Song of Maize
Poet: Gurdev Chauhan
(Translated from Punjabi by the Poet)
Publisher: Writers Club International,
Year of Publication: 2004
Price: Rs. 100; $ 10
Gurdev Chauhan’s Song of Maize
By Rajesh Kumar Sharma
Perhaps poets alone are the best qualified to comment on poetry. The rest of us only make noises.
Perhaps. Because not being a poet myself, I do not claim to know for sure if they are so qualified. I guess that as a community of craftsmen they are afforded special insights into each other’s work - out of a certain communion that the community makes possible.
The title of the book (Song of Maize) itself lets you in on something. It betrays the expectation of the romance of the rural. In terms of numbers too, just two poems (‘Song of Maize’ and ‘The Song of Corn on the Cob’) out of 55 treat of the rural. And the title poem (or song) speaks rather of the disintegration of the rural, which appears in the farmer’s alienation from his lands and crops:
Now they’d visit us only once in a while
As if their hearts had landed somewhere else
We’d stare without a wink waiting for them. (48)
This perception of the rural probably explains the choice of the rather unrepresentative title: it lends to the choice the edge of sharp irony.
Chauhan’s sensibility, as it emerges in the book, is definitely not rural. And this is so in spite of his sympathies and nostalgia for the village. His sensibility is urban, though not metropolitan. Memories of the village he has left behind survive, to ply him with an abundance of refreshing images; yet the landscape in which he moves is unmistakably urban.
That, however, does not mean he is comfortably settled in this landscape. He is incurably unhappy, finding himself like “a camel in a metro” (‘Camel in a City’ 82) or ruing over “an office packed full / of empty clerks” [emphases mine] (‘The City and I’ 83).
The rural background, then, paradoxically survives for him as a mine for images to ironically capture the urban banality.
Another significant thing about the poet is his gendered, even unselfconsciously masculinist, sensibility. Is this a hangover of the older romantic conventions? There are shades of Batalvi’s kudi (girl) in “That Girl of My Childhood” but one who would wake up at the magical touch of her Prince Charming. In some instances, Chauhan’s women/girls are hermeneutically inscrutable like encrypted, seductive poems; in others, they are like the hoardings of poverty alleviation or self-help programmes, over-exposed but not quite real. The woman in “That Woman” (70) remains unrealized for a different reason: her conflicts remain at the level of potentiality in the poem, and as a result she is rather hastily and peremptorily contained. The motivation of this neutralizing operation may be psychoanalytically glimpsed in the ostensibly unrelated reference to her “supple breasts” – the maternal organs that hang ambivalently, evoking both fear and desire, over the poet’s “flying sky” (39) across several poems, including ‘A Curvaceous Woman’ (30-1).
The refusal to allow conflicts to rise to the surface informs also Chauhan’s social sensibility and determines his strengths as well as limitations. The question of social disparities appears in a number of poems. It is there in the title poem also. In ‘They Come Like This’ its violence is confronted head on:
The system of the slaughterhouse
knows of only one difference
between one head and another:
the difference of strong and weak necks. (35)
A reversal is accomplished in ‘An Evening of a River’ in which the city appears as an encroacher advancing menacingly to swallow the huts of the poor (75). ‘Today’s News’ seems, particularly towards the end, to be conducting a dialogue with Pash, but its muted radical streak inhibits it from turning into a fireball so that it glows gently, though indignantly, like a firefly instead (57). This could be perhaps viewed as an exemplar of aestheticized vision taming the volcanic fires of radical tradition. It is the poet’s romantic, aestheticized vision as an observer, not an agent, bearing witness to history as an ambience in transition, not as a project of transformation.
The awareness of reading translations of poems written in Punjabi engenders, at least for me, a pervasive sense of loss, for I cannot help imagining at the back of my mind what the original would be like. I think the rhythm and the spontaneous sweetness of the original suffer inevitable degradation in the process of translation, even if the translator here happens to be the poet himself. The short, maxim-like poem ‘Ants’ should adequately exemplify this (29).
Chauhan’s poetic range is impressively wide. There is nostalgia in ‘Days of Jehlum’, tight-lipped reflection in ‘Poem and the Gun’, adulation in ‘You’re Behind Each Flower’, irony in ‘Portrait of a City’, impressionist images in ‘Flowers of Tears’, and the unusual complexity of memories of hatred, betrayal and violence intertwined with beauty in ‘A Raw Cut’. The poet’s remarkable sensitivity to life’s humble situations comes out in ‘Teddy Bear’, ‘An Imaginary Toy’ and ‘Dark Groping for Light’. In the last of these three poems, he evokes the poignancy of such situations with his characteristic understatement:
But the mother keeps awake, long.
The father too is awake,
in the loneliness of a far city,
in his room, with a bed, a trunk
and a set of dress.
In a different register, the understatement becomes excessive and yields what may be described as an inverse hyperbole:
A very innocent error on its roads gets
crushed under the wheels of speed.
This profiles my city’s portrait. (‘Portrait of a City’ 24-5)
It is this ability to hold his ground while playing with language which allows the poet to create a perfectly balanced and quietly white-hot political-philosophical parallelism:
Those who own this earth were never children
and those who do not
would never be grown-ups. (‘The Earth’ 60)
Yet when it comes to disclosing the nature of poetry, the poet’s self-conscious meditations fade before poetry’s luminous moment of unconscious self-disclosure. And poetry emerges as a consumer of the spectacle, in spite of the poet (‘The Poem’ 80). Well, that would not happen but for the poet: for he steps aside to let the poem be.
Rajesh Kumar Sharma
Department of English