Monday, October 23, 2006

"That Lives in Us"

In conjunction of Divali and Aidil Fitri, I thought I would just post this poem by Jalalud'din Rumi as a short meditation during this joyous and meaningful time of prayers and celebrations. :)

That Lives in Us

If you put your hands on this oar with me,
they will never harm another, and they will come to find
they hold everything you want.

If you put your hands on this oar with me, they would no longer
lift anything to your
mouth that might wound your precious land-
that sacred earth that is
your body.

If you put your soul against this oar with me,
the power that made the universe will enter your sinew
from a source not outside your limbs, but from a holy realm
that lives in us.

Exuberant is existence, time a husk.
When the moment cracks open, ecstasy leaps out and devours space;
love goes mad with the blessings, like my words give.

Why lay yourself on the torturer’s rack of the past and future?
The mind that tries to shape tomorrow beyond its capacities
will find no rest.

Be kind to yourself, dear- to our innocent follies.
Forget any sounds or touch you knew that did not help you dance.
You will come to see that all evolves us.

If you put your heart against the earth with me, in serving
every creature, our Beloved will enter you from our sacred realm
and we will be, we will be
so happy.

by Jalalud'din Rumi



Sunday, October 22, 2006

Happy Deepavali & Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri

In a truly Malaysian fashion, we would like to wish all Hindus a Happy Deepavali, and all Muslims a Happy Aidilfitri!

May the joyous occasion of celebration and sharing, the reflective time of prayers remind us all of the humanity we share and the responsibility we have to make this a better world!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006



by Ted Hughes

He loved her and she loved him
His kisses sucked out her whole past and future or tried to
He had no other appetite
She bit him she gnawed him she sucked
She wanted him complete inside her
Safe and sure forever and ever
Their little cries fluttered into the curtains

Her eyes wanted nothing to get away
Her looks nailed down his hands his wrists his elbows
He gripped her hard so that life
Should not drag her from that moment
He wanted all future to cease
He wanted to topple with his arms round her
Off that moment's brink and into nothing
Or everlasting or whatever there was

Her embrace was an immense press
To print him into her bones
His smiles were the garrets of a fairy palace
Where the real world would never come
Her smiles were spider bites
So he would lie still till she felt hungry
His words were occupying armies
Her laughs were an assassin's attempts
His looks were bullets daggers of revenge
His glances were ghosts in the corner with horrible secrets
His whispers were whips and jackboots
Her kisses were lawyers steadily writing
His caresses were the last hooks of a castaway
Her love-tricks were the grinding of locks
And their deep cries crawled over the floors
Like an animal dragging a great trap
His promises were the surgeon's gag
Her promises took the top off his skull
She would get a brooch made of it
His vows pulled out all her sinews
He showed her how to make a love-knot
Her vows put his eyes in formalin
At the back of her secret drawer
Their screams stuck in the wall

Their heads fell apart into sleep like the two halves
Of a lopped melon, but love is hard to stop

In their entwined sleep they exchanged arms and legs
In their dreams their brains took each other hostage

In the morning they wore each other's face

Ted Hughes wrote Lovesong as part of his collection featuring his famous Crow character. The collection came out at the end of the 70s, and I got to read it a few years after. What stamped onto my consciousness then was the Crow poems more than the others. Today I am reading this poem, and all the other Crows one, from his recent tome Collected Poems - more than a thousand pages of all his oeuvre, including some he never published before.

When Collected Poems came out a while back in hardback it cost over RM200. I decided to wait a year for the paperback. Then two editions were on offer in our local book stores, the British and the American ones. The American one costs less, below a hundred. I confess that I opened the Faber and Faber one - and cracked the spine – right there in the book store! I put it back, carefully, looking around for any of the store assistants. I didn’t have any alternative but to check out the American edition. Its spine doesn’t crack that easily, and is more supple. But the paper quality is rather crap. The sweat from your fingers or hand tend to dent the pages.

And talking about sweat, the love making in Lovesong is some of the most intense I’ve ever read. Hughes starts off with a mere declaration of love:

He loved her and she loved him.

This line is so deceptively simple and straightforward: two short sentences co-joined and ending with the only punctuation, a full stop. There seems to be 3 beats, and the rhythm seems to start to rise and to fall at the end. The rhythm seems regular, like steady heartbeats. The falling rhythm at the end seems to be it, but not really so. The full-stop gives a very long or heavy pause, and this is meant to prepare you for the passion and intensity to follow.

What begins in the love making is a kiss, a very, very deep one. There are more beats here and the rhythm starts out regular – fall-rise – but gets broken in the course of the long line, like heartbeats rising. Note the new lines all have no punctuation to signal pausing or the end of a sentence or clause. That’s because the entire scheme now predicates on the way you have to read to the end of a line and make your own mind up to pause if there is an end-stop or to read past to the next line if a run-on. This underpins the theme here of two people or bodies becoming one. Notice also how this theme is encapsulated in the poem’s title not as Love Song, separated, individual words, but as Lovesong, one merged word. The ending five lines have the lovers completing their love making with exchanges of limbs and faces, beyond mere merging of two bodies.

Line 4 tricks you into believing, when reading, that there is some regularity in rhythm here: 'She bit him she gnawed him she sucked'

Try to read this line at a faster clip, without pausing. You’ll find the rhythm is almost staccato – like heavy heartbeats - when there are no punctuations between the perceived clauses. These clauses repeat the structure SPC (Subject-Predicate-Complement). So, you somehow expects the last or third clause to have a complement as well, a second repetition of "him". However, this anticipation is dashed as its structure closes with an intransitive verb. This effects such a poignant pause, such a heavy end-stopping; even if there is not full-stop and the next line starts a new clause.

The last three of lines of this stanza are very intense:
‘She wanted him complete inside her’ goes back to some regularity in rhythm. ‘Safe and sure forever and ever’ is pregnant with an abundance of sibilant sounds, both unvoiced or voiceless and voiced, from “s”, “f” to “v”. This may sound a bit close to the bone to some – sorry – but the shifting of the sibilance from unvoiced to voiced seems to bring out a sensation of going into some depth and of vibration even. The last line of this stanza is like the lovers’ climax, which is so high that they seem to feel or hear their cries flying into the room’s curtains. If you think this is their most intense climax, you have to read through to the line near the end of the poem, “Their screams stuck in the wall”. This is so graphic in detail, almost pornographic even.

The rest of the poems have details just as graphic. You see these a lot particularly in the largest stanza, the third one. These details are not about the actual physical act itself. They are mainly powerful and S & M-sounding metaphors: "immense press", "spider bites", "whips and jackboots","surgeon's gag", as a couple of instances.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

"Fasting in Ramadan"

God, what am I
But a pale copy

Of the true ascetics?

A lesson in humility.
Only under such heat, such thirst,
Does the soul realise,

The body is just a mirage.

Forgive me, God, for

Crossing the dates on the calendar,

Numbering thirty days of abstinence;

For observing how much

Temptation surrounds me.

The tap's mouth glistens, even though
It is only my eye that has polished it.

And it is only my longing
That saturates the colour of apples,
That turns a passing scent into form,

Like breaths sculpted in cold weather.

Feasting before dawn,

Each sunrise I fade,

Reduced to a mouth, source

Of desire, of original sin.

And at each sundown, a glassful of water
Travels down my gullet
And turns me solid again.

God, when you breathed life

Into the first man, was that
What answered his craving?
Or did he know then, that
As you fed him, you also gave him

Hunger, a crumb of that world
That you will cast him down into?
by Alfian Sa'at

This poem is reproduced with Alfian's permission. I met him a few days ago at the Ubud Readers and Writers festival, and among the books on sale, I found his A History of Amnesia (2001, Ethos Books).

Somehow the book fell open at this page, which I think means the poem wants to be blogged about. There's timeliness too, a poem about fasting during this month of Ramadan. The poem is in itself a prayer, and a very moving and human one.

What is fasting all about? I think Alfian explains it so clearly "a lesson in humility" a reminder that the physical body is "just a mirage".

Fasting is (necessarily) tough, a real test of both mental and physical strength. The speaker recognises his own weakness. He crosses dates of the calendar, admits his temptation ... and begins to notice just how much of it surrounds him.

The first year I tried fasting, I was amazed at how heightened the senses become when one is deprived of sustenance. Colours are brighter, smells are so much sharper, and so it seems, is the recollection of taste. (There is also a "getting high" effect, which surprised me.) I remember standing in the supermarket, watching a Chinese couple eat guava. It was a fruit I'd never much liked before, but as they ate, I could almost feel and taste the sweet juicy crunchiness in my own mouth, and desired it so very much. (Since then, I've loved guava!)

Something similar happens when the speaker notices the more deeply saturated colour of the apples, and the scent of them that conjures up their form.

There are images I love in the poem - the scent of apples being like "breaths sculpted in cold weather", the eye polishing the mouth of the tap, a glassful of water turning the speaker solid again at dusk.

I love too the ending of the poem. the idea that God gave men hunger as "a crumb of that world / That you will cast him down into." A small taste of suffering that so many have to endure as a fact of their daily existence.

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

"The Word"

By Dorianne Laux

You called it screwing, what we did nights
on the rug in front of the mirror, draped
over the edge of a hotel bed, on balconies
overlooking the dark hearts of fir trees

or a city of flickering lights. You'd
whisper that word into my ear
as if it were a thing you could taste --
a sliver of fish, a swirl of chocolate

on the tongue. I knew only
the rough exuberant consonant
of fucking, and this soft s and hard c
was a new sound -- querulous, slow,

like the long moments of leaving
between thrusts. I don't know what
to make of it, now that you're gone. I think
of metal eating wood. Delicate filaments

quivering inside a bulb of thin glass.
Harsh light. Corks easing up through
the wet necks of wine bottles. A silver lid
sealed tight on a jar of skinned plums.

I see two blue dragonflies hovering, end
to end, above a pond, as if twisting
the iridescence deep into each other's
body, abdomens writing, spiraling

into the wing-beaten air. And your voice
comes back to me through the trees, this word
for what we couldn't help but do
to each other -- a thin cry, unwinding.


I discovered Dorianne Laux some years back, finding -- and finding breathtaking – her poems in small-press anthologies, yet never seeing any of her collections in bookshops (Borders now stocks her books). One day early last year I was at somebody’s house, looking through a bookshelf, and was delighted to find not one but two of her collections. I took the books with me to the kitchen. “I love this poet’s work,” I told him. He glanced up at the books: “Dorianne Laux? She was one of my teachers at uni – remember, I told you about that poetry workshop I attended?”

Deathly jealousy.

When I read “Dragonflies” by Frances Leviston here on Puisi-Poesy a couple of weeks ago, I was reminded immediately of this poem of Laux’s, and decided that it would be the poem I would love to share next.

"The Word" opens with an invoking of the senses – the sights that surround the lovers during each of their encounters, the sound of the word and the whispering of it, the obvious palpable sensations of lovemaking, the word itself like a taste. Thus the reader is offered two things – physical setting, and more importantly, memory.

Addressing a lover who has left, the poet recalls the lust of their relationship, the way in which he used the word “screwing” – the way how, from his mouth, the word turned seductive, indelible. Her days have taken on the tinge of obsession – she begins to see everywhere visual metaphors for sex, not just sex, but screwing. This screwing unlike that experienced with anyone else. This screwing that means him.

“I don’t know/what to make of it, now that you’re gone”, she says at one point. This, then, is a poem about loss, about the demise of a relationship – and this is how she experiences her grief. She mourns her lover with her body memory. It startles her in ordinary tasks, shows her the symbolic and the erotic in the most mundane of places.

The eroticism of the poem, however, is more than just in its imagery, or in its almost brazen admission that it is the sex that she remembers and misses most. Its carnality is deeper, and darker – her desperate longing and sadness over the end of that relationship comes across like something so entrenched and internalized that it seems a part of her body, something she carries with her every moment.

Near the end of the poem, the poet speaks of “what we couldn’t help but do/ to each other”, and thus incites the question: What else could you not help but do to each other? How did the intimacy she describes, that all-consuming passion that continues to bleed into her life long after that affair has died, terminate?

Like all of Laux’s work that I have read, the bittersweetness of this poem, its cruel and secret underside, is what makes it so powerful. Its lyricism and sensuality is made all the more meaningful when we understand that she isn’t really talking about fucking – she’s talking about a deep and lonely grief.

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