We proudly annonce the outcoming at ‘Writers workshop’ (Calcutta, India) of our partner researcher’s Didier Coste volume of poetry Indian poems, foreworded by Rukmini Bhaya Nair.
Rukmini Bhaya Nair’s Foreword :
Can there be a memory that is not a poem or a poem that is not memory? As John Keats, beloved of the devas, dead at twenty-five but immortal thereafter, noted, poetry to its intimate readers “should… appear almost a remembrance.” Didier Coste’s unusual and evocative poetry, some of it written in India, some out of India – out of its myths, landscapes and emotions, its carnal desires and everyday excesses of the spirit – seems to meet the elusive Keatsian standard. His poems are my Indian memories – or yours – almost. That ‘almost’ is important, for it implies a wedge of otherness, those unanticipated cracks in language and style without which we might never experience the uncertain thrills of interpretation or the wild surmise of daylight behind a demure window shuttered against the evening’s dark.
Speaking of windows, I recall a conversation I had with Didier one Delhi October about three years ago. He told me that his house in Bordeaux had 47 windows – or perhaps it was more! I tried hard to imagine it then, this house with so many windows. It is only now, however, that I see it emerge in my mind’s eyes – each window a poem opening onto vistas of disorienting location and serendipitous dislocation. And then there is allocation, of course.
The first floor, the initial section of this volume, is allocated to poems on the ‘carnal edge’. Such an opening gambit illustrates precisely that affective frisson I mentioned a little earlier that a reader experiences when a radical poetic phrase appears out of the blue, demanding absolute attention. What, I think to myself in the present instance, could possibly comprise the ‘edge’ of carnality? The word ‘carnal’, I know, was much in vogue in Victorian England, reaching a peak around the year 1825 or so. Since then, its profile has dropped dramatically, flattening to a low all through the 20th century to the present. Didier’s revival of the word is therefore intriguing. Once again, it summons up a history of remembrance, not just what we mere mortals may have forgotten or never even have known but what the gods and hills still remember – a love that is “older than old death” in Didier’s words.
Apart from a philosophical lexicon (Nirvasan, Parashakti, Darshan) as familiar and comforting as a worn, translucent shawl to many Indians but perhaps coldly opaque and defamiliarizing to others, and the felicities of phrase (“When your most beautiful love poem is written with no ink on the Moebius ring of indifference…Only the puzzled perfection of your face remains”), I notice in this section a persistent theme. This is the ‘dvaita’ theme of twinning, of the doppelganger: two mountains, twin mandala, an old grey elephant and his mahout. In these poems, India’s abundance of rivers (“Ganga, Jamuna, Padma, Hoogly”), its panoply of goddesses (Vac, Parvati, Kali, Saraswati), its language iterations (Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, Tamil) all seem to come together in an eternal pattern of pairing and repairing. So at the end of this section, I come to an unexpected ‘advaitin’ conclusion – if we are to attribute an ‘Indianized’ meaning to the English word ‘carnal’ it might in fact indicate the incarnate, a manifold deity in human form, the mating of the human and its divine double, resulting in the birth of forms as indestructible as Vac (speech) and as Kavya (poetry).
The second story of this ‘Indian house’ that Didier has constructed through his poems is called ‘Desi Devi’. These are love poems, too, but the background is now recognizably what Didier calls the “urban village”. JNU, for example, is an identifiable site of passion here, a metropolitan university within the sprawling spaces of which “a nilgai fawn was mauled and maimed” and a porcupine crossing a “tarred road” sees in a split second the “doors of night” slam shut. Carnage, then, as much as carnal passion animates this particular critique of our flawed humanness, our ecological cruelties as well as our visions of amity, not to mention amorousness. Dry nullahs and wasteland coexist in this section with motorcycles and auto-wallahs. Noisy ignitions spark into poems. Above all, an unavoidable “ambient noise” pervades.
In his Author’s Preface – itself a sort of prose poem – Didier emphasizes that poetry comprises acts of listening as much as of speaking; it relies on silence as much as speech. Without a “voice of its own”, its role is simply to be there, creating for you, a possible reader, that “hushed” auditory moment wherein you regard yourself in the commonplace mirror of narcissism and realize that it presents you with a startling creative alternative – that of altruism in the shape of poetry. A poem, in this deontological sense, is a recorded, recoded, moment of true exchange between self and other, city and village, between quietude and infinitude. Now, I do not know if Didier has heard Kumar Gandharva’s unforgettable rendition of ‘Sunta Hai’ (He/she/it/the Gods/the Gurus Listen) but at the heart of this famous lyric is an attestation of the act of listening. To listen is to create – from a drop of water to the booming universe of sound and speech (‘naad brahma’). Fact is, whether or not he’s ever come across this particular magical song, Didier has managed to catch in his poems its oddly ‘Indian’ apprehensions.
Another crucial point that Didier makes in his Preface concerns his use of English, perhaps the most contested of India’s many languages. He writes: “I came to realize that Indian English is the only language in which the poem[s] might achieve any intimacy with the ordinary language of being in the world where and when monsoon breaks.” I grant that there’s a uniquely subcontinental element to watching the monsoon break – and yet, as I see it, Didier’s language is not in any straightforward sense ‘Indian’, even if he shares with Indian writers a fine fearlessness of adjectival embellishment as well as a devotion to formal strictness. Style is intrinsic to poetic expression and this is all too often forgotten in postcolonial readings of ‘Indian English’ poetry, where brute content (womanhood, oppression, identity, location) is often foregrounded at the expense of subtlety of expression, ultimately leading to a woeful lack of critical discrimination.
Reading Didier’s verse forces us to confront the commonplace stylistic insensitivity so often evident in evaluations of Indian English poetry. He is, of course, French and his columnar stanzas, the lines so exact in length, so sharp and sheer at their ‘carnal edges’, perform a feat that only seems possible with the help of the technological device of a computer. In short, they reflect a high-modernist sensibility that is almost Indian – but not quite. Didier’s verse appears also to owe something to an austere European lineage that regards English as its unruly, un-ruled ‘other’. Victor Hugo once remarked that several of the classic languages of Europe such as Greek, Latin and French made a strict distinction between prose and poetry, adding mordantly “There is no prose in English.” The implication: if one chooses English, for better or for worse, one chooses poetry. Didier Coste, a scholar who in his academic avatar espouses “experimental cosmopolitanism” has chosen poetry. In doing so, he revealingly threads in this unconventional volume the needle of criticism with poetry not only to widen the needle’s legendary eye but to open his readers’ eyes to the almost memories of a radical future poetics.
Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Delhi, October 2018
A tale of two mountains
Indian poems, p. 25-26
The same mountains, althought into its image now
so thoroughly changed, unrecognizable awaits
here nearby – that is nowhere to be mentionend,
looms in the contraptions of the poetic mind.
The other mountain, for it is not the same kind
but suddenly new and raw with fir trees scarred
by fire, discovers its awfully sweet impatience
to dream itself again where it was never sighted.
Pyrénées and Himal, can they sing of one voice?
they do not rejoice of one bell, Nature celebrates
not their hymen, but the parallel union of snow
with black rock, white wool yarn with loom.
Shyamala and Mary would not drape in one silk,
we know, but we’ll kiss their different footprints
on the same boulders so far apart, the day looks
older than it should when any bird is killed.
And there is the irreductible expectation of art
like a leaf carefully shaped and about to fall
in the lap of the same streams, the fiery birds
heavier than air – that can fly on the one wing.
And endless string of halls and castels was raised
between there that sometimles you flee and here
whre I never landed, their weathercocks rusty
with waiting for the breath of a warmer wind.
Why revel in the stale aftermath of summer rains
the one, of August drought the other, with smother
with doubt the plain view of cascading valleys?
Of your skies mine are the tally, eyes that see.
The mountain and the plain may not be the same,
but in verse they will parade af if of one world,
one estate, one path of patience, still untouched
by plough or spade, both innocent, both so proud.
Rains, we both know, do not belong to clouds,
to thunder that tears, or earth that receives,
nor do we belong to them, for such event we long
and pine that on two mountains pours its bounty.
You are their witness, you alone stand for them
and for me, for their same whiteness and my night
since one of them is your abode and the other
without you remains steeped in its own thought.
Infortunately, the constraints of word press do not make possible to reproduce the “columnar stanzas” of the poem and its lines ” so exact in length, so sharp and sheer at their ‘carnal edges’ “, as Rukmini Bhaya Nair writes in his so sensitive and precise foreword.
Didier Coste writes in his preface : “what I want to writes in sound and meaning patterns is the bodily matter of another being, of other non-generic existences that always pre-exist my own, my proto-text, my not-yet body”. The strict exactness of length of every verse that computer writing makes possible is not a mere technical figure, but the most precise shape of the ‘bodily matter of another being’ and all at once the poetic mirror of a being-in-the world, the treasure chest of rare moments felt and thought “with the right light (dawn, dusk, a seasonned lamp)”. J-P. Dubost