lessons from a distance

lessons from a distance

All That Lingers: A Lesson with Satya Dash

I spent a good part of December 2018 in Egypt. A crucible of early human sentience, the structures and the remarkable genetics of their architectures across Luxor, Alexandria, Giza and Cairo left quite an impression. Yet a year and a half later, browsing through the pictures in my phone feels like standing atop an orthogonal top view of a vast museum of cake – a delicious meadow of mummies, pyramids, the Nile, feluccas and what not. But there is no cherry in the center as far as the album is concerned. The reason I soon realize: there is a specific memory from the trip that for some reason manages to induce a smile and along with it, an accompanying sense of yearning for a missing picture.

On our last day in Cairo, while dropping my friend and me opposite a huge park, our cab driver in a gesture of magnanimity decides to escorts us across the extremely busy twilit highway. We find a good second to seize the moment and are crossing the road, when midway he U-turns and goes over to his side while we cross over to the park entrance. I’m amazed and wave at him. He gives me a fabulous toothy smile with a double thumbs-up, one for his quick wit and one for our safety. The fact that he could be so decidedly measured in his generosity— to realize slap-bang in the middle that it was probably not worth going all the way across the busiest street in the city to escort a pair of quotidian tourists— was a moment of comic relief then. But now looking back, it presents a deeper quandary: what is our instinct of movement? Do we we pull out of certain desires because there are other forces acting centripetally? And if the flux of currents from the magnetic fields of experiences inevitably governs our poetics? For that reason and more, the bizarre sight of our driver wishing us all the very best from across the road with a clownish grin is my half-bitten, brilliant red yet invisible cherry at the center.

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Incidentally, the poems from Kaveh Akbar’s surreal debut, Calling a Wolf a Wolf bring out the force-field of these intersections in its entire munificence. Key to the beauty is not just the strangeness of the unanticipated moment in his lines (the driver pulling out from escorting us right at the middle), but the absolute acceptance of how the forces combine for an exquisite albeit incomplete resolution ( the driver on one side of road, we another; what a time to bid farewell ). Consider these lines from his poem Wake Me Up When It’s My Birthday

“….Once
I pulled a glowing crystal from my beard
and buried it in the earth. The next day
I went to the spot and dug up a silver trumpet
I still haven’t learned to play. Jealousy,

sexual or otherwise, begins with touch –
tears fall on a stone and the stone suddenly
wants eyes; a countess is fished from the ocean
and her pearls slip quiet into the captain’s
pocket….”

So a question for the reader who seeks to abound in fascination the above lines so inimitably offer, sleeps over it and then attempts to put pen on paper themselves is:  what is your *glowing crystal*? Could it be the ruby in the ring of your beloved you fantasize about protecting, chased across a desert by thieves?

Incredulous? Yes, but so is that *silver trumpet*. Notice the interjectional self effacing: “dug up a silver trumpet / I still haven’t learned to play”, leading to a moment of absolute gold in reverse personification where jealousy is played out in sublime fashion: “tears fall on a stone and the stone suddenly / wants eyes”.

Can you think of objects on which you can project feelings and work them inside out to the point where the object might reveal itself in a new light? e.g. Think of a chair sharing your hopes and fears. If that is the case, how do you think it will look? Whose buttocks possibly it might have graced over the years?

You might realize when you make such absurd amalgamations, aside from doubling meaning and the marvels of possibility, the oddity itself might throw up a completely relatable truth i.e. eyes are inseparable from tears and the gloriousness of tears is a manifestation of the inherent beauty of the eye. Observe through the lines how then the tears next transfigure into pearls. Look at how striking the procession: images guiding images into moments where light touches to dapple surfaces of varying depth: “…fished from the ocean / and her pearls slip quiet into the captain’s / pocket…”. At the heart of strangeness lies a desire for locomotion, a restless sliding of the slippery bead of sensation to the circumference of our imaginations. Consequently followed by a reconciliation along radiuses pulling the tension from the orb towards a core that is so distinguishably human.

Choose your feelings, interlink their intensity to objects, tend their shapes nude. If you have them surprise you and take your breath away with their bold movement, what do you reckon will happen to the reader?

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The Day Went Dark

I bought a carpet
with orange flowers
and green leaves

but all my furniture
looked bilious yellow
in its gorgeous light.

I loved a woman
with turquoise eyes,
navel like a whirlpool

in a heap of wheat

and the day went dark,
my hands were lizards,
my heart turned into a hound.

The above poem The Day Went Dark by the great scholar poet A.K.Ramanujan inscribes a similar pull, more into the tendons of the heart than the folds of the mind. Yet the voice of the mind makes it clear : the desperate hands degenerated into lizards and the despairing heart devolved into a hound,. This is a poem of images that situates itself on the exactness of comparison with laser-like truth and the last line is so incisive that it coalesces the reader into the same sphere of feeling as the narrator. There’s no proven technique to arrive at such a line. But there’s a keen sense of imagination at work. Almost like a clinical striker in a game of soccer who is always looking to get into good positions for any whiff of the ball, to deflect it goalwards or create a scorable chance, the poet stays patient and alert for one such line.

Let’s say you start with an emotion i.e. grief. Write about how it was felt and importantly why it was felt. Don’t worry about the poem yet. What would be the setting for such a grief? Can you turn the reason for your grief into a metaphor? And then imagine yourself playing a video game controlling the joystick, moving both the reason and metaphor in parallel lanes? How would be their journeys, their own degrees of difficulty on  bumpy roads? Sometimes metaphors give way to contrasting metaphors and if that’s the case, don’t hold back. See the shift à bright outer circles of the first 4 stanzas hovering next to each other in the joy of a felt love ( “bilious yellow”, “orange flowers”, “heap of wheat” ) dissolve in the last stanza, a small but extremely dense circle, a nucleus when things turn murky without warning and come apart leaving us with the empty feeling of grave uncertainty; who knows where the *hound-ing* heart, its animality now stark, will race to now.

Once you have written a draft, you are free to begin the miracle of aggressive editing and sieving till the exuded feeling is sharp, imaginably to the point of a physical sensation. This could/will involve a number of sittings. One effective stunt can be to find your favorite line, make it the first line and work in descension. Paul Valery remarks : The opening line of a poem is like finding a fruit on the ground, a piece of fallen fruit you have never seen before, & the poet’s task is to create the tree from which such a fruit would fall.

 Perhaps, the last line of a poem is the thrush singing/wailing on a branch of that tree.

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For the third and final selection, I turn to the lines of a poem The Bungalows of South Avenue from Ranjit Hoskote’s stunning collection Jonahwhale.

“      A ladder leaned against the side of a house
I’d known as a child: cool mint verandahs,
lace blinds, iced tea. Now I ran my hand
along a buff wall rose bushes had once hidden
and looked up through the ladder’s rungs
at a lump of coal flaring in a blue-grey spoon
bent over with the rough heat it held.
Sun in my eye, the roof a milk cloud
that had stopped in its tracks.”

They say the devil lies in the details. But even more crucial to note that the angel resides here too. The lines in the above stanza unfurl as if you’re watching live a performance artist working on an instant painting just for you, the sole person in the audience. The linking of effervescent adjectives ( cool, mint, lace, iced, buff, rose ) heighten your senses to movement, sight and touch. The response to it becomes a captivated one as you follow the painter’s brush from stroke to stroke, forgetting all else. This is where in a poem, when done with a careful yet fluent restraint, image transcends to scene— hallmark of a master painter’s touch. The result, an effect of levitation, the reader in a hot-air balloon rising and rising to a dizzying point communing with “the roof a milk cloud / that had stopped in its tracks”.

A good starting point might be a slideshow exercise: to write a sequence of images on a blank page as thought clouds. The first cloud, let’s say: a river in a forest. The second: the fields by which the river passes. The third: the geese flying above the river. The fourth: farmers working in those fields. The fifth: a car on the adjacent road and so on. Now after a sequence of 10-15 images, scramble the sequence and re-number images randomly next to each other. Think of a sentence connecting these random images –e.g. one sentence incorporating both the geese and car. Try to make sentences from each random combination. Do you have a personal memory even remotely linked  to any of these objects. Can you make a couple of lines of it? Now look at all your sentences, develop a loose narrative. Work on the line breaks. Use enjambment for a music in flow. Let the jigsaw puzzle reveal itself at its own pace.

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Writing about the churn of desire, the tussle of expressing well any want, eventually comes down to accepting the fundamental ambivalence in our nature and finding a personal rhythm to revel from its stinging. Not just in surging through a poem, but in the dailiness of any kind of living too. At the outset we won’t find exceptional ways to do it. But as we intently navigate poems that enthrall us while investing in extracting delight and avidly pursuing its fruits on a blank page, we begin to receive unique pairs of eyes gifted to us. And then all that lingers is the fragrance of expression which was previously just ‘feeling’. The product of every writer’s singular passion soaked in a reader’s temperament is a de-familiarizing, strangifying emulsion. I will leave you with the opening lines of The Glass Essay by Anne Carson.

“I can hear little clicks inside my dream.
Night drips its silver tap
down the back.”

Satya Dash’s poems have been published or are forthcoming in Wildness, Passages North, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Cortland Review, The Florida Review, Lunch Ticket, Prelude amongst others. Apart from having a degree in electronics from BITS Pilani-Goa, he has been a cricket commentator too. His work has been twice nominated for the Orison Anthology. He spent his early years in Odisha, India and now lives in Bangalore. He tweets at: @satya043

Image by: Satya Dash

Al-Azhar Park, Cairo, Egypt (Photograph by Satya Dash, circa December 2018)