– SAGUNA SHAH
As if out of impulse—
As if in a flash—
My poem writes me:
A few incomprehensible inkblots
A few inarticulate idioms
A few invisible shades
A few mute rhythms
[. . . ]
I find the modest man
Figuring out unerringly
What my poem has written of me
And nodding his head
In faultless comprehension—
It gives me a pleasant shock
And a reassurance . . . . (“My Poem and My Reader” 34-35)
Although the poet “silently dedicates these lines to [h]is teacher,” he seems to lay his unfaltering faith on the readers” by believing that his poems are able to communicate to them (34). “They actually are unpremeditated flashes that would hit me now and then, and I have simply attempted to record them,” says poet Subedi about his poems collected in Stars and Fireflies in the foreword (iii).
Stars and Fireflies, Prakash Subedi’s first anthology of poems, was published by Society of Nepali Writers in English (NWEN) in the year 2009. It comprises of 49 short but very contemplative pieces that have rich layers of meaning. This anthology has been warmly received by the readers and scholars for its meditative philosophical insights and for taking them through a wide myriad of emotions. Here, the poet has been successful in sweeping the readers into the rigmarole of deep reflective thinking, taking them beyond the reach of his adeptly crafted simple voice. In this regard, Binay Ghimire, in his review of Stars and Fireflies, claims, “Some people write out of vanity, others to entertain, or to enlighten, some even to make money, but most importantly they all write to communicate something. Literature has undergone many changes— earlier it talked about the world of Gods and heroes, now it is the man-made fantasy pop literature that is all rage. But Subedi’s poems are timeless—evocative and enlightening” (7).
Indeed, what Ghimire says is true as Subedi’s poems are able to communicate to the readers. After reading the anthology, one can feel that his poems reflect the elegant understatement of relationships, love, nature, politics, and the power of artistic expression in the everyday language that people use. They are about run of the mill subjects, yet meaningful in every aspect. They are comprehensible and people can relate to what the poet is trying to say. Simple or complex, resolute or oblique, poetry becomes aesthetically pleasing when it is able to evoke a certain kind of visceral tremor in the readers and Stars and Fireflies has successfully done the same.
In terms of style, there is an uncannily striking resemblance to the American poet E.E. Cummings’ imagism and psychological indulgence in treating the first and last poem that is devoid of words. Like Cummings’ poems, Subedi’s poems give a visual effect. The dark and light square boxes respectively named “The first Poem” and “The last Poem” give a visually concrete image of mankind’s journey from darkness to light, from ignorance to wisdom. The series of other poems that twinkle in between perhaps symbolize our growth seeking slender meaning in the chaotic upheaval of life. The poet’s meditative experimentation with the style that breaks the conventional method seems to be immeasurable with these two poems. Again, the visual imagery is very prominent in the poem “Eyes,” in which the poet opens his eyes to ‘look’ at the world and closes them to ‘see’ it.
Though these poems appear to be impulsive flashes, on explicating Stars and Fireflies, the readers find an overlapping mélange of emotions, realization, speculations, and delusion. There are various themes, some of which stand out whereas some are subtle. Like Wordsworth, the poet weaves in themes from the common life and incidents. The poems range from politics, philosophy, romance, religion, war, and the insignificant turmoil of the commoners. While most of poems are somber in tone, the readers cannot disregard the humor and restrained satire. A tone of mockery can’t be ignored in poems like “To the ‘bard’,” in which he makes fun of a bard in this manner:
Turn this iridescent box off, lad!
Cuddle in your cozy bed:
Will you add after all
To the glistening granite Herculean heap
And Khayyams? (41)
Here, the poet himself is not exempt from those, who trivially attempt for a creation. Perhaps he is mocking himself, too. After all, what significance could one add over the burning intensity of Shakespeare, Devkota and Khayyam’s exuberant work? The poet also seems to be influenced by the aphoristic magnitude of Nietzsche and Devkota’s existential quest. His fondness for these iconic figures can be observed in the poems “After Reading Nietzsche-1/2,” “Fear,” “To Devkota-1,” “Presence” and “To Devkota-2.”
Despite his obsession with the iconic figures, the poet’s voice, in most of the poems, is that of a common wo(man), disillusioned with the political unrest in a country distraught with civil war, the lives lost, and the tug of war between the political leaders. These concerns of the common wo(man) are expressed in a poignant manner. Subedi makes a profuse use of satire in poems like “Fish,” in which a small fish asks a big fish why they are eaten. In reply, the big fish gulps the small one and gives a belch. “For those who carry guns,” “Flowers,” “The drinking water project,” and “A Commoner” are a few poems that mock the social scenario of present time in Nepal. Subedi’s satire takes a scathingly rebellious stance against politics and our leaders especially in poem like «“Milk and blood.” Presenting the nation as the tigress and the leaders as her cubs, the poet makes a satire on the corrupt political leaders in a metaphorical way: “She resisted but they sucked / She moaned but they sucked / She groaned and whined but they sucked and sucked / She collapsed but they sucked until the last drop of her blood” (“Milk and blood” 30). Here, he uses the metaphor of cubs and tigress to vent out his anger and frustration at our leaders, who have drained our country of resources for fulfilling their self interest. “He seems to have woven his own frustrations into them, thus also revolting against the reigning anarchy and chaos,” Richa Bhattarai echoes the similar idea about Subedi’s poetry in her review entitled “Terse Verse,” published in Republica (p).
In the same manner, Subedi expresses his discontent in the poems like “At the temple” and “Fingers,” in which he subverts the ideologies, values, beliefs, ethnicity, and religion. He writes, “The worshippers were busy throwing the coins, the priests were busy collecting them” (8). Here, the speaker ponders over who is more of a devout, what have we made of our faith in religion. The fingers are symbolic to our distinct nature of being. However, it does not matter which one of us is more important. What is the entire struggle for? Despite having separate identities, we belong to the same hand. Thus, the poet stands for solidarity.
Apart from political satire, the most prominent and dominating themes in majority of the poems in Stars and Fireflies are the transitoriness and meaninglessness of life. Paradoxically, in this very futility, in this very meaninglessness lies the existential quest, meaning of life, the realization. The focus of the present study henceforth is on illuminating the same. In poems like “The Dog and the Caravan” and “the [k]ing,” the poet contemplates over transience. And this very transience brings about the paradigm shift between the center and the margin. Nothing can remain static forever. “The Dog and the Caravan,” for example, highlights the dilemma of this shift where the poet takes an age old proverb, “The dog barks but the caravan passes,” and tries to show the ironical change as illustrated by these lines:
The dogs passing,
At the silent, still caravan—
Were they expected to bark? (37)
Here, the transition is shown by the rejection of the grand narrative. The second stanza juxtaposes the ‘normal’ expectations that the dogs will bark on seeing the caravan pass. This poem appropriates the proverb to question the center v/s margin, and normal v/s abnormal through the perspective of the margin, the dogs. Though “the [k]ing” seems more of a political satire, it is also reflective of the change in the status quo. The poet claims that “a [k]ing is a [k]ing as long as [h]e wears the mask. A [k]ing is a [k]ing as long as people see [h]im in the mask” (20). Here, the mask symbolizes power and identity.
Slowly, it, while fleshing out the transitoriness in Subedi’s poems, dawns on the readers that his poems simmer with wisdom derived from the Buddhist philosophy, and the three marks of existence shared by all sentient beings namely impermanence, suffering and non-self. Nothing ceases to exist, but the state of being undergoes a continuous cycle of change. “Do not encumber your mind with useless thoughts. What good does it do to brood on the past or anticipate the future? Remain in the simplicity of the present moment,” says Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (np). In the same vein, we can notice the state of impermanence of being in these lines:
Upon the blades of grass
Just before the sunrise—
A flock of birds
Ready to take a long flight
After the night’s rest—
A young girl
About to get her hair parting
Smeared with the red vermillion powder—
The cherry buds
Opening into blossoms
As the dawn brightens—
When is life:
Or after? (“The Moment” 53)
Mankind by nature is intertwined in the perpetual cycle of life and death caught into the past, present and future. The content is simple yet profound. In the above quoted lines, the small details make one contemplate the transition that comes so swiftly giving delight at the moments of epiphany. This impermanence in Buddhism refers to the fact that all conditioned things are in a constant state of flux.
This change is again beautifully expressed in the poem “Time” as cited below:
…a r e…
…n o t…
…m a d e…
…f o r…
…e a c h…
…o t h e r… (14)
What is more important: the past, present or future? Perhaps, it is this moment that is to be embraced and lived for it shall no longer remain the same. Time, here, is symbolic to being in a constant state of flux. Change is primary, if it exists at all. Here, in the first stanza, the speaker seems in urgency to assert the oneness. It is ironical that as time passes the change in relation seems to grow wider apart like the space between the words. Perhaps, this poem also symbolizes the selfishness of people- whenever they are in need, they come close but after the purpose is fulfilled, the relation also rifts apart leaving a vacuum.
Most of the times, the poet does not seem to address any specific readers as his poems are rather pensive. In “Meditation,” the speaker contemplates the abstract ideas related to Buddhist philosophy:
I shut the windows of my room
And pulled the dark curtains over them.
I closed the door from outside
And firmly bolted it.
Finally, I shut the main gate too.
Having done all that—
I entered into my room. (15)
Here, the act of shutting, pulling over the curtains, locking, and bolting are metaphorical and the speaker is renouncing everything in order to reach that state of realization. Thus, the act of sheltering showed here leads to the ultimate exposure of the self from within. In Buddhism, ignorance is the root of all the suffering. Buddha offers the cure in Cessation (nirodha), in Nirvana, which is elaborated by Paul Williams and Anthony Tribe in the following passage:
If suffering in all its forms results from craving, then it follows that if craving can be completely eradicated, suffering will come to an end. As we have seen, the way to eradicate completely craving is to eradicate its cause, ignorance, through coming to see things in the deepest possible manner the way they really are. The complete cessation of suffering is nirvana (Pali: nibbana). (60)
We are in a constant strife to attain happiness fulfilling our dreams and desire relying on the external sources. It could be the materialistic or bodily pleasure that we seek. We forget that this dependence on the external factors give us a momentary contentment. We are awakened only when we begin to understand that the profound satisfaction is only found when we let go off the worldly pleasure. This is again a shift from ignorance to bliss. Again, the ‘I’ here is symbolic of entering the self where room is the body and windows, and doors are the senses.
The poet manages to hook the audience to such philosophical contemplation over impermanence through his stylistic innovations. The apparent chaotic structure and erratic line breaks devoid of punctuations break the conventional method of poetry writing. At times, it even appears to be monotonous. However, this also makes his style even more ornately experimental and exempt of artificial vanity. Moreover, the structural and linguistic experimentations, very often than not, reinforce the ideas the poems convey.The poet also seems to be deliberately frugal with words allowing the readers liberation from the boundary of the tableaux he has painted.
In all, it would not be an exaggeration to claim that Stars and Fireflies, with all its innovations, takes one to a meditative poetic journey into impermanence. Though impermanence shapes our life and world, we hardly bother to notice it. In this context, Subedi’s poems, by foregrounding transience in artistic ways, provoke us to notice it amidst the banality of our life. Once we notice it, banality remains no longer banality. That’s the beauty of flashes of Stars and Fireflies.
Bhattarai, Richa. “As Stars and Fireflies Shine and Glow.” Republica (May 8, 2009): (p)
Ghimire, Binaya. “Writing Outside the Margins.” The Kathmandu Post (August 29, 2009): 7.
Subedi, Prakash. Stars and Fireflies. Kathmandu: Society of Nepali Writers in English, 2009.
Williams, Paul with Anthony Tribe. Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian
Tradition. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
(Published in Of Nepalese Clay, 20th issue)