Within it, the stillness

This is the verdant Cauvery delta. The Vennar distributary glides through lush paddy fields here in Tanjavur, singing songs from a past replete with sea-faring kings, opulent cities, magnificent architecture and enduring culture. Tanjavur — capital of the mighty Chola dynasty that ruled this part of the southern peninsula for many centuries. A solitary pond heron on the far bank studies its reflection. Blood was spilt here. Temples were raised. History was shaped and reshaped on the banks of the Cauvery. The river that knows it all.

water. time.
the relentless movement.
within it, within it, the stillness

A beloved king. A venerated deity. A stunning temple. Legend has it that elephants dragged giant blocks up an inclined ramp to construct the tower that soars over 200 feet. This was more than a thousand years ago. You can sense that energy. You can feel spacetime collapsing. You know several generations have sat where you sit, have felt what you feel, have seen what you see. So has Raja Raja – king of kings. The tower takes on a golden hue as the sun sets slowly. The sun that knows it all.

first light:
the flutter of wings, the temple bell,
a breeze waking stone after stone

That isn’t the only great temple. A few miles down, the heir repeated the feat of his father raising a graceful edifice with breath-taking craftsmanship. A century later, another Chola monarch erected a formidable beauty with decorated columns and horse-drawn chariots carved from stone. The gods were exalted with wisdom and skill, faith and art. Human endeavour that has survived to tell its tale. I wonder as I walk down a pillared corridor, if I have those tools. What do I hold dear? How do I revere? What story do I tell? I see them stand strong and tall. The temples that know it all.

not yet dawn
not quite night, just a fragile hush
as if the sky is about to answer

Paddy fields line both sides of the highway. I stop to watch the white egrets poke around in the water. The roar of the irrigation pump, the outlines of tractors and bullock-drawn ploughs, the bent backs of toiling farmers, kingfishers and drongos perched on overhead wires, large statues of village protector-deities — fierce warriors watching over people and livestock and crops, the romance of pastoral deliberation, the aroma of frothing cups of filter coffee, life as I know it fading into the distance…I can understand how this moment contains everything that came before it. And everything that is yet to come. What matters, what can wait, what we need to do, what is beyond us. That truth has never changed. In all this time. Time that knows it all.

swinging from the branch
of a tamarind tree
the chain from an old tyre-swing

****
India Travelogue… Tanjavur (The Three Great Living Chola Temples)

What the heart knows

Before dawn, the devout wait with offerings on one side of the road, tourists wait with cameras, on the other. This is the traditional alms-giving ceremony for monks and novices from the many Wats in Luang Prabang. An affirmation of community, dedication, faith, austere living and resounding quiet. What is it like to live like that, with the kind of simplicity that questions by just being, with a conviction that answers by not just being? To find yourself, how much do you have to lose? To lose yourself, how much do you have to find? Are these my choices?

inside the apple
the worm,
inside the worm, the apple

A bamboo bridge spans the Nam Khan River where it meets the Mekong, a tranquil horse-shoe confluence at one end of this quaint town. Nearby, an adept performer recounts stories of kings and demons, queens and lovers — myths from the rivers, the hills and the forests beyond — to the sound of the bamboo pipes of the Khene. Once upon a time. That place where everything begins. Love. God. Childhood. Memories. Forever. Once upon a time. The notes ring high into the starless night. Two rivers listen together, hand in hand.

soft starsong —
a cloud opens its arms
to a waiting moon

UXO- Unexploded Ordnance. The way wars from the past still continue to kill and maim. The UXO centre is like a slash of dark reality, away from the busy hub where cafes and temples sit cheek by jowl, where the brown Mekong slithers against the mountains, where the night market opens like a magic box with its bright lights and exotic aromas, where saffron-robed monks walk impervious to curious glances, where you are reminded that it is possible, somehow, to have a parallel reality without ordnance, without unexploded ordnance, without wars that don’t end, without wars, without a little girl picking up one of those deadly bombies in a paddy field.

for the cat
for the pigeon
more than enough sunshine

A small boat speeds across the Mekong. This river is an acquaintance, we have talked before, now it feels familiar, it feels strange. But we talk again. On the other side, on the undulating hills, between old-growth trees, curated gardens reveal surprises of joyous colour. As the evening grows long, the sun mixes in the brown water. Some distance away, in the tropical rainforest, water spills into cascading turquoise pools even as rescued bears recover in the sanctuary below the Kuang Si waterfall. This is tranquil land. Where the breeze gently traces the soft curves of the Wats. Where lotus flowers open and close in ancient ponds. Where the river walks with you. Even when you aren’t walking. Talks to you. Even when you have finished talking. Where lost dreams are found. Where the forgotten lives. Where wounds can, without even knowing it, be healed.

a lone bee
waits for a lily bloom:
what the heart knows, it knows

****
Laos Travelogue… Luang Prabang

Just the unfolding of light

In Phnom Penh, I watch as the sun dissolves into the mighty Mekong, a river that has already journeyed several thousand kilometres and still has more to navigate before it can find the sea. I too have come from some distance. I too have places to go. For one golden evening we contrive a confluence. In the disquiet of liquid light, we will just flow together, just here, just for a little while.

at a stop light
I consider, again,
the moon frozen in my mirror

In the pale dispassion of dawn, what strikes you is not the idea, the being, the craft, the industry, the scale of Angkor Wat, but the expansive stillness. The anti-movement. The not-seeing. The not-knowing. The not-understanding. Which came first, fear or faith? Which came first, grandeur or pride? Which came first, love or incessant yearning?

neither question
nor answer
just the unfolding of light

First, the jungle. Then they clear the jungle. Then they build the temple. Then the jungle reclaims the temple. Then they try to wrest the temple out of the jungle’s grasp. Then the jungle will prevail. I wonder if this is a lesson about impermanence, about power, about retribution or about inexorable truth. I feel the silence of trees older than the sky wrap its fingers, tight, around my soul.

happily
ever after —
another night, another bedtime story

The walls of Angkor Wat tell the story of the churning of the ocean of milk by gods and demons, both looking for the ultimate elixir. The story of good over evil. Heaven over hell. We like life to work like that. We want life to work like that. We think we are like that. We think our demons have lost to our gods. We think, inside us, the ocean will give us what we seek. We think the ocean has to give us what we seek.

whose fault is it —
the paper boat
that waited for the rain

****
Cambodia Travelogue… Phnom Penh/ Siem Reap

Some words I feel

Here, in the Dead Sea, I feel possibility. I, who cannot swim, can walk on this water. Here, the sun prepares for its downward journey, slowly, painfully, like a warrior who has seen too much, done too much. Here, the echoes come from a faraway time to brush your skin. Here, nature opens a tiny window to give you a glimpse of her power. This water holds you in a warm embrace even as you drown in the haunting stories of the hills and the wind and the sky.

like the throb of a poem
written long ago
some words I understand, some words I feel

Driving towards Karak, that early Spring, he pulls over, suddenly. Look, he says, pointing to a clutch of black iris plants, standing tall, seemingly alone, on the side of a dry desert road. Fragile, strong, the colour of night, the luminescence of a newly formed sun, a flower I had never seen before. How many things have I met in my life that are made entirely of primal joy?

the daytime moon:
      as if a child glued it to the sky
                     eyes bright with mischief

Within minutes, the dust encircled us, the sandstone rocks seemed to melt, the rat-a-tat of sand on the car-roof was loud, incessant and terrifying. My first sandstorm came without warning to Wadi Rum. We drank tea as we sheltered on a rock. The most morbid of fears are tempered by a cup of tea. This much is true. Storms rage for hours. But then they pass. That too is true. Most life lessons are learnt on that thin edge between how things are and how they should have been. That can be true, if you allow it.

because
the night never ends
it just turns to morning

I leave Petra not through the imposing Siq, but through a longer, more difficult route- Wadi Muthlim, the dark canyon that might have once directed flash floods away from the city. Squeezing through narrow tunnels, clambering over rocks, following a dry river bed, I find my way back into the sunshine. Enough time to wonder about what being in a place where people lived in such magnificence 2000 years ago, tells me about my own life, about what someone or something will know about me 2000 years hence. What is a trail that isn’t a trail left in stone?

everywhere a pebble has been
everywhere a wave has been
a part of me has been there, is still there

****
Jordan Travelogue… Dead Sea/Karak/Wadi Rum/Petra

Swimming under the horizon

In Nairobi, after feeding a giraffe, I sanitize my hands with something smelling of lavender and the world I left behind. A safari guide laughs. A driver joins in. And another. They tell me giraffe saliva is a natural antiseptic. Something I should remember if I get lost in the savannah. The giraffes watch us, expressionless.

leaving our shoes at the door
we enter the stranger’s home
with bowed heads

Where the equator crosses the dry asphalt in Nakuru, young men show us science tricks. Water swirls in opposite directions in the two hemispheres. Not just water, I say to myself. It feels strange, standing there, straddling an imaginary line, as if I am larger than life and this planet that neither cares, nor stops to ask, is now, for the first time, beneath my feet.

swimming
under the horizon
fish tell fish ancient land myths

Face to face with a young leopard in Samburu, I wish I can tell what he is thinking. But here, in the wild, I want everything to talk so through their words, through their primal poetry, I can go back to the silence of the beginning. Before I was. Before they were. Before anything was. When everything made sense.

the delicate balance of being —
not one extra movement
not one extra breath

Then the sun sets over the acacia trees, the grass mirroring the hues of the sky, the distant roar of a lion turning everything surreal, the last impalas fading away, crocodiles now invisible in the murky water, darkness pouring down like rain, silhouettes draining into a black sea… between splutter and cough and growl and yawn, all goes quiet.

just the earth
still going round
and round and round…

 

Kenya sunset over the savannah

****

Kenya Travelogue… Nairobi/ Nakuru/Samburu

Notes from Warsaw – 5

Tadeusz Gajcy was 22 years old when he secretly published a second volume of poetry.
Tadeusz Gajcy was 22 years old when he was editor of an underground Polish resistance journal – during the Second World War.
Tadeusz Gajcy was 22 years old when he was defending his city with his pen and his weapon.

Walking towards the big B-24 Liberator on display at the Warsaw Rising Museum, I stopped to read his poems. Not that I knew who he was. Not that I had ever heard his name. But I knew I would go back and find out. I knew I had to.

I scoured the net for translations. They are hard to come by. What I did find was fragment after fragment of searing verse.

He wrote of war and country:

Do you know that land beneath the icicles of blackened
flaming candlemas candles
which formerly creaked with resin but creaks today with
membranes
of huge bats’ wings?
Do you know that land
where along paths of sighs
float dead
charred flowers and the bones of meadow and forest beasts?
(from The Polish Review )

He wrote of grief:

It is too stifling for the words on one’s lips
hewn from the glow of fires and from grief as heavy as
stone…
You thought: it will be simpler.
But one must change words, musical words
to make them as hitting as a spear
(from The Polish Review)

He wrote of love:

Though I might say: I will love you, I will stay,
though I might nail together words as I would a coffin,
don’t trust me and wrest memory away from me.
(from The Sarmation Review)

Tadeusz Gajcy was 22 years old when he was killed in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.

Crack open your soul, dig out the words,
as if this is your first poem
as if this is your last poem

 

Also in this series:
Notes from Warsaw – 4
Notes from Warsaw – 3
Notes from Warsaw – 2
Notes from Warsaw –

Notes from Warsaw – 4

What happened here, at this very place —
did someone die, did someone kiss, did
someone leave with a mouth full of
goodbyes, did someone return, wordless,
arms cradling improbabilities? I wonder
why I am here, now, watching trains
crisscross the Vistula. The river answers
in a language I cannot understand. The
moon into whose eyes I dare peer from
my own rooftop, looks away, showing
bones, a line of jaw, tense, broken. Are
we more forgiving of unanswered
questions in the place we label ‘home’?
Long ago, someone with my voice, with
the same dark eyes must have wondered
why he was in the place he stood, bow
in hand. He was taught to kneel. To press his
forehead to the earth. I turn my face. Stand
taller. My cheek pressed against the cold
cheek of the moon. Another train passes.
A march of yellowed windows toppling
squares of night like dominoes. Somewhere
else, there is a warm moonless morning.

(From the Świętokrzyski Bridge)

Also in this series:
Notes from Warsaw – 3
Notes from Warsaw – 2
Notes from Warsaw –

 

 

A reminder that the Poetry Tuesday prompt for Nov 12th is “New”. Read prompt details here.

Notes from Warsaw – 3

I dye my words
in night and moon —
dawn always two verses away

Today, The Wire dropped an article featuring Polish poet Tadeusz Rozewicz. This on a morning when I had Notes from Warsaw -3 (now numbered 4) floating somewhere between cursor and central nervous system. This is the way the universe works – you fixate on something for even a brief moment and that thing will begin to appear on walls, seep through the cracks and basically do a war dance in the spaces between the Malabar tiles on your roof. Try it.

Rozewicz was in the Polish resistance during WW II and his poetry is severe and visceral, ripping open your insides with its stark simplicity. But he was just writing about the times he lived in – the pain and despair in his poetry a mirror of the unbearable horrors of war. I wonder if reading my poetry years from now, a reader can discern the zeitgeist of our days.  Maybe my poems should be a dirty yellow, the colour of weakness as earth and humanity crumble to dust without ink breaking over them. Maybe my poems should be a flaccid blue, the colour of cold refusal to rage against the dying of the light. What will that future reader get from the monochrome poems filling these infinite digital (d)reams?

Tomorrow will judge our today using yesterday as its prism. But that can neither dictate nor design our poems. But it does tell us who we are and what we might become. What we were and who we have become. It does tell us the truth.

I added Tadeusz Rozewicz’s books to my wish list. I peered inside the Kindle sample of his book – New Poems. The first poem, ‘The Trains’ had this:

 “I am building
a bridge
to link the past
with the future
 
The past is today,
But a little further on…”

The article from the Wire is here.

Full moon over Swietokrzyski Bridge, Warsaw

(from Bangalore, India: 29 Sep 2019)

Also in this series:
Notes from Warsaw – 2
Notes from Warsaw –

Notes from Warsaw – 2

Walking down the Royal Route from Warsaw’s Old Town, I came upon the statue of Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855 C.E.), set behind a little garden of sweet smelling roses. I learnt he was Poland’s national poet whose epic ‘Pan Tadeusz’ is considered a Polish classic. I, of course, had never heard of either the poet or his work. Ignorance seems particularly challenged by continental (perhaps, town) boundaries! But this was the poetic ever-after. The glory of one who took up the pen against his world and thus lives on forever.

Alone, My Polish Rose, I die, like you.
⁠Beside your grave a while pray let me rest
With other wanderers at some grief’s behest.
⁠The tongue of Poland by your grave rings true.
High-hearted, now a young boy past it goes,
⁠Of you it is he sings, My Polish Rose.

–  The Grave of Countess Potocka by Adam Mickiewicz

What makes a poet great? Is it just his poetry or the times he lives in? Is it the collective attention of his readers or their aggregate angst? Is this an age when poetry is dying or has it been revived to fight the general disaffection? What is poetic greatness in this digital age – let’s ask: when a poem is posted online and no one reads it, has it been written at all? Or maybe: when a poem is posted online and read a million times, has it been read at all?

to what end
this unfinished soliloquy
unfinished, in the end

img_4118-1.jpg

Also in this series:
Notes from Warsaw –

Notes from Warsaw —

his fingers
remember Chopin
as the night
flattens itself
against the walls and
light, little glowing
beads of light, piggyback
on notes as they
ricochet off the
ceiling —

he plays
for the
silence, to
disengage the silence, to
refute the unwillingness
of the silence, just
as the poet writes
to annihilate
emptiness —

the red
silence bleeds
into veins
so blood
rushes in a
torrent, a river,
a deluge that
senses a sea you
cannot
find —

silence whose
eyes and face and
breath he feels, whose
name he cries over and
over, key after key, tell
me its rhythm is
different from your
heartbeat —

the silence
dying till black is
dawn, till the sky is
a square of dirty blue like
wet clay beside a potter’s
wheel, blue clay that
becomes an urn,
becomes a carafe, a
chalice —

vessels are
shaped to interrupt
space, to unsettle the
endless harmony of air, to
break its flight, soft shapes
he knows, shadows he
knows, her throat, her
breasts, her waist, arching
blue as mazurka unwinds to
nocturne —

while words
spill black into
white emptiness, melding,
until the letters are a
bridge the silence
crosses, bleeding
curves on wood, slowly,
softly, each step an
infinity of notes on
which the light
moves —

do you
compose music like
you craft a
poem like you
turn a wheel under
the earth, accidentally,
thinking of her, not
thinking of her, figure
and sound and syllable,
trying hard to do
something
else —

 

(from Krakowskie Przedmieście: 14 Sep 2019)