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Aria: Poetry Translations by Sudeep Sen. (Yeti Books, Calicut & Mulfran Press, Cardiff) Rs.399 & £11.99

I.

Sudeep Sen’s highly praised books include Postmarked India, Prayer Flag, Distracted Geographies, and the poetic meditation, Rain, illustrated by twenty of India’s top artists. His work has been translated into twenty-five languages and his writings have appeared in leading international and national newspapers and journals and been widely broadcast. In Aria he offers a synthesis of his abilities as a poet and translator to bring to the wider public an anthology of work by 17 South Asian poets (ranging from Rabindranath Tagore and Gulzar to lesser known and newer voices) and 10 writers from other parts of the world. The translated languages range from Hindi, Bengali and Urdu to Korean, Hebrew, Icelandic, Persian, Macedonian, Polish and Spanish. In his introduction to Aria, Sen reveals that it is his experience of growing up tri-lingual and being able to slip between the languages and registers of Bengali, Hindi and English that gives his poetry and translations a multi-dimensional character; and this quality is one of the book’s greatest achievements—as Sen’s translations move with ease through a variety of voices and registers.

Jibanananda Das has been called one of the most loved Bengali poets, after Rabindranath Tagore, and it’s easy to see why. The beautiful poem, ‘Banalata Sen’, has echoes of Omar Khayyam’s famous rubaiyat. The translation starts with a wonderful striding movement:

For a thousand years I have walked this earth’s passage
by day and night — from Lanka’s shores to Malay’s vast seas.

The second stanza, which begins ‘Like the dense ink-night of Bidhisha, her hair — black, deep black;’ has the deeply sensuous, hypnotic quality that distinguishes much of Sen’s own poetry — especially his love poetry. This is a case of poet and translator being exceptionally well attuned. Das’s work is followed by four delightfully playful poems taken from the Visva Bharati edition of the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s nonsense verse, Khapcharra. Of these I especially liked the Pythonesque ‘Bird-seller says, “This is a black-coloured chanda.”’ To which the buyer, Panulal Haldar, replies, “I’m not blind — It is definitely a crow.”

AriaIt isn’t often that poetry makes you gasp; the last time, for me was many years ago on first reading Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Edge’ in which the moon is shown ‘Staring from her hood of bone. // Her blacks crackle and drag.’  The poems of Mandakranta Sen also induce a sharp intake of breath. To quote K. Satchidanandan (Molossus, July 2009) Mandakranta Sen is one of the brave women poets who ‘are fighting patriarchy and evolving their own mode of writing often organised around the female body and self’. Her Bengali poetry seems to me to represent an authentic voice for women, undiluted by patriarchal values. Her first poem, ‘The Witch’ contains imagery that disturbs and provokes. Identified by her habit of secretly writing poetry in the middle of the night with her hair undone, the moonstruck witch ‘roasts, then eats the pulpy sadness / Plucked from the crown of her head’. In ‘Nature Goddess’ the body is itemised and carved up —

Packing my groin, my navel, my buttocks in a sack,
I left my home for the sloping wrong side of the track.

The fact that these poems are beautifully rendered in rhymed and half-rhymed couplets belies their often excoriating language and themes. Another Sen — Mithu Sen — also uses what the ancient Sumerians called emesai or ‘women’s speech’. Her poetry is quiet, confessional and intense and she often uses forms that are even more spare than haiku.

In Bangladesh, Shamsur Rahman is considered to be one of the most distinguished Bengali poets of his generation. Syed Manzoorul Islam speaks of Rahman as having ‘produced a solid body of work which has permanently changed the geography and the climate of Bengali poetry … He has given us a language, which we did not have.’ The selection of his poems in this volume varies from the romantic (as in ‘Love’s Overture’), to the domestic (‘Mother’) which is a moving tribute to the role of women in South Asian life — especially, his own life. Two other Bangladeshi poets are represented in the book. Fazal Shahabuddin’s poems are both cosmological and cosmopolitan, often sounding an elegiac note. Aminur Rahman is a young poet and translator whose work is innovative, meditative and experimental.

Several leading Hindi poets, such as the incomparable Gulzar, Sachchidananda Vatsyayan Ageya, who is one of the most prominent exponents of the Nayi Kavita (New Poetry) and Prayogvad (Experimentalism), Kaifi Azmi, Kunwar Narain, and others, add immeasurably to the overall tonality of the book and display what is best in contemporary Hindi and Urdu poetry by the older generation. Among the younger writers, Mangalesh Dabral’s poems show a mixture of the political, the existential and the urbane which resonates well with much contemporary poetry being written by English language Western poets. Anamika has five collections of poetry to her credit and over the years she has won numerous accolades for her literary work. Her poems in this collection include the philosophical Salt: “Salt is earth’s sorrow and its taste. / Earth’s three-fourths is brackish water, / and men’s heart a salt mountain.” She can also be fiercely political as in ‘Mobile Phone’:

Like the streets of old Baghdad
before the American heavy bombings —
I too am like that.
In me, adorned like old souks, meena bazaars —
like archaeological ruins in this metropolis’s heart.

II.

The second part of Aria deals with translations of poetry from East and West Asia, the Middle East and Europe starting with the delicate ‘Willow’ by the Korean poet Moon Chung Hee:

He etched blue flowers
on my arms —

Blue flowers
that tied

my skin, my whole body,
my spirit, and my life.

Avraham Ben Yitshak is translated from Hebrew by Sudeep Sen with Yehuda Amichai, Daniel Weissbort and others. His work shares many spiritual resonances with the classical Indian poets, especially when he touches on religion:

Tomorrow, stricken with the absence of words, we die;
And on that day, we shall stand at death’s gate.
As the heart celebrates the closeness to God,
It will do so, in joy and repentance, in fear of betrayal.

Sudeep Sen photo by Sara Bowman[1]Israeli poet Amir Or, Iranian poet Shirin Razavian, Icelandic poet Ditte Steensballe and Polish poet Ewa Sonnenberg add their own distinctive notes to the cosmopolitan texture. Of Macedonian poet Zoran Anchevski’s six poems, the most strikingly original is ‘halfVerses’ but I particularly liked ‘History’ which shows Minerva the owl at the end ‘resting at ease in its burrow / masticating, consuming its prey’; and the sustained menace of ‘My Little Me’: “When I fenced in my little me / and said to myself This is mine / It grew, / became my dictator — / handsome and greedy.” Another Macedonian poet, Petko Dabeski, in ‘Five Minutes’ uses the vernacular ‘What’s with those five minutes? / Whether they exist or not, they are just a puny five minutes’ to begin a monologue on time and humanity.

Spanish poet Sergio Claudio F. Lima uses Duchamp’s statement that ‘art is not a creative activity, but a means to expand consciousness’ to preface his poem, which is ‘The Body [of a Woman] Signifies’. A note tells us that this poem is a translation of the essential framework/content of the book, O Corpo Significa. The poem is made up of a sequence of terse statements or gnomic utterances that remind me of some of Allen Ginsberg’s Beat poetry

I. The sight of love is definitive.

II. The way of seeing is the way/an expression of being.

III. The doing is the development of thinking, of thought.

IV. The act of action circumscribes, and the sense opens the field of art.

As a member of both the Dadaist and Surrealist movements, Duchamp had a huge influence on the development of modern Western art and, although it is hard to judge this poem on its own without the context of the book for which it provides the ‘framework’, introducing Duchamp inevitably widens the spectrum and terms of reference of Aria and helps give the book its international edge.

In the last section ‘Postscript’, there are two English poems by Sen himself. The first, ‘Translating Poetry’ could stand as the epigraph for any book of translation, tracing, as it does, the process of creation and transposition with all its mysteries and technicalities. When the poem ends with the translator concluding that ‘A real poem defies translation, in every way’ he is selling himself short. In this superlative book of translations, Sen uses his gifts as a poet, linguist, cosmopolitan traveller and observer to conjure, in Coleridge’s phrase, the ‘best words in their best order.’ The result is a fine collection of poetry which takes the best from classical and modern traditions and integrates them into a stunning whole.

Oxford | Summer 2009

Jenny Lewis is a poet and playwright who has worked extensively in cross-arts performances. Read more on our Masthead.

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