Guest Editorial : What poetry means to me by Randhir Khare.
Randhir Khare is an award winning poet, artist, writer, playwright, folklorist and distinguished educationist who has published thirty-six volumes of poetry, short fiction, essays and novels and educational handbooks and has travelled widely, reading and presenting his work, nationally and internationally. He has presented his work at the Nehru Centre in London, at the Ubud Writers Festival in Bali, the India Festival In Bulgaria, at the Writers Union in the Czech Republic, in Bulgaria, Slovenia, the Pune International Literary Festival and at the Europalia Arts Festival in Belgium. In India, he has performed his poetry with various traditional and contemporary musicians and founded (and leads) MYSTIC, India’s first poetry-music band. In the last few months, he has published two path-breaking volumes of poetry, MOUNTAINS OF MY SILENCE and MEMORY LAND, which also feature his line drawings in a style uniquely his own. He is the recipient of The Sanskriti Award for Creative Writing, The Gold Medal for Poetry awarded by the Union of Bulgarian Writers, The Human Rights Award, The Residency Grant 2009 for his lifetime contribution to literature in English awarded by The Sahitya Akademi and The Palash Award (for his lifetime contribution to education and culture) among others. Randhir is a founding contributor of Live Encounters Magazine.
My poems are prayers – the expression of pure feeling and thought, revealed through an act of absolute trust, devotion and singular intent. They gather my external and internal experiences into organic wholes and transform them through a language of signs, symbols and images, into words that form energy fields.
Earlier in my life I was embarrassed to admit that there is something ancient in me, mythic, runic, folkloric, druidic, shamanic and that my poems have come from spaces that are beyond my conscious self. But as the years pass, I am becoming increasingly aware of this truth and I am learning to accept it and share it.
I wrote my first poem in response to the humiliation I was put through as an eleven year old when I was slapped by a teacher at school. The poem at that time didn’t seem to be connected in any way to the confused and broken feelings that had shaken me to the very core of my being because it celebrated the freedom that the sky represented and not the feeling of being battered. I wrote it at a small wobbly desk, looking out of a rectangular window which had cracked panes. Outside the early evening sky was rich glowing blue, decorated with paper kites and pariah kites gliding and swirling in their own paths, creating intricate patterns. Later that evening, clouds flowed in and it rained all night, thunder
When I look back at that time I realise that it was poetry’s way of transforming, elevating and distilling a deeply felt experience in a way that created a meaningful and nurturing energy field. But then, that wasn’t the end. It was the start of a lifelong state of being open to the power of poetry – allowing it to transform and elevate. This is why I survived and flourished in spirit into my teenage years despite my extremely traumatic and demoralising family life.
As the years unfolded and my skin had grown thicker and harder it became increasingly difficult for poetry to have its way. Physical and emotional displacement and a preoccupation with the crushing grind of everyday survival ensured that I stayed trapped in a tangle of compromises. And then my life finally fell apart and crumbled, resembling a bombed out city – main streets turned into rivers of sewage and homes, offices, parks and metros transformed into a tangle of useless, helpless rubble.
I lived alone in the city of Bombay at that time, holed up in an apartment on the fifth floor of a high rise building avoiding the outside world and discouraging everyone from visiting me. My kitchen cupboards were empty, most of the electric connections had short circuited for some reason or the other and black tea was all I could stomach. I sank into two weeks of drifting – like a feather detached from a passing bird I floated downwards. Sometimes an air current would loft me up and at other times it would allow me to head inexorably towards the earth – until I finally landed. No breeze, no wind, nothing that would lift up again. My heart throbbed in my mouth, the pores of my skin oozed perspiration and drenched my bed linen, glazed the cane and wood of the chairs, wet the floors. Left me drained.
Two weeks of sleeplessness later, the rains arrived and entered through my open windows, filling my apartment with cool and comforting dampness. Pigeons flew in and rummaged among the papers on my desk. A crow carried away the bright yellow tea strainer from the kitchen, fruit bats visited me and devoured the decomposing apple in the fruit tray.
I finally slept. And through the heavy darkness of that sleep the first lines of a poem rose to meet me. Other lines followed and a string of poems was born. It was as if I had been awakened from a deep sleep, hauling a line of dream-fish wriggling on hooks out from the waters. Poetry had rescued me again, transforming my darkness into orbs of light.
That was the beginning of another long journey of elevating self-discovery. One of the many that have kept me alive since then.
Poetry is magic, it is the experience of looking into a mirror and seeing another face staring back at you. And behind that face in the mirror, you see other faces, known and unknown. In the eyes of those faces you see places you have loved and seasons you have loved, childhood moments, moments of humiliation, moments of forever. And in each – unforgettable moments of realisation, feelings of surrender.
Poetry is a state of being, layered like an onion, peeled back till you reach the core and discover that there is no core but another layer which you peel back and the fleshy layers perspire a pungent aromatic stickiness – soul blood. Once you truly open a poem or are open to a poem – its soul blood remains with you.
Poetry is a state of becoming. Each poem that you read changes once you have taken it in. It mutates, surfacing when you need it most, like a genii.
Poetry is dreamtime, when waking and sleeping cross over into each other’s territories and a new reality emerges and reveals itself, glowing in the dark in such a manner that dark and light are one, fusing thought, image and emotion into words.
Lone poems seldom happen to me. More often, they arrive in two and threes, in a series, one closely following on the heels of the other, as a necklace, a chain, a rosary, one after another. It takes me time to open the hidden vault to let them out – but when I do, I must let every one of them out.
Some emerge like swifts and vanish into the blue, others like gusts of cool breeze. Some are bubbles floating out – hovering then swinging away, others are gypsies who set off on their own journeys and do not turn back (there’s an old Narikuravar Gypsy belief – you turn back and you’ll dissolve as morning dew does on the grass as the sun comes out). Others are survivors from death camps, their eyes still floating in pools of dreams. The list is endless. But once they are out, I let them stand for themselves, to mean for themselves, to be reborn in the lives of those who read them.
Having said this, I must also add… sometimes my poems are attached to each other – heads joined, hearts joined, limbs joined, eyes joined, one growing out of the other.
All my poems are one poem. One prayer. One sound. Deep from within. From the abyss. From the space that is the womb of the volcano. The breath of the void.
I would often wonder where each poem I write is taking me (in terms of evolution of my spirit). I now realise that a creative act is actually a precious gifting of one’s self to the universe. Till one day there is nothing left to gift and I am free and “light”.
Six decades and seven years I have lived on the Indian Sub-continent, growing up in a dense wild forest of ideas, cultures, beliefs, identities, languages, dialects, hatreds, loves, longings, hopes, ambitions, philosophies, faiths, each being striving to outdo the other and stretching out towards the light high above the enormous domes of green which supposedly make up “Sovereign India”. As a poet, and there are many like me, my ‘lightness’ carries me fast and high, free from the fetters of caste and creed towards the last overwhelming barriers that block the flight of free thought and spirit.
Yes, I know
Yes I know
This is the turning point –
The place where the sea
Is suddenly still
And I can hear its heartbeat;
The ancient song of the Leviathan
Rises and falls like waves
Breaking gently on the old wooden ribs
Of my life.
I am Jonah
Waiting for the miracle light.
Yes, I know,
This is the turning point –
The moment when the flesh becomes word
And the poem is magic.
The golden bowl,
The pitcher at the fountain,
The wheel at the cistern,
The hour into dust.
Keepers of the house tremble,
The strong men are bowed,
The lone grinder is still;
Candles of mourners in the streets;
The almond tree is in blossom.
Returning through dark doors
To her long house,
Loosening the silver cord,
Opening her fugitive eyes,
The poem is born.
When the poet’s gone, name erased, whitewashed,
The poem remains like an orphan;
It grows dull skin, shell, rock-hard.
Some poems need to be cracked open with a hammer,
Scooped out, red and sticky;
Juice stains your paper, your hands, ants move in.
Others, with gentle handling lose their shells,
Inside complete, like crystal balls they gleam,
You can read the story of another time.
I have returned to you to be absolved,
To lie on your firm body,
Listening to your heart;
Embryo in the centre of the rock.
Tide low, sea rested,
Crabs basking, sand tinkling,
Gulls vining trunks of air
With feathery creepers;
A weed stretched over your strong skin,
I dip my green roots
Down to your heart, drinking beats;
That which swelled me is dispelled,
Flesh is a maggot.
Beat me to granite with your pulse of sound,
To be stilled…
Watching water come and go.
Struggling with this white sheet
As with the demons of my life
I find no sleep;
Words as bullets, kisses,
Abuse, violent sex –
Slide off the page, diluted blood.
I wait in this tent pitched
On the edge of silence,
Where the desert powders stones –
For the sacred beetle;
It will scrape upon this page
The message of belonging.
Cycle of Rebirth
We shall return from the past,
Building ourselves from dust;
From the aching solitude of oblivion
Spring rain will draw us into light;
Wet and flesh, we will move,
A celebration of the search for love.
But for now, let us be still,
Like lost cattle, thistle-chewing;
Lean eyes longing for the heart of men,
Condemned to the place of the skull,
Crucified for causes we do not understand;
Prodded into silence.
Each poem has a time in history
And it returns in tongues of fire
Over heads of men; quietly like hours
That number lives; settling and rooting,
Blooming and touching light
The word will come back one day
Furry with soot, quiet, dreaming,
Eyes grazing the whiteness of a page,
Limbs groping for tongue tips.
The ancient heart will wake
And thud against its ribcage,
Pumping blood, green and fragrant,
Glowing its skin, returning sound.
The word, how we have lost the word,
Thrown it aside with irreverence,
Passed it into sewage pipes,
We, somnambulists, have exchanged
Mute touches, waded through our lives
Under the burden of time,
Our tongues sagging into darkness.
The word will come back one day
And our lives, touched by green fire
Will bloom like wild broom
Among the dusty rocks and we shall sing.
The word, celebrate the word,
Open the doorway of the body
And let it return triumphantly –
Rolling on the tongue, palate-bounding.
Up from the pool it will rise,
Full with memory and all that we are,
Its heart, the force of sound
That grew and spread across the ages.
Pull out the plugs, switch off the lights,
Roll up the wires, no more controlling,
We will wait for in the dark for the word,
Our bodies trembling for the sacred moment.
I am waiting for the first line
Upon the page,
Each word glowing, each letter
Pulsing with its own heartbeat;
I want to move this white sheet
Into loving, into longing,
Into waiting, into speaking.
I am waiting for a poem to arrive
Like a dead friend walking back
Out of the grove of mango trees,
Saying, ‘It was a long quiet wait,
It was, it was, or was it?
I don’t know nor care to know…’
Leaves don’t break beneath
Her feet, hands smell of moss,
Her mouth of roots, body of old hay;
I am not afraid of silence
Between words, nor of death between
Lives; I am waiting for a poem,
For the first line upon the page.
© Randhir Khare