Ovid on Apollo and Daphne, Revisited

Sometime in the first century BC the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso, popularly known as Ovid was banished to a fishing village on the edges of the Roman Empire, by Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, for what Ovid described as ‘carmen et error’ or ‘a poem and a mistake’, where he remained in exile until his death in AD 17 [1] His seminal work, Metamorphoses and the poetry therein is what brought me to revisit the tale of Daphne and Apollo. I feel inclined to parse the esoteric bound in this story, but I think Ovid’s (now controversial) handling of this popular mythology was a great way to begin an appreciation of it.

His three-volume lovers’ handbook, Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love) may have been his undoing. A contemporary of the older Virgil but quite unlike him in seeking not to ingratiate himself within the emperor’s favour, Ovid’s books perhaps made a mockery of the moral reforms by Augustus. Adultery, for example, which was always illegal in Rome, was now severely scrutinised and punished by law and it has been surmised that Ovid may have had an affair with the royal women or may have witnessed a royal scandal that incited the emperor’s wrath that led to his eventual banishment. It is exile that drove him to write the famous couplet, which sounds like a death knell to any poet, “writing a poem you can read to no one / is like dancing in the dark.” He was forced to make Tomis on the Black Sea coast (Constanța in modern-day Romania) his home, which was so remote a place, that even Latin was rarely spoken. 

Ovid Banished from Rome (1838) by J.M.W. Turner. J. M. W. Turner – The Athenaeum (http://www.the-athenaeum.org/art/detail.php?ID=21466)

His distress at being silenced thus by the emperor, is suggested to have (according to Marguerite Johnson, Associate Professor of Ancient History and Classical Languages, University of Newcastle) – “been enacted over and over again in the ‘Metamorphoses’ in the most grotesque of ways. Ovid’s tales describe tongues being wrenched out, humans barking out their sorrows instead of crying, women transformed into mute creatures by jealous gods, and desperate victims bearing witness to their abuse through non-verbal means”. She says, “The Metamorphoses is an epic about the act of silencing. Jealousy, spite, lust and punishment are also consistently present in Ovid’s chaotic world. So is rape”. [2] It sounds like a death spiral for a poet, to have wound his thoughts into an Ant Mill of sorts, while mulling over the abuse of power and constraints of powerlessness through an incessantly looping consciousness, that’s expressed plainly though his poetry.

It was in an episode of the BBC radio 4: In our time, produced by Simon Tillotson, that Melvyn Bragg discussed Ovid with guests Maria Wyke, Gail Trimble and Dunstan Lowe, academics from separate universities of the UK, aired recently in April, 2021. It was what spiked my interest in Ovid’s exile by Augustus due to his ‘carmen et error‘ which led to his unbridled creative outpouring. It was in the way he handled mythical themes given the background that made me look into his poem on the story of Apollo and Daphne. Reworked ancient myths through interpretations which reflect the land, language and powers that be a poet swears allegiance to, can utterly confound someone two millennia later, whose only source of information is fragments of original work through the eyes of those that deemed such texts important. When one speaks neither classical Latin nor ancient Greek, the alternative is to study the possibly diluted and embellished stories of writers in a long line of those that translated and interpreted Ovid who in turn interpreted the work of the Greeks. ‘Metamorphoses’ itself is a highly poetic work, composed in dactylic hexameter that merits attention along with the vivid imagination of the poet. Why he chose to write the way he did was controversial, even for his own time.

I was particulary struck by his poem that recites the tale of the God Apollo and the nymph, Daphne in Book 1: Lines 473 – 567 of the Metamorphoses [3] It’s a story of power, arrogance, fear and more disturbingly, attempted rape. The classicist Amy Richlin who applies feminist theory to Ovid’s most famous work and the rapes described therein, has noted “The silenced victims, the artists horribly punished by legalistic gods for bold expression … read like allegories of Ovid’s experience …”[4] Perhaps, Ovid was resignedly reliving his own treatment at the hands of the powerful Augustus.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), Apollo and Daphne, 1622-25, marble, Galleria Borghese, Rome. Photo source: Alvesgaspar / Wikimedia Commons.

His fifteen book epic in Latin Hexameter was written sometime in AD 3-8, he wrote of the ‘Ages of Man’ where Gods and men moved from across the ages through Gold, then silver to bronze and finally to Iron, where mankind struggles against increasing corruption, endures brutality and injustice [5] It has been observed in Vedic literature that mankind is in the current age of Kaliyuga, where man is known to be farthest from his spiritual development. The stories may have been based on etiological myths but they delve into a fearful realm of power dynamics that strike closer to home than the distant stars they may be based upon. It’s a powerful poem and disturbing enough that it has been suggested, trigger warnings be provided to university students who study this work, as it is a roller coaster of sex, violence, censorship, abjection, depravity and gender politics.

I have particularly enjoyed Lachlan Mackinnon’s take on Ovid: Apollo and Daphne that appeared in Vol. 17 (January 1995) of the London Review of Books [6] The original translation from Latin is also available at Wikisource [7] and at the Theoi texts library [8]. They are short reads of less than a hundred lines. Jason, who blogs at Philosophical Therapist has done a wonderful analysis of the poem through a therapist’s perspective [9] Ruben Cordova has created a collage of the various works of art depicting the pursuit of Daphne by Apollo that include the most famous, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s , Apollo and Daphne, c.1622-25, marble displayed at the Galleria Borghese in Rome to Francesco Albani’s Apollo and Daphne, c. 1615-1620, oil on copper mounted on wood, housed at the Louvre Museum in Paris among others [10].

Apollo, the Olympian and God of music, medicine, poetry, light, archery, art, plague, oracles and knowledge, came to be associated with the Titan Helios, during Hellenistic times, especially in the fifth century BC as the personification of the Sun. It was Utu or Shamash in ancient Sumerian myths who was the God of the Sun and divine justice. The Romans, eventually considered Sol as the God of the Sun, separate from Apollo.

Apollo killing Python. A 1581 engraving by Virgil Solis for Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book I (Source ~ Wikipedia)

There are varied views on what is considered to be an etiological myth that has possessed the imagination of scholars, artists and the public over many centuries. It is how Ovid depicts in his poetry, the brilliant and possibly most beautiful Graeco-Roman God of the sun, music, poetry, eloquence and archery that helped spawn creative imaginings over the years. The story itself tells of Apollo who having slayed Python, the progeny of Terra or (Gaia in Greek mythology), confronts the romantic, cherubic Cupid with an air of contempt while saying to him:

What are you doing with such manly arms,
lascivious boy? That bow befits our brawn,
… we managed to lay low the mighty Python,
whose pestilential belly covered acres!
Content yourself with kindling love affairs
with your wee torch—and don’t claim our glory! [10: from Charles Martin’s 2005 prose translation]
Cupid (Source ~ Wikipedia)

Such arrogance kindles a certain vengefulness in Cupid or by various accounts, Eros ( in Greek myths, the son of Aphrodite with Ares or in Roman myths, the son of Venus and Mars or Venus and Mercury) who does not take kindly to such humiliation and proceeds to set the myth in motion, with much vindictiveness, if one were to follow Mackinnon’s humour filled version of Ovid’s Apollo and Daphne [6]

He stretched and flew off to a toehold on Parnassus,
aimed with his left arm and let slip two arrows.
The first was lead, a sullen, lightless shade:
it shivered when it struck white Daphne’s heart and sent her
into her father’s arms to vow life-long virginity.
The second, golden arrow pierced Apollo with such
fire that it seemed his bones burned with desire.
One glimpse of Daphne seared along his heart
the way a careless cigarette-end lights a hayfield.

Enters the scene, the nymph Daphne, the beautiful daughter of the River God Peneus, a virgin huntress of the goddess Artemis [11] sworn to not answer to her father’s wishes along the lines of marriage or progeny:

Often her father has said, “daughter you owe me a son-in-law,”
Often her father has said, “daughter, you owe me grandsons”;
to which she replies: “O dearest father, allow me to enjoy perpetual
maidenhood! Previously Diana’s father allowed this.”[7][Wikisource]

The rest of the poem is, as you hold your breath, the image of a God overtaken by lust and a nymph reluctant to his advances, in a chillingly fearful escape. It is a myth so vividly poetised that it spawned marble sculptures, suggestive paintings, racing heartbeats and trigger warnings to university students. Ovid describes the flight of Daphne and compares it to a frightened animal. In fact Apollo’s entreaties to her are to remain still or stay herself and not run like a frightened hare or a deer, all the while that he pursues her like a skilled hunter. His advantages betray him for in the very moment as he gains on her, Daphne cries out to her father:

“Father, bring help! O Rivers, if you have divinity,
destroy my shape by which I’ve pleased too much, by changing it!” [7]
Peneus averts his gaze as Apollo, pierced by Cupid’s arrow of desire, pursues Daphne, transforming into the laurel (Apollo and Daphne, 1625, by Poussin) (Source ~ Wikipedia)

In a sad twist of fate, she turns into a laurel tree, her heart beating within, as Apollo finally holds her in embrace and caresses the bark that has encased her once soft bosom. As she remains rooted to the ground, her arms branch out into laurel leaves that quiver under his embrace where:

Phoebus Apollo admired and loved the graceful tree, (For still, though changed, her slender form remained) and with his right hand lingering on the trunk he felt her bosom throbbing in the bark. He clung to the trunk and branch as though to twine. His form with hers, and fondly kissed the wood that shrank from every kiss. And thus the God; “Although thou canst not be my bride, thou shalt be called my chosen tree, and thy green leaves, O Laurel! shall forever crown my brows, be wreathed around my quiver and my lyre; the Roman heroes shall be crowned with thee, as long processions climb the Capitol and chanting throngs proclaim their victories; and as a faithful warden thou shalt guard the civic crown of oak leaves fixed between thy branches, and before Augustan gates. And as my youthful head is never shorn, so, also, shalt thou ever bear thy leaves unchanging to thy glory.” Here the God, Phoebus Apollo, ended his lament, and unto him the Laurel bent her boughs, so lately fashioned; and it seemed to him her graceful nod gave answer to his love. {Line 553 in [8]}
Apollo and Daphne by Piero del Pollaiolo from Wikipedia

I find a strong sense of mirroring of the Apollo/Daphne myth in social nature that begs to strive for the separation of the emotional from the physical or even distance the connection between these aspects so as to deal with them as separate manifestations. Why ever would Apollo not be aware of the need to temper his desire for Daphne with more than a transient feeling of lust? In fact, the presence of Cupid as triggering it, absolves Apollo of having agency to his own actions. He desires Daphne as another conquest, an expression of his power as a God. On the other hand, Daphne does not act contrarily to what she had originally indicated to her father, that she wished to remain devoted to her cause as a virgin huntress. Sexual dynamics are often a sore point in human society visible especially in the laws devised around them where perhaps, reproductive success has been the basis for tribal exclusivities. Is it any wonder that a desirable brilliant God like Apollo should be shunned by a beautiful Nymph in Daphne, replaying perpetually and surreptitiously, a moral code for women while presenting through such a convoluted idea, the recipe for masculine success. What else should one surmise out of a quivering evergreen laurel fashioned into a wreath for every Roman hero in the arboreal paralysis of a Daphne? Had she lived, Apollo would not have simply parted her limbs, for in death too he has shorn them off her, simply to adorn himself.

Perhaps there is something esoteric bound in this tale, some opaque cosmogony about the universe and its descent into chaos or its manifestation from it, but such an idea appears quite insipid next to mythic erotica suggestive of attempted rape. This is hardly disguised in the literary fancies of the ages that seek the erotic in only the sexual.

Is there really to be a separation of desire or lust from love for a story to possess the imagination of mankind? A fire for example, cannot in itself be considered destructive to life nor would a river be equipped to simply drown a heartbeat. There is the ontological in the coexistence of Apollo and Daphne, like those underwater volcanoes on Earth or the ice caps on a meltingly hot Venus* [12] or more recently tectonic motion on the morning star, that move like broken chunks of pack ice** [13] that inspires one to seek meaning in a myth that hides more than it reveals.

I was quite impressed by Lachlan Mackinnon’s take on Ovid’s poem, so much so, that it inspired me to attempt a reconfiguration of the Apollo/Daphne myth. I have chosen to construct a poem based on this, set to the origin of the cosmos, to reinterpret the attempted violence as well as the gender bias; to reclaim the myth for the esoteric that it veils. It’s a work in progress and I should post it tomorrow or this week at least, since it turned out to be of epic length and needs to be trimmed to finesse. Thank you for reading !

BBC Radio 4: In our time philosophy ~ Ovid, aired on 29th April 2021 ~https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000vhk5

Notes:

*The data on Venus obtained by Mariner V and Venera 4 are interpreted as evidence of giant polar ice caps holding the water that must have come out of the volcanoes with the observed carbon dioxide, on the assumption that Earth and Venus are of similar composition and volcanic history [12]

**A new analysis of radar images taken by NASA’s Magellan mission, which mapped the surface of Venus in the early 1990s, revealed evidence of tectonic motion. This motion on the Venusian surface looks like blocks of crust that have moved against one another, much like broken chunks of pack ice. Pack ice are the large pieces of floating ice that can be seen in a mass together in polar seas, like the waters around Antarctica [13]

On Kundalini Awakening: According to Tantra, kundalini energy rests like a coiled serpent at the base of the spine. When this dormant energy flows freely upward through the seven chakras (energy centers) and leads to an expanded state of consciousness, it’s known as a kundalini awakening [14]

On Oceanus: Oceanus, in Greek mythology, was the river that flowed around the Earth (conceived as flat). Beyond it, to the west, were the sunless land of the Cimmerii, the country of dreams, and the entrance to the underworld. In Hesiod’s Theogony, Oceanus was the oldest Titan, the son of Uranus (Heaven) and Gaea (Earth), the husband of the Titan Tethys, and father of 3,000 stream spirits and 3,000 ocean nymphs. In the Iliad, Book XIV, Oceanus is identified once as the begetter of the gods and once as the begetter of all things; although the comments were isolated, they were influential in later thinking [15][16]

Eros: Eros, in Greek religion, god of love. In the Theogony of Hesiod (fl. 700 BCE), Eros was a primeval god, son of Chaos, the original primeval emptiness of the universe, but later tradition made him the son of Aphrodite, goddess of sexual love and beauty, by either Zeus (the king of the gods), Ares (god of war and of battle), or Hermes (divine messenger of the gods). Eros was a god not simply of passion but also of fertility [17] Eros was multiplied by ancient poets and artists into a host of Erotes (Roman Cupides). The singular Eros, however, remained distinct in myth. It was he who lit the flame of love in the hearts of the gods and men, armed with either a bow and arrows or a flaming torch. Eros was often portrayed as the disobedient but fiercely loyal child of Aphrodite [18]

A note on Sumerian, Greek and Roman Sun Gods through the millennia: Utu (also known as Shamash, Samas, and Babbar) is the Sumerian god of the sun and divine justice. The Titan deities in Greek mythology preceded the Olympian deities and while Helios is a Titan God of the Sun, Apollo is Olympian and presides over much more as the god of Music, Art, Archery, Plague, Poetry, Medicine, Light, Oracles and Knowledge. It is from the 5th century BCE that Apollo, originally a deity of radiant purity, was more and more interpreted as a sun god. Under the Roman Empire the sun itself came to be worshipped as the Unconquered Sun or Sol [20]

References:

[1]~https://poets.org/poet/ovid

[2]~https://theconversation.com/guide-to-the-classics-ovids-metamorphoses-and-reading-rape-65316

[3]~https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Metamorph.php

[4]~https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/269219.Pornography_and_Representation_in_Greece_and_Rome

[5]~https://www.greekmythology.com/Myths/The_Myths/Ages_of_Man/ages_of_man.html

[6]~https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v17/n02/lachlan-mackinnon/ovid-apollo-and-daphne

[7]~https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Translation:Metamorphoses/Daphne_and_Apollo

[8]~https://www.theoi.com/Text/OvidMetamorphoses1.html

[9]~https://philosophicaltherapist.com/2017/04/27/the-psychology-in-mythology-apollo-and-daphne/

[10]~https://glasstire.com/2021/02/08/cupids-revenge-apollo-and-daphne-by-ovid-and-bernini/

[11]~https://www.thecollector.com/apollo-and-daphne/

[12]~https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17775046/

[13]~https://www.cnn.com/2021/06/21/world/venus-pack-ice-activity-scn/index.html

[14]~https://www.yogajournal.com/yoga-101/types-of-yoga/kundalini/kundalini-awakening/#:~:text=What%20is%20a%20kundalini%20awakening,known%20as%20a%20kundalini%20awakening.

[15]~https://www.britannica.com/topic/Oceanus

[16]~https://www.theoi.com/Kosmos/Okeanos.html

[17]~https://www.britannica.com/topic/Eros-Greek-god

[18}~https://www.theoi.com/Ouranios/Eros.html

[19]~https://www.worldhistory.org/Utu-Shamash/

[20]~https://www.britannica.com/topic/Helios-Greek-god

The Field Of The Embroidered Quilt

An embroidered bed spread inspired this post today, a story that was set in motion when a dear friend of ours had to make a hasty exit from Dhaka this week as the People’s Republic of Bangladesh was getting ready for a complete lockdown. She had earlier lived in places considered very difficult and stressful, where one could be expected to leave within the hour in case of an emergency, but never quite predicted the present day Covid-19 scenario, in peaceful countries like Bangladesh for instance, where movement has been compromised like it may be in zones of conflict. As per a recent government circular, in view of the  current surge  in  Covid-19  cases, beginning the first of July, movements  all  over  Bangladesh  have been  strictly restricted for one week with exception  to  movements  related  to  emergency  services  e.g.  health  services, police  stations,  fire  service,  electricity,  food  and  water  supply,  gas/fuel  supply, pharmacy, internet and telephone services.


As an expatriate, meeting or connecting with family members who live in different time zones has never been easy, more so during these times. Human society grows increasingly insular with invisible walls in place and now, through disease. Something about the pandemic makes me apprehensive for global diversity through free movement or perhaps that’s been an idealistic notion all along. In any case, our friend is safely with us until things stabilise in Dhaka.


It has been an extremely busy week and I missed posting, although my writing continues with the same intensity. Blogging sometimes takes on a retrograde flair and the writing moves inwards, given perhaps, severe blog fatigue. Then comes along a bed spread from Bangladesh; I believe it merited a post, because it is very much like poetry.
Earlier in May this year, I had posted a poem on Sashiko, [1] which is the art of reinforcing fabric through running stitch embroidery in Japan. In Bangladesh, rural women have long engaged in a similar pursuit of reinforcing the fabric of old sarees (a traditional garment worn by women) through running stitch embroidery and motifs in a form called Nakshi Kantha [2]. In West Bengal in India, kantha is still a very popular form of embroidery as is the Tepchi straight stitch of Chikankari in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. Our friend brought me this beautiful specimen of Nakshi Kantha on a huge bedspread that looks so divine, a result of many hours of painstaking needle work by hand. It has artistic motifs  or ‘naksha‘ (in Bengali) all over, an intricate border and a straight stitch runs through the entire fabric.

In earlier times the kantha stitch was used to embroider red, blue and black patterns on [usually] white fabric, by women, during their leisure time or on rainy days. Sometimes years were spent converting old sarees or dhotis (Men’s traditional garments) into thick, embroidered quilts. Designs were outlined by needles and thread and simply filled in, each product distinctly different from another. Today, patterns are stamped or traced and Nakshi Kantha is produced commercially. Traditional designs are influenced by religion or the environment. Motifs in this form, range from lotuses, wheels, solar or lunar depictions to the tree of life, birds, kalka or paisley, and leaves too, that can employ a vast variety of stitches, with the basic being the running stitch or Kantha, followed by Chatai or pattern darning, Kaitya or bending stitch, weave running stitch, Jessore stitch (a variation of darning stitch), threaded running stitch, anarasi or Holbein stitches as well as the herringbone stitch, satin stitch, backstitch and cross-stitch.

Quite a few of these stitches found expression on the bed spread I feel so privileged to receive. The pictures include the bag it arrived in, which in itself is a fine, hand embroidered work of art, on a fragment of a colourful saree. Kantha is used to embroider various articles of daily use ranging from quilts, prayer mats, covers for the Quran, bed spreads, wallets, kerchiefs and other such.  Essentially,  kantha is an expression of creativity, an embroidery of a poem on a lazy day or perhaps an intense passion. As the writer of one blog [4] said about this form “kantha making is very rewarding. The concentration and contemplation that is required in building the harmony in color, design and execution is akin to a spiritual exercise. The kantha maker has to put all her energies into a single basket of mind and execute the design. At the end the kantha means more to the maker than to the viewer. Hence it is a lonely art and is totally bound by the whims of the artist.” It makes me think of what poetry is to me along the lines of a creative solitude and a solitary pursuit. It is the kind of embroidered expanse you hold in your hands and wonder how you threaded those words into existence, those patterns and hues that make you happy, yet sad that there is no undoing an old design, you balk at the thought of repeating one too, so you simply start over with fabric, thread and a new pattern, in a spurt of growth, like life.


I took the opportunity to put the spotlight on a narrative poem written on Kantha by Bangladeshi poet Jasimuddin [3]. Popularly called Polli Kabi (Folk or Pastoral Poet) he was a Bengali lyricist, composer and writer widely celebrated for his modern ballad sagas in the pastoral mode where his  Nakshi Kanthar Math is considered among the best lyrical poem in the Bengali language. As a key figure for the revival of pastoral literature in Bengal during the 20th century, he also wrote poems, ballads, songs, dramas, novel, stories and memoirs. I don’t know Bengali but it is a language that resembles my mother tongue Konkani, which is spoken in Goa along the Arabian Sea Coast, perhaps because of words that share similar roots in Sanskrit. Jasimuddin’s poem Naskhi Kanthar Math or ‘Field of Embroidered Quilt’ was published in 1929, pre-independence India. An extraordinary book, it sold more than half a million copies before independence. 

The poet Jasimuddin Photo by ~Jennifer A. Cutting, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. 1951 Source: Wikipedia


Featured in the poem are scenes of rural Bangladesh, its traditions, struggles and way of life and begins with a drought scene where the villagers pray for rain at a socio-religious ritual. At this event a young man called Rupai meets a village girl named Shaju in a classic case of love at first sight. The lovers get married in the story but the bliss does not last long for when thugs come to loot the crops of the villagers which results in a conflict, five people die and Rupai is wrongly accused of their murder. To escape the situation, he sees no other way but to flee from the scene and leave his beloved wife. Although rural customs and festivities like the harvest, fishing and a wedding, have been emphasised in the poem, in addition, the love story itself is very tragic, for in an attempt to protect her, the couple are torn asunder by Rupai leaving.  Shaju embroiders in solitude, a quilt in Kantha, depicting stories of her life with Rupai, a quilt that she asks her mother to lay on her grave when she dies. She does eventually die heartbroken, pining for her beloved, without ever seeing him again and the quilt is accordingly placed on her grave. Later in the poem, the villagers discover the dead body of a man wrapped in the coverlet, atop the grave, which is identified as that of her beloved Rupai.


It is the kind of story that captures the imagination of everyone that loves stories woven around themes of love, idyllic countrysides, seasons, passions, conflicts, tragedy and redemption. Excerpts below are from E.M. Milford’s translation of Jasimuddin’s poem, featured on a blog [4]. I managed to translate the original Bengali text through Google Translate which did help me thread the narrative and understand the gist of the poem better.

Jasimuddin brings to life, the pulse of the rural landscape and of its denizens in a way that was befitting of the Nature Cult of other famous Bengali poets like Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam and yet, he very openly spoke of the struggles of rural folk, the sordid aspects of rustic life without denying the subjects of his poems, their basic humanity.

Black is the pupil of my eye,
Black the ink with which I write
Black is birth, and Death is Black
Black is the universal Night.
Black is the Son of the Soil and yet
Victor is he of All!
He who with gold
Has credit small.

Yet, the melancholy of grief and illustrating for the reader, the sameness of it across age and other divides, is his most famous Bangla elegy, Kobor (Graves) from his composition Rakhali ; where in a dramatic monologue he expresses the searing depth of grief of an old man speaking to his only surviving descendant, his grandson, at having lost all his loved ones to death, especially the loss of his wife, whose grave he tends to for thirty years. [6]

“এইখানে তোর দাদীর কবর ডালিম গাছের তলে, 
তিরিশ বছর ভিজায়ে রেখেছি দুই নয়নের জলে।“
“Here, under the pomegranate tree, is your grandmother's grave;
For thirty years my tears have kept it green.”
(Graves by Jasimuddin,Stanza 1, Line:1-2)

Poetry is best understood through the language it is composed in, a translation may not do it justice although it enables a reader to appreciate context, as well as the immediate concerns and passions of those that are separate from us.

Some of the poetry requires that one understand the cultural context as well; for example, breaking bangles and tearing clothes as mentioned in a stanza of Nakshi Kanthar Math,  is a symbol of bereavement and grief at being widowed. When Rupai expresses grave remorse at having to leave his wife, he symbolically compares it to leaving her widowed.

Weeping, his wife says,
"Tell me what has happened. Where have you been hurt?
Let me see! Where is your wound ! Is it very painful ?"
"Painful is my wound, my sweet, but not in my body.
I have tom your sari, broken your bangles,
Broken your anklets, broken the necklace round your throat.

Further in the poem Nakshi Kanthar Math, the act of submitting a life event to embroidery is also described just as it happens in the lives of those women that continue to embroider in Kantha for their personal use. In fact, as our friend tells me, women in Bangladesh have sought to steal time for themselves through the very act of embroidery, even if in the company of other women so they could find some solace in such a collective, away from their familial pressures. Current times have turned a mostly solitary domestic art into a cottage industry, pushing some women towards entrepreneurship.

Spreading the embroidered quilt
She works the livelong night,
As if the quilt her poet were
Of her bereaved plight.
Many a joy and many a sorrow
Is written on its breast;
The story of Rupai's life is there,
Line by line expressed.

She is a daughter beloved at home
When the embroidery begins;
Later a husband sits at her side;
Her red lips hum as she sings.
The self-same quilt today she opens,
But those days ne'er return;
Those golden dreams of joy have vanished,
To ashes grey they burn.
Stitch by stitch she carefully draws
The last scene of pain,

I was happy to learn of Kantha celebrated thus in poetry, as it does too the very act of embroidering a life story. It exalts the woman, who in the art of stitching together old fabrics, tries to reclaim her spirit through passionate needlework. It is as if Shaju, in an artful case of transference of expectations and her mortal being, places even the scene of her death and an eventual meeting with her husband in an afterlife, onto a quilt. The product of her passions is strangely prophetic as well. Life to some, may simply be the pursuit of what we find missing in our fabric of existence or an apathetic resigned denial that nothing really matters. In the case of the quilt, there is something poignant yet significant in how Shaju embroiders her past life onto a quilt and in a remarkable expression of agency, even proceeds to weave in her death. It is a story of profound grief, but it is also a tale of seeking pause while parsing life in hue on fabric, it is not a tale of apathy but a tale of creating meaning of something that is inexplicably difficult to come to terms with. It is only a story but for the ones that embroider to express themselves in Kantha and channel their creativity through it, there can be nothing more real than the very act of transcending the mundane through beautiful art. As someone who loves embroidery, I find it heartening that Bangladesh’s pastoral poet embroidered his most famous poem around the theme of a Nakshi Kantha quilt and I was able to learn of it thanks to the beautiful bed spread I received.

Yet, as Jasimuddin notes in his poetry, pastoral poems may give us a glimpse of what appear to be the concerns of others but it is what people actually do, that reveals what is truly important to them and that cannot always be transcribed into words. Sometimes, it can only be embroidered. This post is a tribute to those artisans, not to diminish in any way their creative passions that may not necessarily be reflected in works of beauty they are compelled to mass produce for commercial use. This is for quilts embroidered singlehandedly by them, in their own life stories.

What may we know of the secret sorrow
Of the shepherd in the field?
In vain we search in our joy and our pain
This secret of his to yield.
Our griefs written in verse and book
That those who read may know.
But dumb are the griefs of the shepherd boy
Which only the flute can show.

Not all is tragically bleak and sad in the poem, there is also poetry in the way people express their immediate concerns, like wishing for rain that means everything for the harvest and thereby for livelihood and survival. Verrier Elwin (anthropologist, tribal activist) [7] described these and other aspects of the poem ‘The field of the embroidered quilt‘ so succinctly, (especially of E. M. Milford’s translation) that provide for a glimpse of life in Bengal during colonial times: The latter part of the poem is almost unbearable after this, but that is as it should be. It is a proof of the skill with which the author has entranced us. This is no Shakespearean tragedy-the working out of tragic character to a tragic end, the awful designs of fate drawing to their desperate conclusion. It is the tragedy with which all .who know village life in Bengal are only too familiar; meaningless waste, fruitless despair, hopeless disaster against which man is powerless.· So does cholera suddenly invade a valley, so does the capricious weather destroy the crops or wild animals steal the treasured cattle. Yet out of this strange meaningless existence of loss and separation, hunger and frustration, the villager (as I have seen again and again and as Jasim Uddin portrays most beautifully) achieves the highest ends. His are the values of constancy and courage, love and hope.

I have chosen to include what appears at the beginning of the poem, [8] which a prayer for rain at a socio-religious ritual. It is a beautiful way to see the world even if the heavens are grey and the clouds are dark. This prayerful poem is a way of assuming ownership of sorrow at a drought, in how people demand from the heavens, rain for a parched Earth.

'Black Cloud, come down, come down;
Flower-bearing Cloud, come down, come;
Cloud like cotton, Cloud like dust,
O let your sweat pour down!
Blind Cloud, Blind Cloud, come,
Let your twelve Brother Cloudlets come,
Drop a little water that we
May eat good rice.

Straight Cloud, Strong Cloud, come,
Lazy Cloud, Little Cloud, come,
I will sell the jewel in my nose and buy
An umbrella for your head!
Soft Rain, gently fall,
In the house the plough neglected lies,
In the burning sun the farmer dies,
O Rain with laughing-face, come!'

References:
[1]~https://davinasolomon.org/2021/05/05/upcycling/

[2]~https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nakshi_kantha

[3]~https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jasimuddin

[4]~http://sos-arsenic.net/lovingbengal/quilt.html

[5]~https://m.theindependentbd.com//arcprint/details/73517/2016-12-23

[6]~https://www.eajournals.org/wp-content/uploads/Thomas-Gray-and-Jasimuddin.pdf of an old man narrating

[7]~https://www.thedailystar.net/news-detail-177828

[8]~http://sos-arsenic.net/lovingbengal/jasi-poems.html#1.2.8.3

Apollonian and Dionysian flowers

It’s been a wonderfully busy day and I managed to spare some time to explore Apollo and his associated myths that I am currently working into a poem. I did come across this refreshing read from Michael Pollan’s, ‘The Botany of Desire’, in what he describes as a plant’s – eye view of the world. I chose the excerpt from his chapter on Tulips, page 97, in which he reveals, almost poetically, the difference in flowers, in Dionysian and Apollonian terms.

Pollan describes four plants in this book, including the potato. I should use some of the text for blackout poetry someday soon; his writing style in the botany of desire, is very poetic.

I find it amusing to see flowers described as left and right brained, but the kleenex of peony petals made my evening. It is such a poetic way to see spent tears described so, in the folded and crushed edges of peonies. I thought to share this as a great introduction to Apollonian clarity and order through Pollan’s eyes, that reads like a prose poem.

Abridged

My blogging hour today, looked a bit like this below; a bridge over moisture and pebbles 🤷‍♀️It’s a fancy bridge though, diacritical marks, lines and everything. (I notice now, some leafy punctuation too)

Somewhere in a forest in Pennsylvania.

And then it increasingly began to look like this …

The three tiers of angels:
Stare at 26 letters on the keypad long enough to rediscover that there are
10 above, 9 next and 7 letters below. The top layer is most powerful I think, with four vowels and rhetoric. The lowest layer are like a proletariat of fallen angels, working hard at words but merely making it past Onomatopoeia, a term in fact allocated by the priests and gentry above in some peurile fashion of quantitative easing. I never understood that term but this could just be it. The middle layers appear to be grousing incessantly about the afflictions of privilege … ADD, ADHD, LSD or plainly SAD. The GIF are the fourth estate and emojis, a preconceived catechism. When I say 🤩 I see stars only after the emoji, thus with the three tiers of angels I suspect.

I love words, they can be so powerful when saying the right things; so gravelly when one has to eat them, so unfortunate too, when one tries to converse with a tone deaf animal, like supplications to a rattle snake for instance (I did that on one rare occasion a long while ago, it makes me cringe now and a reptile’s a reptile). It brings to mind a memory of when my driving instructor told me that I should never ever honk at a buffalo or a rickshaw (tuk tuk) as both would be unable to understand the language of the horn (I learnt to drive in India). Words are so beautiful when making a promise and heavenly when delivering on it, healing when in poems and mantras, trenchant in sarcasm, violent in battle cry, inspiring in revolutions, so important too for speaking long distance with family. Most of all, I love words in writing but sometimes, they seem very hard to string together…

Start writing...
The WordPress 
paragraph prompt 
is an overseer with a whip
and I feel like an excuse
of a bridge over waters 
troubled in stone, 
not exactly the Nile 
but crossing sentences 
across the shallows
is simply being cross at life 
And the words rasp 
at my throat,
circuit my lobes housed 
in a head, fancy that!
But inflections are a mere 
tingle in my fingertips.
This must be writer's bridge ×=====×

The term ‘writer’s block’ feels like a dam against a conceit of deep waters, that could burst into a deluge or something along the lines of it. A ‘writer’s bridge’ in contrast feels like one must de-silt the river, create depth, more flow, to be a bridge that actually counts.

Dawn accreted glow 
like a need to walk 
out of a tangle 
of poetry in my head, 
to open fields someplace.
It must be the stars 
that rally us to 
experiential delights 
in thorny shrubs,
stinging wasps 
and atmosphere. 

It reminds me of Anne Sexton’s poem, ambition bird and her business of words …

The business of words keeps me awake.
I am drinking cocoa,
the warm brown mama.

I would like a simple life
yet all night I am laying
poems away in a long box.

It is my immortality box,
my lay-away plan,
my coffin.


Ambition Bird by Anne Sexton
Read more~https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/148744/the-ambition-bird-5c11322239c2b

It brings me to this wonderful transcript I read this morning, on a speech by Virginia Woolf, on words … In the link is an animation of a BBC radio broadcast she made on 29th of April 1937, they brought it down to two minutes and I enjoyed this immensely. It made my morning to listen to a person that I have come to love after engaging with poetry; it takes a certain maturity to warm up to Woolf, to see her brilliance with the very words she speaks of.

She says:

Words belong to each other, although, of course, only a great writer knows that the word “incarnadine” belongs to “multitudinous seas”. To combine new words with old words is fatal to the constitution of the sentence.

Further on:

...hence the unnatural violence of much modern speech; it is a protest against the puritans. They are highly democratic, too; they believe that one word is as good as another; uneducated words are as good as educated words, uncultivated words as cultivated words, there are no ranks or titles in their society.

Nor do they like being lifted out on the point of a pen and examined separately. They hang together, in sentences, in paragraphs, sometimes for whole pages at a time. They hate being useful; they hate making money; they hate being lectured about in public. In short, they hate anything that stamps them with one meaning or confines them to one attitude, for it is their nature to change.

Perhaps that is their most striking peculiarity – their need of change. It is because the truth they try to catch is many-sided, and they convey it by being themselves many-sided, flashing this way, then that. Thus they mean one thing to one person, another thing to another person; they are unintelligible to one generation, plain as a pikestaff to the next. And it is because of this complexity that they survive.

Finally:

Finally, and most emphatically, words, like ourselves, in order to live at their ease, need privacy. Undoubtedly they like us to think, and they like us to feel, before we use them; but they also like us to pause; to become unconscious. Our unconsciousness is their privacy; our darkness is their light… That pause was made, that veil of darkness was dropped, to tempt words to come together in one of those swift marriages which are perfect images and create everlasting beauty. But no – nothing of that sort is going to happen tonight. The little wretches are out of temper; disobliging; disobedient; dumb. What is it that they are muttering? “Time’s up! Silence!”

If not for this broadcast, I would have never known that ‘incarnadine’ is actually a colour and is defined as a bright crimson or pinkish-red colour. (And no, I did not study Macbeth at school)

'Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red' Macbeth (Act II, Sc. II). 

Incarnadine brings to mind an image of the Red Canna by Georgia O’Keeffe, that I took at the library recently, which suggests, incarnadine should in fact be like the poetry of words, indefinable, not conscripted to one single shade and number in a paint catalogue. It manifests when one looks at the entire image, much like evolution I would like to believe, intricate fractals in the details. So it is with words perhaps, do they entropy towards the heat death of silence I wonder ? Some believe in Gods and deities, I believe in the colours of the red Canna today, the words of Virginia Woolf, the breath of fresh air and beauty in the infinite complexity of our universe. I think our lives are secreted within yet occluded by the literature of words in the science of being and as Woolf so elegantly observed: (at least about the English language, could apply to any other)

Our business is to see what we can do with the English language as it is. How can we combine the old words in new orders so that they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth? That is the question.

And the person who could answer that question would deserve whatever crown of glory the world has to offer. Think what it would mean if you could teach, if you could learn, the art of writing. Why, every book, every newspaper would tell the truth, would create beauty. But there is, it would appear, some obstacle in the way, some hindrance to the teaching of words. For though at this moment at least 100 professors are lecturing upon the literature of the past, at least a thousand critics are reviewing the literature of the present, and hundreds upon hundreds of young men and women are passing examinations in English literature with the utmost credit, still – do we write better, do we read better than we read and wrote 400 years ago when we were unlectured, uncriticised, untaught? Is our Georgian literature a patch on the Elizabethan?

Where then are we to lay the blame? Not on our professors; not on our reviewers; not on our writers; but on words. It is words that are to blame. They are the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most unteachable of all things. Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabetical order in dictionaries. But words do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind. If you want proof of this, consider how often in moments of emotion when we most need words we find none. Yet there is the dictionary; there at our disposal are some half-a-million words all in alphabetical order.

But can we use them? No, because words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind. 
Red Canna by Georgia O’Keeffe

References:

Anne Sexton poem~https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/148744/the-ambition-bird-5c11322239c2b

Virginia Woolf on words ~https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20160324-the-only-surviving-recording-of-virginia-woolf

Across a Rainbow of Hardiness ~ a botanical pantoum for the bigleaf Magnolia along the Highline

Plants differ in the way they survive and thrive across varied temperatures; a very harsh sun and lack of water begets leaves modified into spines (Cacti) or the retreating tenderness of succulents (Euphorbia), a lack of sun and locked winter water spawn needles (Gymnosperms) or simply a flat existence (lichen). Yet, lichens, Cacti and Pines can thrive in very many places other than these extreme conditions, although they require an environment which is amenable to the modifications of their plant body. There is a lesson in the 2012 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map, which is the standard by which gardeners and growers determine the locations of where plants are most likely to thrive. The map is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature, divided into 10-degree F zones (Fahrenheit) [1].

Source:https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/

The bigleaf magnolia or Magnolia macrophylla, discovered by the French naturalist Andre Michaux in June of 1795 near Charlotte, North Carolina, is a plant that thrives and is winter hardy to USDA zone 5, it suffers tip damage in Zone 4, where the minimum average temperature ranges from -20°F to -30°F [2]. It is a plant discovered for June, for summer and it was surprisingly used by landscapers along the Highline in Manhattan, given that it’s leaf litter does not decompose easily, which causes a litter problem of very large leaves. It also grows quite tall, averaging up to 40 feet; the national champion that resides in Kentucky is all of 108 feet tall with a 42 foot spread. This little giant also prefers well-drained sand or loam and it must be a feat of engineering to have made the aerial garden on the highline conducive to the growth of bigleaf Magnolia.

Magnolia macrophylla at the Highline, Manhattan

It’s June and Pride month, suffused in rainbows and the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is as good a rainbow as any other. I was fortunate to see the summer blooms and thought to learn more about this plant. It struck me as a poem, gestating, and up until this morning I couldn’t decide what this rainbow plant should help me explore except that there are limits to its spread, much like a succinct poem, concise verse within which it can grow leaves as broad as a flag prone to wind damage, and produce flowers like a prayerful incantation within this so called coarse appearance. Now, bigleaf is an aspiration to Onomatopoeia [3] by a plant that cannot speak and does not sound. The flowers of Magnolia symbolise nobility, perseverance, love of nature, femininity, gentleness, but this is a coarse giant and meanings are fluid. For me, the bigleaf Magnolia runs the gamut of Magnificence, the Magdalene of alternating leaves, the Magi of June flowers, magnified emotion, magniloquent petals, archetypal leafy magnanimity, all things bigleaf Magnolia.

June Foliage

The limits of habitat, leafy incantation (an alternate arrangement), the mimesis in words which symbolise Magnolia for me and I could only think of one form of poetry to write – the Pantoum. The pantoum is a poem of any length, composed of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza serve as the first and third lines of the next stanza. The last line of a pantoum is often the same as the first. Ernest Fouinet is credited with introducing the form to European writers that was later made popular by Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire [4]

It is a form of poetry that originated in the Pantun, which is a type of old Malay poem or literature composition which depicts courtesy, politeness, the sensitivity of a community towards nature, the scope of it’s communality and culture [5] in precise rhyming sequence and syllabic length (8 to 12), two complete (mostly unrelated) couplets in each quatrain, the first half, the pembayan (shadow) which sets the rhythm and rhyme of the whole poem, and the second half, the maksud (meaning) delivers the message [6]. Muhammad Haji Salleh calls Pantun, the poetry of passion. In his book of the same name, he notes that the significance of Pantun as a definitive Malay oral heritage may be traced to the phrase, “rendang kayu kerana daun, terpandang Melayu kerana pantunnya,” “the tree is shady because of its foliage, the Malay is admired because of his pantuns” (p. 3) ; he states that Pantun is part of the culturally sanctioned greetings between the representatives of the bridegroom and the bride upon their arrival at the bride house during a marriage and is a customary exchange at a Malay wedding [7].

Elements of a Malay Pantun include metaphors, similes, symbols, personifications, eponyms, allusions, idioms and proverbs. Katharine Sim translated a Malay Pantun that illustrates an association of ideas in the two disconnected couplets that are linked through assonance and the traditional meaning of symbols [8].

Tanam selasih di tengah padang, 
Sudah bertangkai diurung semut,
Kita kasih orang tak sayang,
Halai-balai tempurung hanyut.

I planted sweet-basil in mid-field
Grown, it swarmed with ants,
I loved but am not loved,
I am all confused and helpless.


Sim, Katharine (1987). More than a Pantun: Understanding Malay Verse. Singapore: Times Publishing International
Source: Wikipedia~https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pantun#cite_note-FOOTNOTESim1987-45

Judi Van Gorder cites Miriam Sagan, who wrote thus about the Western Pantoum in her 1999 work, ‘Unbroken Line: Writing in the Lineage of Poetry,’ that the Pantoum is a “slinky going down a flight of stairs–it is smooth, fluid, and repetitious….Its repetition and circular quality give it a mystical chant-like feeling. Its cut-up lines break down linear thought. The form is both ancient and fresh.”[9] Miriam Sagan describes and illustrates the Pantoum quite well at her own blog [10] but it is Judi Van Gorder’s brief explanation that should sum up the form as well as help you get started on the Pantoum if you so desire [11].

The elements of the Pantoum by Judi Van Gorder (Source~https://www.poetrymagnumopus.com/topic/691-pantoum/) 

Accentual syllabic verse, most commonly iambic tetrameter or iambic pentameter, but the number of metric feet is unimportant as long as the lines are all the same length. It is stanzaic, written in any number of quatrains.
repetitious. All lines of the poem will be repeated once. L2 and L4 of each stanza is repeated as L1 and L3 of the succeeding stanza. L1 and L3 of the 1st stanza is repeated in reverse as L2 and L4 of the last stanza ending the poem on the same line as it began. (It is permissible, but less common, to use the L1 and L3 of the 1st quatrain in the same order as originally written to end the poem with L3 of the 1st quatrain.)
usually rhymed, the Pantoum employs alternate rhyme with a rhyme scheme of A¹ B¹A²B² B¹C1B²C² C¹D¹C²D² D¹E¹D²E² . . . . . and so on until the last quatrain H¹A²H²A¹.
flexible, a variation on the Pantoum is to substitute a rhyming couplet of L1 and L3 from the 1st quatrain to end the poem instead of ending in a quatrain

I have attempted to write a Pantoum along the lines of a Malay Pantun, with syllabic rhythm, repetitive chant, interlocking verse, metaphorical first couplet alluding to the ‘maksud’ or meaning in the second. I may have to come back to this poem to give it finesse as it is a form I am as yet unfamiliar with, to compose poetry of any refined measure or regard. It is therefore a work in progress.

I hope you enjoyed this exploration of the Pantoum and Malay Pantun as much as I delighted in writing it.

Across a Rainbow of Hardiness ~ a botanical pantoum for the bigleaf Magnolia along the Highline
by Davina E. Solomon


She's risen coarse on rusted tracks,
through sandy loam, a summer sheen.
Rainbows are but colour barracks,
fair violet, through verdant green.

Through sandy loam, a summer sheen
sparked exile of Fall's fleeting mist.
Fair violet, through verdant green,
adds tint to sun in pigment grist.

Exile sparked in Fall's fleeting mist,
cleared light, silky ivory.
Adds tint to sun in pigment grist,
silhouette of this noble tree.

Cleared light, silky ivory
are petals cast in modest mould.
Silhouette of this noble tree,
tattered leaves, raging wind unfold.

Petals cast in a modest mould
are magi of summer solstice.
Tattered leaves, raging wind unfold
simply envy of breezy fleece.

Magi of the summer solstice,
Purple blush on sun dipped petals.
Raging envy of breezy fleece,
Scalding wind that scarcely settles.

Purple blush on sun dipped petals
Rainbows are but colour barracks.
Scalding wind that scarcely settles,
she rises coarse on rusted tracks.

------------------------------------------
Unopened bud

Literary Devices mentioned in the text:

Onomatopoeia is a figure of speech in which a word imitates the natural sounds of a thing it wishes to describe, like the tick tock of a clock, the cuckoo, the meow of a cat, the oink of a pig, the buzzing of bees, the rustling of leaves. The word helps evoke the image of the very thing it seeks to define.

Assonance ~ a repetition of vowel sounds in words that are close within a sentence or phrase of prose or poem.

Personification is a bit like anthropomorphising, providing human characteristics to non human objects or organisms.

Allusion is a brief and indirect reference to a person, place, thing or idea of historical, cultural, literary or political significance (literarydevices.net). It is defined as an expression, designed to call something to mind without mentioning it explicitly; in an indirect or passing reference, is sometimes used as an artistic device.

An eponym refers to a person or thing after which something else is named as in Mason Jar named after John Landis Mason, a tinsmith who invented the jar popular jar in 1858. (Literaryterms.net).

An idiom is a phrase that conveys a figurative meaning different from the words used, they can act as euphemisms, allowing the author to discuss uncomfortable topics indirectly. All idioms (on our current definition) use metaphor to some extent (Literaryterms.net). Eg: The phrase ‘long in the tooth’ means that someone or something is old, ‘to bite the dust’ is a euphemism for dying.

References:

[1]~https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/

[2]~https://www.uky.edu/hort/Bigleaf-Magnolia

[3]~https://literarydevices.net/onomatopoeia/

[4]~https://poets.org/glossary/pantoum

[5]~https://hrmars.com/papers_submitted/6799/The_Implications_of_Pantun_in_Moulding_the_Identity_of_the_Malay_Community.pdf

[6]~https://www.poetrymagnumopus.com/topic/1037-malaysia-pantun-syair-or-shair-hikayat-k%C5%8Del/

[7]~https://journals.openedition.org/archipel/899?lang=en

[8]~https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pantun#cite_note-FOOTNOTESim1987-45

[9]~https://www.poetrymagnumopus.com/topic/691-pantoum/

[10]~https://miriamswell.wordpress.com/2010/02/09/writing-prompt-pantoum/

[11]~https://www.poetrymagnumopus.com/topic/1037-malaysia-pantun-syair-or-shair-hikayat-k%C5%8Del/

On Emily Dickinson ~ Poetic rapture like a river flows

Emily Dickinson was described thus in an obituary for her by a dear friend : “A Damascus blade gleaming and glancing in the sun was her wit. Her swift poetic rapture was like the long glistening note of a bird one hears in the June woods at high noon, but can never see” [1]

It is the month of June and like summer, it describes simply this poet I have come to admire for her free spirit, her eccentricities, her reclusiveness, skepticism, heretical beliefs, obsession with death, all that shines through her unorthodox poetry that is without precedent and sets none either, a poet who remained original, prolific and unpublished during life except for ten poems. Now, there’s a lot amiss in this oft repeated picture of an artist, unsung except in death, but this is not always why an artist engages in the flow of art, it is simply to corral the psyche’s exhaustible attentions towards something that produces profound meaning simply in expression. For an architect like Zaha Hadid, it meant pursuing her own creative genius while being on the edge as a woman architect [2], for Emily Dickinson, it was seeking flow in the lyrical construction of words.

The only residential building by Zaha Hadid, seen along the Highline, Chelsea, Manhattan. The Metropolitan Museum in New York cited her “unconventional buildings that seem to defy the logic of construction”; Architect Sean Griffiths characterised Hadid’s work as “an empty vessel that sucks in whatever ideology might be in proximity to it”, (Source~Wikipedia). I somehow felt that Dickinson’s peers described her the same way, since she followed no established principles of poesy and indulged in no flaccid platitudes of the status quo nor conformed adequately to ‘correct’ her mistakes.

Now, a scholar might argue she is difficult to read, but her artistry was signaled only as an afterthought in discovery of her poems and correspondence; during her lifetime it was scarcely within the public eye as much as it was conduit for her own channeling. I would argue that Emily Dickinson found creative expression through a deliberate state of flow, of the focus of limited attention where we are known to be able to process only 60 bits of information per second. It was psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who introduced the concept of ‘flow theory’ in the 1970s based on his research examining the involvement of people in activities that did not engender money nor fame. He noted that it wasn’t relaxation or the absence of stress that provided for enjoyment, but intense activities involving focused attention which in fact induced pleasure, a state he termed ‘flow’ because during his research, people illustrated their intense experiences using the metaphor of being carried by a current like a river flows [3].

It would be a disservice to label Dickinson anything other than a poet who writes on everything

Yesterday was covered in all sorts of passage; goodbye to a friend, news of death, 11 miles of walking over a little island and grass covered railway tracks and then, a wonderful dinner we made the effort to prepare despite how exhausted we were when we returned home. I had a thousand themes for poems seeking expression and a mercurial overflow is difficult to channel when one is physically tired. So I actually surprised myself and binge watched the entire Netflix Regency Era drama ‘Bridgerton’. I very rarely watch television but this drama was like a Hungarian Dobos torte, figuratively speaking and in the end, I had had too much dessert 🙂 Is it any wonder I chose to read Emily Dickinson this morning, as much as in abject remorse for not posting to my blog per schedule as for trying to focus on one theme at a time, for my own state of flow. I excerpted two of the poems mentioned in the book, as they showcase the recurrent theme of Dickinson’s poetry, in death, entombment (poem 448) and she has a stoic insight on time in the poem numbered 861 [4]

Early morning reading
Emily Dickinson ~100 essential modern poem by women; Edited by Joseph Parisi and Kathleen Welton

There is something about being obsessed with death, it took me long many years to learn to feel as much sadness and sympathy for the bereaved as it caused me distress to feel the loss of those that actually died, in their loss of time, experience and life. I am not certain if this is the quizzical attitude of Dickinson towards death [5] but it is the eternal question in mine. Like hers, every poem is an expression that I know to describe death or life, express it in the logical scientism of the day but like life itself, it is difficult to understand.

Let me expressly get back to my writing. I hope you enjoy these poems of Emily Dickinson as much as I enjoyed writing about her today among other things.

Emily Dickinson ~ 100 essential modern poem by women; Edited by Joseph Parisi and Kathleen Welton

References:

[1]Susan Dickinson, for The Springfield Republican, Years and Hours, Vol. II, 473 ~https://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/emily-dickinson/biography/special-topics/emily-dickinson-and-death/

[2]~https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zaha_Hadid

[3]~https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/psychology/flow-theory

[4]Emily Dickinson, page 15, 100 essential modern poem by women; Edited by Joseph Parisi and Kathleen Welton

[5]~https://www.ijhssnet.com/journals/Vol_7_No_4_April_2017/15.pdf