Friday, May 29, 2009

villanelle: "At the brink of dawn"

At the brink of dawn   one hears the peacocks cry
there are vehicles on the highway   at any hour
is it time to amble the circle   of Annamalai?

in the depth of night   you brew Nilgiris chai
and intone the saptak   watering music's flower
at the brink of dawn   one hears the peacocks cry

the observer remains unobserved   maybe he's shy
those who seek the source find sweet   what else were sour
is it time to amble the circle   of Annamalai?

in the heat of day   the brain is apt to fry
amid twilight cool   the limbs recall their power
at the brink of dawn   one hears the peacocks cry

life is vanishing   but it's impolite to sigh
you've a chance yet   to ascend the lonliest tower
is it time to amble the circle   of Annamalai?

supple fronds of palmtrees wave   in a pale blue sky
midnight sweat is washed away   with morning's shower
at the brink of dawn   one hears the peacocks cry
is it time to amble the circle   of Annamalai?

line 1: Peacocks freely wander around the living-quarters area of the tree-shaded grounds at Ramanashramam (Ramana Ashram). I hadn't been aware of this creature's arresting dawn cry, till spending a few days at this charming ashram (the poem was written May 27th. In the instance, I happened to make the giri pradakshina in afternoon-evening rather than at dawn.)
line 3: Annamalai: one name for the small sacred mountain also known as Arunachala -- the life-long abode of Ramana Maharshi, and having a long, interesting spiritual history. (Surrounding the mountain is the town of Tiruvannamalai.) The mountain itself is regarded as a manifestation or embodiment of Lord Siva.
"to amble the circle": giri pradakshina, circumambulation of the mountain, is an established custom and practice for pilgrims visiting Arunachala.
line 4: Nilgiris chai -- tea grown in the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu, South India (in the instance, a potent, powdered green tea packaged by an Auroville outfit).
line 5: the saptak (Hindi): notes of the musical scale; a saptak is an octave.

Monday, May 25, 2009

shi: At Tiruvannamalai


At Tiruvannamalai   each day's distinct
while what remains the same   remains the same

the ancient mountain seems   but freshly inked
the one who's scrawled it plays   a gracious game

the formless hides   in every form and name
causation's chain   if infinitely linked

pure destiny   ignites the mystic flame
at Tiruvannamalai   each day's distinct


All things the eye beholds   are a play of paint
so skillfully shines the art   they appear quite real

whatever seemingly is   peradventure ain't
the Self behind   these objects well conceal

you're royally hoodwinked! how does it make you feel?
the mural upon mind's wall   so vast and quaint

loses   with vairāgya   its dark appeal
all things the eye beholds   are a play of paint


O let me stay in the Ashram   some days longer
it takes time to grow tomatoes   or glimpse God

the force that's elsewhere dim   seems here a bit stronger
one even observes the universe   grow odd

in a way that's hard to pin down   I've not trod
around the mountain yet   while here I linger

my brooding mind   reveals itself as broad
O let me stay in the Ashram   some days longer


[Written at Sri Ramanashramam (Ramana Ashram), -- poem 1: May 25 (after a day distinguished by a first walk up and over the mountain, Arunachala); poems 2 & 3: May 27.]

Initially, I discovered this particular form (which I've dubbed the "boomerang poem") in Chinese poems of recent dynasties (I'm doubtful the form existed as early as the Tang; perhaps it appeared in the Ming -- but this is sketchy speculation, my scholarship being inadequate). Only a few such poems have seen translation, far as I'm aware (I believe I recall one or two in the anthology Sunflower Splendor). In any event, I've enjoyed playing with this variant of shi-in-English now and again.

note to poem 2:
vairāgya (Skt. [from vai meaning "to dry, be dried" + rāga meaning "color, passion, feeling, emotion, interest"]): dispassion / detachment / renunciation

notes to poem 3:
line 2: this line paraphrases (or anyway recalls) a passage from Francis Brabazon's Stay with God (1958), vide: it takes time . . . tomatoes

lines 5-6: circumambulating the mountain (giri pradakshina) -- some 14 kilometers -- is a principal practice for pilgrims to Arunachala.

Poem 3 could (hypothetically) have been presented as a literal (rather than merely literary-rhetorical) plea, though it wasn't so employed in the instance. But (on asking for some additional time) Ashram authorities did kindly grant me one day more.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

At Sridhar Srigudda (English shi -- 3 poems)


At Sridhar Srigudda   the rain comes   once again
electricity dies away   while lightning flares

tomorrow's my birthday   listening to night's rain
moutainside serenity   dissolves time's cares

I'll be 53   my life's plan not yet plain
I await a Calcutta job   my love affairs

are merely notes now   Bhairavi's sweet pain
my olden sarangi again prepares


Again late rain   again the lights are gone
to inscribe a poem   I use a mobile phone

bright lightning flares   deep thunder rolls anon
from yon one hears   the dinner-bell's brass tone

without an umbrella   sambhar I'll forgo
intoning verses   in my room alone

alas   "only myself   I do not know"
tonight at least   night's lovely dark is known


The Mother whom they invoke   is deep and hidden
her universe   reveals itself in parts

time will draw a line   through every line I've written
though it shine a spell   for some few eyes and hearts

I've yet to compile   a book of Asia verses
inspiration flashes out   in fits and starts

on tomorrow's stage   what my mind here rehearses
there's another's tongue   that this perchance imparts


Composed (in the instance, as SMS poems) May 19th [poem 1] and May 20th [poems 2 & 3]

Since some decades, I've periodically explored -- as here -- poems "in the Chinese manner" (flowing from my study of classical Chinese in the 1970s). The 8-line poem with 5 characters per line (mirrored by 5 stresses in these English lines) is the most basic and prevalent form of classical shi (often with the rhyme scheme seen in poem 1; the scheme used in poems 2 & 3 is my modification). [Note: in these particular poems, I've not followed some aspects of the form (especially concerning grammatical parallelism -- which in the most classical phase was pretty much requisite in the 2nd & 3rd couplets), though at times (in other poems in this form) I've delighted in exploring such.]

Sridhar Srigudda is an unusual temple complex and spiritual school located by a small hill near Kengeri (southeast of Bangalore City), off the Mysore Road. I've enjoyed living here (as a guest) all week, happy to say. Worship practiced (by the resident guru, Gurumatha Amma, and her students) includes the Tantrik Shaktism tradition known as Sri Vidya -- a tradition remarkably expounded and illuminated by Ammaji's ever-flowing discourses (which are oftentimes perhaps 20% in English, the balance in Kannada). One feels one has dropped into a gone world or century (in some respects), though spiritual principles underlying the ornate language and symbolism seem by no means antiquated.
In all, I've found this a fascinating follow-up to my couple-day stay at a Tibetan / Mahayana Buddhist monastery (Kopan Monastery) in hills near Kathmandu, a few weeks ago.

notes on poem 1:
line 2: "electricity dies away" . . . perhaps for some readers not resident in India, it might not immediately occor as obvious that when it starts raining, electricity (in one's abode) is apt to die out (one then resorts to candles). The (concurrent) lightning was of course literal; but coincidentally, recent recitations (heard from the Lalitha Sahasranama) had included names that note lightning as a special form of the Goddess.
line 7: Bhairavi -- an early-morning (or, in practice, oftentimes late night) raaga having four flat notes. This raaga is heard in many bhajans (devotional songs). In Hindustani concerts, it is fairly customary to conclude the program with a rendition of this raaga -- hence its strong familiarity. Bhairavi is one form of Devi (the Goddess), counterpart to the terrible-glorious form / aspect / phase of the life of Siva called Bhairava.
line 8: sarangi -- a bowed string instrument of Hindustani music.

notes on poem 2:
line 5: sambhar [Mid-20th century, via Tamil from Sanskrit sambhāra "collection"] -- a delicious soup made from lentils and vegetables, found ubiquitously in South India (and a staple at the temple kitchen)
line 7: "only myself   I do not know" -- this line forms the refrain in a ballade by François Villon.

note on poem 3:
line 1: "The Mother whom they invoke" -- in the tradition here noted, Devi (the universal Mother) is, as Lalitha Tripurasundari, understood to include comprehensively (in her triune nature) all aspects of Maha-Kali [consort of Siva], Maha-Lakshmi [consort of Vishnu], and Maha-Saraswati [consort of Brahma]. (In a different context and style, this idea has likewise been expounded by Sri Aurobindo -- albeit he looks at the Shiva-consort aspect under two rubrics [Maheshwari and Mahakali], bringing the number of fundamental facets of the Mother to 4 rather than 3.)

A locus classicus, Shankaracharya's Sanskrit poem Tripura Sundari Ashtakam (in 100 verses), has been rendered by Gurumatha Amma as a poem in the Kannada language; -- and the verses (along with their associated 100 yantras) are inscribed in polished granite at one garden shrine at Srigudda, aface a murti [statue] of Tripura Sundari. This new version of Shankara's ancient mystic poem was recently lent musical interpretation in a recording session (supervised by Ammaji) of my dhrupad music-gurus, the Gundecha Brothers. In connection with this recording project, Ammaji (with a group of her students) came and resided for several days at our gurukul [music school] Dhrupad Sansthan, some few months ago. At that time, she invited the music students to view Sridhar Srigudda in Bangalore as an extension of our Bhopal gurukul (hence my visit).

Initially I'd given the 3 poems individual titles --
  1   ("mountainside serenity")
  2   ("night's lovely dark")
  3   ("through every line")
But as a linked sequence, such prolixity of titling seems excessive.

Friday, May 15, 2009

villanelle: "the next poem"

The next poem that is not to be
expires before it tints the page
it wanders cloud-like over the sea

hovering in sheer mystery
a bird that could evade the cage
the next poem that is not to be

when wordless   where lives poetry?
holds silence some hushed heritage
wandering cloud-like over the sea?

words bind   words seeking to set free!
gears swirl   yet fail to engage
the next poem that is not to be

how grasp it?   peering   can't you see
desire contort in hapless rage
what wanders cloud-like over the sea?

timor mortis conturbat me
(if "may" if "mee"   mere persiflage)
the next poem that is not to be
yet wanders cloud-like over the sea

[Yelahanka New Town, Bangalore]

Occasioned by (or responsive to) -- and borrowing (as this poem's 1st line) -- a Facebook "status line" that had been posted by poet Koyamparambath Satchidanandan, May 15th (the above poem being initially composed by way of "comment" in the Facebook interface).

Note: first stanza originally written as:
    The next poem that is not to be
    evaporates 'ere it meets the page
    it wanders cloud-like o'er the sea
Then I thought better of pulling those archaisms into this century, and began revising...

Besides the (repeating) line borrowed from Satchidanandan, the other borrowed line in this poem -- the Latin timor mortis conturbat me -- is nicely discussed in a Wikipedia entry here. (W.S. Merwin, some years ago, composed a superb elegiac poem modeled on the classic one by Dunbar mentioned in said entry, "Lament for the Makers.") I'll confess to having been confused about the proper Latin pronunciation of the word "me" (hence my next-to-penultimate line above) . . .

villanelle: "through regions blurry"

Those who love me lend me darkness   when they go
this darkness is a gift   I learn to carry
it shows me things I else   would never know

time's river seems unending   in its flow
and yet they say   but a little time we tarry
those who love me lend me darkness   when they go

amid surface-life you'll feel   the undertow
I delight in leisure   though the world loves hurry
it shows me things I else   would never know

with the ants and flies   I sit and watch things flow
since antiquity   survival's made things scurry
those who love me lend me darkness   when they go

sages say   life's secret's in   the guru's toe
gurus chide   "be happy child   do not worry"
this shows me things I else   would never know

Atman from Illusion   how distinguish?   so
must our tale wander on   through regions blurry
those who love me lend me darkness   when they go
and it shows me things I else   would never know

[Yelahanka New Town, Bangalore]

Sunday, May 10, 2009

villanelle: "Tagore's birthday"

With a blank page   the world begins anew
in the noon shade   I sit to pen these lines
Tagore's birthday   all things are trembling dew

Hiroko on her rikshaw   lost from view
amid gesture   the dance its thought defines
with a blank page   with world begins anew

under cover of the what   abides the who
every season shows   some portion of its signs
Tagore's birthday   all things are trembling dew

I await Calcutta's paperwork   the screw
turns slowly   as the sundial aligns
with a blank page   the world begins anew

only two days at the monastery?   true
it needs years of work   to draw jewels from the mines
Tagore's birthday   all things are trembling dew

in the hour's lull   we ponder and review
possibility is born from pregnant brine
with a blank page   the world begins anew
Tagore's birthday   all things are trembling dew

(at Santiniketan, West Bengal)

Friday, May 1, 2009

ghazal: "monsoon cocoon"

Siliguri   the following day   the border again being closed
hints of monsoon   on entering May   the border again being closed

at six in the morn   the rains commence   the surpeti's drone all but drowned
Delhi Hotel   extending my stay   the border again being closed

expressing my love for India   through leaving her at her command
does she yet harbor   something to say?   the border again being closed

my passport booklet gathers its stamps   betokening every move
Asian montage   in freeze-frame today   the border again being closed

I'd put off washing clothes   now these rains!   unless they cease how will things dry?
monsoon cocoon   holds me in its sway   the border again being closed

some Vaishnav preacher's loudspeaker's blare   is dampened by all of this rain
stray honking horns command "time to pray   the border again being closed"

without embrace   our parting proved spare   will you embrace me with your heart?
it seems I can't   get too far away   the border again being closed

you paint blue ovals day after day   your meditation takes this form
I meanwhile sing   Bhairo's roundalay   the border again being closed

Darjeeling tea again let me brew   sweetened by Narendrapur bees
Ramakrishna   sees Kali-Ma's play   the border again being closed

like Raphael's   my sojourn grows strange   the unexpected is its rule
I pine to reach   a realm far away   the border again being closed

ghazal: "Siliguri en route to Nepal"

Every move on the chessboard of fate   they say is predestined
how you seek   whom you love   what you hate   they say is predestined

if the world is a congeries of bubbles   on what do they float?
that our boat is arriving   though late   they say is predestined

with elections   the border is closed?   wash clothes at a hotel
when you reach the monastery's gate   they say is predestined

Siliguri en route to Nepal   three years coming going
when a work-visa's stamp may await   they say is predestined

in the arbor of Shantiniketan   shade is discovered
where we wash up in poetry's state   they say is predestined

you return to Japan in ten days   shall we meet in Beijing?
how the sequence of moons waxes great   they say is predestined

room 5 at the Delhi Hotel (as it's called)   Siliguri
rather dingily charming   the rate   they say is predestined

there's a stupa in town worth visiting   time's brief abundance
turns us tourists by chance   travel's spate   they say is predestined

when last night I was tuning my sarangi   strings had grown tight
through what byways our hearts navigate   they say is predestined

I've a clothesline but not any clothespins   hence I've an errand
what particular tasks you narrate   they say is predestined

not yet noon when the world grows sweltering   Bengal late April
every droplet of sweat on your pate   they say is predestined

rice available at wholesale rate   a red-lettered sign
how some trace of your grace you relate   they say is predestined

when in evening the honking of horns greets the flutter of wings
of night's beauty   how poets may prate   they say is predestined

Raphael's resignation runs chill   like a creek in the dark
where it travels   while we cogitate   they say is predestined