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Poems of Innovations, Anxieties and Aspirations: A Survey of Six Strings

– BAL KRISHNA SHARMA

Six Strings, a joint anthology of poems by a group of six young Nepali poets contains 60 poems of varying styles, themes, and length. This collection unveils new experiments in technique and style. The poets have attempted to raise an array of issues of topical as well as universal significance, accounting for a welter of transformations being witnessed everyday everywhere. Rendered in simple but lucid dictions, the poems have drawn upon disparate quotidian and philosophical topics. In expressing their poetic exuberance, some of the poets have amply shown the influence of foreign form in their poems without, however, sacrificing native flavor. The influence has revealed unique and bold innovations as in the case of “The Poem,” “The River,” “The Gap” and “Two balls of thread”. This form-content poetic seesaw seems to promise a new trend in Nepali literature in English.

This paper presents a brief critical overview of Six Strings highlighting poets’ response to and their worldview on the issues they have reflected upon.  It draws upon the commentaries and analyses of Padma Prasad Devkota and Mahesh Paudyal. Devkota and Paudyal have analyzed only selected poems; this paper, however, makes a critical observation of the entire anthology and also attempts to highlight the possibility of new interpretations and analyses.

Bal Bahadur Thapa’s poetic observation explores different dimensions of life. “My City”, Thapa’s first poem, paints a bleak picture of a city, evoking dreadful images: “the veil of the fog,” “the smoke of the city,” “smells cancerous” and “the soul warping” (4). The poem evinces a tone of premonition and foreboding. His second poem “A Stranger” reflects on the conflict between illusion and reality with the conclusion that separation is a natural phenomenon.  The speaker has long lived in “pretense of oneness” which is now “upset” (8). In “The Discovery”, the poet renews his perception of the self, through a powerful action of smashing of “a big mirror” (21). This poem follows the passage of a person whose identity is shattered “into bits and pieces” (21), revealing the fact that identity is always inconsistent, unstable and ungraspable. The issue of identity perhaps leads the poet to reflect upon the enigmatic and intriguing relationship between life and death in “Apocalypse”. The poem reveals this enigma when the death of a mother gives way to “the birth of four strong boys” (26).

The transition from the philosophical concern of life, identity and self to the diurnal issue confronting us everywhere is evident in Thapa’s next poem “An Overnight Star”. It captures the overweening ambition of the present day youths who “chase a dream/ a dream to be an overnight star” (27). In this poem, the poet seems to be suggesting that one should choose a career in life according to one’s aptitude and skill. Couched in a wry tone, “Kathmandu, I Love you” brushes a seamy side of urban living.  The poet here blends anonymity, poverty, alienation and plight together to show an entangled and confused existence in Kathmandu. “Rain” shows the confluence of rain and earth through a vibrant sexual imagery. The poem is evocative of the theme of regeneration and growth as against desiccation and sterility. Poet’s idea that commercialism has reduced human beings to a mere automaton is best expressed in “My Best Opium”. This poem follows a pathetic story of the contemporary youths who are dehumanized by commercial world.  Fed up with “endless rat race” (56), the fatigued youth in the poem desperately needs his “best opium” to end his “endless burden” (56). “Holi” presents the poet as a social critic. He is deeply anguished by the cultural distortions that have erupted violently in the contemporary society in the name of festivals. Bulls going berserk “know no decency” and are devoid of any sense of “courtesy” (65). They symbolize terror and anarchy. “The Obscure Object of Desire”, Thapa’s last poem, traces the agony of unfulfilled love. Here, the social barrier symbolized by “a thin glass wall” (66) thwarts the union of two beings.

If Bal Bahadur Thapa has succeeded in blending the philosophical questions of human existence with the concern of everyday activities, Hem Raj Kafle is equally accomplished in dealing with his personal worries and political anomalies.

The poet Kafle visualizes the present world as a place of myriad experiences. The first poem of the anthology and that of Kafle is “My Fear”. It projects that the bonds of human relationships are extremely shaky, vulnerable and tenuous, like “the river that changes its course/ Or splits into two streams” (1). The poet being apprehensive of such unpredictable and fleeting nature of human relationship seems to be in haste to consummate the present intensely. His next poem “Just or unjust” unmasks the way human beings employ deception and fallacies to rationalize their course of action. Will the poet’s chiding such errant come of age?  In “The burden” the poet is heavily weighed down by the elusive nature of peace (Devkota, “reading-half-of-six-strings”). “My neighbor”, one of the most memorable poems in the anthology, picks up a typical commonplace spectacle: a befuddled drunkard with a serious mission to “smash the world” “gun me,” and “bomb my abode” (22). However, the poet’s mission is even more serious: “to forgive him” (23). Poet’s redemptive act of forgiveness is reminiscent of Christ’s forgiveness to his own betrayer. In an epiphany, the poet here discovers his own virtuous self. Another of Kafle’s poems, “On Martyrdom” reveals a sensitive person in the poet. It deals with a solemn issue of unselfish sacrifice and the dignity of martyrdom. However, the betrayal of a well-intentioned sacrifice made by martyrs—“Mercilessly redefined”– (24) dismays the poet. In “Co-travellers”, the poet sketches, in a slightly hilarious tone, some nasty and bitter experiences of life. It highlights the volatile, sinister and self-centered nature of human beings.

The agenda of rights and social awareness finds voice in Kafle’s short but subtle poem titled “Woman’s Day”. In this poem the poet grimaces at the absurdity between what is so laudably professed and what the actual reality is. The poet perhaps wishes to appeal to humanitarian activists of women emancipation and empowerment to be practical and realistic in their approach to women’s problems.  “On the Pile of Papers” beautifully captures a dilemma in which a time-conscious professional is terribly cleft in a conflict between fulfilling his filial responsibility and the terror of institutional deadlines. “[U]ncertain” and “confused”, the poet is caught unawares by his “toddler” when he fails to satisfy his curiosity of what he has been doing with “the pile” (53). In his attempt to expose the pretense of the world, he himself is trapped in self-deception. The poet has expressed his resentment and scathing criticism over the abysmal political scenario in “Street Theatre”. Here, the poet directs his rage at the unthinking and unscrupulous “gangsters,” “players,” and “actors” who have terrorized, brutalized, and devastated “country’s destiny”. Through a dreadful image of a giant beast swallowing a doe, the poet shows how people are at the mercy of these irrational and whimsical “pythons” (57). “The City breeds” takes readers through seemingly insignificant urban activities during festive occasions to ruminate on a serious issue. By placing “democrats” beside “[d]irt” and “dearth” (58), the poet’s impression and that of general people towards democrats as filthier than dirt becomes obvious.

More reclusive and introspective than any other poets in the anthology, Keshab Sigdel, however, adroitly elevates a seemingly ordinary event to a philosophical height.

Sigdel considers search, intrigues and change as the major themes of his poems.  His disillusionment with the present state of affairs and inability to reconcile himself with his future forms the base of his poem titled “To Myself”. Much water has flown in the river, indicated by the word “That”, since he first cast his vote out of his own accord. Now he feels his freedom threatened as “everybody speaks with threat” (2). His next poem “Identity” reveals his desperate struggle to discover his own identity.  His search begins with linguistic medium in “12 letters,” “BLOCK LETTERS” , mechanical medium in “Times Roman, Font Size 12” and official documents “1/147 and 2492318”. But the search turns into “a farce” (10). The poet’s any one attempt to define his identity only imprisons him into yet another definitional trap before he finally realizes the futility of his identity search.  “The Chess Game” reveals a subtle psychological relationship between two opponents at a chess board, each trying a smart move to outsmart the other opponent. Suddenly, he realizes that he is “A mere dice in flesh and blood” (19) being constantly maneuvered by some other players. In “My buddha-in-becoming” the poet takes “a buddha-in-becoming” to wander in an “enlightened” (34) city in search of enlightenment. The poet in “The change” directs his rage first at the “Time” that has engulfed him. Then, he expresses his anguish as his “scary” (35) reality. Man relishes in foisting submission on the weak, which is the theme of “Gratification”. This poem allows us a peep into a strange human psychology.  In the poem, it is actually the speaker who is “in gratification” because he has produced a life-long obeisance from the dog with a “piece of bone” (39).

In “Wonders of a leaf” Sigdel shows a leaf being engrossed in an amorous dream. On realizing that it was overwhelmed and consumed by the parasitic behavior of a caterpillar, the leaf is suddenly beset with a doubt:   “a mystic of life” (49). In a self-questioning tone, the leaf after being an active participant in the process of transformation (the caterpillar was transformed into a butterfly) wonders “if the butterfly is my love” (49). Political issues function as a recurring motif in this anthology. In line with this, “Metamorphosis” recounts the story of the manipulation of the common people by “a group of artists” who are entrusted with a responsibility of transforming “an Unreal City” into “a Real City” (50). The promised city never came into being. However, the common people, including the poet himself, continues to hope against hope until they accepted their “own defacement” and witnessed their own “metamorphosis” (51). Relating the theme of betrayal, the poet in “Will Power” constantly plays on the meaning of the word “change” to lend a witty and ironical twist to the last line of the poem. On being asked the possibility of their change, one of the leaders becomes confused and replies “We haven’t decided yet”. It pokes fun at the much-hyped rhetoric of “New Nepal” (59) used as a political spin by the so-called political leaders to hoodwink common people. Finally, poet’s last poem “Reward” sums up a 20-year career of a lady typist in a good-natured humor.

Iconoclast and inventive in his own way in the context of Nepali English writing, Prakash Subedi is seriously engaged in blending the form with meaning.

Subedi is always prepared to conjure something out of a very ordinary situation.  In “Goats”, his vision, inspired by the severed head of a goat and live goats munching “a few strands of straw/under the table” (3), transcends “the butcher’s dirty wooden table” (3) to reflect very broadly upon the transient nature of life. Illustrative of bold experiment, “The Poem” represents an appeal to use simple but connotative dictions for poetic or artistic creation. A verbose style only suppresses and obscures the meaning of a literary work.  In its use of conceit—“two big drop of tears” creating an ocean, the poem “Barrier” is reminiscent of the Metaphysical poetry of English literature.  Emotions always hinder progress. “Two big drops of tears” have “created an ocean” for the poet. Now the poet’s earlier determination “to cross the Mighty Koshi” (17) takes no time to shake.  Should a determined man like our poet be held back by sentimentalism?  As an audience watching an artistic performance, the poet stumbles upon a riddle: which one is true, life or art? The stage is synonymous with life and vice versa, as Padma Prasad Devkota understands (“At the theatre”), (Devkota, “reading-half-of-six-strings”).

The shorter the subtler! The case in point is “Time”. This poem claims the dream as being “longer than the night”. If dream here refers to vision, then it can be inferred that the poet wishes to celebrate “the permanence of vision in the infinite gyre of the space-time continuum” (Paudyal “poetry-in-strings”). Big changes in the world have emanated from the dreams “longer than the night” (33). “Two balls of thread” allegorizes an event through the imagery of two balls of thread. When the two boys “fell into a deep dry well” (38) they each found a ball of thread. One wove his share of thread into a rope and climbed out; the other got entangled and snared in his. In the journey of life, some utilize an opportunity at hand to their advantage, while others fail to do so. “The State” refers to a deplorable political situation. Great political figures “tall men” with genuine vision and commitment “chose to leave the state”.  The state has faced an acute dearth of honest political leadership and is “ruled by the dwarfs” (47). The political theme of “The State” can also be found in “Unity”. This poem aptly captures the contemporary political hide -seek game of Nepal. Selfishness, treachery, and vested personal interest have made it difficult to grasp and establish unity in the country. In “Gods” the poet finds gods callous and indifferent. Rather than relieving his afflictions and mopping his “torrential tears”, gods laugh “at the top [their] voice” (67), the poet complains. So, the poet is deeply despaired.  A poet emerges out of self-sacrifice, whereby he establishes his immutable ties with such cosmic elements as “the winds,” “the clouds,” “the mountains,” “the flowers,” “the stars,” “moon,” “the sun,” and “people” (68) (“Poet”).

Unlike her preceding counterparts—Thapa, Kafle, Sigdel and Subedi—Sarita Bhattarai has explored and dealt with the issues related with women, domesticity, environment and so forth.

Bhattarai’s first poem “Transformations” exposes a gruesome story of violence being administered in “daily dosage” to a woman. Her account of the portrayal of “torture and abuse” (5) meted out to the woman in question is very moving. Sometimes, an ordinary action turns out be a moment of epiphany (“Spectacle”). Wonderstruck at the sight of a beast, the poet is suddenly led to reflect upon the unparalleled craftsmanship of nature, and “marveled / At the beautiful ugly creature/ And nature’s genius” (13). Constructive conflict leads to common prosperity and positive results. In “Kitchen garden” the muttering and grumbling couple, though found wrangling in the kitchen garden, are actually involved in the cosmic act of procreation. In “Pathways” the poet has used “walking” (30) as a controlling motif in the poem, relating it to her loneliness.  “A Plea” is one of the poems in the anthology which makes a veiled reference to impending ecological upheavals due to befall humankind. If a mighty star like sun is “sick” or “annoyed”, the sickness is likely to play havoc with “The land,” “The being,” “Animals,” “lakes,” and “humans”. The poet on behalf of the entire chain of being implores the annoyed sun to “scatter its warm rays” and respond to the “Hopeful eyes” (31). To trespass is to incur dispute and antagonism. In “At play” the baby and the dog are well aware of this fact. When will the so-called grown up conscious adult learn this humility and create a harmonious place for a peaceful living? This question worries the poet.

Environmental concern reemerges in “The K Valley” as in “A Plea”.  By mystifying the familiar geographical place Kathmandu (K in the title instead of Kathmandu), the poet lends a tone of some eeriness to the poem. Personified as an old woman, the valley is afflicted with some serious medical conditions: “Her food pipe clogged with sewage/ And windpipe chocked with fumes”.  She buckles because of the overload of “innumerable selfish offspring” (45). This situation does not auger good for the environmentally threatened citizen of the K valley.  In “The red”, the poet observes that red color is pervasive and inescapable. She seems to project red as a color of violence as she describes it as “Fiery and furious red/ Dangerous, murderous Red” (46). Women are the victim of this violence.  “Silence” is one of the most outspoken poems in this anthology. The four stanzas of the poem are enclosed by the word “silence”. This seems that silence exists as an overpowering element, engulfing all external sounds. Ironically, silence has profusely inspired the poet in articulating her “lonely but painfully true” (61) story.  “Ladybird army” is the last poem of Sarita Bhattarai. The poem moves from a simple description of overwhelming swarms of ladybird, causing havoc everywhere, to contemplate how the three-fold motion– My motion/Their motion and non-motion (62)—became “their death trap”.

The poems of Saraswati Lamichhane, the last poet of Six Strings, echo those of Bhattarai and Subedi in terms of theme and experimentation.  Besides,  Lamichhane chooses to deal with the power of poetic expression, change, attitude and some of the harsh realities of femininity.

In her first poem titled “Poems”, the poet subtly emphasizes the idea that poetry is a strong and infallible form of communication among human beings. So, she reasons, “I decided to remain/silent” (6). Her next poem “Change” denotes that people’s perception undergoes a sea change as they come across a new environment or circumstance. Change is a matter of attitude and perception.  “Shift”, dealing with the theme of love, expresses poet’s confusion between dream and reality. Being uncertain, the poet asks, “which one is true!” (16). Remarkable in topographical features along with imageries, “The river” follows the incessant flow of a river to illustrate challenges, changes, expectations and disillusionment in life. Another poem, “The view” advocates developing and cultivating objective perception that provides a true view of the world. Criticizing the tendency of perceiving the world on borrowed view, the poet emphasizes the need to acquire one’s own point of view –true “glasses” (29)—which remain intact and reliable for good. One of the most experimental poems in this collection is “The Gap”. The poet here seems to attempt to erode the gap that separates mother from daughter. A daughter cherishes a “deep-seated realization of a mother, who bears an inevitable destiny of becoming a mother” (Paudyal “poetry-in-strings). In terms of typographical feature, this poem resembles those of e.e. cummnings’–“a poet of imaginative typographical experiment” (Ruland and Bradbury 275).

Artistic creation results from a continuous struggle between the creator and what he creates. Art is always elusive, so ideas “melt, run, and evaporate…” (43), the poet Lamichhane admits.  A sense of guilt besets her for imprisoning ideas on her “cold dry paper” (43). However, her “Ideas” will take on a new lease of life when they renew “the fight” (43) with thousands of readers ahead. This should redeem the poet of her sense of self-guilt (“I am writing a poem”). Next, the poem “Hills” is a meticulous observation of the changes that have occurred in the environment. The green quiet habitats that have sheltered “Leopards” and “Antelopes” have been changed into “Brown/ Crowded Resorts” (44). Another poem, “Women-in-red” encapsulates how women are perceived by the society as they enter into different phases of Red—“The First Red, The Second Red, The Third Red…” . Right from their first biological transformation (their initiation into puberty), women are constantly subjected to strict social scrutiny. They are classified, “treated,” “examined,” and “taught” (63) in a certain way. This social ritual is enacted time and again throughout a woman’s life. The last poem of Saraswati Lamichhane is “The Woods and the city”. The charming “cold-green-darkness…” of “the woods” wherein the poet longs to “trek,” “get lost,” “jump,” “sing,” and “dance” is too fascinating a place for the poet to resist. However, she has to abandon this idyllic place and is compelled to return to face “the hot-grey-city…” (64). The contrast between her longing and reality renders the poet’s situation miserable and poignant.

The observation in the paragraphs above shows that the poets of this anthology have dealt with the issues of human relations, identity, politics as well as ecology that have continued to haunt us in the contemporary world. Their attempt to present these issues in a new poetic form is indeed a trailblazing contribution to Nepali literature in English.

For raising various contemporary problems in the poems, the present anthology deserves readings from new perspectives. For their visual effectiveness, the poems of Prakash Subedi and Saraswati Lamichhane can be compared and contrasted with those of e.e.cummings’. Hem Raj Kafle and Bal Bahadur Thapa’s politico-social and cultural consciousness can be studied from cultural perspective. The unique observation of Keshab Sigdel may be a concern for those interested in, religion and politics. Feministic readings may enhance and expand the recurring feministic voices in the poems of Sarita Bhattarai and Saraswati Lamichhane. Likewise, a good number of poems are readily amenable to eco-critical reading.

Works Cited

Devkota, Padma. http://padmadevkota.blogspot.com/2011/11/07reading-half-of-six-strings.html

Paudyal, Mahesh. http://stats.kkk.com.np/the-kathmandu-ost/2011/09/30/related_articles/poetry-in-strings/226885.html

Ruland, Richard and Malcolm Bradbury. From Puritansim to Postmodernism. A History of

American Literature. New York: Penguin, 1992.

Thapa, Bal Bahadur and et.al. Six Strings, a Joint Anthology of Poems. Kathmandu: Society of  Nepali Writers in English, 2011.

 

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