Thinking about poetry this morning, and about the lecture last night at USF. Saw Melissa Dale again.
Melissa is the Executive Director of the USF Center for the Pacific Rim and also an Assistant Professor at USF. Decades ago — in 1991, to be exact — she was self’s student assistant in the Center for East Asian Studies at Stanford. Melissa took the picture of self that graces the back of self’s first book, Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila. She lived on the East Coast for many years.
Eventually, Melissa and her two teen-aged daughters moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area. Life is so mysterious. But self rejoiced at this chance to see her again.
The poem self is reading this morning is by Rabindranath Tagore. It’s from Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Poems, translated by William Radice (Penguin Modern Classics edition). She doesn’t recall buying this book, so it was probably given to her by one of her friends.
The poem contrasts a young singer with an old, and resonates so much with self.
Kasinath the new young singer fills the hall with sound:
The seven notes dance in his throat like seven tame birds.
His voice is a sharp sword thrusting and slicing everywhere,
It darts like lightning — no knowing where it will go when.
He sets deadly traps for himself, then cuts them away:
The courtiers listen in amazement, give frequent gasps of praise.
Only the old king Pratap Ray sits like wood, unmoved.
Baraj Lal is the only singer he likes, all others leave him cold.
From childhood he has spent so long listening to him sing –
Rag Kafi during holi, cloud songs during the rains,
Songs for Durga at dawn in autumn, songs to bid her farewell –
His heart swelled when he heard them and his eyes swam with tears.
And on days when friends gathered and filled the hall
There were cowherds’ songs of Krishna, in rags Bhupali and Multan.
So many nights of wedding-festivity have passed in that royal house:
Servants dressed in red, hundreds of lamps alight:
The bridegroom sitting shyly in his finery and jewels,
Young friends teasing him and whispering in his ear:
Before him, singing rag Sahana, sits Baraj Lal.
The king’s heart is full of all those days and songs.
When he hears some other singer, he feels no chord inside,
No sudden magical awakening of memories of the past.
When Pratap Ray watches Kasinath he just sees his wagging head:
Tune after tune after tune, but none with any echo in the heart.
To fully appreciate the poem, self had to turn to the Glossary in the back of the book.
Holi, self learns, is “a Hindu spring and fertility festival, characterized by the joyous throwing of coloured powders and sprinkling of coloured liquid at people.”
There were some other interesting words in the glossary, words like:
Jambu: “Large tree that sheds its leaves in January/February, has fragrant white flowers in March-May, and purplish black astringent fruit in June/July.”
Kacu: “The taro, a coarse herbacious plant cultivated for its tubers”
Koel: “A bird that is frequently called ‘cuckoo’ by translators but which is actually different from either the European cuckoo or the Indian cuckoo, though it belongs in the same family.”
Makara: “Mythical sea monster, representing the Capricorn of the Hindu zodiac, with head and forelegs of a deer, and body and tail of a fish.”
Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.