THE RIVER RETURNS -- III
Reviewed by Patricia Prime
All poetry is – or should be – written in love of the world. All poetry is in some sense erotic. The act of love, as opposed to lust, and the act of the imagination, as opposed to technological invention, occupy the same area of human consciousness. They are acts of mutuality and exchange, from which all participants derive value and understanding, and so are indispensable. Yet they are human endeavours too, and always contain the germ of their own impossibility and failure, which is the theme of many of the tanka and haiku contained in Ram Krishna Singh’s latest collection The River Returns.
Ram Krishna Singh is a prolific writer, authoring over 150 academic articles, 160 book reviews, and 30 books. His poems have been anthologised in over 140 publications and translated into several languages. The River Returns is divided into two parts, tanka and haiku.
At some point in his writing career Singh has taken note of the performance of language, learned to appreciate the subtleties of emphasis, tone, placement of words; of images called forth by carefully selected words. The level of diction is simple and consistent, especially considering that even though its imagery is natural, the poems are primarily made up of straightforward observations. Plain language, and repetition reinforce the simple nature of haiku and tanka, whilst simultaneously undercutting the philosophical or rational nature of the poems’ construct. In this sense, the poems may look casual and simplistic whilst disguising the fact that they are heartfelt, both emotionally and intellectually, as we see in the following tanka:
"Stains of dried dewy
tears on the eyelids tell of
the load on her mind:
clothed in spring the willow twigs
reveal the changed relation"
"Living in dust smoke
and white darkness I know
I just flicker –
stand alone like a lighthouse
lost in the fog of seashore"
This is what tanka is all about: a momentary embrace of the mystery inherent in the process of self-actualisation; a disguised direct address begging forgiveness for those tendencies towards insularity and over-intellectualisation. A celebration of the difficulties of selfhood, or whatever it is in us that calls us to a greater awareness of ourselves and the world of which we are a part, as described in the following tanka:
"Standing at the edge
I long to float with waves and
wave with instant wind:
on the dream water’s breast
I read tomorrow’s wonder"
weak with desires and prayers
hears the heartbeats
rising fast with dark hours
survives one more nightmare"
In these two poems the poet casts around for some kind of relief, some sign of hope. The first tanka takes place at the moment when the poet, standing on the shore, allows his mind to wander over various thoughts. One of them is the longing “to float with waves”, another is that he sees on “the water’s breast” what the future has in store. In the second poem, Singh lies awake reviewing the day’s events, surviving through the night to face yet another day. All these thoughts and more flash through the poet’s mind. Yet neither the chattering of the mind, nor the thousands of thughts that teem in his brain, can alter the fact that there on the foreshore, or awake at night, or in the midst of daily trauma, something of life’s beauty can still be captured.
The following poem seems to come out of nowhere:
"Drinking evening star
blue green patterns before eyes
no god visits to forgive
the sinning soul in solitude"
The poet may speak of not knowing how, or why, he has been forsaken. He wrote the poem. It speaks from the unconscious, the hidden recesses of the mind: the proverbial experience, the forgotten, the repressed. The poem seeks to bring precise expression to something previously unstated. In this respect, then, the tanka tells us “This is what is inside you. This is what it is all about”.
For Singh, writing is an art of discovery. Some events, some people, are, for him, so charged with passionate complexity, that only the process of verbalising them allows him any measure of understanding. He writes about what he knows, getting it factually correct, then follows where the words and music lead. For example;
"His first winter –
recalls swirling snowflakes
inside the fibrehut
warmth of blue waves surging"
There’s a quantitive and geographic fact: “Chaluka”, where the hard fact of “place” distinguishes the landscape and transforms it by art to a dreamlike state.
In the following tanka the action takes place on the war front:
"From the border rings
he’s stationed dangerously:
any moment war
may break out for their follies
he must kill and live ... to kill"
The images of war suggest that the soldier’s innocence is short-lived. It has the quality of a bad dream where the young man “must kill and live ... to kill”, a plot that turns on the presence of evil, cruelty, and death. Thus the tanka assume a larger role – one of discovery of self, the responsibility they bring having thus embraced humanity in all its good and all its dirt and corruption. Knowing and having lived with ill health and in darkness, the poet can savour both the light and bitter experiences that life brings. So loneliness appears microscopic as one of life’s problems:
"Awaiting the wave
that’ll wash away empty hours
and endless longing
in this dead silence at sea
I pull down chunks of sky"
Life can either get better or worse. Life’s flame can either be extinguished or kept ablaze for the greater responsibility that ensues.
In section two – Haiku – whatever the details of the short poem say about life and art can only be apprehended and expressed aslant; indirectly and, therefore, incompletely – the reader must fill in any gaps and make his/her own judgment. “Haiku moments” are everyday experiences. They are not “enlightened” in the ultimate sense of the word. They are, nevertheless, awakenings of a sort; moments in which the deeper nature of things is revealed, when one is reminded of the beauty and mystery that lie just beneath the surface of the seemingly mundane.
Haiku generally deal with everyday things – birds, flowers, the moon, nature. Yet they reveal these things to be mysterious and extraordinary. Haiku also tend to be contemplative and reflective – that is, the insights they contain and the experiences they describe are the fruits not of judgment but of quiet observation, not of self-seeking effort but of humble acceptance.
Allow me to quote just two haiku:
"The lone hibiscus
waits for the sun to bloom:
morning’s first offering"
What a lovely haiku! In these three short lines we see the poet early in the morning, watching as the flower waits for the sun to arise, then we see that this is the first offering of the day made by a religious man.
"In the well
studying her image
For me this conjures an image of a villager, who perhaps doesn’t own a mirror, at the well drawing the day’s water. She sees her reflection in the still water and looks at in wonder and admiration.
Because, like the original experience, the sum of the details are unspecific, as in “Without washing hands / he touches hibiscus for worship / her frowning glance”, the reader is asked to make up his or her own mind about the haiku. What it means for the reader may be entirely different from the original thought of the poet. The death that is part of nature that we see in “Not sad to die / blooming after a day’s rain –/ the mushroom”, might cause us to ask: Are death and life the same thing in the context of the poem? Does Singh mean to express that the brevity of the mushroom’s life is heightened by its refreshing wash of rain, even as we can be ecstatic in the midst of the thoughts of inevitable death and decay? In fact, the poem doesn’t, I think, exclude this possibility and remains therefore true to itself.
Can art, either in writing or speech, driven to the level of the fabulous by intensity of desire, transcend mortality? Can it redeem or compensate for the indignities of ill health, physical labour or pain? These are themes that drive Singh’s haiku. The eroticism of many of Singh’s haiku have been previously remarked upon, but in this collection he puts a hard spin on traditional themes. The mortality, redemption and immortality of the poet seem to be uppermost in his mind, as in “Fearing allergies / he misses full moon party / savours white light”.
In both the poems and in everyday reality, life is crumbling into dust. Indeed, in “The long night passes / sleeplessly I deep-breathe - / mosquitoes in bed”, the poem seems to say all our lives are neither more nor less than “long nights” spent sleepless. In “the lone poet / watching his interview - / two minutes fame” there is the reprieve of “two minutes fame”, against the final collapse and there’s the possibility of, if not immortality, at least honour through art.
Singh’s Prefactory Note to The River Returns includes the sentence: “In these selected tanka and haiku – at times providing sequences – I have tried to evoke the essence of the moment in its sensory details as selflessly as possible.” Our world needs more of that awareness. We could all do with more tanka and haiku moments in our lives. We can discover these moments if we learn to live simply, sit quietly and observe with open eyes and hearts.
Perhaps dreams are all, as this collection seems to suggest: “A dead voice / calling up at dawn: / drowsy eyes”. Perhaps the work done, no matter how mundane, or how grand, is the song and the dance, and the lines and scars we bear from it dignify. And perhaps poetry honours this wild dream of living.
Patricia Prime, 8 Te Atatu South, Auckland, New Zealand