Literary Review

Into the heart of error

Misplaced Objects and Other Poems;K. Satchidanandan, Sahitya Akademi, Rs.150.  

For the beautiful is nothing

but terror’s beginning, which we yet bear unbowed,

and we marvel at it, as it calmly disdains

to disturb us.

The First Elegy, Rainer Maria Rilke

The title poem of K Satchidanandan’s collection by Sahitya Akademi, Misplaced Objects and Other Poems, suggests a fundamental error that introduces us to life, or an error-inducing life that establishes a fatal law, not within us but within our relationship with life. This fatal law, or this fatal flaw, is of misplacing objects of love since childhood. In the beginning, when we begin to misplace things, the intense anxiety of recovery haunts us. But soon we learn, this tendency to misplace is written into the script that relates us to the world. The poem suggests that this story of misplacement comes from a forgetting that never forgets the poet. But it is also a forgetting that makes him, as much as it makes us, remember. If life’s innumerable and unrecoverable forgetting (not always uncountable, as the poet assures us, the number of marbles he left beneath the mango tree was ten) is what propels our psychic desire to remember — to remember, precisely, those luminous moments of forgetting, then what does it say of the relationship between memory and forgetting? That memory takes place, becomes possible, only through the hole that forgetting creates. Trapped within this law, this flaw of misplacement, the poet discovers a larger design in the universe, where things have been misplaced. It leads the poet to question the source of that law itself: God, the one who errs, and through His erring, sets in motion an erring universe and world of beings. Thus, with a few deft touches in the poem, the poet leads us into the heart of error. It creates both disquiet and wonder, this psychic source of our lostness that makes possible what is impossible: To retrieve through memory what has been left behind, forgetfully, forever.

In another poem, simply titled ‘Objects’, Satchidanandan uses the motif of personification, implying objects ooze human characteristics but show more humane traits than human beings. Human beings, the poet says, are “extensions of objects”, extended objects, who have introduced behavioural and moral errors into the world. The passivity of objects that are however not devoid of the capacity to desire undergoes the tremors of existence more gracefully. There is a moral anxiety in the comparison that tends to make the poem lose the edginess of the title poem. If ‘Misplaced Objects’ employs a phenomenological probe into the question of error by surveying the fatal logic of misplacement, in ‘Objects’, that probe gets a little stricter in scope by bringing in a moral tenor to the question of error. But the title poem, to its credit, goes a step beyond what Heidegger admires in Rilke, namely, Rilke’s recognition of our state of destitution in the forced (historical) disappearance of god. To Satchidanandan, we are error-prone not in contrast with any error-free god, but rather an earthly manifestation of god’s nature, that has inserted this original defect into our beings and things as such. Satchidanandan doesn’t absolve god, implicitly at the ethical level of responsibility but also at a more explicitly ascertained ontological level, where it is inferred that god grants his fatal flaw, his fatal law, to the universe of beings and things.

It is in tune with the psychic discomfort of the ontological limitation of being, where events of continual forgetting act as a law of causation behind memory’s deferral that Satchidanandan finds himself in language. There are three poems that establish a sort of consort, drawing the poet’s relationship with speech and writing. In the poem ‘My Language’, the poet confronts an initial violence and bewilderment that brings him to language. In the woods, in dreams, and other strange spaces, the poet merely recognises alienness, until, from unexpected corners of the universe, his mother-tongue, Malayalam, spoke to him with reassurance and made the world intelligible and comforting.

‘The Poet, to Poetry’ is caught in the problem of differing directions of intentionality between the poet and his craft. Poems refuse to comply with the poet’s anxiety to control them and turn out to be waywardly independent of the poet’s attempt to fix their mode of being. If the poet asked the poem to deliver water to the dying man, it set fire to the killer’s house instead. If the poet sent the poem “to propagate revolution” the poem “mourned the betrayed martyrs”. Commanded to “preach detachment”, the poem “roamed the streets singing lovesongs.” This contrary attitude of the poem forces the poet to question its origins that do not seem to begin in him. Where do poems come from, as they use us to utter themselves, resisting the power of our intentionality? By raising this question, Satchidanandan frees the poem from the claims of intentionality, and grants poems their own, free agency to dictate their will upon the poet. Here again, Satchidanandan offers a radical hermeneutic twist to Heidegger’s reading of language. Though Heidegger language acts as a disclosure of being by ascertaining a correspondence between itself and being, prompting Heidegger to conclude that being dwells in the house of language. Satchidanandan advances the thought that language does not necessarily listen to the being of the poet, and creates meaning and correspondence through a contrary spirit. Language does not originate in being in Satchidanandan’s poem, but rather is born elsewhere, in the house of the other, of otherness, registering its elsewhere-ness, its mode of presence being situated in an otherwise than being. But the poet in Satchidanandan doesn’t let language get away with its impudent freedom. In the end, he inflicts an uncomfortably psychic and quasi-moral demand on the poem asking it to confess a private act. As if, the only way the poet can reclaim his control over the poem is by making it feel guilty of something. The poem is finally made to stand in the confession box, to at last tremble before the power of the poet. But there is an interesting twist that redeems this uncomfortable moment in the poem. For the poet has already hinted that he may be either “the speaker” in the poem or “the spoken about.” So both the poem and the poet are at threat from the poem’s confession. The poem can only confess the poet’s private deeds. Language, born elsewhere and coming from elsewhere, is however trapped in the story of being, as much as being is trapped in language, and freedom is an illusive error between them. For the poet will remain threatened by the poem.

In the third poem, ‘Stammer’, Satchidanandan discovers yet another error, this time regarding the original defect (or deflection) in language: That of stammering. He, of course, clarifies in the beginning: Stammer is no handicap,/ It is a mode of speech. But it is a rhetorical affirmation. If one doesn’t value-judge error or grant any idea of perfection to language, stammer can be considered an error built into language. “Each time we stammer,” writes the poet, “we are offering a sacrifice/ to the God of meanings.” The idea of sacrifice implies a necessary error, a terrible moment of exception that allows the norm of language to inhabit the world of meanings. It is only through sacrifice, that language is offered to God or the world. This religious evocation in the poem doesn’t allow the meaning of stammer to anymore remain a harmless “mode of speech.” Stammer introduces our self-sacrificing entry into language. But even here Satchidanandan is consistent: God is not outside the condition that afflicts the sacrificial lambs of language. God, who created language and hence poetry, is also a stammerer. Human stammering is then a translation of God’s. There is no escape, in Satchidanandan’s view, from the error, however pure, of origins.

Having traced the primary philosophical assumptions in Satchidanandan poetry, the reader can tread into the other poems of the collection with confidence. Not necessarily to find confirmations, but also deviations, and even contradictions. In a poet’s contradiction lies the place of subjectivity in thought. In ‘Disquiet: Autobiography: Canto 1’, a folktale of a poem, where the poet experiences birth as an escape from exile, the company of the dead and gods. And life turns into a narrative poem, filled with stories more real than reality, where the poet discovers his other selves in the shadow, the alphabet and the question he posed before the mirror or above the well. His autobiography is an ecstasy of errors.

It is evident from the poems Satchidanandan will find himself being attentive to the least celebrated beauty on earth. While poets run for roses and lilies, he chooses the cactus, and sings of its resilient, difficult beauty. Or he chooses the mad, and identifies that crucial element that sets the mad apart from the rest: The way the mad live in a time they count differently, that makes them see differently the things we see, as they live another world in this world. If the way to a Tao temple is ridden with don’ts, in tune with the Buddhist path of negation, the way leading to Irom Sharmila is filled with an affirmation for her suffering, as it is only from recognising that suffering the poem draws its own hope to live on. And no one other than Gandhi teaches the poem, humility. Again when the poet attempts to draw maps as a child, countries get misplaced on the page and it sounds less dangerous than history playing with geographies. There is a conversation with the European avant-garde when the nude descends a staircase as in a Duchamp painting. There are many other memorable poems on the self, on nature’s law, on beauty, on speedy loves crushed like roses on city streets, on journeys of unexpected findings to Hampi and Shillong, and on the memory of dead writers and friends.

Death pervades and pursues most of Satchidanandan’s poems, but the poet is a child, always taking death for a ride, making death read his poems and making it learn about life. It remains for readers to wonder if another conversation in Satchidanandan’s poetry is born out of dreams or life: That between beauty and terror. Rilke was entrapped by the harsh gaze of that conversation. For Satchidanandan, the beginning of error is also the beginning of terror. Terror is born out of the error that allows life and beauty to come into this world. It is a wound that also heals.

(The author’s first collection, Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems (2013), was published by The London Magazine. He is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.)

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