Her scarlet tongue

By Vahni Capildeo

A Leaf in His Ear: Collected Poems, by Mahadai Das
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 978-190-071-5591, 188 pp)

Mahadai DasMahadai Das. Photograph courtesy Peepal Tree Press

Taking herself to an art museum in the foreign country where she does low-status work, and coolly contemplating a painting of a lolling female nude, Lucy Snowe wonders what quantity of meat, vegetables, bread, and liquid might be required to maintain the body in that state of voluptuousness. You may wonder how the heroine of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette strayed, not into that provocative gallery corner, but into a review of A Leaf in His Ear, the collected poems of Mahadai Das. Some poets present work so accomplished that I find myself distracted by thoughts of the probable support systems that allowed their language to grow into its voluptuousness: the writing table set just so, the patter of hired feet going out to soak the fragrant garden, the presentation of trays of food by carefully soft, oval-nailed hands. Das’s work, on the contrary, sports rough surfaces, emits song-like cries, and toils on harsh preoccupations; her tender lyricist’s notebooks have been filled in and worked over during the intervals of a life lived hard. The blurb reels off “dancer, actress, teacher, beauty-queen, and volunteer member of the Guyana National Service before she left Guyana to study as a doctoral student of philosophy in the USA,” but her involvement with the life of Guyana (and I mean that in a full sense) rightly receives closer treatment in Denise De Caires Narain Gurnah’s excellent introduction.

Returning to Villette (for Jane Eyre is not the only Brontë novel with which the West Indian woman writer might be in dialogue, even if only by way of parallels): the likeness to some aspects of the evolving Das persona is striking. Lucy Snowe eventually founders, though maintaining her sense of the right to be a strong and loving woman who speaks for others as well as herself, who can glint between shy and abrasive, and who disconcertingly wears her bones on the outside sometimes. More crucially, Charlotte Brontë’s differently feminist contemporary, the intellectual Harriet Martineau, criticised Villette for presenting women as creatures of emotional obsession, a frailty ultimately overriding their other qualities. I would argue that Das’s artistically weakest poems are indeed her love lyrics — far more so than the early nationalist work that seems to embarrass some of her current commentators — but more of that later.

Das’s Collected was produced after the poet’s death in 2003, at the age of forty-nine, as the back cover and much of the introductory material remind the reader. The poems included were not selected or finally revised for this selection by the author. A Leaf in His Ear includes twenty-one years’ worth of material. Das’s three published collections, I Want to Be a Poetess of My People (1976, 1977), My Finer Steel Will Grow (1982), and Bones (1988), are excerpted in order of publication, and clearly divided in the table of contents. Interestingly, the concluding section of uncollected poems spans 1973 to 1994, so it is possible to get a sense of, as it were, the developmental context of the published collections as well as of the future that this volume now perpetuates as potential unfulfilled, yet in a way still tappable.

Das’s earlier work is lively to the inner ear, often in chant-like or declamatory fashion. There are alliterative patterns, repetitions (especially anaphora) and exclamations (“O,” “Ah!”). Punctuation (hyphens, suspension dots, dashes, exclamation marks, and, not least, the line break as breathing phrase mark) indicates vocal delivery. A poem like “Akara, Did You Hear Us Marching?”, with its vowelled invocations, questions, and spellings that help with pronunciation — such as the compressive “bruis’d” — is crafted to be read aloud. I would be interested to see this analysed in terms of effective performance poetry, rather than categorised as youthfully fired-up, borderline propagandistic productions with sparks of the inward poetics to come.

In terms of gender politics, aiming to be a “poetess of the people” means that Das can speak with the authority of traditionally masculine poetic formal traditions. Her witness role in “They Came in Ships” is cast in terms of “I saw,” not a static, womanly, traipsing-after or sidelined “I suffered” or even “they suffered” — though suffering and posterity are her concerns. The “I saw” poem has ancient Western roots, and the wandering bard has tended to be a man. “Cast Aside Reminiscent Foreheads of Desolation” begins “I want you to know . . .” Dealing with a splitting between the realities of hard labour, dreaming hearts, and heavy rainbow possessions implies that the poetic persona (unlike her audience) is privileged (and made responsible) by her gift and her exertions: she is the one who can understand, carry, and convey the possibility of wholeness. This implied wholeness in the speaker/seer is more radical than the self-conscious shock of the injunction to cherish the land because “She is your husband.” In “He Leads the People”, the poem that closes the excerpts from Das’s first book here, it is almost amusing to note how much more vigour and sparkle the female speaker has than the “jungle-green” and “silent” leader she celebrates. Unintentionally, the cause has been outsung by the bard. The strength of voice into which Das grows through this apprenticeship will be a saving grace when her lyrics start to run into the distress of missed or misused romantic, sexual, and maternal energies.

The selection from My Finer Steel Will Grow is riddled with images of disease. If something is rotten in the state, nobody escapes. The speaker of the title poem is assailed from all quarters, by everything from fleas to felled stars like daggers, and has a heart “gone dark / like night and rotted blood.” The deathsworn or deathbound speaker of “My Final Gift to Life” insists “I will not touch his rotting sceptre beaded / with murder,” but in this phase of Das, the word and symbolism of rot have touched resister and oppressor alike. The barrenness of womb and earth, the blurring of interior and exterior are such that one cannot sensibly distinguish metaphorised body and humanised landscape. The reader feels the running-together of place, thought, and sensation. This makes for a new vulnerability and disturbing preoccupation in the female-gendered speaker. The voice, however, continues powerful, and “my love” could still genuinely be “the people,” beyond any dear disappointing sentimental object. A lovely oddity in Das is just how much her devotion to the land and people is original and particular, even when the language looks generalised. Her keen observation structures both her greater and her lesser work, so the details she picks out — both which ones and in what order they are presented — are just right. This real-world embedding in Guyanese streets and fields underlies the apparent simplicity of lines like these:

In their sad coat of mange, dogs
hang their hungry heads.

(“My Final Gift to Life”)

The vision in this next quotation is far from idealised. Anyone who has studied photographs of the earlier generation of muscled, bird-boned, bejewelled, and draped Indo-Caribbean women labourers will recognise that their class descendants (of whatever ethnic origins) are working in the light of that tacit heritage:

With a song we will plait our hair.
The sun’s rays shall be our morning bangles.
These delicate wrists of morning light shall sustain us.
Let us sling our pails
upon our arms’ strong rods
and dance to the well.

(“Untitled VIII”)

A sentence like “Hardship bends the back of the wind” (in “While the Sun is Trapped”) could have a politically revolutionary double meaning. The image also echoes the curve of the ships and sails that brought so many of Guyana’s peoples to the land; it is an anti-Atlas, not a giant supporting the earth but a wind no longer fleet in enjoying the sky; it holds in kind tension the knotted agriculturalists and the ripple that makes wind evident in the transient patterning of crops . . . It is poetry. There is altogether, in these excerpts from Das’s second book, a more incisive and confident handling of verse for the page (rather than the ear), for example in the elaboration of the opening image of “Untitled V”, where speaking to a taciturn beloved is presented as infiltrating or besieging a hostile built environment; the flame and arrows could be Amerindian or Afro-Caribbean rebellion, or Petrarchan/Elizabethan courtly love. Rather, in the multiple creative matrix of Das’s work, there is a flickering, a wholeness comprised of possibilities that share their urgency, distinct both from totalisation and from relativism.

It is hard not to read Bones biographically, because there seems to be a correlation between the speaker’s heightened emotions and failures in poetic technique. There is a Plath-like drive and desperation to some of the verse, as of a nimble thing unfairly pinioned and turning on itself. “Bones”, the title poem, is defensive in the throwaway use of “without doubt,” “Someone should,” “After all,” “Besides,” though the poem is attempting jangling, magical transformations. “The Growing Tip” is splendidly badly behaved, as the woman poet, no cultivator of a pacific, green-thought-green-shade vegetable love, engenders horned and tailed monstrosities that will not stay as flat manuscript leaves. The poem, too, opens out, stepping its lines and taking white space on the page, unusual for Das.

“Horses” (“All the pink-coloured horses are coming in. / They gallop in from the sunset”) and “Flute” (“I am those parallel / eyes of air / along my spine”) are two poems that perfectly deploy a technique that becomes part of the Das repertoire. This is essentially the technique of giving vivid life throughout a single poem to a single image; so not fantasy, but the fantastic quality of daily experience, becomes beautiful and strange: a sparse romanticism with open eyes. This reviewer wishes there were more like those, and less of whoever Mr “blue-diamond eyes” (“Diamond”) may or may not have been. No apologies to him or his descendants; there is no excuse for inspiring sub-Song of Solomon rhapsodies in a poet of Das’s calibre. Less “hips of flame / tongue of ivory” (“Lightning”), please. It is perhaps no coincidence that a huntress/puppeteer/Kali drift starts taking more than traceable shape at the same time. The first discipline of trying to be a “poetess of my people,” or the integrity of the poetic impulse tout court, will not let Das be a sad little woman.

The uncollected poems, some of which (like “Call Me the Need for Rain”) are as fine as any of the collected, display Das’s range of techniques and how purely technique operates, irrespective of subject or feeling. Das is a true craftswoman in that she applies and experiments with the same or related formal techniques (the question/refrain poem; the elaboration of a single vivid image; the direct address to a lover-figure) in poems that do not at all achieve or aim for similar results. Whether or not the techniques work seems divorced from the speaker’s situation and the rest of the poetic material. In a way, A Leaf in His Ear, exposing Das as a poet in process, exposes the reader to a ranging determination and intelligence that makes one keep catching one’s breath.

There are experiments with Creole language (tetchy dialogues or haranguing) in the voices of the kind of people whose keenly observed lives give detail and sequential structure, as mentioned before, to some of Das’s generalised lyric observations in other poems; here they become dramatic speakers in poems of their own. “House Number Thirteen” is an and/both poem, where the destruction of a family house is equally an image for an individual whose hopes have been devastated and an actual laying waste. The personal event and the public event are two sides of a reversible garment, or one body prone to flipping its bones to the outside. The supernatural receives both light and dark treatment. There are forays into more satirical and more overtly philosophical realms. It would be madness to try to imagine how, given another twenty or forty years, Das would have burgeoned and flourished.

A note on where Das did or did not “come from,” then. De Caires Narain Gurnah’s introduction mentions Das’s “side-stepping” and “avoidance” of a role as a “representative” Indo-Caribbean poet. This is true: Indian ethnicity in the sense of backward-looking or aggressive “roots”-based attitudinising is marvellously absent. Even “They Came in Ships”, noting the Indian immigrants dying alone on the street, need not be considered an Indo-Caribbean (rather than historical) poem, were it not for the comparative invisibility of these deaths in other literary representations. Das, however (and the introduction does not make this point), is a representative Indo-Caribbean poet in that she brings a distinctly Indian diaspora aesthetic and philosophy to bear on ideas of energy, revolution, and, I would say, gender.

The black goddess Kali — necklaced with skulls, sticking out her scarlet tongue, more powerful against demons than the male gods who call on her, dancing on the battlefield — is an empowering yet equivocal presence for the activist Das. I cannot help wondering if Das’s willingness to rattle her bones, stride in strident anger across her earth, and flaunt her burgeoning into various monstrosities (“pieces of skin, a handful of hair, broken / teeth, bits of glass,” in “The Growing Tip”) is not at least partly made possible by this iconography stirring in its New World context. There are numerous direct and subtle allusions to Kali/Durga. To give a few: “Sacrifice” addresses “Kathakali, blue queen”; the title figure in “Prince of Death” is called “Minstrel of Kali”; the speaker in “Learner” refers to herself as “I, oriental fire-dragon, mother Kali / in China.” This shows Das’s determined mixing, or fusion, of cultural and geographical references. Kali is the consort of the ascetic/priapic god of destruction, Shiva, whose matted locks and some of whose behaviours seem quite Rastafarian. Sure enough, “The Leaf in His Ear” elegises “I and I Rastaman, with knotty India hair.”

This is not about origins. It is about the creative matrix in which Das can be read. For instance, her angry lament “For Walter Rodney & Other Victims” calls out “O Mother, mother.” This may be a real woman or women. It may be a Christian Marian reference. , “mother,” is the honorific typically added after the goddess Kali’s (and Durga’s) names, very much in use among Caribbean Hindus. In this case, there is a simultaneous appeal to a third kind of maternalism — the ferocious. “On Events that Occurred at Kimbia” sees Das putting her revolutionaries into raucous, uncompromising postures, liberating in their grotesquerie and ugliness, equally characteristic of a carnivalesque mob as of Kali’s movements as she destroys/purifies (the specialisms of her associated avatars include tearing apart misleading thoughts):

What if people, with their hands stuck from their ears
And tongues laughing outside their mouths,
Would jeer away the threat of superstitious domination?

Das herself, moved by the personal stress of love or loss, sometimes lapses into a poetic equivalent of a superstitiously followed dominant mode: whimsy, fairytale, or sub-Romantic morbidity. I see no point in pursuing in any more detail where or why she draws on these or who the literary antecedents for them are: when it happens, what we have to read is almost too intimate, as the poet had no chance to rework it before publication. Returning to the notion of the creative matrix: Das can make her poetic appeals against injustice more moving because of the variety as well as the specificity of the traditions that move within her. “For Patrick” accuses one god:

Great Jehovah,
you let my brother
be lost like a common snail
without mourning.

For her brother Patrick, “grieved and bewildered,” has gone into the forest, never to return. The Judaeo-Christian-Islamic god of justice (and his later modulation into a god of mercy, one presumes) have failed this man. Das makes a rhetorical use of this monotheistic tradition to specify Justice and Mercy as having failed. In “Untitled” (“I am not clear”), one of the less formally successful, more cathartic or journal-like poems, Das — possibly after personal rejection by some “you” lost to her in the first stanza — jots down images and questions expressive of extreme isolation and alienation (the feeling is like Gerard Manley Hopkins’s so-called “terrible sonnets”), ending with a one-line stanza:

What wind was this which my gods sent by you?

Here the pluralisation of “gods” implies the lyric persona’s, or Das’s, feeling of being subject to fate (kismet) or to the trend of accumulated destiny (karma). Although Das’s poems elsewhere certainly draw on classical (i.e., ancient Greek and Roman) myth, the possessive pronoun “my” suggests that the Indian diaspora pantheon is being arraigned this time, or rather that it provides the best symbolic system to hand for her state of unwished-for being.

Peepal Tree Press has done important work in making this overview of Das’s poetry and poetics available. It is a contribution to the struggle against the creeping global brutalisation whereby peoples and information almost seem to acquiesce in self-cancelling or being wiped out. Every publication of this kind gives life to the humanising questions: what is the imaginable Caribbean? What do the traditions of “the Caribbean” make imaginable?

I could wish for much more annotation to the text. Unless social studies, history, and English language teaching have changed a lot since my day (long enough ago, I shall admit), references to places and to political and cultural figures and events, not to mention the occasional “not in the dictionary” words, need to be explained. No intended readership will have adequate knowledge. While I do not entertain the dream of an e-book format that would offer an “immersive” experience with appropriate satellite views, newspaper clippings, maps, timelines, and portraiture (farewell, imagination; your work is obsolete), Das deserves and needs context. I suspect, too, that there is a “house” that should be a “hose” and a “succinct” that might be a “succulent” were it possible to consult Das on editorial matters, but this is minor.

A Leaf in His Ear, taken as a whole, is an insight into the movement of a poet’s mind. There is much for any practising or aspiring creative writer to learn about how images, concerns, and techniques are transferred or transformed over time and between works. As for just reading this book: well, that might be like drawing breath right at the moment that some braver soul flings out a line of plain and unashamed communication in a suddenly, and always, hurt and beautiful world.


The Caribbean Review of Books, September 2010

Vahni Capildeo was born in Trinidad. She went to Britain in 1991, and completed a DPhil in Old Norse at Oxford in 2000. Her poetry includes No Traveller Returns (2003), Person Animal Figure (2005), and Undraining Sea (2009).