16 November 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/46

I won't come
I won't go
I won't live
I won't die

I'll keep uttering
The name
And lose myself
In it

I'm bowl
And I'm platter
I'm man
And I'm woman

I'm grapefruit
And I'm sweet lime
I'm Hindu
And I'm Muslim

I'm fish
And I'm net
I'm fisherman
And I'm time

I'm nothing
Says Kabir
I'm not among the living
Or the dead

attributed to Kabir, translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

Kabir is a fifteenth-century Indian mystic, one of those who expressed his intensely spiritual vision in robust poems. His primary concern is not aesthetic, but sacred: removing all distinctions and obstacles, he immerses himself in the deity's sacred name, specified in other poems in the series as Rama, but Kabir doesn't seem too hung up on particulars. Since we (we being contemporary Americans) tend to live in a less clearly religious and rule-bound society than fifteenth-century India, the important thing for us to keep in mind when reading these poems is that Kabir is not just being a loosey-goosey proto-hippie: he is arguing against rigid adherence to doctrine and religious laws in favor of an inclusive search for the annihilating surrender to the Godhead, a radical approach that is part of both the mystic fringe and the essential core of religious searching (I can imagine a mystic in Europe a century later writing that he or she is both Catholic and Protestant, though I can't imagine such a poet at that time and place not being silenced or killed).

This loss of self is not without its terrifying aspects. Note the opening of this poem, with its paired opposites (I won't come / I won't go / I won't live / I won't die); if there were an and between the opposites, that might suggest some sort of personal volition, but as it is, the lines suggest an almost helpless suspension between two states in constant, irreconcilable tension (a tension that, perhaps, is the nature of the universe). The closing lines have a similar effect: I'm not among the living / Or the dead; even the lack of a concluding period emphasizes the on-going, endless state of being-not-being. When you're everything – when you're the fish, and net in which it's caught, and the fisherman casting the net, and the time in which all this is happening – then you, yourself, are nothing.

This is from Songs of Kabir, translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, with a preface by Wendy Doniger. The volume is brief – I read the entire collection, along with the illuminating forewords by Doniger and Mehrotra, in maybe a bit under an hour – but it is intense and invigorating. Some poets suffer from having many of their lyrics read at once, as repetition makes their effects pall; for a few, accumulation is an advantage. I found that to be the case here. It's worth reading the introductions first, as they give some cultural and theological background for Kabir's "upside-down" language (such as his use of direct contradiction, which we see in this poem, and surreal juxtaposition, as in the poems in which he describes "fish spawning / on treetops; / A cat carrying away / A dog . . .") and his complicated relationship to the two major religions of his time and place (he was most likely born a Muslim, though also influenced by Hindus; attacked by both religions during his life for his disregard of their protocols, he was claimed by both after his death). Mehrotra has some interesting things to say about the fluidity of Kabir's corpus, which was composed and initially passed down orally – there is no single definitive text. In a way what we now have of Kabir's works is a collective expression of an attitude (which justifies Mehrotra's occasional use of anachronistic terms; not only do they add to the pungent sense of the poems, anachronism is in a way part of the living tradition of Kabir).

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