Tuesday
Sep122017

The Nature of Man: Fry and Tomasello reviewed by Casey Dorman

Fry, Douglas, Ed. (2013). War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tomasello, Michael (2016). A Natural History of Human Morality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

 

Those of us who favor nonviolence and espouse cooperation over conquest in both everyday interpersonal relations and politics, including relations between nations, cultures and religions, are often accused of having our heads in the clouds.  Human nature, we are told, is naturally aggressive, based on dominance of one person over another, and follows the Darwinian rule of “survival of the fittest.” The strongest will always win in the end and those who can display the most aggressiveness toward their more weak-willed neighbors will reap the largest rewards. To argue otherwise is to deny our basic nature as human beings. Athletic contests, political elections, economic and military competition between nations, and even conversations on talk radio, TV panels, and on social media are all based on this premise.

But is human nature inherently  aggressive? Is interpersonal dominance the rule that governs human social interactions? Are we doomed to solve international conflicts on the basis of whose weapons are most powerful? Two recent books suggest otherwise.

War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views is a 2013 collection of essays and studies, edited by Douglas P. Fry, Chairperson of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. In addition to an introduction and conclusion by Fry, it contains sections on Ecological and Evolutionary Models, Lessons from Prehistory, Nomadic Foragers, The Primatological Context of Human Nature, and Taking Restraint Against Killing Seriously. A common theme is to examine and refute the view of man as a “killer ape.” The volume includes 27 chapters contributed by 32 scholars.

One of the main themes of War, Peace and Human Nature is that our most  immediate genetic relatives in the animal kingdom, Chimpanzees and Bonobos are not as vicious toward one another as some accounts have portrayed them. Bonobos, which form into matriarchal troops, are particularly nonviolent toward others of their species, and in fact there is no record of them having deliberately killed one another. Chimps are less so, but actual killings are rare and although there is some cooperative behavior involved in some attacks, actual wars between troops are nearly unheard of. Most aggressive encounters result in one or the other Chimp backing down. Another theme is that archaeological records from the hunter-gatherer period of human history, which comprises 99% of the history of genus homo, and is generally accepted as the period in which most of our uniquely human genetically based behaviors evolved, shows almost no evidence of inter-group wars (with one exception), although there is evidence of death by probably intra-species violence (i.e. murder). An increase in intra-species violence, and the advent of inter-group warfare occurred in coincidence with the agricultural revolution about 10,000-12,000 years ago. Studies of  modern “primitive” groups include true foraging hunter gatherers, equestrian (horse-dependent) hunter-gatherers and sedentary hunter-gatherers –who remain in one place and often do slight farming. Some of these groups, for instance some Native American equestrian tribes, were quite warlike. But as several authors point out, Native American use of horses was a consequence of the presence of Europeans on American soil and their behavior represented a reaction to European-American incursions into their land as well as their relations to other Native American tribes. Most of the sedentary hunter gatherers likewise represent an existence within the context of a larger developed community around them. The few true foraging hunter-gatherer groups studied are not warlike, but they do sometimes kill each other, usually as a result of wife-stealing, revenge behavior, or insults to honor.

In both primates and humans the rarity of actual killing of other members of the species is moderated by the development of a number of behaviors aimed at restraint. Such behaviors, which are also seen in other mammalian species, include the use of aggressive and submissive displays, mock fighting (often involving no actual physical contact), avoidance behaviors, and advantages in conflict that accrue to whichever animal is on its home territory or holds a position of dominance within a group. Chimpanzees are known to show “reconciliation” behaviors to reestablish harmony within a group after an aggressive encounter.

Humans, in particular, have evolved a number of signals involving gestures and expressions, which signal a reluctance to fight. The reluctance of modern humans to take another human being’s life is illustrated by studies of men in war in which it is revealed that the majority of soldiers in battle either don’t fire their weapons or don’t fire them at another person. This reluctance to kill may be diminished as we proceed to a greater use of missiles, airstrikes and drone killings, in which the actual presence of the person to be killed is not experienced.

A common theme in War, Peace and Human Nature is that our cultural biases have promoted assumptions and research biases that have led to erroneous conclusions about the degree to which a “killer instinct” and a “tendency toward war” are embedded in our evolutionary history and, as a consequence, in our DNA. The data, this book insists, do not show it. War is seen as an “atypical” type of behavior of humans, one that developed late in our evolutionary history and is much more a cultural adaptation than a genetic one, although these influences are never just one or the other. Even killing of another human being in isolation is not a typical behavior, although it has been seen throughout human history. Cooperative behaviors involving restraint on our aggression are much more the pattern seen over eons of human development.

Michael Tomasello’s  A Natural History of Human Morality (2016) is concerned with the same issues as War, Peace, and Human Nature, but comes at it from a different angle. Tomasello’s goal is broader; it is “to provide an evolutionary account of the emergence of human morality…” which he says arose through the dual pathways of “sympathy and fairness,” both of which were part of the evolution of cooperation as an interpersonal and then intra-group adaptation. His analysis focuses primarily upon both primate behavior and that of human toddlers.

Tomasello cites studies that show that Chimps and Bonobos will share food and other resources and, when they do so, they show an increase in the mammalian “bonding hormone” oxytocin, suggesting that the immediate instigation for sharing is a sense of sympathy for the other primate. On the other hand, they show no sense of fairness in terms of comparison of portions of resources either received or given to their compatriot primates, although humans do. Although chimps will show reciprocity – they help or share with those who help or share with them – Tomasello argues that this is based on sympathy, not a sense of fairness. This leaves the development of a sense of fairness as something that must have evolved through uniquely human pathways.

 A great deal of Tomasello’s argument is conjecture. He notes that Chimps and Bonobos engage in group hunting,  which is not common in non-human animals, although neither species is dependent upon group hunting for survival. But such group behavior, he suggests, is a basis of more sophisticated group interdependence that developed in early humans and was, in his terms, obligate, in their hunting and foraging activities; i.e. they were dependent upon it. In order to collaborate in mutual activities, early humans had to have joint intentionality—a sense of “we” as they both attended to the same task—and some sort of sense of equivalence—if either one didn’t do his or her part, the collaboration would be unsuccessful. In Tomasello’s words, “based on the recognition of self-other equivalence, there arose a mutual respect between partners and a sense of the mutual deservingness of partners, thus creating second-personal agents.” The collaborative aspect of early human behavior, which probably developed as a result of hunting larger game, replaced the primate reliance on dominance to determine relationships and settle disputes. Instead, early humans developed pair bonding among mates, emphasizing also recognizable sibling relationships, which reduced intragroup aggressiveness, and food sharing following collaborative hunting, which produced “social selection against bullies, food hogs, and other dominants, and thus social selection for individuals who had a greater tolerance  for others in cofeeding situations.” Additionally, collaborative childcare developed. These social situations led to greater survival and thus natural selection of “less dominance-based interactions and more gentle personal temperaments,” resulting in “a greater balance of power among individuals.” Studies of modern foraging hunter-gatherers show a remarkably egalitarian social structure in their groups, with a variety of subtle and not so subtle pressures against any one individual asserting dominance.

One result of this greater interdependence  in the context of collaborative foraging was the selection of greater concern and sympathy for conspecifics who were not relatives, but potential collaborators. In fact, human toddlers show evidence of helping others based on sympathy before they develop a sense of altruism based on reciprocity. This sympathy is a “first step on the road to modern human morality” and includes empathy, in which we feel bad for someone, even if they are not feeling bad themselves (e.g. a handicapped person), based on how we think we would feel if we were in the same state. This type of empathy is based on the self-other equivalence that developed out of collaboration.

Collaborative activity also relies on and selects for those who possess a sense of mutual trust. We can count on the other to fulfill his or her role. Research on human children shows that they expect such behavior and try to reengage someone who stops collaborating, while Chimps never do. Not only do human children expect to be able to trust a partner, they engage in behaviors that show others they are trustworthy partners themselves. They adhere to standards of trust (“normative trust”) the violation of which leads to not just sanctions from others, but self-criticism as well. All of these behavioral tendencies are related to what Tomasello calls a sense of “deservingness” in dividing up rewards evenly; something found in young children but never in primates. What is created in young children, and presumably in early human groups, is a social contract, what Tomasello calls “the original ‘ought’.”

Tomasello goes on to describe the development of more complex and sophisticated morality based on these precursors that comes from collaborative activity and the development of a sense of “we” based on equivalence and role changeability in performing collaborative tasks. In hunter-gatherers, social structures develop that sustain and constrain moral behavior based on conformity and imitation and the development of a cultural identity. Eventually this led to a group identity and in-group/outgroup favoritism and in-group equivalence, accompanied by a sense of knowing what others in one’s group are likely to think even if one has never interacted directly with them. From these beginnings, social norms and a sense of the right and wrong ways to do things, based on how one’s in-group does them developed. Although these latter developments are social phenomena, based on observation, interaction and communication, rather than directly on evolved genetic mechanisms, they are ultimately dependent upon the selection of tendencies for sympathy and fairness among our ancestors.

Tomasello’s arguments are a based on a collection of primate observations, research with human children, anthropological accounts of hunter-gatherer communities, and historical accounts of codified human morality. What emerges is a picture of human beings whose social structures are built, not on dominance and aggression, as are those of Chimpanzees, but on sympathy, helping, collaboration, a second-personal sense of agency involving putting oneself in the other’s position and viewing an activity as a product of “we” as much as “I,” and finally, a sense of fairness, in which one’s own interests must meet the same standards as others in one’s group.

 

War, Peace and Human Nature and A Natural History of Human Morality are two very different books, both relying upon evolutionary arguments, but one, the collection by Douglas Fry, with a more limited goal of showing that man is not inherently warlike, based on voluminous pertinent research, and the other, the book by Michael Tomasello, based also on research, but with a more ambitious goal of showing how human morality developed and basing its thesis on a great deal of speculation. Both volumes provide a welcome contrast to current popular views of man as a naturally aggressive and warlike species in which dominance over one’s fellow men is the basis for our evolved social structures and a fact of human nature to which we are inextricably, and perhaps catastrophically, tied.

Casey Dorman, Editor Lost Coast Review

Author of "2020" a new political novel

Tuesday
Aug292017

Solitary Stillness by Kiriti Sengupta, reviewed by Uday Saha

 

Stillness, a Companion! 

Reviewed by Uday Saha

 

 

Title: Solitary Stillness

Author: Kiriti Sengupta

Illustrations: Joyeeta Bose

Published by Hawakal Publishers, Calcutta. 2017

ISBN: 978-81-934230-6-6 (Paperback)

Everyone talks about chaos but very few venture into the world of stillness. There is an entire universe within the stillness which is to be explored; and there is immense stillness to be discovered. Stillness allows one to reach beyond the mundane while appreciating and experiencing a universe that is different to the one most people are aware of. If you can still your mind you’ll feel different. No longer will the chaos be a hindrance; it will rather make you desirous to explore the undiscovered stillness. The chaos is already present and apparent, so the question is, how can you enter into the world of stillness that runs parallel to the chaos?

Kiriti Sengupta’s newest collection of poems, Solitary Stillness, is quietly affecting and has all the potential to inspire readers both in India and abroad. Even so, the most striking aspect of Solitary Stillness is how Sengupta’s thought-process and poetic mind have changed over the years since the release of his first book in 2013. On the 43rd page of Solitary Stillness there is a declaration — “The camera mocks the disguise/ and celebrates light.” Walking along “the concrete lane” Sengupta has celebrated the light within stillness of things and objects of his interest. Here the subjects of the verses differ from each other but they induce stillness to the readers. They bear an impeccable quality of being meditatively still.

When India is witnessing much of communal and political imbalances of late, and opinionated people often question a poet’s stand, Sengupta has meditated deeply to absorb much of the existing anarchy and put down his thoughts in “solitary stillness.” The collection is comprised of twenty “writerly texts,” which compel the readers to work at understanding and interpreting them. To Sengupta “Poets are loners, no doubt!” And undeniably the question like “Where do old birds go to die?” can come upon them.

The journey starts with “The Pilgrimage” where Sengupta has reflected on the proverbial saying: “The ants grow wing to fetch death.” To say, the two-line piece of work is subtle, for the ants (like the human beings) fizzle out to see through because of besotted ignorance. In “The Bengali Phenomenon” Sengupta is loud as he sneers the nonchalance displayed by the Bengali people. He writes: “It took ages to savor the ecstasy/ until Lapierre released his City of Joy.

City of Joy (1985) is a novel by Dominique Lapierre. It was later adapted into a film by Roland Jofee in 1992. The book chronicles despite facing hunger and death the people still hold on to the belief that life is precious and worth living, so much they named their slums “Anand Nagar” that translated into English to become “city of joy.” In “The Bengali Phenomenon,” “Jubilation ahoy” and “…released his City of Joy” if read together, it does poke different nooks and corners.

In “Quietude and Loneliness” Sengupta writes: “For God’s sake don’t take silence for granted.” I would rather say: For heaven’s sake don’t take solitude for granted. While reading this verse readers will notice the use of space in between these lines:

You never know if it will declare you dead

 

And then you see the resurrected spirit

 

The space carries forward the silence until the spirit is resurrected again. Here Sengupta significantly maintains the poise to create an imposing effect. “Tournesols” is a highly symbolical poem. I’ll consider it homage to van Gogh. The water as mentioned here is redemptive; it’s like sprinkling water upon the artist’s own dry leaves of life. But, the last two lines of the poem, “Life would not have stilled/ had there been water in the vase,” have words that are not “signifiers,” for a reader can not have a specific “signified.” What I mean is that the poet’s approach in this poem follows Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure looked at language diachronically. He traced words over time looking for the changes in sounds and meanings. And if based on deconstruction, the signifier and signified in “Tournesols” are unstable, and they can take on multiple meanings.

A picturesque portrayal pervades throughout “The Shoreside.” Topographic details of the site (mountainous rocks — sharp, edgy, and difficult ... boulders were loosely bound) did not escape Sengupta’s eyes. “The Shoreside” is rich in imagery:

Small waves came to merge…

Small waves failed…

Large waves failed…

Larger waves appeared…

 

In all these lines the treatment is kinesthetic. In the garb of subjective images, when Sengupta writes, “The sea sprinkled on our dry skin” we receive a soft, tactile image. Here I must quote Dustin Pickering, “Life is rarely what it seems, and the larger picture sneaks in over the smaller prints (“Smaller waves failed to erase the footprints!”).” Like “Toursenols,” “Manhattan Skyline” heightens Sengupta’s knack toward the great works of art. Here I remember what he wrote in one of his earlier books, Dreams of the Sacred and Ephemeral: “You have numerous folders in your life since your birth until the last light. In all such folders you are given poetry in its nascent form.” Sengupta strums the chord hard as creative personas like singer, painter or a poet strikes through “the concrete lane” to “mellow the water” or to have “mind still.” In this piece by juxtaposing prose and verse Sengupta has given a pure contemporary touch.

In Solitary Stillness Sengupta has proved that a poetic persona cannot and should not keep mum in the times of chaos and anarchy; however, a poet needs a calm to reflect. When Sengupta asks, “How long does a bird live to be called old?” he echoes the humanitarian voice of Bob Dylan who once wrote, “How many roads must a man walk down/ before you call him a man?” Apparently, Sengupta has sympathized with the state of the careless creatures. He touches so many issues and raises so many questions at the same time when he writes:

I can say, birds heal themselves

and die solitary

amidst the quiet flora — unnoticed.

 

Sengupta’s walk is of a man of flesh and blood while he is putting down the lines, but his heart is of a bird. On the other hand, if we take a look at the poem, we will find the first person “I” dissolves as it reaches the concluding (not a conclusion though) lines as if the writer wants us to feel the silent “we” resonating — “and (we) die solitary.”

In this age of post-truth and nihilistic literature, structuralism believes that the structure of language comes from human mind. It won’t be improper to say that poets are blessed with a third eye. For, only a poet can sense “the trees were paying attention /to the instructions sent from the sky.” (“The Pillars of Soil”); “They will rather find /another summer /to captivate and tantalize” (“Rolling Stone”); “Here lies a merger between two men...” (“Manhattan Skyline”).

Suppose you are left alone with your solitude, what will you think of? What will you look at? What will you write on? You will certainly come out with the realizations like, “birds no longer fly high,” “I no longer seek company,” “I heard my heart first,” among others. And once you realize “I now have arrived to an understanding,” you will spontaneously learn the etiquettes that will keep the aura of stillness alive.

The works of Picasso, Joyce, Camus and T. S. Eliot shattered and overturned everything traditional and ushered in new media. In India it’s Kiriti Sengupta, a poet with tapering fingers and soulful eyes. Solitary Stillness will stir the unearthed stillness and instill new hopes and aspirations in the minds of its readers.

 

Uday Saha was born and brought up in Coochbehar, India. He teaches English language and literature in Uponchowki Higher-Secondary School, Mekhliganj, West Bengal. Saha did his post-graduation in English Literature (M.A.) from North Bengal University in 2008. A bookworm, bilingual poet and co-editor of Mujnai literary magazine, Saha has published several poems both in Bengali and English. He has conducted many workshops in the district of Coochbehar, and as a trainer he has been appreciated in the Ananda Bazaar Patrika in the recent times.

Saturday
Jul222017

Appraisals: Kiriti Sengupta, reviewed by Rosalind Princess Reshma

BETWEEN THE LINES AND BEYOND BARRIERS

A review of Appraisals: Kiriti Sengupta by Rosalind Princess Reshma

Title: Appraisals: Kiriti Sengupta: Breaking the Barriers

Edited by Sunil Sharma and Dustin Pickering

Published by Transcendent Zero Press, Houston (Texas)

ISBN: (Paperback): 9781946460943

 

Roland Barthes, in his monumental essay says, “We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.” This speaks volumes about the impact any written text has on the readers. It would be naïve to say that a work of art has an absolute and/or intrinsic meaning. The enlightenment or simply the pleasure that a reader seeks from poetry seldom lies in the written words but lay hidden between the unwritten lines, waiting to be discovered which in return help the reader reconstruct the poet as an artist and as a kindred spirit. Appraisals: KiritiSengupta is a collection of reflections on poetry and the poet.

Poetry has always been a vehicle of spirituality. The symbolisms and the poetic license to experiment with figurative language helps the reader embark on a journey to understand the poem which is another side of discovering the self. Sengupta’s poems, with their rich symbolisms and universal themes provoke the reader with thoughts which Dustin Pickering aptly calls “an education in truth.” Talking in detail about how the ambiguity in the poems keeps the reader’s curiosity ignited throughout this search for truth, he says, “The way each image twists and turns, perhaps due to its translation, from ambiguity to an unexpected consolidation of objects that have nothing in common superficially, can only be the work of a poet-magician who seeks to grasp the external/objective world by poetic and analytical absorption.” (page 22) This ‘self’ that a poet intertwines with the metaphors and allusions, has traits which are universal, yet subtly colored with characteristics which are culturally significant and unique. As Sharmila Ray points out, “Kiriti’s poems are a montage of responses to the everyday philosophy that runs subterranean in the orient. These experiences are common to all men. But the poet remembers them and gives them form through words without frills.” (page 191) Ray compares the poems with abstract paintings suggesting the active role of the readers in creating the “meaning.” While Sengupta experiments with themes that provoke not only thought but a deep and honest contemplation, he makes sure that these themes are presented through images and experiences that are directly borrowed from life, and thus, the poem as a whole becomes something the reader can relate to. Calling the poems “direct references to life,” Ananya S Guha says, “These poems are not arid intellectualism. They are poetry of the heart, the spirit. Yet, they are complex interfaces of existence.” (p-193)

It is intriguing to notice that the style of Sengupta’s writing is always in sync with the nature of the themes and content. The poet has aptly used free verse to “educate” the readers of truths and perceptions that grow beyond boundaries, and thus, cannot be captured within the traditional protocols of poetic art, such as rhyme and meter. Analysing the prose poems in The Earthen Flute, Susanta Kumar Bardhan states, “It is evidently a modernist-postmodernist venture on the part of artist (who practices this) to explore the multiple facets of the mystery-laden complex reality of existence and its relation with humanity at large and to reflectively as well as aesthetically give shape in a text to those.” (p-216) Another interesting aspect of the poems is the stream of consciousness narration used by Sengupta, making his work tangentially touch different genres while not digressing away from the theme. This can be attributed to the complexities of the issues the poet handles in his work. Placing the different sides of these socio-cultural issues in a particular order will not do justice to the consequences of the same which impact the ‘self’ that the reader is attempting to discover and understand. In the words of Usha Kishore, “The narrative moves from light hearted satire to sobriety, to counter narrative and philosophy. The issues of gender and transgender transcend the experimental format and venture into the realm of Indian socio-politics.” (p-156)

While poetry helps the reader discover the inner self, it also acts as a medium through which the reader bonds with the creator of the work. While deconstructing the poems based on its umpteen linguistic and literary aspects, the reader is also reconstructing the poet as an artist and as an individual who has been influenced by the time and place while influencing the same through his art. Sengupta has been described as a “romantic poet” by Ananya S Guha who says that his poetry contains the very essence of romanticism; “idealism,” “pantheism,” and “humanism.” However, by refusing to be confined within the stereotypes of a genre, he lets the universality of his themes blend in with the uniqueness of his perspectives. In reference to “Saffron” Koushik Sen writes, “This is a vivid yet disturbing image that Sengupta produces, and establishes the fact that Sengupta is here to stay — he is not just another writer among the mass.” (p-250) The various reviews in the collection help the reader see Sengupta not just as the globally recognized poet and blogger but a good human with interesting thoughts on the things that surround him. He is also described as a good friend who values relationships by those who have had the privilege of knowing him personally.

Appraisals: Kiriti Sengupta is not merely a compilation of interpretations and perspectives on Sengupta’s poems, but a detailed synopsis of the many sides of his poetry and the diversity of his thoughts and opinions as a poet and as a human. The book, on one hand, answers the many questions that arise while reading Sengupta’s poems, and on the other hand, it gives the reader new questions, to find the answers of which a re-reading of the poems becomes inevitable. Apart from fulfilling the academic and literary needs of the critical reader, the collection also satisfies the curiosity of a poetry lover who just wants to know more about the creator of the poetry which has so beautifully appealed to the intellect and the imagination.

 

Rosalind Princess Reshma is an educator and a poet who has recently published a chapbook, Lost Interpretations. She holds a Master’s degree in Linguistics and applies it in the creative use of language. Being a polyglot and an admirer of languages, she is interested in reading and analyzing translations of literary texts.

 

Wednesday
Jun142017

Ten by Joe Lyman, reviewed by Casey Dorman

Ten by Joe Lyman

Amazon Digital Services, 2012

Ten, the 2012 novel by Joe Lyman, is an unusual book for many reasons. It is too long to be considered a novella, but at least a hundred pages shorter than the typical novel. It begins as an intimate story of the daily lives of a normal middle class family and ends as a semi-horror story, worthy of Stephen King. It is a hard novel to pigeonhole. But despite, or perhaps even because of this unique quality to the book, it is highly absorbing, to the point of becoming one of those stories that is difficult to put down.

The leisurely pace and plain-talking narrative of the beginning of the book is masterfully done. One of my favorite writing styles, best exemplified by William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, is the minimalist, ordinary-language sentence that seems to provide a precise mirror of the reality it is describing. Joe Lyman’s sentences, as he describes the daily life of 9 year old Dylan playing football in the street, his mother shopping, or his father tinkering in the garage, are each laid out carefully and with precision and economy. We are provided with a detailed picture of an American family with the assets and flaws that make the portrait seem real. Although the setting is today, I was reminded of my own childhood or the families of my childhood friends.

In the midst of this not idyllic, but decidedly pleasant family life, disaster strikes in the form of Dylan’s family’s uninsured home burning down and the story begins to take a turn toward the dark side. Dylan's mother becomes psychotically depressed. His father moves the family to a remote trailer park near the desert and only visits every few months. Dylan meets a gang of trailer park kids.

At the beginning of Dylan’s association with the other boys from the trailer park, we learn that they are secretive and can be cruel. Dylan, who has led a relatively protected middle class life up to the point his family moved to the trailer park, wrestles with the same issues of manliness, courage, pride and saving face that were issues, but minor ones, in his neighborhood football game but now are the determining factors in how he will be accepted by his new peers, and perhaps whether he will join them or be a victim of their violence.

Instead of engaging in delinquency or criminality, as one might expect for a group of poor boys, engaging mostly with each other and under no adult supervision (a situation reminiscent of Lord of the Flies), the boys, under the iron-handed leadership of Nico, the most powerful of them, play a ritualistic game of “war” each day. The game is played with toy guns in the middle of a dense forest near the trailer park. It is a mysterious game in which the lines between reality and imagination are blurred to the point of surrealism. We are unsure whether it is life-threatening or just a game.

Dylan goes through all the stages of hazing and finally acceptance into the group until he finally is not only a full-fledged member, but also a leader—strong enough to challenge Nico. I won’t give away the ending, but it is as surreal as the moments leading up to it.

Ten is a small book but it is a finely drawn picture that addresses childhood at multiple levels, taking the reader from the surface of childhood musings, to the deepest and darkest depths of fantasy. It is a highly original work from a talented writer. 

 

Ten is available in Kindle format at Amazon.com

Monday
May082017

Watershed a New Novel by Colin Dodds, reviewed by Casey Dorman

Alternate Reality Or The Real Thing?

Review of Watershed by Colin Dodds

Casey Dorman

 

Watershed by Colin Dodds

Published by Amazon Digital Services

Release Date: May 12, 2017

 

I love stories involving alternate realities, especially those that take the trends of the present and project them—in exaggerated form—slightly into the future. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis for the classic film, “Bladerunner”) is a famous example. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is an alternate history that has recently been resurrected through Amazon’s hit series based on the book. Although Dick’s dystopian novels were, during his lifetime, enjoyed mostly by his sci-fi fan base, they have since been recognized for their imaginative vision as major literary accomplishments. Modern writers as diverse as Philip Roth, William Gibson and Kazuo Ishiguro have achieved literary success with the genre. Currently, Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian view of a repressive, ecologically damaged, United States is the toast of streaming television.

Colin Dodds has achieved a highly readable, quirkily creative alternate reality that comes frighteningly close to real life in his new novel, Watershed. The United States described in his story is one in which most people live half in and half out of complete absorption by their electronic equipment—cell phones, total wall video screens, streaming information across their cars’ windshields and so on. It is the present taken to its logical extreme. The lines between entertainment and reality have been blurred to the point of farce. On the anniversary of the 9/11-terror attack, the country assembles, either in person or around their video screens, to watch a reenactment of the disaster as a planeload of prisoners flies into a reconstructed version of one of the Twin Towers. Half the watchers cheer for the fake “terrorists’” and half for the imagined victims.

Amid this projected vision of today, six people live out an interconnected plot, which is intricately related to the environment around them. Norwood is a Ludlite, one of the minority of citizens who reject the electronic domination of their world by eschewing smart phones, using old-fashioned emails on computers, which they borrow from internet cafes, and watch movies on DVDs. They are Luddites with enough use of modern electronics to make the Luddite “lite.” Norwood is a sculptor, who, when he was consigned to sculpting cartoon video characters, chose to raise exotic snakes instead. Raquel, an expensive prostitute who parachutes, nude, into his life one night as part of a performance/sexcapade, becomes his lover, wife and perhaps the mother of his child. Both are pursued by Hurley, the genetically strange and long-lived former senator, illicit lobbyist and millionaire who avails himself of the latest surgical and electronic advances to change his identity whenever his adversaries begin to close in on him. He believes that Raquel’s child may be his. One of Hurley’s pursuers is Wilhelmina, a woman detective who used to be a man before having his genitals shot off. Wilhelmina also employs Norwood in a devious plan to profit from the 9/11 reenactment. Both Norwood and Wilhelmina are targeted by Hurley’s assistant, Tyra and her hired goon, Gavin, a part-time financial advisor who enjoys killing, and is employed by Hurley to kill both Wilhelmina and Norwood. The story concerns Norwood and Raquel’s attempt to elude Hurley and his hired staff and establish a “normal” life in a Lublite community somewhere in the U.S.

The convoluted story treats us to a tour through this future possibility United States while also leading us on an exciting chase by a cast of characters, each of which is explored in greater depth than would be usual for a thriller-genre story and rivals some of Dick’s stories in terms of the nuances of twisted personalities. Identities are acquired and shed, sometimes via paperwork and just as often through plastic surgery. Norwood and Raquel are the definitely good and sympathetic heroes of the novel and Hurley is the villain with few redeeming qualities. Everyone else is too human to be classified so easily and this fact draws the reader deep into both the story and the characters’ personalities.

Watershed is indeed a watershed when it comes to revealing the dominance of our electronic, internet based world on our lives. I of course was aware of this before reading the book, but it did make me self-conscious about my own obsessive reliance on new (mostly trivial) information streaming nonstop into my brain through various devices. But Watershed is much more than social commentary. It’s a genuinely captivating edge-of-your-seat thriller, which kept me reading from beginning to end, looking forward to each new chapter. My only self-conscious pang of guilt came from the fact that I read it on a Kindle device instead of as a hardcopy. But then Kindle books probably qualify, along with DVDs and audiotapes, as Lud “lite” devices. At least I didn’t read it on my smartphone.

 

Watershed is scheduled for release as a Kindle ebook on May 12, 2017. Find it on Amazon 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday
Mar072017

Polk, Harper and Who, by Panayotis Cacoyannis reviewed by Casey Dorman

To read a novel by Panayotis Cacoyannis is to delve deeply into the psyches of always complex, and often unusual characters. Although his latest book, Polk, Harper and Who has it’s requisite number of kooky people, the two main  characters, Adam and Eva, are not strange at all. That is not to say that they are simply drawn. Both are complex, Eva is, by far, the more complicated of the two. She has secrets, from her best friend, from her husband, and from herself. But they are not secrets meant to harm anyone, only to protect. Her greatest secret is why she continues to play the role of daughter to her stepmother, concealing that her real mother died to everyone, including the husband with whom she shares almost all else. We never learn the why of that particular secret, except that to divulge it, at least while her stepmother is alive, would threaten the delicate balance she has achieved in living under the parenting of a woman she hates. I must keep the other secrets hidden in this review, as they might spoil the story for future readers. Adam, her husband, although complex in terms of his art and his views, is more straightforward with those he loves, almost to the point of perfection. The reciprocal love of these two persons is the central theme of the novel.

As with other Cacoyannis novels, the language, the cleverness, the juxtaposition of heartbreak and humor and the presence of truly hilariously drawn characters is at least half the pleasure of reading the book. The author has a way of describing mundane scenes in  ascending lines of subtle  humor that, for me, often results in an outbreak of irrepressible laughter by the end of the scene. The attention to detail and the complexity of  his desriptions of both character and setting are captivating.

I live a busy life with a crowded schedule, much of it consumed by reading and writing. It took me awhile to finish this book, but I must say that it was the pleasure to which I turned at the end of each day. It is well worth reading.

Wednesday
Jan182017

The Image Maker: A Collection of Poems by Donald B. Colson reviewed by Casey Dorman

The Image Maker: A Collection of Poems

Donald B. Colson

Createspace Independent Publishing Platform 2017 

 

At 78 years old, Donald Colson is a “new” poet, publishing a collection of 39 short poems, each with an accompanying prose “comment” explaining the poem’s “origins and meanings.” The poems are arranged into six themes: State of Mind, Relationships, Mourning, Nature, Ageing, and Faith and Spirituality.

Of the many impressions I had of this collection, three things stood out: the honesty of the observations, the sense of self-discovery, and the inventiveness of the imagery. Several of the poems are a faithful, sometimes brutal, often stark examination of the poet’s thoughts and feelings. “Writer’s Despair,” in which he confesses to longing “for recognition/by others with talent” is one. He examines the emotion of “Shame,” noting that “As a snail touched/reflexively withdraws/into its shell, shame burdens/ and turns us away from others.”  The poems, “Temptation,” “Help,” “Obsolescence,” “Metamorphosis,” and “Here and Not Here” are all searingly truthful in their examination of the poet’s emotions. The most memorable lines of emotion and truth may be contained in his prose prefaces to each poem, particularly when he is talking about the loss of his wife. “We agreed to meet after her death at a specific time (2 p.m., April 15) and location” he tells us while introducing “Awaiting Jane,” a heart wrenching poem in which, as he waits for the mystical meeting he had hoped would emerge, he finds that, “Although I linger/you do not answer” so that he responds, “Mute and hollow/my heart and hope/shrivel and sink./Salvation lies in/a return to grief.” Memorable, honest, and depressing, but not hopeless observations. In his introduction to “Love Long Lost” he says, “If we are fortunate we have experienced love so intense and deep that, for many years, the loss continues to be like a searing pain, penetrating to our center.”

The self-discovery, which is not unrelated to the collection’s honesty, is primarily related to the poet’s appreciation of the influence of his immediate ancestors, his parents and grandparents, on his conscious and unconscious thoughts and, indeed, on his being. His father was Jewish and his mother Catholic, though neither of them practiced their faith. Their parents, while living on a farm in America, were from Europe. The poems “Mother,” “Grandma’s House,” and “Paternal Grandmother,” among others, focus upon how he gradually came to realize how his memories shaped his own life and the genetic gifts, which he inherited, were evident in even his own children and grandchildren. Curiously, he wonders about his own legacy, although we see the rich legacy of his own parents and grandparents in his memories.

What makes these poems so remarkable and pleasing to read is Colson’s facility with figurative language. Immediately, in the first poem, “Night Train,” we are presented with a beautiful image, followed by a poignant association: “Wistful as the wail/of a night train passing./A mother’s cry/sad longing.” Then, we hear the interweaving of sensory experience with imagination as he describes the sound of the receding train as “Leaving a whisper/of roads not taken.” In “Kentucky” he describes “Fireflies, like stars/stream by the moisture/streaked car windows.” And in “Metamorphosis” he talks of faded passion as, “Longings like railroad tracks/parallel but never converge.” Colson is both imaginative and inventive. In “Grandma’s House” he recalls being soothed to sleep by the “buzz and hum of tires” on the two-lane highway that passed the house, then ends the poem with an echo, recalling his grandfather’s use of Canadian French to speak to him, as a sound, “for me as comforting/ as the buzz and hum of tires/on the highway.”

This is a remarkable collection by a poet with a remarkable ear and even more faultless vision of scenes, objects and nature, which he is able to transform into poetic images. He explores the layers of consciousness as found in both dreams and memories. He lingers on the loss that defined much of his life, and how he tried to cope with it, always holding onto the memories, even of the pain. Each poem is both a pleasure to the ear and a revelation to the heart and mind. This is a collection well worth reading—and re-reading.

The Image Maker is available from Amazon Books

Casey Dorman

Editor, Lost Coast Review

Saturday
Nov122016

On The Edge Of A Very Small Town: Poems By Mark Jackley reviewed by Elizabeth Conte

Pure Poetry.

I don’t say this lightly.

Mark Jackley’s new book of poems, On The Edge Of A Very Small Town, is exactly that and more. His words are visceral and beautifully crafted making the reader not just read, but live his words:

 

Shuffling,

she clutches

her coffee like a torch.

 

Although writing is subjective, to me, poetry is the purest artistry form of writing. It is the closest you can get to painting a picture with words. On The Edge Of A Very Small Town is a colorful detailed piece of art soulfully crafted with a mixture of keen wit, cynicism, love, and loss:

 

Undertaker

Once you’re there, death

just isn’t the same, he thinks.

 

He carefully sews her mouth

to keep the secret in.

 

Reading Mark Jackley’s poems made my mind escape from life, and indulge in serenity. A serenity of spirit and mind.

How often does one get to do that?

His words transported me to a quiet space and gave me the luxury to indulge in the observation of life, people, places, and things. Nothing bold, of things imminently important, nor of things deeply philosophical.

This collection of poems is a picture of moments that most of us forget. A simple day in February, Milk And Eggs, or an old love named Kathleen. Quick observations that have such meaning, yet we rarely take time to remember…remember what affects us the most.

 

In a kitchen window, the silhouette

of an enormous man who thinks,

grazing at the train,

he could love anyone on board

 

Poetry changes. It’s purpose, it’s style, and it’s expectations. Stream of thought has dominated the poetry scene for a while now, making me forget how utterly lovely poetry can sing with so few words; how it can transport you from the mundane of every day to the majesty of every day. Mark Jackley’s book of poems is the gift of simplicity that explains everything, makes you feel everything, and makes you see everything. His substance is not simple, but simply said in a way that makes this book something special…and reminds you that the beauty of life is truly in the ordinary.

 

 

 

 

Thursday
Nov032016

A Box of Ticky-Tacky by Somdatta Goswami, reviewed by Dustin Pickering

            The generation gap is an age-old theme in world literature from certain ancient Greek myths to Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. Human society, in assimilating variety, assembles old and young side by side. Naturally, tensions arise from both parties’ fears and abilities. The young are alive and healthy, preparing for a full life. The elders, having already lived long, impart their wisdom. The old perhaps see a semblance of their former selves in their children, and the young may fear guidance because of their own stubborn wills.

            In A Box of Ticky-Tacky [Chitrangi, Calcutta], characters are influenced by such generational differences in a profoundly distinct way. In “Old Papa Crown” we are met with an elderly gentleman who refuses to succumb to his old age. Even in sickness, he rebounds with humor and meets with the schoolchildren he greeted every morning from inside his house. This seemingly trivial detail reminds the reader that the smallest of gestures still resonate in life’s expansive dream.

            These stories, told imaginatively and recounted as vividly as actual memories, are united morally in the reminder that life is not to be taken for granted. “To Fly to Zurich” is amusing and ironic as well as instructive in this central motif. An elderly woman’s trip to Sweden is complicated by several small misunderstandings until she finally loads a plane without trouble. When she arrives in Zurich, she has no way to contact her son who she was to meet after landing. Overall, we perceive her as one resolved to visit “the most beautiful country” even if she gets lost in it. As she recounts the tale she explains to her listener, who is surprised at her determination, that she had nothing to lose after so long a life.

            Our elders aren’t the only celebrated heroes of this collection. In “The Queen of the Roads”, a young woman learns to drive by competing with her father. She becomes an expert on cars and driving. When she stops to help an older gentleman change his tire, the crowd is in awe of her unique capability. This story has other strange surprises. I found it to be the most amusing and imaginative writing of the book. The situation is possible yet undeniably fantastic.

            A more universally valuable lesson is uncovered throughout.  This lesson is easily recognized in “The North Wind”, a story about a university student who is bored of the classroom and her studies. The last sentence of the story reads, “Life holds our key to happiness in such very insignificant things...and it is for us to discover and recognize them...they are there...just under our noses...for us to find them!” The collection proclaims an honest optimism to supersede pain, error, and harsh circumstances. In “Welcoming William”, a severe accident alters the course of an arranged family. In “The First Day of Baishakh”, a marriage is suddenly cancelled to the couple’s despair, but the disappointed bride-to-be restores her family’s fortune with her patient efforts and optimism. The example is one of outstanding resolution. Even when faced with sudden heartbreak, forbearance makes flowers bloom. At the end of “Baishakh”, she acknowledges the approach of her own life’s end and prepares to let go for the sake of her grandchildren. Her struggle in these final moments is poignantly detailed.

            The title of the collection seems silly and ultimately frivolous. Perhaps Somdata Goswami intends to be playful yet wise. Ticky-tacky holds things together and keeps them in place. These stories show life’s wisdom to be one of guiding us proper to our highest lights, and holding life together even when it is passing.

            The collection ends with “The Sign of Love”, the most delicate and touching story in the collection. The truth contained within it exhibits a sharp contrast to the book’s other themes. Instead of a celebration of life, we see the despair of unjustified killing and vengeance. In this example, we are reminded that life is precious by an entirely different situation. As the hero is gunned down violently, his final gesture is the sign of love to his deaf students. Our imaginations are left to reflect on what could have been; why was such a heroic and gentle man murdered by misguided revolutionaries he once sought to benefit? Why is their ideal counter to the act and results of the act?

            Somdata Goswami is a careful storyteller. Her thoughts are masterfully disguised within the narratives so the reader can investigate. The circumstances of the stories are unique and excite the imagination. Her ability to guide the reader as plot develops toward resolution demonstrates the patience of intellect and clarity of thought necessary for genuine storytelling. Each character created by Goswami is perhaps a figment of our own consciousness, some hidden invention of our daydreaming, or a unique characterization of our innermost desires. While we read to entertain our longing for escape, these stories read our hearts for the reason we wish to escape.

 

Dustin Pickering is Editor-in-Chief of Harbinger Asylum and founder of Transcendent Zero Press,

 

 

Monday
Oct242016

Selfhood: Varieties and Experience—Afterword by Dolonchampa Chakraborty

Editor's Note:Varieties of Experience is a remarkable collection of poems and essays involved in the discussion of the meaning of Selfhood. This anthology will be released in America by Transcendent Zero Press and in India by Hawakal Publishers. An introduction by Lyn Coffin, whose poetry and prose has appeared in Time Magazine and Prairie Schooner among other publications, questions the similarities and differences in Eastern and Western conceptions of Self. Lyn Coffin is also the recipient of the Republic of Georgia's Saba Prize in 2016. The engaging questions of identity, one's relationship with the world, and the influence of culture on the human mind are addressed lucidly and openly. Poets both highly respected and emerging are included. The anthology will be available on Amazon for $8.00 by the end of October. 

  

 

Afterword: Selfhood Anthology

          As I started my journey through the Selfhood anthology, the word “self” formed a little misperception. The word “Selfhood” in its general sense had provided me a notion of a personal consciousness, an emotional state and an insight about vivid experiences in life. However, as I kept delving further, it became palpable that this book is not restricted to the strict and prevalent idea of the self’s day-to-day existence. I realized that my delusion about the word “self” was rather deep-rooted in the passive practice of my Hinduism, while the use of “self” probing through the book has a far wider spectrum of meaning.

         “Self” in a more ancient Eastern term means atta (Pali) and atman (Sanskrit). The Atma Upanishad thus establishes the idea of atma (Soul or Self) dividing it into three categories known as Bahyatman—the physical person; Antaratman—the inner person who sees, thinks, distinguishes and Paramatman—the supreme source or reality.

         In contrast to these teachings of Hinduism, the main doctrines of Buddhism abide by the concept of anatma (no-soul or no-self). It clearly rejects the Vedic notion of the soul or self and states that there is no soul inside a living human body and hence it cannot be a connection between the mortal self and the higher immortal self. The Buddhist viewpoint, however, is in stark contrast to materialistic annihilationism, e.g. Charvaka; according to it, there is no soul, no self, no karma, no rebirth, and no afterlife. Tathagata advised against this practice known as Natthikavada. However, there seems to be a twilight point where Buddhism strongly insists the human body has a soul or self but does not acknowledge that the self does not exist either; because in order to accept it, first the existence of soul will have to be accepted.

         Anatta (anatman) doesn’t mean that there is no afterlife, no rebirth and no karma, Buddhism does not recognize the ideas of Hinduism which particularly upholds the theory of eternalism and says that every living human body is an adhaar (container) of a soul; and that this soul is a part of a greater reality, immortality and a hypothetical existence—hence, each and every human being is also part of a greater immortal being (Paramatman). This concept known as Atthikavada is also judged in Buddhism. The Theraveda Buddhism destroys the “I,” and “I am” by an inflexible practice of the Anatta doctrine as it defies that particular effort to become one with the apparently unknown and the Supreme One by destroying the active and the innermost ego of a person:

 

सब्बे धम्मा अनात्ता

(sabbe dhamma anatta—all things are not-self)

एतं ममम एसो ‘हम अस्मि, एसो में अत्ता ती’

(etang mamam eso ‘ham asmi, eso me atta ti’— this is mine, this I am, this is myself)

 

         Thus, when a mind is trained enough to detach itself from all forms of obsession, demand, expectation, revenge, pride, love, fear, loss, it comprehends the Shunyata (vacuum or emptiness) by realizing that everything in this world is devoid of a “self” or ego and attains Nirvana (salvation). This supreme attainment ends the cycle of suffering, death and rebirth.

         The central focus of the Nirvana Sutra is the Buddhadhatu—the nature of Buddha, an ultimate blissful form of “self” is present in every man. It is said to remain when all—every form of non-self is perished.

         Mark Blum writes: “He [the Buddha] makes it clear that while he will disappear from their sight, he is not going to die, because in fact he was never born in the first place. In other words, Buddhas are not created phenomena and therefore have no beginning and no end.”

         While Hinduism says that the Atma (self, soul) is the ultimate reality of human life—an unbound, free, uncreated, unlimited, immortal and liberated divinity because it existed even before the Universe took shape (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad); hence it is the same as the Brahmana—the omnipresent, unbounded, genderless, and eternal reality which has not changed since time immemorial and so, he is one with the Atma, which is indestructible.  According to The Vedas, the Atma (Self, Soul, Brahmin) is the cosmic principle as it was there, will be there. Similarly the concept of the ultimate attainable vacuum or Shunyata as advised in Buddhism and as the Buddhadhatu in every human being and the ultimate feature of Tathagata— the one and only true bliss and truth, it is free from all earthly cycles of suffering and at the same time it is the cause of everything which was never there, never born, hence never dead.

         In my opinion, the poets in this anthology have touched upon fascinating contrasts and similarities of these most practiced faiths in their extremely intelligent poems and essays, and by a habit of keen observation and listening to others’ stories.  

        I did not try to decipher the poems, rather searched for some connection with the parallel worlds of art and mythology that have filled them with an eternal fountain of bliss, even when their expression is of despair, grief, hollow—certain memories which date back centuries as they do not belong to a single entity but connect the whole universe, instead of expressing torn and broken pieces of a particular nation. They make every individual as one of the many children of Gaea—the Supreme Mother.

         In the very beginning there is the mention of the “door-keeper” and the “human-headed bird” which apart from their biblical referents, strike me with a humble yet bold appearance of the soul/self:

 

Open to me, the door-keeper.

My human-headed bird

steps from the niched recess

in your night chapel—

(“Ancient Spell” by Elina Petrova)

 

         Ba (a human-headed bird, especially a Falcon) is the classic Mediterranean example of the spiritual manifestation of soul through the concept of rebirth; while it is a part of a complex polytheistic interpretation practised in ancient Egypt; the mention of a human-bird is found in many other texts (Japan, Tibet. Garuda, the mythical bird-man creature mentioned in the Hindu epic Ramayana and other folk-tales, actually represents anonymous entities or powers and the ultimate survival of a “being.” It is being called upon by the door-keeper whose desire to become a bird is a symbol of liberty and movement  which is even more established by the rivers rapidly advancing through unchosen, random valleys, to keep the cycle of life alive and vibrant.

 

I roamed in an indigo sari

through jungles and villages

of my chain dreams:

(“Ancient Spell” by Elina Petrova)

 

         Roaming in a dream and draping oneself in a colourful saree denotes a very special social life that starts with settling down in a marriage or being involved in a spiritual quest. As for the color psychology here, Indigo means a communication with the intensified spirituality of oneself as well as celestial guidance. In terms of the emotional spectrum, Indigo suggests the compassion part of the rainbow—as if the person is developing an intuition towards serving the humanity guided by the inner wisdom (antaratma).

         The dreams are vivid in terms of color and objects—the Indigo saree, the turmeric splash of sun, Indigo scarabs—all point to a curious and empathetic mind—and also perhaps suggest an essentially sensitive mind, as all these point towards the possibility of traveling a tranquil path toward attainment. The dreams create a mysticism, though seeing scarabs emphasize rebirth, cleansing of the soul and protection from evil, while listening to music always fills the dreamer with a positive, harmonious feeling.

         The piece [“Finding the Courage to Always Be True to Ourselves” by Elizabeth Esguerra Castillo, page 21] on the theme of Paolo Coelho’s The Witch of Portobello is an interesting one.  While we should have the courage to be true to ourselves, that seldom happens and the truth lies buried somewhere inside our eyes. The part where Roscoe Snowden is quoted: “There are at least two kinds of cowards. One kind always lives with himself, afraid to face the world. The other kind lives with the world, afraid to face himself”—reminds me of Korean director Ki-duk Kim’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring—a film released in 2009.

         Had it been a western film, the same operational structure that tells the story of a child and the Buddhist monk residing in a small cottage in the middle of a vast lake—even within the basic Buddhist platform would not fit. Because it is the difference of the Western ‘I’ and the Eastern ‘I’ that makes the treatments discrete. Basically, what we face is the changing time and the changes time makes in our lives. Hence, it is possible to disagree with what Snowden said in the context that everything is ever-changing and nobody can either keep oneself from facing the world or the self.

         On another note, “bedlamite” talks about an ethereal connection between everything said and unsaid, written and unwritten, accumulated and un-accumulated, done and undone:

 

all the unsaid bliss, compressed & hardened

to hieroglyph, to silence, to belated indifference

unable to share the stories fast asleep inside you & me.

Unlike accumulation,

there is something evanescent that no one sees,

that shapes us, drives us, binds us

within the optimistic brilliance of hope—”

[“bedlamite” by henry 7. reneau, jr.]

 

         Every person has a story—whether it will be told or not, it is a part of the great cosmic vacuum; because the eternal, ethereal Om [ॐ] is out there, has always been there since even before the creation of the universe. First ever mentioned in the Vedic text, Upanishads, the Om is also known as the mystic syllable which refers to the Atman or the self and the Brahmin—the ultimate divine and supreme entirety. The factual statement, “a broken self cannot mend other broken selves – he must heal himself first” refers back to this mysticism of the Om.  He must connect to his own self, cleanse it of all ill-feelings and learn to accept life’s vastness as it is.

         “A Special Sort Of Box” by Anya Ezhevskaya reminded me a very old saying: It is the giver who is blessed and should be grateful to the receiver for accepting a contribution with benevolence. The lines of a very popular poem by Rabindranath Tagore are along the same lines:

 

What I gave you was yours in reality / you’ve brought me in your debt by accepting it.”

 

         In an effort to achieve attainment, it is essential to forget the ego-consciousness, to cleanse the self or no-self off greed, hatred and ignorance.

 

 “But we are leaving us, we are leaving us… We are within me, the distant residence of that forlorn spring. Miles after miles sunflowers are blooming, where we kissed death.”             [“Words” by Niladri Mahajan]

 

         The language of this poem is uniquely associated with the theme of the book. We’re leaving us—the ego, the self and moving towards a non-self, thus gradually achieving a completeness in its entirety. But I feel that there can be another angle to it—a rather mundane and non-philosophical angle that hits our restricted entities every day. In my experience I’ve seen that the language of companionship is same all over the world, irrespective of the philosophy and politics of the geographical influence. The reminiscence of such a bond remains alive even after centuries have passed. That keen sense of togetherness expressed in a field bright with sunflower colours reminds me of Les Alyscamps—a pair of paintings done by Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin in 1888. From companionship comes a sense of belonging which in turn becomes an obstacle to Nirvana.

         The first few lines of “A Bankrupt Strategy” by Lucy Wilson are harsh and so is the whole poem named “Witch Hunt” by Jennifer Lagier, but these are realities especially in the developing as well as the war-torn nations even in the 2nd decade of the new millennium. Anger, frustration, helplessness are piling up to avenge the agony caused by the influential half and leading to the production of such lines with utmost mockery. “Conversation with a Dream” by Sasha Kamini Parmasad discusses the ancient account of the Vedic text:

 

“Wish I could wish

to show you Allah

as I promised

but in this life

I have lost my wisdom

finally

and can only point

to your own image.”

 

         Pointing towards one’s own image stimulates the energy of awareness which is mainly controlled by Agni (fire)—supposedly, one of the main ingredients of human body. Incidentally, children are supposed to be the image / mirror image of their creators—this book started acknowledging the Supreme Mother, Gaea, who had apparently removed the void, chaos and confusion—to give birth what mortal life is today.

         The book perseveringly tests the efforts to break the idea of “self”—as practised in the West in its quest for the unseen and unidentified entity and consequences:

 

“You have thrown the spear

through the eye

of my I.”                  

[“Conversation with a Dream” by Sasha Kamini Parmasad]

 

         “I” is not only the uncleansed self, it is also the ego—aham that collides with the super-ego, which is omnipresent in every life and simultaneously nowhere to be found.

         In “Not My Own” by Susan Summers, the mother sees her unborn child which is supposed to fill the would be mother’s life with magnificent goodness as two different minds, unknown to each other, connecting with each other’s consciousness. An eternal question is posed in this poem about the very existence of humans.

         The last poem of the book is named “Krishna” (by Kiriti Sengupta, one of the editors of Selfhood anthology). In this poem, Krishna delivers the message of The Gita. He is not only the offspring of the body (Devaki) and the life-force (Vasudeva), he is also considered the God of eternal love. While the concept of the soul is ambiguous, love can seldom be eternal. It is also a form of Maya. Hence, these lines are strikingly truthful from the days of ancient epic war to our contemporary age of false living:                                      

 

No matter if someone indulges in an unfair deed, the gods would suffer through us, and thus, we would remain unaffected.

 

         The peacock feather on Krishna’s head denotes freedom—a detachment from all earthly ties which keep humans from moving towards the salvation.

         Lyn writes in the introduction: “The anthology Selfhood encourages us to regard familiar intellectual territory in different contexts and varying lights.” As a reader of Eastern and Western treatment of practices I would say that this book deals with many and tangled theories of simple faith—faith that talks about happiness, peace and bliss in today’s untrue times and makes the reader communicate with one’s innermost fear, truth, and liberty.

 

Dolonchampa Chakraborty

Nagpur, India

 

A translator and transcriptionist by profession for last twelve years, Dolonchampa Chakraborty has authored two collections of Bengali poetry. She is currently the executive editor of a Bengali Webzine, www.bookpocket.net and is also the Chief Editor of The Nilgiri Wagon (www.nilgiriwagon.org), a webzine dedicated to Indian, Spanish and Greek literature and art.

 

Thursday
Oct202016

The Dead of August by Panayotis Cacoyannis, reviewed by Casey Dorman

The Dead of August

Panayotis Cacoyannis

Amazon Digital Services LLC

2013.

 

The esteemed critic and novelist William Gass once claimed that novels require stories, literature does not. The Dead of August has a story, and unlike some of Gass’ novels—Middle C, for instance—the story has a plot. But the plot is not what this novel is about. It’s about character, the nature of reality, and words. And the words are a pyrotechnic display, providing enough pleasure in themselves to satisfy readers who enjoy what Gass would call, “literature.” 

James Linthwaite is a an obituarist; he writes obituaries for the London Herald. We never get to read any of his obituaries, but we hear about them. They are about “the tortured souls of those middling celebrity types who do have a talent of sorts – on occasion even a talent to speak of - but whose needy ambition exponentially exceeds it.” And he writes these obituaries “euphemistically” using “vastly more subtle and sophisticated one-off inventions” to describe what otherwise would be tragic or tragic-comic lives, depending, probably, upon one’s sense of humor. In fact, an anonymous reviewer’s claim that “Mr Linthwaite is able to wrest a sense of the perversely comic tragedy of existence, and through the paradox which his subjects embody, distil the very essence of our lives - of what it is, so absurdly, to be human,” is an almost perfect description of what Cacoyannis provides us in The Dead of August and its story of James, his acquaintances and his family.

James’ life is, for no particular reason except perhaps middle age ennui, if not disintegrating, at least sinking low enough to raise troubling questions in his mind. Why do he and his wife never have sex anymore? Does she value him or his work? Why is his son so contemptuous of him? His wife accuses him  of being “too abstract, …My focus was soft. My perception was fuzzy. I never paid attention.” In his words he’s a “Bigger Picture man.” In fact he regards that as the “hub of my character, and much more encompassing than a mere trait.” But in truth, the fact of the forest eludes him as he gazes at the trees.

Does James misunderstand himself? Probably no more than the next person, although he ponders the question more deeply (though without penetrating its surface), and with brilliant, often hilarious and sometimes perversely euphemistic, inner dialogue to which we are privy because of the first person narrative. But he understands his peers and family even less than he understands himself, and they appear to understand themselves not terribly more than he does. James’ real problem seems to be that this all too human characteristic of failing do understand what is happening within or around him leads him to passively accept the directions provided by others; he does not take charge of his own life.

The plot of the novel is simple, but inventive. A mysterious invitation to attend a week-long “happening” at the country home of a wealthy recluse arrives. Without anyone ever saying what the happening is to be, James is urged by his wife and editor (whom he suspects are having an affair) to head to the country for a week and attend the event. He has no inner sense of whether he should or should not go, he vacillates, makes up his mind not to then changes his mind to fit a minor conversational exigency and ends up going. Prior to that, we are treated to a dizzying sequence of meetings with his editor, with the sports writer who will take over the obituaries during his absence, with the sports writer’s sister, to whom James is attracted. None of these people proves to be whom he or she first appears to be.

Once at the country estate of the eccentric, who has assumed an identity as “Max,” we learn that the man is planning a happening at an avant garde gallery and that James is one of three people who, over a period of time, have been invited for a week to visit Max and pen a 900 word obituary of him.

We can guess that the “happening” will include Max’s demise, but James, faithful to type, fails to anticipate this. At any rate, the actual event doesn't occur until a year after James is thrown out of his house by his wife, with the help of his son, for reasons he of course fails to comprehend. In fact, his understanding is hampered by his focus upon details at the expense of the “Bigger Picture,” showing us how little James understands himself.

In the end, Max commits suicide  during the happening, James is shocked but uses his debilitating reaction to wangle his way back into the good graces (and house) of his wife, and is back writing his obituaries, but this time less worried about his sex life, the wanderings of his wife, and has taken up an affair with the owner of the gallery (who was at one time a lesbian, the object of desire of the unsuspecting dictatorial editor, and has now reverted to heterosexuality). The editor, with whom James had suspected his wife was having an affair, accidentally suffocates himself while attempting a sexual scene copied from James’ wife’s best-selling pornographic book. James is taken by surprise, another intricate example of his misapprehension of the character of those around him. James finally decides not to be untrue to his wife, and the book ends with a titillating suggestion that he had been right all along about his wife’ affair with his editor.

In Cacoyannis’ novel Bowl of Fruit (1907), Jack Faro, the protagonist, searches for an identity by copying that of others—Picasso, Kafka— and then learns that everything he thought was true about himself and his history was not. James Linthwaite is continually learning that everything he thought about the people around him was wrong, or at least only a glimpse of one side of them. He never quite addresses his own lack of self-understanding and as a result, he never grasps the forces that are propelling him hither and thither. I’ve read enough reviews of The Dead of August to realize that such a character irritates or even angers some readers, who demand the main character of a novel be more “appealing.” I would hazard the suggestion that such readers are denying, or at least underestimating, the degree to which James is each of us. He never realizes that he doesn’t have a clue why he does what he does or what is “happening” around him, but do I dare say, most of us don’t either? It’s a painful realization, but one that Cacoyannis presents with brilliant, verbally glistening humor. It was a book that, for me,  was an immense pleasure to read.

Casey Dorman

Wednesday
Sep282016

After the Gonads Stop Snapping: Daniel Klein's "Travels with Epicurus" reviewed by Casey Dorman

Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life

Daniel Klein

New York: Penguin Books (2012)

 

When I was a very young man, having just earned my degree and secured my first full-time job as a psychologist, I was given the assignment to consult to a preschool class for disturbed children taught by a woman in her late sixties. She not only shared her teaching philosophy with me, but also her views on life. One day I remarked on how broadly she seemed to consider her life in relation to the world around her. She offered that, it was wonderful how well one was able to think about things, “after the gonads stop snapping.”

Daniel Klein (Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar, The History of Now) expresses a similar point of view, not so comically, but in a more reasoned way, in his 2012 book, Travels with Epicurus.” He talks about libido “having run its natural course.” Waning libido is not the central theme of Klein’s remarkable book, but allowing oneself to age gracefully and thoughtfully is.  He mentions a friend, who at age 73, had gotten prescriptions for both testosterone supplements and Cialis and who “felt like a young buck again.” Klein is skeptical, not about the truth of his friend’s report, but about the wisdom of trying to prolong or recapture youth. There is a natural rhythm, he says, in the way an older person walks slowly, takes rests, sits and thinks, spends time with friends, and mostly, enjoys the moments, rather than experiencing them as stepping stones on the way to some future goal.

In his early seventies, Klein revisited the Greek Island of Hydra, familiar to him from many earlier visits. His visit was “… a personal quest: I am an old man myself now—seventy-three—and I want to figure out the most satisfying way to live this stage of my life.” His inspiration was the fourth century BC, Greek philosopher, Epicurus, founder of a well known school called “The Garden” in Athens. In fact it was my own interest in Epicurean philosophy that originally attracted me to Klein’s book.

Epicurus is a remarkable and underrated philosopher, the latter fact being due to the paucity of his surviving writings. A believer in Democritus’ notion of the atom as the basis of all matter, his universe is infinite and nothing can be either created or destroyed, except in the momentary form it takes from the configuration of its atoms. While he does not deny the existence of gods, he views them neither as creators of the universe nor as meddlers in its course. For Epicurus there is no life after death. The soul resides within the body and when the body dies, the soul’s atoms are no longer attached to the person; they dissipate as an entity.  “Death is nothing to us; for that which is dissolved is devoid of sensation, and that which is devoid of sensation is nothing to us.” Much of his philosophy is based on the principle of not fearing death, nor bargaining with gods regarding a fictional afterlife. “Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply awareness, and death is the privation of all awareness; therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life an unlimited time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terror for those who thoroughly apprehend that there are not terrors for them in ceasing to live.”

Epicurus is remarkable in a number of ways: Unlike virtually any of the ancient philosophers I have read, he is able to suspend judgment. He cites various natural phenomena—the stars, the movement of the stars, the wind, hurricanes, thunder, lightning, rainbows, lunar haloes, earthquakes and admits that the sense impressions we have from them (sense impressions, he believes,  being the source of our explanations) lead to many contradictory explanations and do not provide, in his time, a conclusive argument for any particular explanation. So the explanation of such phenomena is left open, to be decided by future observations. He is a naturalist and an empiricist when he says, “we must attend to present feelings and sense perceptions, whether those of mankind in general or to those peculiar to the individual and also to attend to all the clear evidence available, as given by each of the standards of truth.” This seems to me to be a stance that could support the development of science.

Daniel Klein is less concerned with Epicurus’ natural philosophy than with his social philosophy. Epicurus believed that happiness is the ultimate goal of living. “So we must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since if that be present, we have everything, and if that be absent, all our actions are directed toward attaining it.”  But, in contrast to our modern-day use of the word “epicurean,” the ancient philosopher meant a more measured and sober pursuit of pleasure. “When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of merrymaking, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life,; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest disturbances take possession of the soul.”

Klein notes that Epicurus directed much of his attention to old age. He quotes Epicurus saying, “It is not the young man who should be considered fortunate, but the old man who has lived well, because the young man in his prime wanders much by chance, vacillating in his beliefs, while the old man has docked in the harbor, having safeguarded his true happiness.” Klein notes that Epicurus discourages wanting not only that which is unattainable, but also that which is so difficult to attain that it is not worth the trouble. Simple pleasures, Klein learns while on Hydra, are often easily attained. Enjoying the simple dinner that is readily available brings more pleasure than yearning for a more sumptuous and expensive one. Walking slowly, even with a stick, can bring a pleasure that hurrying, while one’s mind dwells on the destination, rather than the journey, cannot. And perhaps above all, spending time with friends is a pleasure uniquely satisfied in old age. Why uniquely, because, as Klein points out, “Wanting nothing from one’s friends is fundamentally different from the orientation of a person who is still immersed in professional life or its relationships.” He quotes Epicurus: “Of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one’s entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.”

Travels with Epicurus is a window into the musings of a 73 year old, intelligent, humorous, man, searching for the wisdom to guide his elder years before, in his words, old old age hits him. We sit with him in the Taverna, watching his friend Tasso, of a similar age, playing cards or talking to his friends, also old men with time on their hands, we observe with him other islanders going about their daily business, we watch Tasso and his friends admire a 19 year old beauty and joke about the beauties they have known in earlier years. Each of Klein’s observations is the occasion for reflection: on the pleasures of the people he is watching and on his own enjoyments and thoughts.

Klein began his journey after being told by his dentist that he needed dental implants. Either he must endure a year containing several painful dental surgeries and periods of recovery as he has his precariously balanced teeth removed and replaced or he will soon lose those teeth and require a denture, impairing his ability to eat some food and giving him “the unmistakable clunky smile of an old man.” Despite his initial choice to opt for the implants, he reconsidered, asking himself, “In my early seventies did I really care if I presented to the world and old man’s goofy smile? And even more to the point, with my years of clear thinking and reasonable mobility dwindling as quickly as my jawbone, did I honestly want to dedicate an entire year to regular visits to an oral surgeon?” He did not. Instead he decided to explore how best to live as a seventy-three year old man.

Most of us will never spend a month on the island of Hydra, probably not on any Greek island, for that matter. But some of us can afford a life of leisure in our old age, not necessarily an opulent one, but one which allows us to do things that we find pleasurable. Following Daniel Klein along on his journey to find what brought him happiness, was worthwhile. He and Epicurus and many other philosophers and thinkers whom he quoted learned that, especially as one gets older, it is the doing that is pleasurable, not some end to be attained if the doing is successful. And Klein takes special care to be sure that the doing fits not only what he enjoys, but what he is capable of doing at his age. For those like him who enjoy thinking and reading, much is available. Companionship is available to many and Klein shows us how to enjoy it by treating, in Kantian terms, our friends as ends not as means.

Epicurus is sometimes regarded as a Stoic and sometimes as the opposite of a Stoic. It is unstoical to seek pleasure in every action. But it is in line with stoicism to find one’s happiness in reasoning, in sober, prudent living, in enjoying what is available rather than striving after what might never be attained or attained only with great difficulty. Klein seems to see this Epicurean approach to life as a perfect fit for old age. When we are younger, we still are driven by goals, by ambition and yes, by our gonads. But pleasure is there for the taking even in our seventies and probably beyond. When he contemplates old old age, Klein is pessimistic. Death does not provoke dread, but  such ailments as dementia, incontinence, and chronic pain do. He muses about the choice of suicide and when to take such an action if that is one’s choice.

Traveling with Epicurus is a thoughtful book, one that can help to attain an insight into how to make one’s elder years pleasant ones. I almost said “meaningful” but that term has too many somber and profound connotations to fit the message of this book or Epicurus’ philosophy. Finding happiness in old age is not about leaving a legacy, not about making one’s impact extend beyond one’s life. It is about doing what brings pleasure and a sense that one is right with one’s conscience and one’s world. To me, that is a goal well worth seeking and this is a book well worth reading.

Wednesday
Sep142016

The Flesh and the Mortar Prophecy by Nathan Hassall, reviewed by Jeff Cannon

Nathan Hassall’s new collection of poems entitled, The Flesh and Mortar Prophecy, is far from an imaginary romp into the bizarre realms of madness. It is a deep and penetrating journey into the meaning of fleshy being that includes the poet and engages the reader. The author’s poems relate to each other in such a way that each one offers another clue to the descent into finding true consciousness: the way painted trees point out which path to take deeper into the forest.

Hassall is another explorer who marks a way for us to navigate the perilous and porous walls between madness and sanity; imprisonment and freedom. Read the preface. There, Hassall provides the reader with not only an intriguing background but more importantly a helpful framework for the reader to better jump into and engage these provocative poems.

This is a tightly written little chapbook. Its sharp, succinct words, sometimes rhymed, often free flowing, punctuate brisk paced verses. Each one has its own descriptive character and meditative tone, yet does not stand alone. Each poem relates to the others to form a distinctive and cohesive poetic piece. The sound of each one resonates with trembling urgency. As well, there is the pulse of revelations, Johannine apocalyptic, with a sprinkle of Mephistopheles. Lastly, there is more than a pinch of old time English asylum life and the physically wrenching and spirit wracked torment of finding a centered life and living it.

Ambivalence runs rampant with its antagonisms wrestling the reader. She or he gets pulled from one poetically descriptive tussle to another. Just when they might think they are free, Hassall reminds them that despite the fact “…the present clears…arms do not forget their shackles.” With the next bout the reader discovers “…the heart bleeds like sap, trickles to the roots, awakens hope.”

Here, body, spirit, soul and heart with their physical agony combine with the anguished mind to become wrapped in the metaphor of illness: one Susan Sontag deftly described in her prose book of the same name. Here they mingle and deliver not only the poet but also the reader to a place both discover where “…a familiar man… looks into me trembles, ‘welcome back’ ”.

Magic happens here. First, as every journey has clues, this one seeks keys that lock and unlock. With each twist of their iron fingers they change the adventure from ambiguous darkness to starry light or the wish for ‘comfort of frost just beyond the Asylum gates’. Second, pronouns join the fray. ‘I’, ‘your’ and ‘you’ play the Trickster dancing their own mischief throughout this work. Yet, the author, protagonist, is not undaunted. He proclaims near the end despite everything that has already transpired and what is yet to come: “I want to be aware, and I want to be awake.”

Another vital element that subtly augments Hassall’s poetry is Rachael Tester’s art work. Here artistic forms blend sound and visual image to stir dark shades of madness. Its Goth hues create a swirling stew that simmers into its own destination. Tester’s offerings not only compliment, but also with graceful presence, accent the work in a wonderful way.

Hassall’s The Flesh and Mortar Prophecy is an ingenious work. Stark poetic images unlock so many levels of individual madness and sanity. Yet the personal voice breaks through the restraints of the self. Its echo becomes an icebreaker that frees one to reach into the collective and social realm. It liberates meaning beyond the tiny, insulated island of individualism - hopefully for the better. I find this an intriguing and provocative work. It unlocked past crisis times for me. Unafraid, I could open those doors and re-enter those places to be more “aware and awake” myself!

BIO: Review by Jeff Cannon, poet and author of “Passionate Leaves’ (Chapbook, 2008, 2009, self- published), Intimate Witness: The Carol Poems (2009, Goose River Press), Eros Faces of Love and Finding the Father at Table, 2010, X-libris).

The Flesh and Mortar Prophecy is available at Amazon.com  CLICK HERE

Tuesday
Sep062016

Reflections on Salvation by Kiriti Sengupta, reviewed by Boudhayan Mukherjee

 

Title: Reflections on Salvation

Author: Kiriti Sengupta

Page: 48 [Paperback] First ed. July, 2016

Published by: Transcendent Zero Press (Houston, Texas)

ISBN-13: 978-0996270465

Price: 8.00 US Dollars

 

 

 

The Sreemad Bhagavad Gita (Gita in short) is a narration in the form of 699 Sanskrit verses, contained in 18 chapters, which were composed between 7th and the 6th centuries B.C. and later incorporated into the great Indian epic, The Mahabharata. Gita depicts the dialogue of Arjuna, the great Pandava warrior-prince with the Hindu avatar Lord Krishna. The entire dialogue between them took place on the war-field of Kurukshetra; Krishna trying to convince Arjuna why he should shake off his inhibitions to fight against his own cousins and relatives, the Kauravas. The discourse has been aimed to establish that if actions are performed with an unattached mind, then their defects cannot touch the performer. It is a two-person conversation about Philosophy and yogic principles as opposed to a treatise of battle. Lord Krishna insists that the righteous man will be focused on actions and will not be concerned about the fruits of action (results). By this will come detachment and attainment of godliness. No action should aim at personal benefit and thus, this would lead to the liberation of the mind and finally, renunciation. Gita is, in fact, a many-layered synthesis of ideas and interpretations.

The Gita is the strongest pillar of Vedic teachings, which the greatest minds of the world, both of the East and the West have acknowledged. It is of course the holy book of the Hindus, just like The Bible or The Quran. It is the Hindu custom to read out the slokas (verses) to one who is on the verge of death.  And finally to place an abridged edition of The Gita on the chest of the dead body on its way to the funeral. This is an external measure that makes sure that the deceased attains “salvation” by the grace of the holy text. But there are a few questions that stir a thinking mind. How many Indians, or more specifically Hindus have actually read The Gita? Do the Dalits, the economically downtrodden mass, or the illiterate multitudes of India know about its existence? Is the scripture meant only for the high-cast, the patrons of wealth and power, the so-called scholars and now the political Chanakyas? The sacrosanct scripture has no use for the rag-tags, alas! More so, it has no bearing in the life of our younger generation, who are deeply engrossed in the luxury of materialistic comforts, inappropriate imitation of the Western lifestyle and sometimes super-hedonism.

Kiriti Sengupta’s Reflections on Salvation has probably been written against the said backdrop. Sengupta is a known poet who has a wide range of published works to his credit. The aura of spirituality has always touched his poetry and it is no surprise that he will center on The Gita to ask relevant questions that must have haunted him during the course of his literary ventures. The chapbook is comprised of 18 poetic prose pieces of “anecdotal wisdom that serves to both illuminate and discuss the paradox of faith.” It often questions the logic of the teachings as laid down in The Gita, especially about action without aspiring about a fruitful result, the hypocrisy involved in the act of renunciation, the absurdity in the realm of salvation or moksha. Scriptures of all religions are flawed with their infallible instructions and authoritative dictum. The common man is barely encouraged to question, but to follow them as blindly as possible. The priest or the clergy entertains no questions about the sacrosanct teachings. Religion is made to play an evil role even in the 21st century, causing marked destruction and blood-shed everyday.

But the common man in India cannot shrug off religion completely. Sengupta writes, “I’m aware of a few families who give away funds to the monks and carefully preserve the receipts of their donation. Donors are proud owners of such receipts as those are useful to claim income-tax-exemption. (“Return”)” Indeed! It is also a means to convert black-money into white.

Sengupta believes that “salvation is but enlightenment, achievable only by actions and through your sensory gateways.” He is doubly sure that every action deserves a positive result, which the performer is keen to secure. Sengupta writes further, “Why won’t I dream of eating mangoes if I plant or intend to plant a mango tree?” He hardly believes in afterlife. In “Stagecraft” Sengupta says, “Pleasure of exploring and realizing the unknown arrives only through the eyes, ears, nose, tongue or skin.” He also refutes the advice in The Gita that if you “stop meditating, you are only giving up your zeal to carry it on” and therefore, as the holy text suggests, “benefits would be nullified. (“Meditation”)” This warning is notorious.

There are many such gems in this well-produced book. The foreword by Casey Dorman is a very well-written piece that also contains a candid discussion about the book and his personal opinion about the merits of such a book. The highly interesting post-script by Alan Jankowski followed by an interview of the author by the publisher, Dustin Pickering, are added attractions of this creative enterprise. A must read book by the innovative Kiriti Sengupta who has chosen prose instead of poetry to express his take on religious misconceptions.

 

 

*Boudhayan Mukherjee is a published poet and translator who resides in Calcutta. He has authored six books of poetry and has also taught creative writing. 

Friday
Aug192016

Michel Houellebecq's "Submission" reviewed by Casey Dorman

SUBMISSION

By Michel Houellebecq

Translated from the French by Lorin Stein

251 pp. William Heinemann (2015)

Michel Houellebecq’s Submission not only was published on the day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, but a caricature of the author was on the cover of that week’s issue of the magazine. Because the novel dealt with a fictional takeover of France by a Muslim political party and attacked the society that made such an outcome welcome, Houellebecq and his publisher ended that infamous day under police protection from angry French citizens. Even outside of this context, as in Heller McAlpin’s NPR review, Submission has generated as much wrath as it has admiration. McAlpin titled her review, “Don’t take Submission lying down,” a message she directed at women readers because of the novel’s misogynist content, and she described the book as “discomfiting if not downright offensive,” and “too distasteful to be amusing.”

I picked up Submission from an airport bookstore, attracted by the author’s name, because I had previously read and reviewed three of his books in Lost Coast Review, titling my review, “French Nihilism.” Those earlier books, each of which angered some reviewers, particularly American women, as much as this one, left me with the impression that Houellebecq was, as he described himself, a “realist,” who accepted the meaningless of existence and had not found any hopeful alternative to a view that, as I said in my review, is “so deeply pessimistic about the human condition that … its only virtue [is] the brief enjoyment of youth and sexuality, both of which, even as they are being enjoyed, are permeated by the knowledge that with every day, the process of aging is eating away at this only source of happiness.”

Francois, the protagonist of Submission, is turning 44 and seems to have made little or no progress beyond the dilemma in which each of the protagonists of Houellebecq’s earlier novels found himself. In fact, the reality of his condition—his fading interest in sexuality, his loss of enthusiasm for his area of scholarly expertise (the study of the 19th century French novelist Joris-Karl Huysman, who endured a similar loss of meaning to his life before converting to Catholicism), his lack of feeling for either of his parents, and his vapid social life—has left him nearly nonfunctional in his occupation as a college professor and close to suicide.

In the middle of this slowly disintegrating existence, Francois is forced to turn his attention to the French political situation. The novel is set in 2022, in a France in which the secular and philosophically detached elite, who determine the state of the country’s culture, are, in Francois’ mind, floundering nearly as much as he is. In fact, as in his earlier books, it is Houellebecq’s characterization of the French society in this way, and in particular, his insistence that his protagonists are typical modern day French intellectuals, that is a major source of anger for his reviewers. The author is absolutely clear that he is characterizing the French in Submission. As the civil situation unravels and militants attack each other, when explosions are heard throughout Paris, when bodies are found brutally murdered in the streets, the faculty cocktail parties continue undisturbed and the conversations rarely touch on the chaos erupting around them.

Politically, in the presidential elections, Marine Le Pen’s National Front Party fails to win a majority and coming in second is the Muslim Brotherhood, led by a charismatic and pragmatic man who is able to convince the Socialists and the Center Right to fall in behind his leadership to defeat the National Front. What follows is the imposition of Muslim values on the workforce (women are sent home, men take up the slack and unemployment is erased), drastic alteration of the educational system (public school ends at age 12 and private, religious schools take their place for further education and much of the state budget deficit disappears), the Sorbonne becomes an Islamic institution and only male Muslims are allowed to teach (but thanks to Saudi oil money, salaries skyrocket and teachers are allowed, in fact encouraged to take several wives). Throughout France polygamy is encouraged for those who convert to Islam, and women are encouraged to dress conservatively.

In the midst of this drastic change in power in France, Francois loses his professorship at the Sorbonne. He is offered an opportunity to edit a new collection and critique of Huysmans’ work, and he retraces the historical author’s steps to the religious community of Rocamadour to see the Black Virgin, a sacred wooden icon from the Middle Ages. Although he experiences a moment of deep spiritual feeling when he views the statue, it is neither sufficient nor intimate enough to envelop him and he comes away not only feeling estranged from Huysmans, but convinced that his literary hero’s conversion was a matter of trading isolation and the boredom of a civil service job for the comfort of living the life of a Catholic Oblate, dedicated to the Church and writing. In Francois’ mind, Huysman’s choice was one dictated by materialism and the depressing futility of a life spent going Against the Grain of French society (the title of Huysmans most successful pre-conversion novel).

Francois’ revelation about his literary mentor is enough to fuel his own decision to convert to Islam. There are many aspects of the religion that appeal to his biases—male dominance being one of the most salient—but the bottom line is that it allows him to work, to earn more than he has ever earned in the past and to have access to stimulating sex via a marriage to several young wives. Just because he is a French intellectual, he has no competing faith with which to rebut the appeal of Islam. He also sees, in its complete ordering of society as well as in its tenets of faith, the answer to most of society’s ills.

Much of Submission is tongue in cheek. Francois himself is a caricature, an intellectual with a single arcane area of expertise and virtually no knowledge or interest in other aspects of the world. He is both cynical and naïve. His comments on the human condition and on the society around him are worthy of a standup comic. On the verge of a mystical, hallucinatory experience while viewing the Black Virgin, he concludes “Or maybe I was just hungry. I’d forgotten to eat the day before, and possibly what I should do was go back to my hotel and sit down to a few ducks’ legs instead of falling down between the pews in an attack of mystical hypoglycaemia.” When Francois considers his career, he remarks, “The academic study of literature leads basically nowhere, as we all know, unless you happen to be an especially gifted student, in which case it prepares you for a career teaching the academic study of literature – it is, in other words, a rather farcical system that exists solely to replicate itself and yet manages to fail more than 95 percent of the time.” One of my favorite of Francois’ observations was that “It’s hard to understand people, to know what’s hidden in their hearts, and without the assistance of alcohol it might never be done at all.”

Houllebecq’s character, Francois, thinks he’s discovered the fundamental appeal of Islam to the French. It’s an appeal common to all religions, which is why the French Catholics do not seem alarmed. As one of his female colleagues’ husband, a former spy and self-proclaimed student of Islam and the Middle East, tells him, “For these Muslims, the real enemy—the thing they fear and hate—isn’t Catholicism. It’s secularism. It’s laicism. It’s atheistic materialism. They think of Catholics as fellow believers. Catholicism is a religion of the Book. Catholics are one step away from converting to Islam—that’s the true, original Muslim version of Christianity.” And it's French secularism, the nonbelief buoyed up by philosophical disapproval of faith, that is the real target of Houllebecq’s novel. Not so much because it creates a vulnerability to a fundamentalist, patriarchal religion such as Islam, which speaks to the human need for order, reasons, simplistic explanations and blind faith, but because secularism is a state of mind that characterizes Houllebecq’s view of the world and he has never found, within it, a counter to the depressing meaninglessness that seems to plague the characters in his novels.

Francois’ acceptance of Islam is clearly a submission, but only partly to the sense of meaning that accompanies any comprehensive world view, such as the one Islam provides. His acceptance is also a submission to the mechanical wheels of materialism that the Muslim Brotherhood has harnessed in its implementation of Islam in France. He will not only regain his professorship, he will increase his salary threefold, and, very importantly for Francois, he will obtain at least three subservient and probably teenage or barely above, wives. As it is explained to him, women are attracted to power and resources. If those men who are most successful in gaining power or wealth are allowed more wives, the women are satisfied because they get what they desire, and those men who have the most talent, and thus the most power and resources, will contribute more offspring to the genepool, thus insuring a constant improvement of the human race. For Francois, and perhaps Houellebecq, secularism provides no competitive argument to these principles.

And that is Houellebecq’s point.

Houellebecq has made the point before that a secular, materialistic stance is not sustainable. His novels trace the outcome of such a stance in his characters, who either lose themselves in a focus upon materialism, fall prey to false prophets, embark upon futile quests for human connection, or succumb to anomie. Francois is no different. While he preserves himself by submitting to Islam, we’re not really able to take his submission seriously. The impression is that he is simply too tired and lost to fight a system that controls the necessities of his life. He welcomes both Islam’s comforting worldview and the material perks that go with the Muslim Brotherhood’s version of Islam. But Francois is not a real person. He knows nothing about politics, the world, or history beyond his narrow focus upon one historical literary figure. His male chauvinism is blatant, crude and satirical. His values appear to be fluid and his lack of engagement with anyone on more than a superficial level is almost autistic, while his knowledge of his own emotional life is nonexistent. His own view that he is “normal” and “typical” is what angers other French intellectuals, who do not see themselves in him.

Francois is a caricature, but does he represent the endpoint of secularism taken to an extreme? In short, is he where France (and perhaps Europe) is headed? That the intellectual left, while being the dominant force in French culture, has no real message, leader, or answer to either rising nativist nationalism or the ominous undercurrent of fundamentalist Islam that characterizes some immigrant communities, may be true. The nativists, particularly in the form the National Front, may win the day, particularly if European immigration policies spawn more terrorist attacks. The likelihood of a viable Muslim Brotherhood-like political movement winning any sizeable portion of the electorate is pure fantasy and a device Houellebecq uses to provide an extreme example for his plot. But the vulnerabilities of the secular culture, which he identifies, may be real. We can see it in the frightened reactions Marine Le Pen has mined to drum up support for her party. We can see it in the acceptance of bigoted stances toward tokens of Islam, such as the wearing of headdresses or more recently the “burkini” flap in Cannes and other Riviera cities. Instead of liberté being the hallmark of French culture, something called “Frenchness” is—an insistence that French identity be protected by restrictions on clothing and language, that secularism be preserved by attacking tokens of religious belief (though always Muslim, rather than Christian tokens). These instances are signs of a cultural point of view that is failing to assert its assets and instead is falling back on defenses against what it considers its threats. Does that mean that it is an empty point of view, one that works when it is battling alternatives, but that ultimately leads nowhere?

My suspicion is that Houellebecq thinks so.

 

 

Wednesday
Jul062016

Novels of Identity: Bowl of Fruit (1907) and Fire in the Blood

During the 1960’s, which for me were my young adult formative years, the world seemed to be rapidly changing—as much as it is changing now. In 1959, the Communists led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, overthrew the repressive Batista government in Cuba and took over the island. In 1961 the Berlin wall was erected, dividing communist East Berlin from democratic West Berlin. In Algeria, a long series of battles and terror activities supported by demonstrating French students, intellectuals and Algerians (some of who were massacred by French police), resulted in de Gaulle giving Algeria its freedom, an act which was followed by terrorist reprisals from the OAS, the French paramilitary organization that wanted to keep Algeria a colony. In Northern Ireland, the “troubles” were beginning, and of course in America, we had the Vietnam War, which split the country into factions of left vs. right, young vs. old, and the civil rights movement, finally bringing the government sanctioned discrimination of African-Americans into the public’s consciousness. A series of assassinations took away John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King.

Throughout these tumultuous years, which for me involved political activity ranging from campaigning for Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, to street protests against the Vietnam War, I and many other young Americans were turned both inward and outward. Our actions were outward—some of us protesting, others serving in the military—but our attention was also directed inward. As we came of age we found ourselves questioning not just the wisdom and authority of our parents and their generation, as young people had done throughout history, but the morality of our country and its leaders, as well as others on the world scene. Defining ourselves became the task of adolescence and young adulthood.

What we were reading had this dual inward/outward orientation—Jean Paul Sartre, whose major philosophical work, Being and Nothingness addressed personal definition and responsibility, psychologist Erik Erikson, who analyzed identity formation as a stage of development, Black activists like Eldridge Cleaver and novelist James Baldwin who explored black identity, the ravages of discrimination and the need to respond to it. How we responded to social events was intimately connected to who we were, and who we were transcended the immediate social environment: it included our sexuality, our use of drugs (which were then part of learning about ourselves), our choice of occupations, our tastes in music and films. Learning about ourselves was a necessary part of our commitment to the society around us. And our novels reflected this focus: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Slaughterhouse Five, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Catch-22, Giovanni’s Room, Herzog, the list goes on.

Panayotis Cacoyannis’ novel, Bowl of Fruit (1907), published in 2015, brought back to me that topic of identity and how, in the hands of a good novelist, it can be explored in such a way that it both entertains and touches the reader’s own struggle with self-definition, which, as I will later discuss in talking about Fire in the Blood, never is finished. The title of the novel, “Bowl of Fruit (1907)” is the title of a painting, the first of many completed by the book’s protagonist, Jack Faro, or as he calls himself during the stage of his life captured in the novel, Leon Cheam. The painting is a Picasso—not a reproduction or an imitation, but a “real” Picasso, painted by Londoner, Jack Faro, who produced a series of such paintings, beginning when he was 13 and lasting until he grew tired of being someone else. As a child, at the behest of his father and because of a peculiar internal attraction, Jack had steeped himself in the paintings and life of Pablo Picasso. He was compelled to paint works that not only looked as if they had been painted by Picasso, but which reflected the subject matter of the periods of Picasso’s life during which they might have been painted, sometimes to the point that critics claimed they represented the paintings Picasso should have painted at that point in his life.

When Jack stopped painting, in order to do something that reflected himself, not someone else, he began writing. But Jack, who had changed his name to Leon Cheam, only read one author: Franz Kafka. He had become so absorbed in Kafka that he had transformed his own house into the room in which Kafka’s Metamorphosis takes place. But alas, his stories sounded exactly as if they were written by Kafka.

At the point in his life when the 40 year old Leon is giving up on writing, because when he forces himself to write as himself, he is unhappy with the product, he meets Anna Tor, a Chilean-born ghost writer who wants to write his biography (or more accurately, ghost write his autobiography). Anna, who resembles Leon in many ways, including having been born in Chile in the same hospital and on the same date as he, knows more about Leon’s heritage than does he. His father had an affair with Anna’s mother, although they are not sister and brother. His own mother was a Chilean activist who was killed by the Pinochet government soon after Leon (then Jack, but called Angel) was born. The baby Jack was spirited out of the country to England by his father and Mary, his father’s wife, who adopted him.

Leon (aka Jack) and Anna rapidly fall in love and spend a night in which Leon’s background is revealed to him, including the enigmatic fact that his mother left a small note to him with a replica of a Picasso picture drawn on it.

The protagonist of Bowl of Fruit (1907) desperately wants to find out who he is, and exit the cycle of being a talented mimic of a famous painter or writer, even though his choice of whom to mimic appears connected in some profound way to who he really is. He is only able to become himself when he and Anna, who is also intimately connected to his own background, commit themselves to writing his real story, confusing as it is.

I found Cacoyannis’ novel eminently readable, a story written with elegance and simplicity of style, yet with a circuitous plot containing deep psychological implications. In the end, when Leon’s/Jack’s discoveries about himself leave as many questions unanswered as answered,  the novel seemed to me to be a valid reflection of the insubstantiality, the mystery, and ultimately, the importance of constantly searching for who we are.

While Bowl of Fruit (1907) focuses upon the question of how one’s beginnings and heritage indelibly color the identity one forges as one becomes an adult, Irène Némirovsky’s Fire in the Blood, written in 1941-42, is about the changing of self as one ages. Sylvestre, or Silvio, as he is known, is somewhere post-60 years old. We are introduced to him as the narrator, a reclusive older “uncle” and close friend of the about to be married Colette and her parents Hélène and Francois, all who live in the French countryside near Bordeaux. There are hints of Silvio’s more than fondness for Hélène, but they are vague and understated, greatly overshadowed by his adoration of Colette and Hélène’s attachment to Francois. Colette is marrying Jean, who has inherited his father’s mill and lands, and she hopes to have a marriage that mirrors the absolute devotion and happiness of her parents. But Colette is too full of life for the retiring Jean and as the story unfolds Silvio discovers that Colette is having an affair with Marc, a local womanizer, who it turns out is also having an affair with Brigitte, a young woman, who, as a baby was abandoned by her mother and raised by Hélène’s half-sister. Brigitte is married to a rich farmer Silvio’s age, who is ailing.

When Colette’s husband Jean mysteriously drowns, the fabric of hidden relationships in the small community begins to unravel. Jean, it turns out was murdered. When Francois learns of this he tries to convince Colette, his daughter to go to the police. But it turns out that Marc killed Jean, after Brigitte, out of jealousy, had informed Jean about Marc and Colette’s affair. Brigitte is in fact a love-child of Silvio and Hélène, who when they had their brief affair, was married to an older man who was ailing. We see the dynamics of the parents being played out by the children, although with no or only dim awareness by the children of the parallels or of the relationships that support them. Silvio, who, along with Hélène, is the only one who knows everything, ends up reflecting upon the changes that brought him from the fiery, impulsive, adventurous and love-seeking young man who fathered Brigitte (whom he was not aware was his daughter until now), to become the sedentary, reclusive old man who now urges caution. Both he and Hélène, he muses, have become completely different people, a change everyone goes through, but to which they rarely give credence, as they gaze with incomprehension on the profligacies of the young. He casts a wistful look backward at the man he once was, and indeed at the young Hélène with whom he fell in love.

It has been a long while since I have read a novel that dealt with the issue of personal identity as explicitly as either Bowl of Fruit (1907) or Fire in the Blood. That the two novels were written nearly 75 years apart and in totally different circumstances attests to the enduring relevance of the topic. Despite the fact that it was only happenstance that led me to read the two novels consecutively, I found them to possess an eerie similarity. Both highlight the issue of changing identity by revealing new facts that fill in gaps in the historical background to the present narrative, often in unpredictable ways, as the story unfolds. Both are told from a first person perspective, and the narrator, in each instance, has some glaring gaps in self-awareness, which are only gradually revealed as his story changes and he and we become aware of what he has not allowed himself to remember or to see.

What is as surprising as the similarity in the subject matter and the style in which the two stories are told, is that the issue of identity should be at the forefront of the writer’s consciousness in times in which one might think that dramatic worldly events would have overshadowed such thoughts. Irène Némirovsky was a 39-year-old Russian Jewish woman, living in France during World War II. Having fled from Paris to escape the Nazis, Fire in the Blood, handwritten, was hidden among her papers she had given to her editors in late 1941 or early 1942 and only rediscovered recently and published in 2007. Némirovsky was captured by the Vichy and deported to Auschwitz in 1942, where she died. She was a successful novelist prior to the war, but her greatest novel, Suite Francaise was, like Fire in the Blood, hidden, this time when it was only partially completed, and only rediscovered by her daughter in 1998. Her writing is, like Cacoyannis’ elegantly simple in structure, while possessing strong emotional truths. Panayotis Cacoyannis is a Cypriot writer, artist and lawyer who lives in London. Needless to say, the present day contains dramatic events, in England, Cypress, and the world at large, but the focus on finding one’s identity remains, in writers such as Cacoyannis’ hands, an active artistic pursuit.

The world is too much with us. When we just look outside ourselves we fail to see the inner narrative that frames our perception. And each of our narratives has a protagonist—the self we each construct and constantly tinker with, enlarging it here, shrinking it there, chastising it at times, congratulating it at other times. Our self is an amalgam of our experiences, our heredity, our imprinting and traumas and our reach toward new horizons. Artists, particularly writers, explore this inner self and reveal for us  that of which we might not be aware.

There is much ugliness and desperation in the world and we each must decide how to react to it. Some people see themselves as responsible for making the world better, others for tearing down what displeases them, still others prefer denial. Some of us are afraid of facing who we are and others want to parade ourselves before the world. For me, novels such as Bowl of Fruit (1907) and Fire in the Blood provoke a turn inward, and a question of how honest I am being in what I allow myself to see. I think that’s a good thing.

  Casey Dorman

 

Wednesday
Jun222016

The Successors by Koushik Sen

The Successors

by Koushik Sen

Kolkata has its share of genuine poetic talents. The city thrives on nostalgia, academics, spirituality and poetry, writes Koushik Sen*.

 

There is a thing about the poets based in Kolkata — they are erudite, and being good readers, they imbibe the great works they read and eventually find their own language. They are by no means amateurs (the three poets whose works have been discussed here), since the youngest of them has overstepped the age of twenty-five by two decades — which is the threshold considered for becoming a genuine poet by T.S Eliot. True enough, it’s hard to find a Bengali who hasn’t written a page of poetry before that age. However, the Kolkata people who are seriously working on this genre, all have their own fields of interest, their own POVs of approaching the use of their voice in expressing their personal precincts, but they have one thing in common — their roots. To quote one of Sankha Ghosh’s poems, (taking the liberty of translating into English), they have succeeded in transforming the poison that clogs the roots into beautiful, blazing flowers of poetry. Their readings of Tagore, and unanimous love for him, their love for Calcutta, the small things it has to offer work up secret cahoots to bring them together.

Sanjukta Dasgupta’s book of poems, Dilemma (2002, Anustup), brings across her oceanic knowledge, seconded by her adroit choice of words and imagery. The title poem itself is poignant with the urbane conflict between romanticism and the urbanity that has long become deep rooted. The anthology reads like a sprinkling of her different moods, betraying her feminist standpoints and at places her love poems read like a girl’s quintessentially honest confessions about love; lines that are beautiful like a broken thing- “For you/ I can grow taller than every mountain/ Smaller than a grain of rice,” or “Loneliness/ when I write these lines to no one/ Loneliness when I sip lassi, in a café, on a monsoon afternoon.” These render a unique “private diary” quality to this collection, which makes it all the more irresistible. These are like soft reflections on a soft, rain sodden Calcutta afternoon. Again, lines like “I am the Mother-provider of every root/ Not just a delving earthworm,” makes a tremendous statement which is a superb example of a woman’s rage flowing through the realms of power, that progenitor of goddess Durga who slew the demon Mahishasura, who, at some levels, is a metaphor for male chauvinism. She has always believed in the words of Virginia Woolf that to be a woman, one must kill the “angel” in the house. One must have “a room of one’s own.” One must strip herself bare of the male stereotyping that has over the ages learnt to flow through the mouths of women, perpetrated to that extent by male “preaching.” One must not hail a woman by calling her Laxmi and thus tether her to a house. In one of her lectures, Professor Dasgupta had pointed out that this is a very old practice, and has long been invented and worked out to their advantage by the capitalists during the industrial revolution.

While poems like “Ecstasy” have a set of private, beautiful closing lines that sing of hope, “I now traverse the sunlight beaten track/ light suffused everywhere/ …To the benign sun/ shimmering silver union/ at last,” the poems on the Calcutta book fair of 1997 (inaugurated by Jaques Derrida), on Tagore, on Hemingway, and on Ernesto Che Guevara are informative and form another layer of this collection, like something written on half a page of a diary, praising one’s favorite writer. In all levels, this is a beautiful piece of work that needs to be read and treasured.

Sharmila Ray’s book With Salt and Brine (2013, Yeti Books) has aptly been described by Keki Daruwalla: “Not many poets have the gumption to venture into long poems these days, (mea culpa). That Sharmila Ray has gone about it with such élan is truly a surprise. While on the one hand it looks like a free floating poem, she has yet managed to keep a tight control over it. A fine and enjoyable read.” This book is written in a form that is similar to Tagore’s Sfulinga, four line short pieces that are rapid, but beautiful sketches of life. The poems of the first section (if it might be called so) smell of fragrant new love, but the voice is amazingly mature: “each of us with our primal poems/ each held by moist alphabets.” There is a superb blend of love and revolution, as we look, “with stardust on our eyelids” at the evanescent millennium. We can almost hear the Black Marias grooving their way to the Maidan as we are transcended to the Calcutta of the 70’s. There are vivid mentions of flabby politicians, of delirium, of darkness like black holes sucking in the blood of youth and leaving a shrunken image of love. The verse then tries to transcend, sometimes to the realm of Krishna, but the sniff of the briny seas of Dwarka, the distant lands seem all the more distant. Lines like “With stars in our chest/ we surfed the internet/ we tried to tell each and everyone/ stop gunning down little universes” are poignant. The poet asks with gusto the relevance of Allah and Buddha in a world where “Christs get crucified daily.

But then the verse takes a somewhat stoic approach, and tries to embellish coteries with heirloom- “Acid softens deep spots and knots/ we had inherited this precious heirloom, we tried to find ways and means/ to pour this on blood colored thoughts.” Towards the end, the lines are more childlike, but it is the childlikeness of an old soul which tries to fill up the void by making sandcastles. This volume of poems is beautiful in its own right, showing us the changing seasons in a way that is quite rare in contemporary Indian poetry.

Kiriti Sengupta’s newest poetry collection, The Earthen Flute (2016, Hawakal Publishers), has a language that it has found for itself, so delicate that it will crumble at every ostensible reading. The delightful part is that the poet himself is clearly aware of that; he knows his tradition, he knows he belongs to the era where you cannot denote silence simply by writing “silence,” that you need four blank pages to denote that profundity. The illustrations in charcoal form an innate part of this selection and themselves define the poems subtly — the effacing by the eraser of a small part in the sketches illumining the path to a new realm that this volume discovers. Besides, his poems would be so much more exciting if you are a resident of Kolkata, because you would actually find the opening poem “Keep an Eye” palpable among the Kumortuli lanes, you would find your corporeal eyes incapable, you’d feel the meta-presence among the sound of the morning trams and so on. Poems like “Womb” would make you treasure this book; you’d bask in the darkness, you’d be pleasantly confused in the maze, in the humanism lent to Mother Earth: “Only the Mother understands her rupture pain.”

The poet has drawn upon his tradition; he would remind you of Sukanta Bhattacharya, and yes, the famous line in which the moon becomes a toasted bread, in which the poet understands the vileness of “romantic” poetry in the age of hunger. Then come poems like “Kajal Deeghi,” where the water in the lake “house” and “reflect” your nostalgia. Your eyes are not left in tears, but they slobber in expectation of more and more of his poetry to seek refuge in. “Experience Personified” reminds us that sights, in their minuscule amounts accumulate into our experience. We are driven towards despair when he prophesies that “Like an inevitable death/ An enormous God steps in.” Variety steps in when we read prose poems like “Clean Gene,” and “Time and Tide,” where you would be left amazed at the mastery of the poet over the use of understatements to invoke your emotions.

The next section of this slim collection endeavors to justify its title. And this section offers prizes of a different kind. When you read “Clues to Name,” you dig into the poet’s knowledge of spiritual mythology for the first time; you know that “Mantra bears lust… petty you, you blame the luster,” you learn that giving away is surrender, you learn that lust is inevitable and a pathway to surrender. You know that you are expected to lust, as the “lion keeps awake with his eyes closed.” What an intermixing with the Christian “rough beast” of The Second Coming! Finally in “Cryptic Idioms” we find “the earthen flute” to be our subconscious spinal cord (Sushumna) that is essentially divine (drawing upon Patanjal’s Yoga Sutra). “(Un)Timely Grant” is somewhat morbid, but justly prepares us for the concluding poem “Struggle for Silence” where the poet speaks of the silence of the flute as the desired level of harmony with the frequency of the God-waves.

Thus, The Earthen Flute is, as aptly described by Lorna Dee Cervantes: “brief as a firefly’s single pulse from the darkness, some, brightly lit as the long bridge between cultures.” It is like a Constable or a Turner painting of a beautiful edifice on a sunny day — washes of watercolor, and the subtle details which are delightfully delicate.

 

*Koushik Sen is studying (M.A.) English Literature in the University of Calcutta. He is an avid reader and is passionate about creative writing.     

Wednesday
May112016

Chakraborty: The Magic of Magical Realism by Dustin Pickering

Title: Bougainvillea and Other Stories

Author: Bitan Chakraborty

Translated by: Pranab Ghosh

Publisher: Shambhabi

ISBN: 97893-85783-99-9

In the opening dedication of Bougainvillea and Other Stories, Chakraborty notes that his inspirations are the working and middle classes. Such sympathies have fueled the aspiration of writers worldwide, including John Steinbeck in America and in France, Jean Genet. In 20th and 21st Century literature, the heroes tend to be common people who are portrayed in situations of their failures and shortcomings—and occasionally seen as resilient, hapless heroes. Working class gentlemen in literature run parallel to the soldiers of the Great Man Theory studied in history classes.

The difficulty presented in this collection of stories is the tediousness of translating texts into well-crafted versions of their originals. There are some noteworthy admissions, as in “Bougainvillea”, when the language barrier is revealed for what it is. We have a character who isn’t cosmopolitan enough to speak English as well as do those acculturated to it. He candidly admits his English is good enough for Calcutta. The reader is aware at this point that he or she is watching a man lie to himself, imagining a greater knowledge of English is a great knowledge. In translation, prose and verse alike are distinct in two differing languages. There often aren’t words to depict certain meanings in the alternate language, especially in the creative spontaneity of poetry. All translations are short of truth and actual word-for-word synthesis.

Translators are faced with the singular problem of being true to the original, knowing the limits of translation, and hence having to adapt the work to their own imaginations. Translators are forced to use poetic license to make a circle fit into a square. When all else fails, the best vehicle is one’s own original thought. No translation will be complete. Phrasing is different in each language, characters are different, and even the sound of words is unique to each work. When moving a text from its original to a new place, some of the thought and feeling can be lost because the heart of each language is unique. Some languages are perhaps more romantic, or religious, and English (as we know it today) is perhaps a language best suited for contracts and business arrangements. In many ways, the language is upside down compared to others.

Yet we must admit the importance of language and translation. Seeing a work in letters in one’s own tongue introduces you to new cultures and themes. What many don’t realize is how language creates the character of a people. There are languages in use that don’t differentiate between genders. One language I read about was place and direction oriented, and the people who spoke it understood those things intuitively. Language is what we as humans use to convey and preserve signs, thoughts, attitudes, and manners. Words are vehicles that drive the spirit of a country. Poets seek to redefine culture using language’s barriers and distinct patterns, and myth centralizes after a people’s literary achievements are surveyed. For instance, the archeology of ancient Palestine would have no context without the literature of Scripture. Archaeological discoveries are compared and discussed, and myths surveyed for clues until a consensus (a guess based on sensible conclusions) is reached. Art tells the future who we are, where we went, and what of their own footing our deed was. The torch is passed and myth contains the mysteries of eternity. It is a meeting place between a nation and a nation’s god. Pluralism encourages competition in culture—not cutthroat competition, but mutually beneficial exchange—and a transfer of ideas from one place to the next. Sometimes misunderstandings push you to boundaries when you may have dropped your knapsack sooner. Variety challenges our assumptions, awakens healthy doubts, and enriches our lives—diversity keeps things interesting, alive, and prevents cultural stagnation. Those who are pushed to the margins of a culture will embrace an outsider’s view-in. Keep in mind the Bible was written by Hebrews, the bastard children of ancient Israel. Let’s remember how Hebrew was a term of ridicule and contempt in the Ancient Orient, reserved for those in the lower classes.

Common men and women are portrayed in this collection, sometimes in their discontents and at other times in their shortcomings. We also see how weighty their realities are as characters are assaulted with commercial images when they are down on their luck. This is especially true of “The City in Winter,” a story that captured my imagination most in this collection. The central character sees his hopes build as he contemplates a love interest sending him a Happy Birthday. In the end, however, his hope is dashed and confused. Modern technology is shown throughout as a hindrance to communication and success, the very opposite of its intent. The average fellow is constantly frustrated, afraid, dejected, and lost spiritually. Civilization and its discontents irk and disenfranchise our noble characters in each story.

“Bougainvillea” is unique in that it seems to ascribe value to these sufferings. The protagonist is injured by a flowerless plant and decides this monstrosity should be destroyed. He is reminded by his family that the plant will show flowers someday and that it needs to be trimmed, not completely ripped asunder. The protagonist seems appalled and is reminded of his incompetence and petty grievances. The moral begins to unravel: this plant may prick you frequently but if tamed carefully, it won’t prick you and in fact will grow beautiful flowers. This seems to remind us that it’s our perception of things that make us failures to our own eyes. The metaphorical “pricks” are the sharp heartaches and damnations we face when we reach out into the world for employment, scholarship, or to achieve our goals, and instead face our own backsliding and inability to actualize our dreams.

I have often faced this trouble in my own life, and I am sure very few haven’t. Each step in the ladder offers an opportunity to fall. Christian doctrine teaches that we are fallen creatures, but that in spite of our fallen nature we can be redeemed through Jesus Christ and his teachings—which are thought to stimulate new outlooks and help us forgive ourselves. Letting go of mistakes is the first step to moving forward again. You may not be a Christian (I myself am not), but you can’t deny this powerful lesson.

One of the most provoking stories (other than “The Assassinator”) is “Martyr’s Column.” The reason I single this story out is its mournful irony is deep.  You may interpret the ideas differently. However, the strange mysticism of the plot awakens discreet thoughts and may engage you in self-discussion. This story is powerful.

Clearly the author is a sympathizer with humanity—a humanist, a traditionalist who recognizes the troubles of modern technology and commercialism, and a sincere and imaginative storyteller who can capture your mind as long as you are ensconced within his stories. Perhaps “ensconced” is not the right word. I’ll let you, reader, choose your own.

Dustin Pickering is the editor-in-chief of Harbinger Asylum, and he is the founder of Transcendent Zero Press in Texas. 

Monday
May022016

Book Reviews: Language No Bar— by Kiriti Sengupta

While commenting on One Hundred Years of Solitude (OHYOS) Salman Rushdie wrote, “The greatest novel in any language of the last fifty years.” OHYOS was originally written by Marquez in the Spanish language, and later it was translated into English by Gregory Rabassa. What moved my mind was the remark, especially “in any language.” I wonder how many languages Rushdie is aware of! And how well-read an author can probably think of himself to write an appreciation in such a unique way? These were not the questions that surfaced on my mind when I read the book in 2015, but they popped up all of a sudden when I went on to launch a poetry book, Air & Age — Linked Since Eternity, in the department of Bengali in Banaras Hindu University (B.H.U.), Varanasi on April 6, 2016. The department professors primarily launched a Bengali book of short stories, Santiram-er Cha, by emergent writer Bitan Chakraborty who is based in Calcutta. The department might share their exclusive logic on launching two books of two different languages — belonging to two definitive genres; one was short story, while the other was poetry, which has jointly been authored by Pranab Ghosh and Tanmoy Bhattacharjee.

Given a chance, I would love to ask the teachers of the English department of any college or university if they would prefer to launch a Bengali book and initiate discussions on it. They would hopefully deny if the concerned book is not widely popular, or if the author is not hugely famous. But then, they would perhaps conduct a translation workshop based on the said book. Conducting a bilingual seminar takes tremendous effort on the organizers’ part, for they need to balance both the languages and the flow of related discussions.

Bitan’s Santiram-er Cha has not only been appreciated by the professors in Kashi Hindu Vishwavidyalaya (otherwise referred to as Banaras Hindu University), his stories have received critical acclaim in a recent seminar, held in Raiganj University, which was convened by Nirjhar Sarkar, the deputy registrar. I was present there in the capacity of a chief guest and I have been lucky to have heard the papers presented by teachers-cum-researchers who have emphasized on Bitan’s work. I can remember I have read Santiram-er Cha in the month of December, 2015 and I quickly wrote a critical note on one of the short stories, “Hantarak.” I advised the publisher to commission an able translator for wider dissemination of Bitan’s prowess as a storyteller. I can now take pride in the fact that I was probably the first reader to have identified elements of ‘magic realism’ in the said story. The Bengali “Hantarak” was later translated into English as “The Assassinator” by Pranab Ghosh, and it was soon published on the official website of Transcendent Zero Press, a small publishing concern that is based in Texas (United States of America). Dustin Pickering who is the founder of the press was pretty excited as he read the story. While publishing the translated story on their website, Dustin commented on, “Very symbolic! “The Assassinator” engages in a symbolism of cause and effect. Why people fight revolution and why desperation encourages discontent! This is a story of intrigue and importance. It portrays a sense of unjustified fear — something in the lurch — and the changing of pace only escalates the overall impression. The story is translated coherently and I assume accurately. There is almost a dream-like hinge of climax, a sudden awakening, and a feeling of resolution at the end. You almost get a sense of refreshing news, that the previous lines were not real, that everything is fine, the story was a daydream.”

 

During the formal launch of Santiram-er Cha in the Bengali department of BHU, Professor Namita Bhattacharya opined that Bitan’s story telling bore magical effects as found in the stories by the legendary Bengali short story writer, Banaphul (Dr. Balai Chand Mukhopadhyay). Professor Prakas Kumar Maiti, who heads the department, spoke highly of Bitan’s writing and admired the lucidity of the language used in the book. He particularly remarked on “Bougainvillea,” a story that deals with the struggle and mental turmoil of an unemployed Bengali young man in his personal life. No wonder, the publisher of Santiram-er Cha, Shambhabi Imprint, has decided to bring out a translated version (English rendering) of the book under the title Bougainvillea and Other Stories before late.  

 

Now the question is: How would the English speaking readers receive the work of a Bengali writer? Here lies the proficiency of an able translator! But, is it solely the translator who can be held responsible for the success or failure of a translated work? I’m afraid, Selected Poems by Joy Goswami (HarperCollins) has failed to fetch much acclaim in India, let alone other countries in the world. It will be unfair to point my fingers at Sampurna Chattaji, the translator, who, I believe, did fairly well in translating Goswami’s immensely rich Bengali poetry, but did the publisher commission an editor before publishing the book? I have no clue, honestly, but, it is extremely important to understand the impact of the translated text on the target audience beforehand. It is equally significant to grasp the dynamics of successful translation, which essentially deserves apt editing by an editor whose speaks, writes, and thinks in the language the target readers use. Translated literature, if not well planned and projected, often fails to reach the audience it is meant for.

 

We would wait and watch to witness the fate of Bitan Chakraborty’s Bougainvillea and Other Stories and if the translated work would be as well-accepted as is the original book, Santiram-er Cha, but then, will the English speaking readers take interest in reading the struggle and pain of the lower middle class Bengali families? Bitan’s stories do not merely depict existential crisis, they amicably sit on the interface of the conscious and subconscious minds of the people around and traverse the path that leads to the horizon of much awaited liberation. Bitan sounds righteous when he says, “Downtrodden people, middle class and lower middle class Bengali families and their lives have been my inspiration. We essentially ignore the basics of Indian constitution that has been principally formed to protect and uplift the interests of the underprivileged.”

 

Two years back I had the honor to co-edit an anthology of poems by a few Bengali English poets and the anthology was titled, Jora Sanko — The Joined Bridge. It was published by The Poetry Society of India (Gurgaon), and Madan Gandhi was my co-editor. We included twenty-one poets from different locations and the collection received rave reviews across the globe. Bestselling author and editor, Don Martin aptly remarked on the volume: “I really do think that Bengali poets, and Indian writers more generally, are underexposed among Western readers. Sure, we might recognize someone like Tagore, but not many of us read much contemporary Bengali work. And that is a real shame, because Bengali poets write beautiful, expressive, and distinctive verse.” While discussing the anthology, Sahitya (January 2015), the official journal of the Comparative Literature Association of India (CLAI) opined: “[Kiriti Sengupta’s] “Memorandum of Understanding” is a fitting finale. It emphasizes that “air and age are linked since eternity” and the sorrows of life revisit every human being at different points in life, the sorrows are not restricted to one individual and human beings need to understand this.” Let’s have a look:

I’m no linguist…

I know

air and age are linked

since eternity…

 

and the wounds surface again

in all directions…

sporting the guise of youth…

I was evidently thrilled as Pranab Ghosh and Tanmoy Bhattacharjee informed me that they would love to use my lines as the title and subtitle of their proposed anthology of poems. Air & AgeLinked Since Eternity is a nicely produced work of poetry, published by Chitrangi, a newly formed publishing imprint based in Calcutta. Dr. Panchanan Dalai, who is serving as an Assistant Professor in the English department of BHU was present during the launch and he appreciated both the poets. He also aired his views on the politics of publishing, but I wonder, if a book-launch event could possibly afford a room for such theoretically sensitive talk. Let me site a poem by each of the poets concerned. In “Jesus” Pranab writes: “The sky fell on the pavement. //The beggar drew a Jesus /On the stone. //Rain drenched the earth. //Jesus did not bleed.

What is Jesus if he is not bleeding? Jesus continues to bleed even now, for the holy blood is believed to remind us his sacrifice towards mankind. Here the poet fetched the sky to the pavement and made the beggar draw a Jesus on the stone. The poet showered enough water unto the stone, and in spite of every effort Jesus failed to come alive and bleed. I believe “Jesus” by Pranab Ghosh is a poem inspired by Marxism.

On the other hand, evolving Indian English poet Tanmoy writes: “I kiss you and take /the contagious being /from your saliva //I wish your fast recovery /hope you receive better care //I’ll give you a new lease of life /as I depart.” In “Donor” Tanmoy revives the age-old tradition of India. Here the poet invites and receives the fatal poison from his beloved’s circulation and happily departs while rendering a new lease of life to the affected being. True love makes one selfless, but then where is true love nowadays? In a world badly infested with materialistic and physical pleasures, Tanmoy urges to fall back to the Indian tradition, and thus, awaits a world filled with love, peace and unconditional relationship.

Irrespective of the language of the books launched in Banaras Hindu University, the authors shared a common indication. They were essentially Bengali people, aimed at leaving their marks in world literature. Here ‘language’ creates no hindrance, nor does it play any role in securing the shelf-life of a work. Time, as they say, will remain as the prime witness of the lingering effects of honest literature!

 

Kiriti Sengupta is the author of the bestselling poetic trilogy: My Glass of Wine, The Reverse Tree and Healing Waters Floating Lamps. He is a bilingual poet, writer, and translator and is based in Calcutta. 

Saturday
Jan092016

Book Reviews: The Translator, Late in the Day, My Glass of Wine, The Reverse Tree, and Healing Waters Floating Lamps

The Translator by Dah

Transcendent Zero Press (2015)

Reviewed by Michael Minassian

 

            Dah shows his skill and a careful craftsmanship in his latest collection of poetry, the aptly named The Translator. This collection is a rich journey into the mind and words of the poet. From the moment I stepped into Dah’s poems, I felt I was entering a place of magic, memory, and sight. Questioning his place in the universe, and sometimes answering, the poet seems to be seeking a moral compass to navigate through the world. In the title poem, “The Translator” the speaker hints that the poet and poetry can help us find our way:

 

                        in between there is a message

                        that we can neither locate nor decipher

                        and we can only hope that it surfaces on time

                        with a proper translator

 

            The “You” voice, the sensuous feminine voice that speaks in the poems, suggests answers, some of them uncomfortable truths, about life and death and the mutability of existence. From the excellent poem, “The Moon’s Deep Wounds”:

 

            You said: ‘Maybe life is an invalid

            or a guide gone astray and inside each

            circle of breath there is a path of light’

 

The speaker doesn’t linger in the grip of melancholy and the reader is able to see the “path of light” as images of hope appear near the end of the poem:

 

            We hear voices coming from along the river,

            children’s delicate voices, gentle laughter

            happiness the color of autumn

Yet the reality of existence is its non-permanence, and the speaker’s lingering fears and doubts creep into the last stanza:

 

            and the wind shifted to a steady chilled motion

            You shuddered in silence.

            Overhead, the noisy geese made their escape

            and every leaf was shaking.

 

            Throughout the book, the poet seems to be asking the question: How do you translate the natural and sensory world so that it has meaning. In many of the poems, the reader gets a sense of place and the contemplation of what is seen and heard. And the poet’s other self, the constant “You” of the poems provides a touchstone through this journey:

 

            Your face, your open eyes

            thrive in memory, mythology.

 

            In one of my favorite poems in the collection, “Harbor Scene” the poet uses fresh images and metaphors to paint the landscape and give the reader a window to the natural world. In the penultimate stanza, the young couple is briefly introduced and painted in bold strokes, anchoring the poem in the physical world:

 

            a young couple presses into each other’s warmth

            the way noon shadows press into hot adobe walls

            as the imposing air from autumn’s icy saturation delivers

            a tight aching emptiness seldom known by lovers

 

            My only complaint about the collection is that a few of the poems are printed double-spaced, rather than single-spaced as the majority of the poems. I’m not sure if that was the poet’s intent or a decision by the publisher, but I found it distracting and felt it didn’t add to any of the poems in question.

            Throughout the collection, Dah’s poems explore the natural world around him: the earth, sea, sun, and wind and the creatures, large and small that populate it. Through his poems, he explores his inter-relationship to the natural world and probes it for meaning. Sometimes this leads the speaker in the poem to recognize the negative side of human behavior. But there seems to be a hope to tame the negative impulses with kindness and compassion. He does this through graceful poetic metaphor such as in the poem “We Are Only  Sleeping”:

 

We must hold tight to the harmony/that is left…

            words of love in the cockpits of our mouths,

            dive bombing, softly dive bombing

 

Often, I was startled and moved by an image such as the opening lines of the poem “Dust”

 

What we think about

            is our motion

            almost never our stillness

 

What Dah has created in these poems is a space for us to think about our own stillness and in that stillness to drink in his poems and savor what is contained.

 

Late in the Day by Ursula K. LeGuin

PM Press, 2015

Reviewed by Anca Vlasopolos

 

Late in the Day, the title of Ursula Le Guin’s most recent poetry collection, sounds a valedictory note that is borne out only by a few poems in this astute, incisive, wide-ranging book that is beautifully designed and fits nicely in the hand. I expected no less than to have my breath taken away by a writer whose works I’ve admired, learned from, and taught for several decades. This book did not disappoint.

I will not discuss the masterly prosody of these poems since Ms. Le Guin herself does so in her Afterword, where she even lists the poems in the book by form, for the convenience of readers unfamiliar with quatrains and sonnets, free verse, etc.  Her exacting method—“By free form I mean a discernible pattern”—if followed by people professing to write free verse would elevate the genre above the abuses into which it so often falls.

The erudition and passion that underlie these poems make them a discovery and joy to read. Each thematically selected or prosodic section becomes a journey into complexity. Both “Relations” and “Four Lines” are reminiscent of Neruda’s Odas Elementales, poems that zero in with minute attention on the seemingly ordinary, the every day, the object of use: “a tool” that by sonnet’s end becomes “this weight that wants to fall and, falling, sing.” “The Salt” is an equally stunning four-line poem that sums up earth and its beings. The last section, “The Old Music,” takes us to the beginnings of poetry—folk songs, ballads, hymns—yet with this poet’s inimitable imprimatur: an “unblessèd” America where no “god or priest” rules; a medieval Sir Thomas whose pursuit of the “gleeful Happy Beast” ends in defeat.

Brought up with Greek mythology as my nightly going-to-sleep tales, I was surprised and moved by Le Guin’s version of the Eurydice-Orpheus myth, in “Hermes Betrayed.” The poem begins with a stanza quietly announcing a supposed fact: “When a god grieves/ the deep stones/ at the four corners/ of the world tremble.” That Le Guin celebrates Hermes/Mercury, “airy, jaunty,” should not come as a surprise to those of us steeped in her writings: she’s always seen the trickster, the go-between worlds, the bi-being as attractive since that foot in both worlds allows such a being a more rounded, more encompassing vision; Coyote and the protagonist of Always Coming Home, to name but two, attest to this authorial affection. Yet in this poem, even Hermes of the “cool aplomb” is betrayed, as is his charge, Eurydice, for, as “The burden of his deathlessness/ weighed ever less/ at every step of that/ brightening way with her,” it’s the poet who “turns” and breaks the god’s only chance of learning mortality. And though Hermes, given his nature, “would not grieve,” “the deep stones shook.”

There are devastating statements on the lateness of the day: one such is “Disremembering,” where the specter of a body that goes on without its mind is as chilling as it gets: “the soul plods onward to no end.” Yet this is a book that celebrates life, its last word a benediction upon our much-benighted earth: “dancing.” If there is a cluster of images that dominates this collection, it’s stones—their stillness and silence, which the poet prizes. In Late in the Day Le Guin herself to some extent embodies her own character, Stone Telling, showing us through this great variety of utterly mastered poetic forms the way home.

 

My Glass of Wine, The Reverse Tree, and Healing Waters Floating Lamps by Kiriti Sengupta

Hawakaal Press, Moments Publication

Reviewed by Dustin Pickering

 

 

Waiting in the Garden of Eden

I read Kiriti Sengupta’s three collections My Glass of Wine, The Reverse Tree, and Healing Waters Floating Lamps.

My Glass of Wine advocates a return to religious principles and compassion. The author truly believes the world left sane compassion and sweetness when it began to deny the truths of religion. Sengupta discusses everything from namesake to the Bhagavad Gita in this prose and poetry collection. Lately I have noticed a new form of literature being written by Indian writers. A combination of prose and poetry that mutually complement one another is emerging from this sacred land where literature is honored and adored. My Glass of Wine fits this category and is a national bestseller. We are first introduced to Sengupta’s key concepts in this small volume.

His work reads like an exploration of life—seen from the Yogi’s angle—and an acceptance of its universality and uniqueness. We are taught that Yogis meditate to bring the Mother to the Father, a metaphorical journey that describes the climb of energy up the spine in meditation. Much of Sengupta’s imagery stems from this symbolic process.

There is one odd poem in Healing Waters Floating Lamps called “Fish-Lip” that seems to have caught the Foreword writer’s attention as well. It turns from the imaginative and accessible to the strange and uniquely personal symbolism presented by the author. In this poem, I am reminded to review the opening thoughts of the book:

 

“On the ascending shoots

Your fear matures

A few apprehensions as well

Your roots hold it tighter

Desperately deeper

 

And much deeper rests your God”

 

This reminds me of the poetry of The Reverse Tree. I am also brought to the Biblical proverb, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Wisdom is distinctly universal and perennial in its goodness. Much life is lived before it presents itself and is brought to the light. Fear is what brings us closer to our deepest values; we feel the world tugging at our Selfhood, wanting to avenge its confusion; and, we cling tighter to our sense of Self as our roots are exposed upward. The Reverse Tree is an extended metaphor for human nature, a life of service, and just how strong we, as people, must become to expose our graces toward others.  “With service evolves dependence, and honestly, it is the ladies who turn out to provide better shade than the men,” Sengupta opens in the first chapter. Why then is the tree commonly conformed to men? Being flows through all things like water and wisdom is the greatest joy. Sengupta quotes the Bengali of Tagore, “I envisioned the external through the light of my eyes.” The Soul is God Himself, so the light of the eyes is the revelation we experience as we live. The Soul is Master, Commander, and the lens through which we perceive our golden glories.

I think a bit on the Garden of Eden and the allegory it presents in light of this book. Much of the myth’s imagery can be reconciled with the Guru’s meditation metaphors. Adam and Eve as Father and Mother, but the Mother turns away instead of rising up toward the Father. She is “tempted”, perhaps distracted, by a wise and clever serpent. This serpent is assumed to be the Devil in traditional interpretations. Perhaps the snake is rather a symbol of the spine, and this allegory reflects the very same wisdom as holy India’s religion! The Mother turns directly to the spine, and takes its advice to eat the fruit (the core of the head where the Father and Mother meet), and the result is the expulsion of the couple—yet they are expelled as one, in unity. The snake is forced to consume dust—recall the dust that accumulates on our self-image. Adam and Eve have already attained wisdom but are now guarded from picking the fruit of the Tree of Life. This Tree is protected by a young angel with a flaming sword. This is symbolic of the process mentioned in The Reverse Tree: “Removing agony from life is not an easy task unless we recognize the source. This is all about the worldly attachments that we grow knowingly or unknowingly…” Even the great Sufi poet Rumi explores the tarnishing of Self by worldly attachment. Our humanness is distinct in worldly attachments. They are why we live.

Why does Eve turn from Adam after all? In Genesis 2:7, there is a pun on the Hebrew “Adam” and “adama”—adama means “ground.” It is woman, Eve, a reflection of Man, who turns him from the Garden and worldly pursuits to knowledge of good and bad. Adam is a reflection of God in his dominion over the fertile plain, yet he is evicted from his paradise and punished with death. To know good and evil is a death itself, the “sickness unto death”, the separation of Self and Other, and the hesitation we experience in our apprehensions. God, wise and primal, tricked the original couple by putting the pieces in place—expecting them to learn the powerful lesson they would only understand from experience. A very similar expulsion and detachment occurs during Adam’s sleep when Eve is brought from his rib. We are taunted with reminders of our origins we cannot understand. Things aren’t ideal for this very reason. We learn distinctions. We learn judgment, the very vice the Savior advised us to harness. The cherubim and its revolving sword of flame, mentioned in Genesis 3:24, are acknowledgements for the insatiable quest of humankind to find permanence and its ultimate truth of origins.

Sengupta, page 36 of The Reverse Tree:

 

“and the wounds surface again

in all directions

sporting the guise of youth…”

 

Is he not reflecting the same paradox?

Eve, mother of all living, is cause of our mysterious life and our long thirst for paradise. She was the first to survey the land and truly seek dominion in ways her husband could not imagine. She implores him to remember her birth so he can find himself. She was the one in true service to the betterment of humankind by fulfilling human destiny, and leaving a legacy of wonders.