Catullus: The Poems

Your Saturnalian bonne-bouche

I’m bubbling with a lot of writing, at least a dozen reviews are raring to spill forth; it would be a shame to let this heat slide off into a deadened feeling you get when you remember a book read long ago but retain nothing of it, because you had not taken the care to record your impressions. Over the years I have discovered that the best way to remember a book is to write about it. This doesn’t always materialise though. Life, you see.

I read this Penguin edition of Catullus’s poems (tr. Peter Whigham) side by side Peter Green’s translation. I have no hesitation in saying I prefer the latter, not because I am in any way able to compare it with the original Latin, but seeing the parallel text I can see that Green has endeavoured to remain faithful to metre, length and the rhythm of the original. This stands in contrast to Whigham’s translation with its arbitrary enjambments and unruly line-breaks, where some poems are summarily translated, others are bloated (over-translated?), perhaps to give clarity to the vagueness of the original. However, Whigham’s love epigrams are more spontaneous, direct and urgent compared to Green’s.

I do not object to artistic recreation in translation when its purpose is to convey the tone and spirit of the original, and to give a sense of the language even if it means bending the rules of idiomatic English, especially when it requires an intelligent rendering of satire. But I think if you take too much liberty with the original you end up turning it more your own creation and less that of the writer you’re translating. FitzGerald’s and Omar Khayyam come to mind. I have since long refused to call it a translation. Rubaiyat is FitzGerald’s reworking of Khayyam, a work that should be seen as Rubaiyat of Edward FitzGerald.

Entry #8 serves as a good example of Catullus’ angry love poem. It’s aimed at his lover, the wife of another man, whom he refers to as Lesbia in his poems. Catullus hates her for abandoning him and also hates being in love with her, but can’t bring himself to concede. I’m quoting both translations to highlight the difference between Whigham and Green. (All italics belong to the translators)

Peter Whigham translation

“Break off
fallen Catullus
time to cut losses,

bright days shone once,
you followed a girl
here & there

loved as no other
shall be loved,

then was the time
of love’s insouciance,
your lust as her will

Bright days shone
on both of you.

a woman in unwilling.
Follow suit

weak as you are
no chasing of mirages
no fallen love,

a clean break
hard against the past.
Not again, Lesbia.

No more.
Catullus is clear.
He won’t miss you.

He won’t crave it.
It is cold.
But you will whine.”

Peter Green translation

“Wretched Catullus, stop this tomfool stuff
and what you see has perished treat as lost for good.
Time was, every day for you the sun shone bright,
when you scurried off wherever she led you
that girl you loved as no one shall again be loved.
There, when so many charming pleasures all went on,
things that you wanted, things she didn’t quite turn down,
then for you truly every day the sun shone bright.
Now she’s said No, so you too, feeble wretch, say No.
Don’t chase reluctance, don’t embrace a sad-sack life-
make up your mind, be stubborn, obdurate, hang tough!
So goodbye, sweetheart, Now Catullus will hang tough,
won’t ask, “Where is she,” won’t, since you’ve said No, beg, plead.
You’ll soon be sorry, when you get these pleas no more-
bitch, wicked bitch, poor wretch, what life awaits you now?
Who’ll now pursue you, still admire you for your looks?
Whom will you love now? Who will ever call you theirs?
Who’ll get your kisses? Whose lips will you bite in play?
You, though, Catullus, keep your mind made up, hang tough!”

For the sake of (relative) brevity, I’m eschewing a more detailed comment on Catullus’ longish (and excellent) poems mixing elements of tragedy and epic, so I’ll round off the note on translation by saying that I have been unhorsed along with my hoary perceptions about ancient Roman poets. “Beautiful” is not a word that comes to mind when you read Catullus, no; he is witty, sardonic, playful, deeply personal, highly offensive, almost autobiographical. He does not mince words when he is up to denouncing whom he does not like: his Lesbia whom he repeatedly accuses of turning into a whore with a multitude of lovers, all for having spurned his love(!), the poets of habit, time-wasting rhymesters, and his foes whom he abuses without a blush: his preferred revenge is to drive his equine male organ through the foully malodorous bog land of other people’s backsides. Not a man you would want to know in real life! Suffice it to say that Catullus startled me, amused me, shocked me, and gave me plenty to laugh through the sweet (& sour) time I took in reading both translations.

For Vibennius he has this to say. Poem #33

“Oh you cream of the con men in the bathhouse,
Pop Vibennius, and your son the bum-boy –
Dad may have a dirtier right hand, but
Juniorʻs got a more voracious backside –
why not just sod off to exile in some
hellhole, since Dadʻs larcenies are public
knowledge, while you, son, cannot hawk your bristly
asshole, no, not even for a penny!” (Green)

Thanks to Penguin Little Black Classics series I have discovered quite a few world greats which otherwise it would have taken me a long time to discover, independently. I was introduced to Catullus with this collection: I Hate and I Love, enjoyed it thoroughly and immediately sought out the full collection. Here are a couple of samplers to get a better (bitter?) taste of Catullus on your poetic palate!

Poem #16: Catullus rebukes his critics and detractors who most probably had objected to the content of his poems, as many still would! (I have no idea what the first and last lines mean)

“Pedicabo et irrumabo
Furius & Aurelius
twin sodomites,
you have dared deduce me from my poems
which are lascivious
which lack pudicity…
The devoted poet remains in his own fashion chaste
his poems not necessarily so:
they may well be
lacking in pudicity
stimulants (indeed) to prurience
and not solely in boys
but those whose hirsute genitalia are not easily moved.

You read of those thousand kisses.
You deduced an effiminancy there.
You were wrong. Sodomites. Furius & Aurelius.
Pedicabo et irrumabo vos.” (Whigham)

Poem #78B

“…but what irks me now is that your filthy saliva
has soiled the pure kisses of a pure girl.
You won’t get away scot-free, though. All future ages
shall know that, and ancient Fame tell what you see.” (Green)

One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

For a long time I could not find words to write anything on One Hundred Years of Solitude, for Marquez mesmerised me into a silence I didn’t know how to break. But I have been commenting here and there on Goodreads and now it is good time, finally, to gather my thoughts in one piece. But this somewhat longer review is more a labour of love than a coherent attempt to review his opus.

Marquez resets the history of universe such that the old reality ceases to exist and a new parallel world is born in which things do not conform to obsolete, worn-out laws. Everything in this world is to be discovered anew, even the most primary building block of life: water. Macondo is the first human settlement of Time Immemorial set up by the founding fathers of the Buendia family. It is a place where white and polished stones are like ‘prehistoric eggs’; an infant world, clean and pure, where ‘many things lack names.’ And it is natural that here, in the farther reaches of marshland prone to cataclysmic events, the mythscape of One Hundred Years of Solitude should come into existence.

The tone of this epic and picaresque story is set ab initio. Take a gander at this:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

It is not long before fateful human activity mars the innocent beauty of creation. The more they discover the more they are sucked into the inescapable cycle of life. The primordial myth that moulds and shapes their destinies does not let them advance in their efforts to defeat the infernal solitude of existence, whatever they might do, however they might try. History gets back at them again and again and every generation is but a repeat of the past. It is to emphasise the cyclical nature of time, in my opinion, that names of principal characters are repeated in every generation, sometimes to the confusion of the reader, easily rectified by going back to the family tree provided in the start of the book.

An external, portentous, disastrous, evil-like power guides and transforms the lives of people in the hamlet of Macondo. The sense of foreboding pervades the whole story: the rain continuing for many days and inundating the streets, the unceasing storm before the arrival in town of a heraldic character, and the fearful episode when townspeople begin to suffer a terrible memory loss, so that to remember the names and functions of things they write it down on labels and tie those labels to objects like chairs and tables. It tells us that we cannot hope for a future if our past is erased from the slates of our collective consciousness. Past may be a burden but it is also a great guiding force without which there’s no future.

The only way to retain your sanity is to remember your history and cling to it, or prepare to go insane. When one Jose Arcadio Buendia loses the memory of things, he goes mad:

“Jose Arcadio Buendia conversed with Prudencio Aguilar until the dawn. A few hours later, worn out by the vigil, he went into Aureliano’s workshop and asked him: “What day is today?” Aureliano told him that it was Tuesday. “I was thinking the same thing,” Jose Arcadio Buendia said, “but suddenly I realized that it’s still Monday, like yesterday. Look at the sky, look at the walls, look at the begonias. Today is Monday too.” On the next day, Wednesday, Jose Arcadio Buendia went back to the workshop. “This is a disaster,” he said. “Look at the air, listen to the buzzing of the sun, the same as yesterday and the day before. Today is Monday too.” That night Pietro Crespi found him on the porch, weeping for…his mother and father. On Thursday he appeared in the workshop again with the painful look of plowed ground. “The time machine has broken,” he almost sobbed,…he spent six months examining things, trying to find a difference from their appearance on the previous day in the hope of discovering in them some change that would reveal the passage of time.”

The town is threatened when the change taking place in the outside world begins to spill over into Macondo. Here we have a metaphor for the struggle of Maruqez’s native country and continent which is passing through internecine wars on its way toward externally imposed modernity. Divisions that hitherto did not exist come to define the inhabitants of Macondo and of towns farther afield. One of the Buendias, Colonel Aureliano, takes up a piece of metalwork as new and strange as a gun to mount a revolt and bring the promised glory to his land. New lines are drawn. New alliances are made. Old friends become enemies and enemies, partners. Colonel Aureliano Buendia, when he is about to kill him, tells General Moncada:

Remember, old friend, I’m not shooting you. It’s the revolution that’s shooting you.

The scene above captures the mechanistic element of their revolutionary war; the one below bares the meaninglessness of the conflict, so pertinent to the 20th century militarisation of the whole continent and its endless armed strife led by colonels and generals of all hues and shades.

Tell me something, old friend: why are you fighting?”
What other reason could there be?” Colonel Gerineldo Marquez answered. “For the great Liberal party.”
You’re lucky because you know why,” he answered. “As far as I’m concerned, I’ve come to realize only just now that I’m fighting because of pride.”
That’s bad,” Colonel Gerineldo Marquez said.
Colonel Aureliano Buendia was amused at his alarm. “Naturally,” he said. “But in any case, it’s better than not knowing why you’re fighting.” He looked him in the eyes and added with a smile:
Or fighting, like you, for something that doesn’t have any meaning for anyone.”

Although I tried to avoid getting into this discussion, but a review of this work is not possible without throwing in the inevitable buzzword – magical realism. Although the book gets high praise from most readers, it is to be expected that some readers would take a disliking to the basic ingredients from which Marquez draws his style and narrative devices. I want to address in particular one argument from the naysayer camp that pops up again and again: it is not realistic; it can’t happen; this is not how things work. So I ask (and try to answer): what is it with our obsession with “realism” that makes some of us reject the conceptual framework of this novel?

Aristotle in Poetics argues that a convincing impossibility in mimesis is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility. The stress is not on what can physically happen but on mimetic persuasion. This is why some novels that follow every bit of convention, every bit of realistic element in them turn out to be unbelievable stories with unbelievable characters. You want to forget them as soon as you finish the book – and toss it aside. But on the other hand Greek tragedies populated with cosmic characters pulling suprahuman feats continue to enthrall generations of readers. How realistic are those stories? It is the writer’s task to convince us that this could have happened in a world he has created and set the rules for. In that Marquez is more than successful, and this is the basis of the enduring appeal of this work.

The distinction fell into place for me when I replaced ‘realism’ with ‘truth.’ Kafka’s haunting stories are so far from the 19th century convention of realism we have come to accept as the basis of novel-writing. His The Metamorphosis is not a representation of likely human activity (how could a human transform overnight into a large insect?) but it is nonetheless a harrowingly truthful story that advances existential dilemmas and makes a statement on human relationships, familial in particular. We say this is how it would feel like to be an outcast from one’s family. Or consider Hamsun’s Hunger in which a starving man puts his finger in his mouth and starts eating himself. In the ‘real’ world Kafka’s, Hamsun’s and Marquez’s characters cannot exist but the effect of their existence on us is as truthful and real as the dilemmas of any great realistic character ever created.

Marquez, like a god, has written the First Testament of Latin America, synthesising myth and magic to reveal the truth of the human condition, and called it One Hundred Years of Solitude.

(First published in Spanish 1967; in English 1970)

Waiting for Godot – Samuel Beckett

“What happened?”
“Nothing happened.”
“Why did nothing happen?
“How would I know?”
“You would know.”
“I would?”
“How I would know?”
“Because you read it.”
“Did I?”
“How do you know?”
“It is on your shelf.”
“What does it mean?”
“It means you have read it.”
“Oh I have.”
“So what happened?”
“Nothing happened.”
“Why did nothing happen?”
“Because they were waiting for Godot.”

Waiting and nothing – I could take these two words and use them in as many combinations as the rules of probability allow to create a ‘review’ that is as much meaningful as it would be meaningless. I could draw upon the elusive symbolism of the text in the manner of a perspicacious hermeneut whose convoluted exegesis would only serve to frustrate him even more. Or like a blurb-writer I could summarise the four-and-a-half characters, the austere landscape, the leafless tree, the role of the taut rope and jangling bucket, and the heap of nonsense, but what would that achieve?

Suffice it to say that the sheer speed of bare dialogue makes you want to slow down and look for something queer happening between the lines, but nothing happens. Yet something very important happens: everything happens. Aye. Beckett in his frugal minimalist brilliance has created in every reader’s mind a throbbing sense of meaningless wait. The act of wait which is an act of life, since every moment of human life is spent at the same time in a concurrent act of waiting – whether it is waiting in the womb of your mother for nine months or waiting for nine hours for your lover to turn up. Or just waiting at the bus stop for a vehicle that never arrives. You wait for things to happen; but nothing happens; yet life happens.

The best review I have read said, “This is a very interesting play.” Which is to say that the best review of Waiting for Godot is precisely the one that is not written down.

(First published 1953)

Thinner Than Skin – Uzma Aslam Khan

After the success of The Geometry of God and Trespassing, I expected Uzma Aslam Khan to build further on her reputation as one of the eminent novelists chronicling the lives of contemporary Pakistanis but this novel has come as a disappointment.

It started well enough, with two lead characters, Nadir and Farhana – the former a Pakistani in the United States struggling to build a life of promise in a country his parents had sent him to study; and the latter, a mix-raced Pakistani-German who wants to discover the Pakistani side of her identity by ‘returning’ to Pakistan which is now gripped in turmoil. Through their uneasy love we see the uneasy love Pakistanis carry for their homeland, which they have many reasons to despair for and leave behind. And the promise of the new lands of the West, which, despite it glitter and glory, cannot fully satisfy the needs of those who have shunned their homelands.

Parallel to it runs the story of Maryam and her family who are herders for generations. Through them the author has painted a grim picture of the situation the locals of the mountainous north of Pakistan have found themselves in. Hemmed in by all sides in a conflict that spills across borders – trouble in Xinjiang, violence in Central Asian states, perennial instability in Afghanistan, oppression in Kashmir – all this spills into the once peaceful mountainous regions of Pakistan where the state and its rebels fight out each other at the cost of the local people.

The fates of Nadir and Farhana get entwined with that of Maryam and her family when an accident happens during their visit of discovery to the Northern Areas. They are sucked into a conflict which is as much personal as it is public and political.

Our story stalls after the accident, the manner in which the author shows both parties dealing with the accident is…very lacking. There are lots of monologues the characters address to themselves, that do little but confuse the reader. If the author was attempting unreliable narration, it certainly didn’t work.

Maryam’s story and the characters that populate her world, in my view, do not talk and behave as northern mountain people do. An air mystery surrounds Maryam’s family which is not dealt with cleverly. She is also depicted as following some strange pagan cult, even though they are clearly shown to be Muslims, albeit holding on to some ancient mountain rituals for which they get plenty of scorn from Muslims who purport to follow a more ‘purist’ form of Islam. Bluntly put, the writing on Maryam’s family is not intelligent – it has little to hold your attention; it is more like a long and repetitive ramble.

The last part of the novel did not satisfy me. The thread of the plot is lost after the accident takes place. From that point on the story only drags and ends abruptly and nonsensically.

I vacillated between giving it two stars and three stars. If I had given it two stars, this would have been quite harsh of me; if I had awarded it three, this would have meant I liked it more than I had. So I settle for 50/50; I rate this novel as halfway between acceptance – a 2.5 stars out of 5.

(First published 2012)

Sula – Toni Morrison

“Hell ain’t things lasting forever. Hell is change.”

It is time for change; slowly, painfully, but inexorably the spirit of the age sheds old rags and dons a new garb. The mutes are beginning to discover a voice that had been trapped in their windpipes; eyes see things that they had hitherto only watched; and hearts ache with a new throb of hope mixed with fear of which no one can tell which is greater. From this sense of foreboding out comes Sula.

The excluded community confined up in the hills outside a small Ohio town is made, through centuries of social conditioning, to see themselves as different and separate from the white people. They know who they are and they also know they are not the same as the people who live in the town down the hills. They aredifferent, in every imaginable way. You could see that.

They are scandalised when Sula, one of their own, embarks on a path that’s opening up out there, a path of education and mobility, of employment and relocation, of mingling with the white folks as their human equal, if not racial, social or political equal. Gods be good, the black people are offered to live their lives like the white folks!

“It was a fine cry – loud and long – but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.”

When she returns home after a long absence Sula is transformed into an unintelligible mass of thoughts and actions her people find difficult to square: It’s like a white girl in black skin. Or so people think. Unpardonable. Outrageous. Her community is devastated; nothing is more sacrilegious than dressing like white people, speaking like them, behaving like them, being like them. And what’s more, Sula has taken a white man for a lover. Sula, we’re not the same. Ah, what an incredible fact of human psychology that even if you do not lose a sense of identity and self-respect, you eventually come to accept the role to which your oppressor designates you.

Sula becomes a pariah in her own community, uncomprehending and incomprehensible. The ominous signs that lend her a preternatural aura testify to something strange. People see those signs in retrospect, from her birth to childhood, from her growing up as a daughter of a woman abandoned by her husband, from the way she looked at them when she was a child, the way she walked and sat, ate and gestured. Sula, they reach on a terrifying conclusion, is not a young black girl but a phantom implanted from a world of shadows. She is almost a witch, and if she really is not, she ought to be one.

Sula’s character is a symbol (self-contradictory, torn, divided, compartmentalised, unmappable) of the conflict borne of the changing values that had held together isolated, nebulous, inward-looking black communities across the United States in the age of institutionalised racism. Values constructed so carefully over centuries when challenged elicit a response that’s always out of proportion. Sula is a couldn’t-care-less woman whose threatening individuality alienates her from her community. For this she is taken to task. Her own dealings with her family and the community bespeak a cruelty she’s picked up in the course of her contact with the outer world. She, a black woman, treats her own kith and kin with a shade of contempt with which they had always been treated by the White Others.

Her character elicits mixed reactions. Sometimes you want to blame her, sometimes blame her family, sometimes you want to blame the sudden rush of new ideas that has thrown the whole social equation out of balance.
Was it the new life among the white folks that turned her against herself? Or was it to do with her troubled early years, living as she did with her mother who had taken to selling sex as the most natural vocation a woman might take when her husband walked out on her, causing a rupture in relations with the community? Or did her people, unable to take her novelty, pushed her to the wall, turned her into an alien in her own skin?

What made Sula, Sula? This is a question you’ll be grappling with by the end of the novel.

“You have been gone too long, Sula.

Not too long, but maybe too far.”

(First published 1973)

I Take This Woman – Rajinder Singh Bedi

We are used to reading fictions from the Subcontinent (much of it below par) that seem perennially to swing between the two psycho-social poles of pre and post-marriage lives, with all its unsavoury offshoots – a long, never ending A Suitable Boy. The former is spent under controlling parents who consider it their inviolable right to make every important (and unimportant) decision of your life and the latter wasted under the burdens of connubial anti-bliss from whose poisonous claws the only safe escape is death, natural or brought forward (Throw in a love story to make all this palatable). Both lives are bound together by a shared thread of entrapment and women characters, naturally, lead those stories.

There is no gainsaying a mindset that views children as human properties whose relationship with their parents is given idealised treatment in filial caricatures reminiscent of master-disciple relationships of mystical tales: smiling, submissive, sacrificing, histrionic, conforming – ready to leap into the fire on a subtle hint of the nod. Maa, tu kahe to main jaan de doon.This is supposed to be out of love, respect and duty. And if there’s anyone who thinks marriage is not a fixed point of reference in a life-calender from which the BCs and ACs of one’s existential trajectory are measured, then one should pick up this novella and see for herself that a desi life can almost be reduced to a formula: birth, marriage, death. (Who knows, this in part may also account for the extremely fecund wombs of our women. My grandmother were 16 brother and sisters, none of them half)

One reason for the proliferation of these themes is the massive influence Progressive Writers’ Movement exercised on writers who led the Indian literary scene from 1930s onwards. They focused, inter alia, on social realities they believed were incompatible with the spirit of the time that valued social justice and battled gender inequality. Underprivileged people, especially women and poor, were made the subject of countless stories. So much was written with so much speed that women found themselves trapped between conflicting and competing ideas of male reformers about the role women should have in society. But on the bright side this literary exercise did much to raise popular consciousness. A debate was set going that couldn’t be stopped.

Rajinder Singh Bedi was an integral part of the new movement and a stalwart Urdu writer on social issues. He knew how to draw out emotions without dragging the protagonists through a sentimentalist swamp. Here in this novel he elicits sympathy through careful blending of tribal ethos with Rano’s simple desire for familial happiness that has fallen apart when her husband, Tiloka, is murdered. She is no angry intellect soliloquising endlessly in utter disbelief, an easy and once famous way to get a story out of a literary midget, but a sorrowful heart bracing the blows of widowhood with her strength of character; the unique situation she is faced with brings out most prominently the absurdity of her conundrum: in her best interests she is required to marry Mangal, her dead husband’s younger brother, who is many years her junior and whom she had raised like a son.
Rano’s complete silence adds to the sheer confusion of young Mangal whose simmering romance with a village girl he’s supposed to marry is common knowledge. Family elders ‘ask’ Mangal point blank to sacrifice his love to offer male protection to Rano who, of course, could not survive on her own as a widow with young children.

Whether or not they escape this trap is for the reader to find out, but it turns out that men, too, are victims of the same system that puts them above women.

(First published in Urdu 1967; translated by Khushwant Singh)

Snow Country – Yasunari Kawabata

A metaphor of rotting and unappreciated beauty. Deep in the frozen reaches of the Snow Country a geisha waits out her days for a man who would give her the life of love and dignity that she believes she deserves.

Geishas in the Japanese society enjoyed similar social prestige as the Courtesans of the Indian Muslim culture. They were the connoisseurs of culture and art; they exerted political influence through their patrons; they decided the fates of people who desired their services; they made and broke marriages – they were a soft power centre in the Japanese society.

But in the backwater of the Snow Country only a perception of this power remains. The Geishas there live under crushing poverty and hopeless surrender, maintaining a façade of self-importance but in reality are no more than prostitutes offering affordable services to travelling men.

This novel is a heartfelt depiction of that culture, told through the story of a Snow Country Geisha, Komako, who meets a rich idler from Tokyo, Shimamura, who comes to the town to enjoy the hot springs it’s famous for. Shimamura knows immediately when he sees Komako that she is unlike other Geishas of the town. They develop a relationship but it never goes anywhere. The rich city idler is as though unable to reciprocate the love of Komako who, despite something special in her, is only a hot spring Geisha in his eyes. He tries to involve himself emotionally but can’t stop himself from looking down upon her.

The novel reads like a dream with disjointed and abruptly changing scenes fusing into one another. The writer’s stylistic method is to juxtapose two opposing and contrasting characteristics as in old Haiku: light against dark, sound against silence, being a sex selling Geisha who has a clean and fresh countenance, the whistle of the teapot against the continuous sound of the silence…. and there are beautiful evocations of the stark nature of the Snow Country and the frugality of its people, their lifestyle, travails and their aspirations.

I liked the way the story builds up into a high emotion in so imperceptible a way, without any loud noise-making plot twists. I enjoyed the novel a lot.

(Written during 1935-37; translated from the Japanese by Edward Seidensticker)

Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair – Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda – the name evokes romance and revolution in my consciousness, a riot of metaphors and action, a turbo charged celebration of love and beauty, the most original and compelling images, a flood of high emotion that assails my senses and dulls them so that the only thing I am receptive to when I have Neruda’s verse before my eyes is Neruda’s verse. Everything else blacks out and I’m transported to a world I have never seen before – and it’s beautiful!

When after long deliberation I made up my mind to read him I made it a point to start at the first collection Neruda had published in his life: Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.

But I’m not a very big fan of the limited aesthetic of love poetry, which often rehashes done-to-death old metaphor and similes, stringing the most common emotions in the most common lines; which is rather subpar, of the throwaway variety, read once and never to be revisited. So I approached the collection under review with some reserve.

I was stumped, stunned, silenced. From the very first poem Neruda shamed me. From third poem onwards I was apologising to him. By the time I reached the end of the collection I became Neruda’s devotee. And so I am to this day and will remain forever!

There is no one who marries terrestrial or nature’s metaphors of earth, sea, fire, wind, trees, moon and stars so masterfully to the anatomy of their beloved.

Below I collect some of the beautiful images from the collection:

Take a look at the simple and stunning eroticism of these lines. From the opening poem:

Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs,
you look like a world, lying in surrender.
My rough peasant’s body digs in you
and makes the son leap from the depth of the earth.

And the transition of the beloved from white hills to weapon.

I was alone like a tunnel. The birds fled from me,
To survive myself I forged you like a weapon,…

In ‘Almost Out of the Sky’ we have the most innovative and unlikely metaphors for the beloved. One can only appreciate the beauty by reading and re-reading these lines which have since then become my signature favourites.

But you, cloudless girl, question of smoke, corn tassel.
You were what the wind was making with illuminated leaves.
Behind the nocturnal mountains, white lily of conflagration,
ah, I can say nothing! You were made of everything.

All elements fail the beloved. She is simply ‘made of everything!’

From ‘Every day you play’, Neruda finds the beloved in the most unlikely places. Holding a cluster of fruit is like holding the beloved’s head:

You are more than this white head that I hold tightly
as a cluster of fruit, every day, between my hands.

And further on:

You are like nobody since I love you.
Let me spread you out among yellow garlands.

Oh let me remember you as you were before you existed.

And if you go on:

You are here. Oh, you do not run away.
Cling to me as though you were frightened.

How you must have suffered getting accustomed to me,
my savage, solitary soul, my name that sends them all running.

Neruda ends the poem with a striking image:

I want
to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.

(First published in Spanish 1924; translated from the Spanish by W. S. Merwin)

Poem: Poverty – Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was a titan of Latin American poetry.  He commands great influence not only on the Spanish speaking countries but throughout the world of poetry. This poem comes from his collection titled “The Captain’s Verses”.



Translated from the Spanish by Donald D. Walsh.

Ah you don’t want to,
you’re scared
of poverty,
you don’t want
to go to the market with worn-out shoes
and come back with the same old dress.

My love, we are not fond,
as the rich would like us to be,
of misery.
We shall extract it like an evil tooth
that up to now has bitten the heart of man.

But I don’t want
you to fear it.
If through my fault it comes to your
if poverty drives away
your golden shoes,
let it not drive away your laughter which is
my life’s bread.
If you can’t pay the rent
go off to work with a proud step,
and remember, my love, that I am
watching you
and together we are the greatest wealth
that was ever gathered upon the earth.

The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri

Book subtitle: I will write down everything I know about a certain family of Bengali immigrants in the United States by Jhumpa Lahiri.

Immigrant anguish – the toll it takes in settling in an alien country after having bidden adieu to one’s home, family, and culture is what this prize-winning novel is supposed to explore, but it’s no more than a superficial complaint about a few signature – and done to death – South Asian issues relating to marriage and paternal expectations: a clichéd immigrant story, I’m afraid to say.

Gogol’s life, and that of every person related to him in any way, from the day of his birth to his divorce at 30, is documented in a long monotone, like a camera trained on a still scene, without zooming in and out, recording every movement the lens catches, accidentally. A final picture emerges in which nothing in particular stands out; and twists that could have been explored more deeply, on a philosophical and humanistic level, such as Gogol’s disillusionment with his dual identity or the aftermath of (Gogol’s father) Ashoke’s death are touched upon perfunctorily or rushed through.

Some cultural comparisons are made as though to validate the enlightened United States at the cost of backward India. This is a familiar line in immigrant success stories: to justify their decision to migrate to the West by heaping scorn on the country or culture of their origin.

But even that’s not done intelligently. E.g; Maxine’s mother wears swimsuit on the lakeside; Gogol thinks his mother would never do that. Maxine’s parents don’t bother when Gogol moves into their house and have sex with Maxine; Gogol’s parents would have been horrified! It is almost in these words the comparisons are made. Well, of course. We get it.

However, on the bright side, I liked the trope of public vs private names – Nikhil aka Gogol – and how Lahiri relates this private, accidental double-naming to the protagonist’s larger identity crisis as an American and Indian immigrant. But, again, it’s also wasted; it doesn’t stand out; nothing catches your fancy; nothing piques your interest; and you sit with a little impatience welling up inside you.

You just sit there, squinting your eyes, making faces at the text, wondering…Pulitzer? Are you kidding me?