Poetry Wire Literary Review

A shaman of his times

A Name for Every Leaf: Selected Poems, 1959- 2015; Ashok Vajpeyi, trs. Rahul Soni, HarperPerennial, Rs. 450.  

Ashok Vajpeyi’s selected poems (1959-2015), titled A Name for Every Leaf has just appeared from Harper Perennial. A little punch may have been lost in translation, but not much, and translator Rahul Soni needs to be complimented. There are poets who write poetry and then go about their jobs snorting drugs like Beat poets, cutting up cadavers like Doctor poets (Gieve Patel comes to mind), or beating up rioters like a certain Whiskeywalla. There are others who dine on poetry, wine with poetry, go to bed with poetry. Vajpeyi belongs to the latter class. To do him justice, he dines and wines with art and music as well. I don’t think anyone in Northern India has done half as much for art, culture and music as Vajpeyi has. From building Bharat Bhavan to starting and nurturing the Raza Art Foundation, it has been a tremendously fruitful journey for him.

At the end are five essays on poetry, which include ‘Poetry as fiction’, ‘The door of poetry’, ‘Notes on poetry’ and ‘Failure of poetry.’ They are full of insights. “That which every moment keeps slipping from our hands, like life or time, poetry, for a moment seizes it.”

The opening lines of the preface by Arundhathi Subramaniam say it squarely: “The best critics, like the best poets, are shamans.”

Indian language poets have an élan of their own, their own way of telling their beads. Here’s an example taken at random: “ May I take a little sorrow with me/ to fold carefully into a poem/ I forgot to ask my late father/ out of fear and haste.” He brought it away nonetheless but it turned stale and “couldn’t find a place even in poetry.”

Two entities dominate: gods and ancestors. You find them on every second page. In the very first poem he says, “ We live in our ancestors’ bones — we pick a word/ and the syntax of some earlier century/ is disturbed/ we open a door/ and the sound echoes somewhere in an ancient house.” It is Vajpeyi’s way of talking about tradition, language and its genes, and the sanskars left behind by our forefathers.

A grandson is born in a noisy hospital as if “ a star said, let me go and play once again/ in the heat and dust of earth,/ in the mud of time,/ in the clay of being and non-being.” No poet writing in the straightjacket of English could have written this way. And the child or star comes into “ a house full of right and wrong and a thousand other pieces of junk.” In a poem, ‘Lament’, he wants to live in a house which contains at least one century. In another poem on his father he ends up saying, “ I have turned out to be a pale imitation of you/ which neither you nor I/ ever suspected/ or desired.”

In his poems on Auschwitz, he does not talk of an alphabet of horror, but of his desire to create “ an alphabet of hope”, starting with a new born baby’s cry, to a “ young man presenting himself to die/ before anyone else in the concentration camp.” From here he moves to home ground, mentioning “ cane and glasses and charkha/ that remained resolute in the face of terror.”

Though seeing how things are today I feel a poet should write a lament for the loss of Gandhi from national memory. (Poets, try your hand and I’ll publish the best in my column.)

I like the boldness. Horses come clattering in after the war, a symbol of resurgence. “ The horses come/ from all ten directions/ carrying some sky on their backs/ carrying some stars/ wanting good for the earth.”

As Ranjit Hoskote says in the afterword, “He (Vajpeyi) embraces a transregional and transhistorical approach that is festive in its declaration of affinities with the proximate and the distant, the inherited and the contemporary… We sense the presence of Kabir as much as the astringent presence of the samizdat poets of the Soviet Union….”

The section on musicians catches the eye. Here is ‘Ali Akbar Khan Plays the Sarod’.

Where every now and then a yellow rose crashes against the window

There she stands, hunched and crying

And I listen.

Someone keeps pulling

The trembling black sky

Toward me

Keeps on pulling.

Keki N. Daruwalla is a poet and short story writer.


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Printable version | Jan 19, 2022 4:17:35 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/keki-daruwalla-on-ashok-vajpeyis-magical-poetry/article8594162.ece

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