Thursday, November 8, 2007

Diwali: Poem by Shanta Acharya

Poetry is rooted in it's own traditions, literary, cultural, religious--and of course, linguistic.

Do we most honor and understand a poem when we steep ourselves in the cultural fabric it expresses, or when we seek to respond to those elements that seem to break free of the limitations of origin? Or neither and both?

For an outsider, the particular conventions of a poem transgressing the boundaries of language and tradition--I mean, what would be conventions within the traditions of origin, strike new cords, invite responses alien to the reader in the poem's native language, so that what is most alien and new, is at the same time a door opened into what is familiar in that other world, and a formation of something new to both.

I find in this meeting place the very essence of that strange eclectic invention we call art, and not least, the source of its transgressive and sacrilegious character.

Our appreciation of the Tlingit designs on the bows of the whaling vessel we observe in the museum--as "art" --is, in terms of the intended purpose of these artifacts, a sacrilege born of a kind of willful ignorance. Once we have we seen them outside of their cultural context, in this artificially created secular space we reserve for works of art, no matter how we correct and inform ourselves, their value will never be for us what they were for those who made them. We will admire them as the idolaters we have become, as the idolaters they have made of us in our meeting with them.

The iconoclastic protestants were on to something. Art is dangerous to fixed systems of thought. Giotto's St. Francis preaching to the birds breaks free from all theology--opens the windows to the multispectral light of heresy, cannot be contained. We cannot look at this painting, truly look--without breaking free into some larger space than its theology would have granted us.

All this as preface to a poem on Shiva's Arms on the festival of Divali--about which I know nothing more than the brief introduction she offers--and offers me no entrance into this poem. I read it, and dwell in it... knowing that I am a transgressor, trampling shod in a foreign sacred space...and yet... in my reading, discovering what I would I would not have known without it, what belongs to all--paradoxically, because it is an expression of what has belonged only to the initiated.

I wonder if "art" --in all its forms... in assimilating particularity to an imagined universal... is the work of the spirit extinguishing its source, a kind of death wish, as we are so clearly bent on extinguishing the sources of life on our planet?

Here is the poem, by Shanta Acharya, from Shiva's Arms

Fever In Diwali a poem from her first collection of poems, Not This, Not That (Rupa & Co, India; 1994).

Pious neighbours celebrated Diwali
with neat rows of oil lamps
promising the destruction of evil.

My fever flew fast through the coil of night
setting ablaze the desolate sky
like a child conspiring with confetti stars.

Harassed doctors came with tablets,
magic, miniature moons
with syrup in exorcist cups and hermetic brew.

While the snake-charmer’s fluted thermometer
grinned its flinted fangs wider and wider,
I ate moons and laughed at stars.

My limbs could’ve even danced a few steps to appease
evil with the grace of lightning in a storm ripped sky
like blue throated Shiva with snakes in red matted hair.

White sheeted, I lay still
like an Indian monkey in summer.

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