, of course. So it feels churlish to express the hope that (some time soon,) magazines would stop celebrating anglophone Indian poetry's resurgence and start devoting serious column inches to the examination of poets' works.

Put it down to a building head of steam that is flavoured with ill-temper. I should like to withdraw and write. This is why any evidence of my having occupied public space makes me twitchy and cross-grained.

My apologies therefore, to Mayank, whose piece is unexceptionable. The fault, dear Brutus.

Friday, March 13, 2015

[caution: visual pun]

  [image from random shoe review site]

It's as if I'm double daring myself to not write a word.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Women's Day on Scroll: Six poems

Women's Day has come and gone and I tweeted a bunch of repulsive things that appeared in that day's Deccan Chronicle supplement. But other, more cheerful things also happened.

Scroll published poems by six poets and I was one of them. It's an unpublished poem and I am in good company. 

Go read poems by Monica Mody, Karthika Nair, Kutty Revathi, Sharanya Manivannan, me and Nabina Das.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Rejection & p[ay]back

My ear accepts the word 'forgotten' but comprehensively rejects 'gotten'.


Speaking of comprehensive rejection, the walls of St. Pauli pee back. No, really. 

Now that's what you call revenge (they call the paint a name that sounds like a sanitary napkin, but whatever). 

GoI, look and learn.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The Sideways Door: March Prompt Column

This month, with vacations a scarce month away, I am thinking of letters and so this month's prompt column calls for a letter poem.

It takes a line from one my most favourite poems, Primo Levi's ;To My Friends' and you can find it here: 'Stamped by everyone.'

As I was writing this column, I discovered that a poem I had chosen and was quoting in full, by a young girl, was in fact a response to a prompt and so took the entire first stanza from the original. But I was sent this poem without also being told this crucial piece of information. 

Naturally, while I've used that kind of teaching tool in class, I couldn't include a result in a column like this. I might still post that poem separately at some point because even with its similarities to the original, it was still quite good.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

The Difficult Deed | Return

I was travelling for almost all of February and have been unable to put up posts linking to columns, deadlines and such.

In February, the prompt seems to have done most people in; I had one submission to The Sideways Door and my response column, The Difficult Deed, has been up for a week now. 

In a few days I will have to come up with another prompt. But I won't think of that just now.

Instead, I want to say how happy I am to return to a rainy, cloudy and cool Hyderabad. It finally feels like home. Spring is the best time and here in Hyderabad, despite the rising temperatures of the last few weeks, spring feels the most personal - the jerul's new leaves have sprung and are brushing at my window. The tabibuia are in bloom and if I look, no doubt I will see a swarm of bees buzzing around the flowers. The bare branches of the frangipani are now little bouquets. And this morning, on the ride back from the station in a auto that had no headlights, I smelled the rain before I saw it dotting the windshield.

So much relief.

If I post about the readings at all, it will be only after a few days' respite.