This is not a review of Dom Moraes: Selected Poems. This is an attempt to encapsulate a worthy understanding as reflected in this well-documented book, of a prodigious and often-misunderstood poet, Dom Moraes.
Having discovered a great deal about the life and poems of Dom Moraes (1938-2004) from this Penguin Modern Classic, edited by Ranjit Hoskote, I emerge with a strong sense of loss and regret. Regret that I never knew or even met this troubled and attractive poet. And loss because of the overpowering emotions and images that pervade his poems.
There are 80 poems in all, chosen from his nine books of poetry: A Beginning (1957), Poems (1960), John Nobody (1965), Beldam Etcetera (1966), Collected Poems (1987), Serendip (1990), In Cinnamon Shade (2001), Typed with One Finger (2003) and New Poems (2003-2004).
These poems are prefaced with an exhaustive introduction and followed by notes. At first, Hoskote’s introduction seemed tedious but not after I was drawn into the ups and downs of Moraes’s life, of his Bombay, his Soho, his journeys, his mother and his various lovers. Hoskote’s close reading of Moraes’s life not only helps in discovering this complex poet but also allows for wholesome appreciation and understanding.
In order to make some sense of the delirious effect this book has had on me, I will write about three qualities of Dom Moraes’s work, as captured in this collection.
This quality — not often associated with hard-drinking, chain-smoking writers — announces itself right on the book’s cover: A photo of Dom Moraes’s piercing, large eyes, captured by Marilyn Silverstone. Strangely ironic, the innocence runs through most of his poems. The poems from A Beginning show the romantic innocence of a 19-year-old Moraes, who longed “to be unhappy”, yet seemed to have acquired the cynicism and maturity of an older man lamenting his life. The lines from ‘Autobiography’ sum up this strange and cynical innocence that keeps returning in the poems thereafter.
“I have grown up, I think, to live alone/ To keep my old illusions, sometimes dream/...unreal to myself in the pulpy warmth of a sunbeam./I have grown up, hand on primal bone,/Making the poem, taking the word from the stream,/Fighting the sand for speech, fighting the stone.”
In ‘A Letter’ from his second book Poems, there is again the story of his life till then, retold with the same innocence and honesty: “At sixteen I came here to start again:/ An infant’s trip, where many knew to walk./ I stumbled dumbly through the English rain,/ the literature, the drink, the talk, talk, talk./ I wrote about them: it was waste of breath.”
Throughout the collection, this ‘innocence’ is also laced with a certain pre-occupation with lust. Besides a recurring reference to breasts and black brassieres, there is an erotic strain running through many images, even in the most unexpected phrase. ‘At Seven O Clock’ describes a massage performed by a balding masseur from Ceylon. The images border on disgust, when suddenly, the mood changes:
“Hernia, goitre and the flowering boil/ Lie bare beneath his hands, for ever bare. His fingers touch the skin: they reach the soul./ I know him the morning for a seer./ Within my mind he is reborn as Christ: For each blind dawn he kneads my prostrate thighs,/ Thumps on my buttocks with his fist/ And breathes, Arise.”
The hint of eroticism sometimes intensifies in other poems. At the same time, there are poems where this lust manifests only as an element of a greater emotion — love. ‘Fourteen Years’ is one such example. “...Her breasts always ready: Mindmarks and handmarks on each other...Her heart and mine have one beat/ Her helplessness looks through my eyes./ Since we are both learning to die,/ we had better first learn how to live.”
It has often been remarked that Dom Moraes was a fantasist, that he was someone who did not understand or love his country, and so on. After his death, many journalists who knew him dispelled this unfair criticism. Hoskote, who has previously written about this in an obituary on the poet, clarifies this notion yet again in the introduction. He quotes Moraes from a previous interaction, “I don’t feel particularly Indian, but I don’t feel particularly British either, anymore... But that shouldn’t stop me from relating with empathy as one human being to other human beings, should it?”
For me, the third and the most touching quality about Moraes’s work is the startling awareness of what he detested in India and the way this was interwoven into his personal crises. It is not a journalistic or idealistic ideal driving this awareness. Nor can it be seen as a poet’s ‘responsibility’ to write about realities other than his/her own. It is an earnest, personal and exquisite expression of a dilemma. The poem that best describes this for me is ‘Letter to My Mother’, in which Moraes outlines the troubled relationship with his mother:
“...You sit alone with your Church/ And the memory of the son/ You have scarcely seen./ You pray he may be spared/ For the arms of the blue wife/ God raped in an orchard. You do not understand me... Your eyes are like mine./ When I last looked in them/ I saw my whole country,/ A defeated dream/ Hiding itself in prayers... Your dream is desolate./ It calls me every day/ But I cannot enter it.”
The poems in this collection and the painstakingly put together notes and biography allow us to appreciate why Dom Moraes was one of the seminal figures of poetry in India.
“In the gallery of my head clear images hang,/ When only the flesh is left for the sun to dry,/ and skulls are left where once the sweet birds sang.” (‘After the Operation’)
So ends the last poem in the collection, also one of the last poems written by Moraes. And in the Shakespearean melancholy we find the same sweet innocence.