Thursday, May 1, 2014

Leeya Mehta on "The Abduction"

At the beginning of “The Abduction” I construct a personal image of war. As I am writing this note to accompany my poem, I believe we are again at war for the idea of India.

“The Abduction” begins among the spires of Oxford University in England, where I was a student and first heard about India’s nuclear tests in the Pokhran desert. Some of the images in the poem are from my life at Oxford. My bedroom overlooked a crabapple tree. I rode my bicycle over Magdalen bridge, under which boats passed on their way up the Cherwell River.

Other symbols in the poem are specific to my own cultural heritage as a Parsi Zoroastrian. Zoroastrianism predates Judaism and is considered to be the first monotheistic religion. My ancestors came to India from Persia fleeing religious persecution from Islam. In the poem I refer to some of those lost ancestors, who never made it to safety in India, and whose skeletons lie at the bottom of the Arabian Sea. The first Parsis landed on the beaches of Gujarat, the birthplace of Gandhi as well as the controversial Narendra Modi, India’s likely next Prime Minister. In India, Parsis found religious freedom and great economic opportunity.

The vision of India that I grew up with was deeply influenced by my socially liberal family and the school where I spent twelve years from pre-K through tenth grade. I came to see India as a special place with transformative ideas: democracy, non-alignment, ahimsa or non-violence, non-proliferation and religious freedom.

Fissures began to appear in this utopian landscape around the time I went on to a new high school. It started with the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and Hindu/Muslim riots in Bombay. When the carnage began, a school friend dismissed it saying, “Only twenty Muslims have been killed so far.” A Hindu friend said of a fellow Muslim student, “Why doesn’t she just go back to Pakistan, where she belongs?” I remember saying, “But she was born here, she’s never been to Pakistan. This is her home.” A new cycle of violence had begun, and in 1993, Bombay had one of its worst terrorist attacks by the Muslim underworld.

In “The Abduction” I make a reference to the Gujarat pogrom against Muslims in 2002, after the Godhra train fire, which killed Hindu pilgrims and was blamed on Islamic terrorists. Muslim artist friends had to flee to neighboring states because they could not find sanctuary anywhere in Ahmedabad, the city of their birth, as hundreds of thousands of Muslims became internally displaced, lining the roads leading out of Gujarat.

Each time we repeat this cycle of violence, I am concerned that we are returning to that time when India was partitioned. Pakistan was partly created because Muslims believed that a Hindu India would not provide equal opportunity to its minority Muslim citizens. Muslim families were uprooted and went to Pakistan; Hindu families fled to India. A million people perished in this bloody cross-migration. In spite of this, India continues to be home to nearly 180 million Muslims, the second largest Muslim population in the world.

In “Watching the Fifth War,” a short story set after the Indo-Pak conflict in Kargil in 1999, I wrote about how a Hindu and Muslim family inadvertently exchanged homes after India’s Partition. I was interested in the way we inhabit the same space as simultaneously interlopers and brothers. In “The Abduction,” a similar dual nature is personified by twinned figures representing my inner battle between conscience and an alter ego, which in turn represents nationalism and a need to belong—to a country, to a parochial history tied to blood and religion. The Asho Farohar that the narrator wears around her neck is the Zoroastrian guardian angel symbolizing the soul’s battle between good and evil.

I visited Pokhran, where India's nuclear tests were conducted, shortly before going to Hiroshima in Japan. There it became even clearer that it made no sense to own what you will never use. If you have an atom bomb, you may, in fact, use it. For the narrator in “The Abduction,” the cycle of violence must end with her. This personal renunciation of blood nationalism is not an act of helplessness or futility even if she feels an overwhelming sense of loss.

The idea of India has always been contested. I fear that with the ongoing election there we might be heading into a dark period. This can perhaps be avoided if enough of us go through a struggle similar to the narrator's in the poem—one which Gandhi saw as an allegorical battle between our higher selves and the allure of blood. 


  1. I just re-read 'Watching the Fifth War' - and I have to confess, it made me weep, especially because it followed your reading of your poem. These are indeed volatile times for India and for the world and it is through the work of artists like you, that we are able to get in touch with the emotional core of what is happening. Terrific work!

    1. Thank you so much for reading and responding.

  2. Although the poem is inspired by the conflicts in India, before reading the essay, I read the first three parts of the poem as speaking for any displaced people and the persons who struggle between holding on to heritage versus moving forward, conflicts unresolved, wanting to be free of ghosts of the past while not wanting to forget them as part of one's identity. Only in part four are there clearly specific references for time, place, and person, but the sense of seeking and loss that the narrator feels could speak for many people throughout history and today.
    The writer is to be commended for riches of imagery and emotion that reverberate through many readings/listenings: "shards of T's and Y's", "belonging is like loving a corpse," "jewels of God."
    The poem leaves with a hanging feeling over what is the next step if no sign is given. Indeed, is there someone in history who came to a resolution, or does time merely pass? I would also be interested in hearing the writer's thoughts on the universal versus specific in her poem.

  3. Thank you for your wonderful questions and comments and for taking the time to re-listen to the reading of the poem.

    Although the poem is personal, I think that when I wrote it, I was aware that many symbols were universal, even though very specific to me. At the same time when I tried to explain the poem in more universal terms in the essay, it didn't work. It seemed better for the reader to take the deeply personal and go with it.

    It’s a great question: what do we do if there is no sign at the end? An earlier draft of the poem had a final stanza which we did not publish so the original did not end with ‘they will not come’. There was a final stanza in which there was a sign, the angels did return, this time to Bombay, bringing with them the lost other, and the narrator rejected her a second time. The editors had an insight that I had gone through that process once already and it was thus redundant. I agreed with them.

    It seems we are always looking for a sign that god exists. Wouldn’t a benevolent god come forth and show us how to not make such a mess of things? But maybe for the majority of us there will never be such a sign and we have to believe anyway that we can be better, kinder, benevolent beings ourselves. It is hard for us to accept such responsibility, but if we do, we can somehow find meaning and some comfort.


    1. Dear Leeya,
      I’ve been reading this poem daily since it went up, and needless to say it’s never been boring!

      As always with BPJ Forum poems, I didn’t read your introduction until I felt I had a firm grasp on the poem -- because beautiful and haunting as it is, “Abduction” is pure Proteus, and a reader really has to hang in there or get abducted himself. Indeed, even at this point I’m not relying much on your introduction as the poem hasn’t finished working it’s magic on me yet, and I don’t want you, the mere author, to get in my way! (I love that dilemma, of course I do, Leeya, which is one of the main reasons I find the Forum so worthwhile!)

      I’m interested in the time frame of “Abduction.” The poem says “6 years after India’s nuclear test,” and if you are referring to the test I think you are, 1998, then the poem would date from 2004 – a full 10 years ago. As the poem clearly builds on memories and reflections much earlier than the actual composition of the “lines,” and the images are geographical, social and political as well as personal, there’s a lot to assimilate.

      I have a number of poems of my own that arise out of similar complexities over a long period of time, and it’s always a problem for me at what point I have to stop interfering and just let the poem get on with it. Yes, I’m the creator and the guardian, but at a certain point I have to relinquish my control, like a parent.

      And you know what else? I have to acknowledge that the things I didn’t know about the poem, some of which may even be faults or at least inexpert, are in themselves part of the dynamic that makes the poem not only what it is but very often uniquely successful. So I have to swallow my pride and, for example, acknowledge that the mechanical bird I had the emperor playing around with was actually pretty silly – yet what would “Sailing To Byzantium” be without that flaw? Indeed, it’s what makes the poem so poignant, at least for an old man like myself it does (Yeats is full of such naïvetés, silly guy -- which is one of the reasons he’s so great!).

      You are clear that you have no regrets about leaving out the last section – you say that since you had gone through that process once already, it was “redundant.” I myself wish that I’d had a chance to read it, because I too was a little troubled by that last line. Indeed, like Ghost Orchid I have a feeling that what you call the redundancy might have been part of the answer.

      Because surely the question has to be, is “benevolence” really the object of divine creation, or is there indeed something higher than justice and reward what is more comfort? In an Indian context this is a particularly relevant question, of course, where the gods are never so simple – our western monotheistic prejudices make us ask an awful lot from our Lord. Indeed, maybe that's one of the reasons he’s gone away, he’s so fed up with our self-serving ideals!

      Christopher Woodman

  4. Christopher,

    Thank you so much for reading and for your thoughts. There is much to respond here.

    When I first read your comments, I was reminded of Yeats’s ‘Come build in the empty house of the stare" and how
    Seamus Heaney weaves it into his Nobel speech:

    “The poet [Yeats] was living then in a Norman tower which had been very much a part of the military history of the country in earlier and equally troubled times, and as his thoughts turned upon the irony of civilizations being consolidated by violent and powerful conquerors who end up commissioning the artists and the architects, he began to associate the sight of a mother bird feeding its young with the image of the honey bee, an image deeply lodged in poetic tradition and always suggestive of the ideal of an industrious, harmonious, nurturing commonwealth: [And Heaney quotes Yeats:]

    The bees build in the crevices
    Of loosening masonry, and there
    The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
    My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
    Come build in the empty house of the stare.

    We are closed in, and the key is turned
    On our uncertainty; somewhere
    A man is killed, or a house burned,
    Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
    Come build in the empty house of the stare.

    A barricade of stone or of wood;
    Some fourteen days of civil war;
    Last night they trundled down the road
    That dead young soldier in his blood:
    Come build in the empty house of the stare.

    We had fed the heart on fantasies,
    The heart's grown brutal from the fare;
    More substance in our enmities
    Than in our love; O honey-bees,
    Come build in the empty house of the stare.

    Heaney continues: “It knows that the massacre will happen again on the roadside, that the workers in the minibus are going to be lined up and shot down just after quitting time; but it also credits as a reality the squeeze of the hand, the actuality of sympathy and protectiveness between living creatures. It satisfies the contradictory needs which consciousness experiences at times of extreme crisis, the need on the one hand for a truth telling that will be hard and retributive, and on the other hand, the need not to harden the mind to a point where it denies its own yearnings for sweetness and trust.”

  5. Some thoughts on your question about time and composition. When I was first writing The Abduction in 2004, I was thinking about the process Wordsworth may have gone through when he wrote Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey. When I visited Tintern Abbey, I remember coming upon it and then walking away from it and experiencing the landscape from afar. This zooming out that occurs in the middle of The Abduction, was meant to echo something Wordsworth captured from particular to universal, from experience to reflection, from movement to pause.

    The Abduction begins in 1998, and ends in 2004. In the original poem, as you will see below, six years later, after Pokhran, I end up in Bombay. And you are right, Christopher, we hold a lot of memories and experiences in our mind, though I have to say, most of the references (except in stanza 4) in the poem are from events between 1998 and 2004.

    I present the last stanza I had originally written here. But I’m afraid that the resolution that we are all seeking is possibly not to be had. I am not sure if the answer to these immense questions is really in the poem. That is why the Beloit Forum is so interesting. I think you are right that as the poet, I may in fact get in the way of the reader. In the end, the reader takes over from me and that’s part of the fun, no? I would like to hear what you think, so here is the deleted stanza:

    “It’s been six years since angels crossed the road at springtime.
    I had prayed for them to take you away.
    But your memory is worse than being you –
    I dream of you every night.
    I wake up to drink water, leaning out of the window,
    Overlooking Bombay harbour
    Where ships pause, guns pointed to the sky.

    I hear the shredding of cloth.
    From the black-green islands in the sea they rise,
    Their transparent bodies the colour of the night;
    A new moon hides their ferocious faces.

    They move closer.
    I run, stairs under my feet, hands sliding over painted banisters,
    Three stairs at a time, four stairs, five stairs
    I am out on the street before they are.
    They fly fast over me.
    Then they are gone, over the sea, towards the office blocks across the bay. When they return, they are slower, heavier,
    They drop to the ground and stand still staring at me with their liquid eyes. Then they cross the road and walk slowly away.
    Except for one. You. You are left.
    You are left for me, and though I want to celebrate your return,
    I am amazed that I know I cannot take you back.
    You complete me with your exile. I will have to live without peace.
    I cannot take you back.”

    Best wishes,

    1. Dear Leeya,
      I'm sorry to be so slow replying -- it's not because I'm away or too busy but because I'm simply overwhelmed by the task of coming to terms with your own poem – yes, and at the same time with trying to come to terms, thanks to your last two comments, with Seamus Heaney's Nobel Prize speech along with the bees and the stare of Yeats’ poem. When confronted with such challenges, the easy way out for me is to let myself get carried away by the big ideas in my own mind, and although I know at times I can rise to such challenges, as I think I did with both Mario Chard's and Fred Marchant's explorations of not dissimilar political violence, for example, I'm always on the edge of saying too much. Needless to say, that's not good for me any more than it’s good for the Forum, and for once I’d like to get that right.

      Bees are fascists, but how we need their order and sweetness, while mother birds always end up with the empty nest, a liberal sacrifice which creates as many problems for the giver as it does for the receiver. Your poem is trying to deal with the same issues in your own life but you do it more alone in yourself than either Heaney or Yeats, probably because you‘re deliberately moving away from a deep, spiritual tradition, and for that reason your images are more personal and less archetypal than theirs. Indeed, what will not come for you anymore are the collective solutions that native traditions provide for homebodies like Yeats and Heaney. As a result you’re imagery is harder to talk about even as in some ways it’s more immediate and visceral.

      I’m thinking a bit too much this evening about Yeats, Maude Gunn, Roger Casement, service, remembrance, Germany and England in relation to the dilemmas you explore, and I hope you’ll forgive me for saying so little.

      I also hope very much that somebody else will come in to help us.

      Christopher Woodman

  6. Dear Christopher,

    Again, many thanks for your wonderful comments.

    This got me thinking about archetypes and literary traditions. My initial reaction to what you said was real surprise. In the past I have touched upon my limitations as a poet writing in English (The Towers of Silence,, so tremendously influenced by a rather conventional education in English Literature, (which I do not disparage in any way, for it forms the bedrock of my love of poetry.) I was sitting on the grass at a Farmer’s Market in Washington when I received your blog post and it sparked a rather lively discussion between my partner and I. He, like you, saw me straying from the conventional archetypes, mostly, I think, because the images are not immediately familiar to him.

    The irony is that though The Abduction does have deeply personal imagery and my own background (Parsee, Indian) appears to possibly abandon more clearly discernable archetypes, my ‘literary influences’ relevant to this poem, are Borges, Wordsworth, Auden, WB Yeats, Christina Rossetti, Dom Moraes and Stanley Kunitz – each deeply aware of more traditional literary archetypes from the classics, Middle Eastern and Eastern philosophies, and a broad Judeo-Christian literary heritage. Borges’s mystical and literary journey was more complex and multi-faceted perhaps; and the Indian poet Moraes, touched on Indian subjects, especially in his later poems, but was perhaps as tied to these literary traditions as Yeats and Auden (his professor at University). The greatest influence in my poem is Rossetti’s Goblin Market, and the complex relationship between Laura and Lizzy.

    At the same time the movement away from a religious tradition is very much a theme in the poem. The breaking away is less from a spiritual tradition, perhaps, than a religious tradition. You are right that this is deeply personal.

    Finally, I was interested to know more about why you were thinking of Maude Gonne and Yeats?

    You have great insights into poetry, Christopher. I think you have added much to this conversation. Thank you for your generosity.


  7. You sitting comfortably on the grass at a farmer's market in Washington D.C., Leeya Meetha, Parsee Oxonian, while me, Christopher Woodman, Yankee Cantabrigian, sweats it out at 110º in the foothills of the Himalayas where the British Empire's number one trade item ended up as a tourist attraction called ‘The Golden Triangle’ (900 baht round trip, $30.00 – and you’re welcome to buy a genuine pipe right over here, or this scale, which still works).

    So there you are, trying to figure out where to ‘settle down’ in the West while I work out which way to run as yet another ‘great leap forward’ breaks out in the East. I'm talking about the ‘civil war’ in Thailand, of course, where ‘the people’ are led by one of the richest and most unprincipled tycoons in the world who has bought up the whole Thai farming community to create his new urban ‘democracy’ modeled on Singapore -- or should it be called an ‘expanding economy’ as the great leader’s western educated economists call it (and everyone applauds), or a ‘corporation state,’ ‘nanny republic,’ or just plain ‘brave new Thailand’ (which sounds awfully good if you haven’t read Huxley what is more Orwell, and these farmer’s don’t yet read).

    Just make a tiny typo in where you are, Leeya, and call it the “framer's” market instead of “farmer’s’ and you’ll be nearer the truth, or at least no farther away from it. At the same time, I maintain a huge respect for the “framer’s” who certainly tried their best and in some very important ways succeeded. On the other hand, nobody should kid themselves about the Framer’s priorities. The most important legal entity in their Brave New Constitution started with a capital ‘P,’ to be sure, but you get no credit for filling in ‘People,’ ‘Peace,’ 'Profit,' or even ‘Prosperity.’

    Yes, that American capital ‘P’ is as big a secret as the fact that the British Empire’s single most profitable ‘Good’ started with a capital ‘O,’ and that it distorted the whole of Asia socially, economically, environmentally and spiritually (the present problems in Rakhine State are a direct result of Britain’s Opium Trade, but who talks about that?). Yet, of course, the British Empire also did so much good, including giving you yourself not only a taste for Wordsworth’s poetry in early childhood, but the language and the education to read it. And I’m not at all cynical about that either, just weeping for everybody’s lack of roots.

    Because there’s always a loss too, as big and terrible as the one in myself.

    As to my list, it could have included any of the above, of course, but I went for Maude Gunn, the terrorist beauty who wasn’t even Irish and from whom Yeats never recovered. And then Roger Casement who was among the best human beings who have ever lived, and who remembers him? He's the one who all by himself blew the whistle on first the Congo and then the Amazon, but still was able to arrive at night by U-boat in an attempt to blow up Ireland with Maude Gunn, and was hung for it. Germany is there because today I would place it right at the top of my list of the countries most committed to "service," "remembrance," and thus world peace, indeed right up there with Japan. And then there is England today -- let's just leave England with Tony Blair down on his knees in Texas.

    That's all a bit over the top, but so is a poem like yours, Leeya. And who but poets are going to take this stuff seriously? I mean, isn't that what poets are for?


    I’m still reading your poem and will try to say more about your last question if I can, but I’d much prefer if somebody came in there first.


  8. Leeya,
    and Christopher,

    How to condense an atomic bomb?
    I find this uncanny link between your poem and the photograph of the next bpj issue on the website (when you put the cursor on the text-part, you get to see a different part of the picture... try it, it's shocking).
    The child is standing in a bloodbath which was committed (I suppose) by her own people (and there's the rub, no? Who are 'your own people'?)
    What is she to do with this? This inheritance. This tradition, or history, of violence.
    According to Lacan, the child finds herself in the position of the truth.
    Like you in your poem; one could say that the poet clings to this position, and refuses the (perhaps more comfortable, 'reasonable') adult way of looking at things (or better: of looking away), and insists on turning his or her gaze towards the reality of the ravage, all be it in a special way; obliquely; not the (unbearably horrible and sad) massive pool of blood, but ... her shoes.
    Trouble is: thinking that what they do is right, or necessary, the (adult) poet, and even the child (and obviously Roger Casement) are also capable of unknowingly engaging in a ravage all their own, one for their own children to come upon. And this more often a private one.
    So what to do with this all too human truth that we, like the girl in the photo, cannot seem to escape?
    It would be naïve to presume that we are evolving so fast that we, the living, or, let be, the poets, are better or more smart, or sane, already, no? (Tyrants, warlords, dictators, terrorrists and so on being of course surely worse). Most violence is committed by just people, as shows the picture. This too is tradition.
    Tracking the footsteps of your people, your family, your self, saying something about it (and by the way, this you did most elegantly), that was meant to stay a secret, must help to disengage, create or keep a distance, may be even a kind of difference, and keep asking ourselves and the Other who is/are adressed in poetry... What is this? What's going on? What have I/we/they done? Questions, always good. People, all too often not. But then let's tell, right?
    Leeya, in writing in English (your second language, I suppose), what exactly do find most difficult? Limitations, as you call them, may become an advantage, if you find your own solutions as you keep trying to overcome them.

    Johan Huybrechts

    1. Dear Johan,

      Thank you for your references and the way you have tied the discussion together.

      It made me go back to Stanley Kunitz, and one of those disturbing moments when we look in a mirror and see ourselves:

      “Toward dawn we shared with you
      your hour of desolation,
      the huge lingering passion
      of your unearthly outcry,
      as you swung your blind head
      toward us and laboriously opened
      a bloodshot, glistening eye,
      in which we swam with terror and recognition.”
      - Stanley Kunitz, ‘The Wellfleet Whale.’

      Your post and the Randi Ward picture you reference, of a girl standing in the blood of a whale slaughter in the Farroe Islands somehow tied in with what Natasha Tretheway said in her final lecture as Poet Laureate of the United States on May 14, 2014. See:
      Tretheway talked about the ideological evolution of Robert Penn Warren. The question she asked was not what happened, but why did it happen? And from that flowed a series of questions. Warren was born in 1905 into the Confederate culture and defended segregation early in his life. But he evolved, through a personal and poetic dialectic to a point where Trethewey says, Warren’s “revisions and repudiations” of his racist ideals serve as “a blueprint for change … a mirror of our own reckoning.” I do wonder about the child in this photograph and at which point Warren as a child discovered the seeds of his own evolution. I don’t know the answer to that and would like to read more about Lacan and see what he would say about this sort of moral evolution where a child stands in the bath of blood and decides to step out of it.

      If each of us is culpable, then how do we stand apart, how do we transform ourselves? Perhaps, is it first by bearing witness? Adrienne Rich speaks to this first step, the step that an individual takes, to bear responsibility and how that then transforms into a collective conscience. Rich: “Historical responsibility has… to do with action – where we place the weight of our existences on the line, cast our lot with others, move from an individual consciousness to a collective one. But we all need to begin with the individual consciousness: How did we come to be where we are and not elsewhere?” Tretheway [and I am possibly taking some liberty with my paraphrasing] seems to say that at some point the individual conscience separates itself from the inevitable. It is the role of the poet to cast aside the idea that we are trapped, and that the past is our trap. She quoted from Yeats: “Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.”

      (Continued below)

    2. This dialectic (with the self), which The Abduction attempted to convey is constant. I find your insight tremendous: “It would be naïve to presume that we are evolving so fast that we, the living, or, let be, the poets, are better or more smart, or sane, already, no? (Tyrants, warlords, dictators, terrorrists and so on being of course surely worse). Most violence is committed by just people, as shows the picture. This too is tradition.” The thing that immediately comes to mind is industrial farming and the slaughter of cattle for food. But then there is this humbling moment, when I realise that in no way am I superior – each of us is making choices about how to eat, how to live, how to vote, what work to do (like Ward), and experiencing this dialectic in small and not so small ways. There is no place for being pejorative, but there is a place for discussion, for change.

      The final lines of Kunitz’s poem:
      “You have become like us,
      disgraced and mortal.”

      Perhaps this disgrace is important, for it makes us step back from the mirror and consider how we can change.

      On another note, I grew up speaking English, Hindi and Gujarati, but I consider English my first language, it was the primary language I spoke at home, with my friends and at school. The limitations are less with English than with my limits with the other languages and my partial exposure to their literary traditions.

      Best wishes,

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  10. Thank you so much for coming in again, Johann. I think both Leeya and myself were feeling a bit desperate. We felt we'd stuck our necks out so far that if we came in again without some outside help our heads would fall off!


    “This dialectic (with the self),” you call it, Leeya, and then gather together a whole lot more images of “this humbling moment, when I realize that in no way am I superior.” Which takes guts to say, and a poet to put into perspective. Because the solution does not arrive through intellectual or even psychological “improvement,” but always through mysteries that can never be told straight -- or understood by anyone who assumes that some people can write poetry about it that’s ‘accessible.’

    And I say, show me those people/poems if you can. And if you can’t I’ll quote the poet Leeyya Meetha at you: “…but there is a place for discussion, for change” – which means change like the chrysalis, that sort of warping, twisting, and preposterous, often lop-sided flight.


  11. As well-written as it is, “Abduction” is not an easy poem, and I admire the BPJ editors for not just publishing it but for putting it up on the forum for discussion.

    Like the preceding poem by Nate Marshall, “Chicago high school love letters,” “Abduction” is hard to talk about by outside people because the imagery is so geographically specific. A reader has to have been through some of the same cultural (and geographic) dislocations you have to make sense out of it. Johann Huybrechts is Dutch, I presume, while you’re Parsee, which means both of you have suffered some of the same riddles right from the start. I’m equally a product of the Raj, in a sense, my family’s fortune having been made in tea, and as a result I never really got a chance to be anything. (Though American I was sent off to boarding school at 11, then on to Winchester at 16, and finally to Cambridge to get me properly educated. And look at me now.)

    You’re choice of Stanley Kunitz is wonderful, such a great poet, so humble yet elevated. Timeless. Eternal. And such a careful, careful worker.

    On the other hand, a great poem like “The Unwithered Garland,” for example, is hardly accessible. The poem never reveals its secret even though it’s so articulate and simple, and in a sense, like its topic, is by its very nature out of reach. But we’ve trusted the author for so many years and hung in there even when we’re so out of our depth, and it’s always been worth it. Indeed, Stanley Kunitz has become for many of us one of the modern poets who most holds the keys to the kingdom, so to speak. And this poem is one of the keys, though goodness knows to what door.

    Here’s a parallel in much simpler, less metaphysical clothing.

    Charles Dickens never revealed the deepest secret of his life, a young woman, Nelly Ternan, yet she haunts every word he wrote both publicly and privately for over 20 years. Some scholars still insist that Dickens never had sex with Nelly, while others argue that they had a child together in France, who died (read Clare Tomalin, The Invisible Woman, or her latest , Charles Dickens: A Life, which I’m just finishing. What a generous author!).

    That's just about an awkward sexual relationship, not heaven, but it was also the innermost secret of Dickens’ much examined life, and anybody who has had a relationship as intense as that will know that such a dilemma is always about a great deal more than just sex, more about what it is to be human and angel at once, which is hard.

    “The Unwithered Garden” never tells it’s secret either, and indeed is only accessible if you’re foolish enough just to stop reading it and settle for what you as a critic already know about the word ‘garland.’ 'Garland,' you say to yourself, smugly. “Yes, I know ‘garland,’ and ‘unwithered,” I know that trope -- that's easy.” Which you don’t at all, and never will if you assume such poems are ever so superficially promiscuous. Why ever would Stanley Kunitz have written it if that were all? Wouldn't just saying "ubi sunt" have been enough?

    The only way you can get such a poem is to read yourself into it as deeply as you possibly can, and if you yourself aren’t enough of a mystery to grapple with, then what is?

    Ditto your fertile “Abduction,” Leeya, which will be with me for a very long time, and whatever it’s about I will, little by little, find out.

    That’s what poetry does for us, keeps us going. It’s about an unfathomable wholeness, joy we've never known, transcendence while walking on the damaged, swollen feet of a famous old man in London, loving secretly even when that love meant death.

    Here’s how you left us with that mystery, Leeya – quoting Stanley Kunitz:

    ……………Master of the whale-roads,
    let the white wings of the gulls
    ……..spread out their cover.
    ……………You have become like us,
    disgraced and mortal.

    Thank you so much, and keep going!


    1. Christopher,

      Thanks, that was interesting to read. You come at things from so many different angles, and I've been looking forward to what you have to say.

      I return again to old poems like you do, as if they are friends and familiars, and for the mysteries they reveal and continue to keep. Always there is more, as if the poem changes as we change, yet it stays familiar as we are familiar to ourselves.

      I had never read The Unwithered Garland, and did so now. I tried looking up any notes on it and wondered if it is a poem based on a painting? If so, it is less obscure since in a painting a garland does not wither with time? I would be intrigued to know if that is indeed the case. But I do agree that the mysteries are not then 'solved', but continue to perplex. Do tell what you know about it.

      This is such a stimulating forum. I look forward to it every month and will see you here again!

      Best wishes,

  12. Many thanks for your generosity, Leeya, and I shall be following you whenever I can. It's a tough row to hoe, yours, but enormously fertile even if the soil is so full of old roots, rocks, and indigenous weeds -- which are always the hardest to deal with, being the home ones. And I say just keep on scratching and planting.

    Honestly, I can't answer your questions about "The Unwithered Garden" because the poem is still so difficult for me. About 3 years ago I thought I had it completely, and I don’t at all now and am just waiting patiently outside, like an inexperienced, unlearned bumpkin. What is it? What is it?

    I will wait until I'm ready and then I’ll catch up with it again for sure.

    This happens to me all the time -- with Shakespeare, of course, but also with Dickinson, Yeats, and Elizabeth Bishop -- “The Moose” took her 20 years to finish, and what's that?

    I also want to say thank you to Johan Huybrechts for everything he brings -- and for having understood what I meant about Roger Casement in particular. All human beings, like poets, are “capable of unknowingly engaging in a ravage all their own, one for their own children to come upon. And this more often a private one.”

    Like Mario Chard’s “live round” which I was so slow to get back in BJP’s September discussion – the “Round” which is so likely to go off when we least expect it, usually because we’ve forgotten!

    Johan gets all this so well with his background, and says it so well.

    The unexploded ordinance of our struggles.


  13. I'm a lousy speller -- it's "garland" of course. Your painting idea is an interesting one which had never occurred to me, and of course it can be anything you want. I was so into the idea of you scratching away in your Zoroastrian garden I translated it into my own English kitchen-garden word!

    But of course garden has none of the laurel-wreath element...


  14. Dear Leeya and Christopher,

    Thank you both, for this conversation, this meeting, and for your richesse.
    Leeya, thank you for your wonderfully clear comment. And for Stanley Kunitz! Being rather an autodidact in English literature, I had read ‘Robin’ (O that dingiest bird!) and ‘Touch me’, but not ‘The Unwithered Garland’, and what’s worse, I can’t get a hold of it now. But, while googling, I came upon this AE Housman poem, ‘To an Athlete Dying Young’:

    And round that early-laurelled head
    Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
    And find unwithered on its curls
    The garland briefer than a girl’s.

    (final stanza).

    May be it has something to do with it, with death?
    And may be I’m just telling you stuff you already know.

    Anyway, the two of you got me curious, and I'll try and get a copy of Kunitz's collected poems (reading his other poems now, I cannot understand myself missing this man's work).

    I was intrigued by Trethaway’s idea that the individual consciousness separates itself from the inevitable, and that poetry serves to get us out of the trap (like out of the history that lies before us?). I like that notion very much. Looking from a new angle could be the key. Are mysteries situated there? In a view from an angle we haven’t (yet) found?
    I think I understand what you said about the collective consciousness and the mirror, cfr Rich, but the mirror has this gravitational pull, doesn’t it, and we, at best, oscillate between an individual and a more or less collective (from world to nation to just your family) consciousness. In the extreme: ruled by a collective consciousness only, we’d no longer have a life of our own, or we’d all be doing community service 24/7 and eat vegetables only (surely, we cannot hope to even resemble Mother Theresa). Your comment made me think of Bukowski’s ‘five minutes (and much more)’, and of Sharon Olds, before the mirror, her ‘poems heavy as poached game hanging from my hands’. A clear conscience, it must be Utopia. And we musn’t blame ourselves for being alive, and a part of this world.
    Can the child step away from the pool of blood? I wonder. Surely the pool will find its place in her interior. Guilt has this way of sticking to us. We will be disgraced, and mortal, and, just like Jozef K, guilty, that too. Luckily, the gods understand all this, and pardon us, and then give us the death-sentence anyway, and an afterlife. As if even They don’t know what to do with us.


    1. Johan,

      Phenomenal insights. Tretheway's insights didn't come out quite like your interpretation, but I think that that was indeed what she was getting at. Very nicely said.

      I don't know if this is the time to be kinder to ourselves. Bukowski's poem is jaw dropping and quite delicious. But there is so much blood on our hands. So if not an unattainable clear conscience, then what? I guess we are circling back to the first question, what is the sign we are looking for in poetry, a sign that poetry can give us especially?

      Kunitz finds a way to restore his own balance, I think. His book is worthwhile to have in your collection. His best poems are often full of descriptions of the natural world. By meditating on the outside world, he meditates on the inside one, quite like Yeats and Frost.

      What drives artists is not the same as what drives saints, I imagine. Art takes precedence for an artist (and living the life of the conscience, not necessarily so.) For the saint, the life of the conscience takes precedence.

      I liked very much how you closed. Perhaps that is where we leave it. I answer: I think that the child can step away, but not, ironically, as a child. The child's power lies in her future, not her present. Only an adult can really step away or face the mirror. That's why we grow up.


  15. I don’t think I remember any forum discussion with more loose ends, and I also can’t think of any greater compliment I could give a poem either.

    “I want poems that don’t tell secrets but are full of them,” Stanley Kunitz once said, and he never compromised on that. That’s why he was so slow in his work, devoting years and years to single poems. It wasn’t that he wanted to make each poem better in the ‘craft’ sense but that he was trying to empower the secrets in his work that could liberate him from his own ignorance – in a sense, he wanted the secrets in his poems to seduce him against his own will. And I think we all feel that with almost everything he wrote, which is why we hang in there, knowing that the limitation is in us, not in the highly wrought poem. “What is the sign we are looking for in poetry,” you ask, Leeya, “[what is the] sign that poetry can give us especially?”

    “The child's power lies in her future, not her present,” you go on right at the end. “Only an adult can really step away or face the mirror. That's why we grow up.”

    And you know, Leeya, worthy and finished as it is as a poem, “Abduction” isn’t full-term yet, I feel sure, at least for you the author it isn't. And I shall keep myself posted too. Kunitz did some of his best work at 90, so there’s still plenty of time.

    And look how simple it gets?


    1. Thanks, Christopher. Much to think about. It is exciting for a writer to be in a place where there is so much more to come.