Sunday, August 26, 2012

For born with lips/ For endowed with thoughts/ How can I leave without protesting? : The Poet as a Witness


Let me stretch out my hands
Beloved friends
Welcome me in your midst
So unquenched that I am
Unable to voice in words
I desire to tear open my chest
and show the bland empty smile within
I desire a voice of that laughter
be struck by shrapnel of bombs
for the aftermath cheap tears
to reduce all filth to cinders
Let every face be radiant
with the hope of a new era!
This one weak step
Wants to leave a hundred footprints
And become chants of courage
Come, open your door
For born with lips
For endowed with thoughts
How can I leave
without protesting?

The Untitled Poem, (translated from Irom Sharmila’s Maming Thondaba Seireng, Translation mine)

The idea of poetry is not an unchanging one but a continuum or rather a contestation of meanings. I look at the ‘poetic’ as an element whether it be in a dramatic text, performance or poetry (i.e. I look at words - spoken, written or sung, chanted, performed according to a pattern). The above poem translated from Irom Sharmila’s Maming Thondaba Seireng reflects a certain resistance to the ‘times’. This suggest a certain condition of the triangular nature of the existence of poetry — a triad consisting of the poet, the audience and reality/truth/environment/context as the third point[1]. The lines which connect and form this triad is what I want to analyse. That poetry as witnessing a certain reality may either reveal a situation where both are almost coinciding at a point whereas the audience seems far removed from both. I am afraid that the poets and poetry that I wish to discuss here might all fall in the category of distorted triangles. The reality that the poets speak of seems far removed from the insulated politics of the metropolitan cities. However, this reality is growing in various parts of the country. There is, therefore, a disjuncture in our interaction with the state in its most visual and ironically camouflaged form. In the disjuncture itself, there are many islands of disjuncture in spite of the interconnectedness of the infliction, there is a disconnect in the perception of the state. Thus, women and poetry for peace or women as peace brokers might, as I see fall, in the narrow limits of looking at women as tools towards a political end, the vision of which she does not form a part. Arambam Ongbi Memchoubi had written in her “Goddess of Lightning[2]” –

Even if your soul listens or not
Even if you agree or not
I am
The answer to your age old questions

The poem construes women as the Goddess of Lightning about to strike the rotten arms of men who preserves the old world. The Goddess burns the old and creates anew.

I have not quoted Memchoubi to club women’s work together but to contradict and point at the wide and varied nature of the work of women. One can but discuss the work together for reason of interconnectedness in the landscape of their poetry and not the ways of expression. Firstly, the attempt to look at Irom Sharmila’s poetry is the elements that separate her struggle and the consequent expression of that in her poetry. In Irom’s writing, it is a woman writing but it is a woman who is no longer a woman but rather a deified or “iconified” woman. A woman who is not depicted now without the nose feeding tube; wherein her struggle has become an organic part of her being and thus the attempt to “give her life” through the force intrusion of tubes, creating them also as parts of her being. She and her work occupy a space that no other can occupy because of the nature of her struggle. There is no doubt the struggle to appropriate her as a freedom fighter, as a poet, a feminist, a champion, woman leader and so on thus embedding in her a symbolic sisterhood which is strategically evoked.

Secondly that she must have and she has written poems since the beginning but it is the nature of her struggle that elevates her poetry to being a witness of her times. There is no doubt that the above two are inextricably linked together. For the fact that she is living her poetry and her ideals it is difficult to look at her poetry apart from her struggle and vice versa. And it is important to view both together because there is an inherent vulgarity in knowing or reading a poem as separate from the landscape that informs the poems. For this reason one can also explore the works of other poets like Thangjam Ibopishak and Robin Ngangom to point out how certain landscape colours the poetry in spite of the range and variety in the work. There is an interconnectedness between poetry as witness and poetry as resistance but for both then is the necessity for poetry to come out from within the confines of the poets’ thought and be read, be seen and talked about.

‘what good is poetry is destitute times’ (Heidegger, 1975). Heidegger refers to this question of H√∂lderlin’s (in Bread and Wine) by talking first about time –That the time is the era that we still belong to and that era seems to be asking to us the need of poetry. The genre or rather the styles of the poetry that I choose to discuss might be said to fall in the category of the poems/writing choosing to express certain things. I refer to the act of writing (such) poetry as being the witness. It is then here that the necessity of the creative work getting read/ seen/ comes in. Stating the unsaid or unsayable is then the function of such poetry. When Thangjam Ibopishak wrote “I want to be killed by an Indian Bullet”, it was censored out of an India International Centre publication[3]. In the act of being a witness and testifying for the unsaid/ unsayable there are indeed many who wants the unsaid to remain unsaid who believes that the unsaid is left unsaid because of the presumed vulgarity of the unsaid. Thus, closing one’s eye on the vulgarity of the act played out in the landscape means that one is consenting to the continuity of the act of indifference.  The vulgarity here can be seen in two ways, one being what I have just mentioned above and second the vulgarity of discussing only the poetry as removed from the landscape. Of course the act of seeing poetry alone and not placing it in the context of the landscape is what leads to the poetry being termed as unsayable or rather unprintable (and therefore unreadable).

The introduction to Irom Sharmila’s collection of twelve poems, “Fragrance of Peace”[4] also refers to her as she who “speak out the unspeakable without losing the essence of humanity”. Of course the act of witnessing and testifying requires that the work comes out in the form of being said or read. The genres of poetry or poet celebrated now have gone through the process of being obliterated not only because of the language in which it is expressed but also through a deliberate attempt at obliteration. There is a certain curiosity in the works but it is only celebrated when it falls in the realm of the exotic whereas the mundane banality of political violence finds no space.

The landscape that evokes poetry of the ‘unsayable’ also evokes the mundane desire of belongingness. Robin Ngangom had explored this in his collection, “The Desire of Roots”[5]. The collection depicts a desire, a longing for the labyrinth terrain of the 'known' by the same roots. Irom’s collection “Fragrance of Peace” is also engrafted with a desire, the desire of letting the roots seek its home of soil, to foster and nurture not the idea of territorial belongingness but one that is rooted in the crises of the ‘canes of policemen’ and yet as a mother exhorting

What gain you by torching an effigy?
for a scrap of land you cannot take with you

Irom’s collection of twelve poems seems a conscious choice on the part of those who has put in the collection. The poems reflect a certain role – that of a mother, a sister. That the collection is a political act is beyond doubt however this begets the question — “Is the gendering of women’s writing inherently problematic? In the particular context of this collection is there an attempt to look at the poet vis-√†-vis her relation as a sister to a man / (or even in solidarity to the idea of sisterhood); Is there an attempt to embed in her the ideals of a universal mother in the choice of poems? It is indeed difficult to begin analysing Sharmila’s poems given the self imposed overarching political correctness of those who choose not only to read but also to publish which works are to be read.






[1] Stead, “The New Poetic” Continuum . New York: 2005
[2] Robin S. Ngangom; Kynpham S. Nongkynrih, “Dancing Earth” Penguin Books, India: 2009
[3] Tarun Bhartiya, “Liberal Nightmares: A Manual of Northeastern Dreams” http://www.sarai.net/publications/readers/06-turbulence/02_tarun_bhartiya.pdf (accessed on 15th January 2011)
[4]  Irom Sarmila, “Fragrance of Peace”, Zubaan, 2010
The cover of the book and also the contents refers to Irom Sharmila as Irom Sarmila. When the publisher was asked on the peculiar spelling I was told that the pronunciation of ‘Sh’ does not exist in Meiteilon. This was in spite of the poet signing her work as Irom Sharmila. Referring to Sharmila as Sarmila seemed to be more due to the problem of translating of her work from the Bengali script to Meitei Mayek and to English.
[5]  Robin Ngangom, “The Desire of Roots”, Chandrabhaga Publications, Cuttack, 2006

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