After a long time, I came across poems by Kamala Das and Nissim Ezekiel. I found Love, by Kamala Das, in Penguin’s Poems for Weddings, selected by Laura Barber, and Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher, by Nissim Ezekiel, in The Picador Book of Weddings, edited by Peter Forbes. The poems stirred old memories. Kamala Das was a sensation in her time. Here she is on her favourite theme.
By Kamala Das
Until I found you,
I wrote verse, drew pictures,
And, went out with friends
Now that I love you,
Curled like an old mongrel
My life lies, content,
I was struck by her restraint in this poem. It reminded me of another little poem, A Decade, also included in Penguin’s Poems for Weddings, where the poet Amy Lowell describes how placid and contented, but no longer ardent, a long marriage can be.
Kamala Das was not always so restrained as she is in Love. She could be erotic, uninhibited, sensual. Describing her as the “Indian writer and poet who inspired women struggling to be free of domestic oppression”, the Guardian noted in her obituary:
She began to break taboos with her early poetry, in which she celebrated her sexuality and advised women to “Gift him what makes you woman, the scent of/ Long hair, the musk of sweat between the breasts,/ The warm shock of menstrual blood, and all your/ Endless female hungers …” (The Looking Glass, from The Descendants, 1967).
Here’s the poem in full.
Kamala Das, who was married at 15, spent part of her childhood in Calcutta, where her father worked for a company selling Rolls Royces and Bentleys to Indian princes. Her first book of poems was Summer in Calcutta, published in 1965, when she was 30 or 31 years old. The Guardian published a poem from Summer in Calcutta called Someone Else’s Song. It reminded me of Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise, but that appeared much later, in 1978.
Born into a Hindu family, Kamala Das became a Muslim in 1999 at the age of 65. She assumed the name, Kamala Surayya.
“I am against the Hindu way of cremating the dead. I do not want my body to be burnt. But this was only a minor consideration,” she said in an interview two years after her conversion, adding: “I had been thinking about conversion for the last seven years.”
She died in 2009 at the age of 75.
Nissim Ezekiel, who died aged 79 in 2004, was described as “the father of post-independence Indian verse in English” in his obituary in the Guardian. Born into a Marathi-speaking Jewish family, he taught English and American literature, first at a college and then at the university in Mumbai. The academic influence shows in this poem of his, which is not as straightforward as Kamala Das’s outpouring of Love but more cerebral.
Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher
By Nissim Ezekiel
To force the pace and never to be still
Is not the way of those who study birds
Or women. The best poets wait for words.
The hunt is not an exercise of will
But patient love relaxing on a hill
To note the movement of a timid wing:
Until the one who knows that she is loved
No longer waits but risks surrendering —
In this the poet finds his moral proved,
Who never spoke before his spirit moved.
The slow movement seems, somehow, to say much more.
To watch the rarer birds, you have to go
Along deserted lanes and where the rivers flow
In silence near the source, or by a shore
Remote and thorny like the heart’s dark floor.
And there the women slowly turn around,
Not only flesh and bone but myths of light
With darkness at the core, and sense is found
By poets lost in crooked, restless flight,
The deaf can hear, the blind recover sight.
The Guardian recalled in his obituary: “He acted as a mentor to younger poets, such as Dom Moraes, Adil Jussawalla and Gieve Patel. Many of his poems, such as The Night of the Scorpion, and that supreme antidote to jingoism, The Patriot, are set-works in Indian and British schools.”
Nissim Ezekiel used Indian English to comic effect in poems like The Patriot, but I wonder if that works any more. The language certainly didn’t make me smile when I read The Patriot again.
By Amy Lowell
When you came, you were like red wine and honey,
And the taste of you burnt my mouth with its sweetness.
Now you are like morning bread,
Smooth and pleasant,
I hardly taste you at all for I know your savour,
But I am completely nourished.