The Poetry of Our World

by Patricia Riordan My favorite days were the ones when the rain stopped just before I left the flat. I would ride down the hill on a rusted rental bike that I repaired with super glue. The sunlight played in between strands of wheat in the horse fields. That is what I think of when I think of Ireland.

“The Poetry of Our World: An International Anthology of Contemporary Poetry,” edited by Jeffery Paine with Kwame Anthony Appiah, Sven Birkerts, Joseph Brodsky, Carolyn Forché, and Helen Vendler, features only one poet in its representation of Ireland. A smart choice, the editors chose Seamus Heaney, who was born in Derry and won the Nobel Prize. His poetry highlights the political conflict in the North of Ireland. Heaney cleverly crosshatches Irish landscape and historic violence.

The last poem of Heaney’s section, “His Dawn Vision,” brought me back to the fields I breezed by on the way to university. The poem ends as follows:

“I felt the beating of the huge time-wound We lived inside. My soul wept in my hand When I would touch them, my whole being rained

Down on myself, I saw cities of grass, Valleys of longing, tombs, a wind-swept brightness, And far-off, in a hilly, ominous place,

Small crowds of people watching as a man Jumped a fresh earth-wall and another ran Amorously, it seemed, to strike him down.” (p.78) Heaney creates a downwards movement in the poem. The violets are bowed down on their stems, his whole being rains down on himself, and a man runs after another to strike him down. Heaney feels the weight of a stalled war for independence and violence in the time before him bringing him down. He is waiting for the dawn, a rising hope of light, just as the violets wait for the sun to rise. Yet in this dawn vision he sees beyond fields of tombs and focuses on the man running after the other to strike him down. Thus, he uses the beauty of Irish landscape and the man chasing the other to show a continuing conflict.

Across the globe and nineteen years prior to Heaney’s birth, a man in Peru was imprisoned for crimes he didn’t commit. His name was César Vallejo. His poetry was greatly impacted by his imprisonment, as seen in “Have You Anything to Say in Your Defense?” The poem repeats the lines, “On the day I was born, God was sick.” The lines sting and the poem is cold. Although this poem and others in his collection were illuminating, I believe that the personal essence in his poem, “To My Brother Miguel,” best illustrates the purpose of the section. The following is an excerpt from the poem:

“Later, you hide, and I do not find you. I remember we made each other cry, brother, in that game.

Miguel, you hid yourself one night in August, nearly at daybreak, but instead of laughing when you hid, you were sad. And your other heart of those dead afternoons is tired of looking and not finding you. And now Shadows fall on the soul.

Listen, brother, don’t be too late coming out. All right? Mama might worry.” (p.172)

Where Heaney lyrically uses history and terrain, I am drawn to Vallejo’s poetry because it is presented as a vivid story. I can see the two small boys with dark hair and tanned feet running through the house barefoot. One boy calling “Miguel! Miguel!” The poem doesn’t hold the shock factor in the expected places—where Miguel has a dark side to him and “shadows fall on the soul.” Instead the shock factor is in the end of the poem when the reader realizes that Miguel is still not found. Miguel is the lost half so the narrator calls out to Miguel, yet really he is calling for the reader to come out of hiding. It is the dynamic interplay of the yearning for the lost and asking the one lost to come into the light by utilizing his own strength.

As much as I loved the anthology’s addition of César Vallejo, I was disappointed in the selection of poetry written by Anna Akhmatova for the Europe section. Akhmatova has been a long time favorite of mine. “We Will Hear Thunder,” which for some ungodly reason was not included in the anthology, is clearly far above the level of complexity and passion than “Reading Hamlet” and “The Muse.” Compare “The Muse” with “We Will Hear Thunder:”

“The Muse” “All that I am hangs by a thread tonight as I wait for her whom no one can command. Whatever I cherish most—youth, freedom, glory— fades before her who bears the flute in her hand.

And look! she comes… she tosses back her veil, staring me down, serene and pitiless. ‘Are you the one,’ I ask, ‘whom Dante heard dictate the lines of his Inferno?’ She answers: ‘Yes.’” (p.224) “You Will Hear Thunder” “You will hear thunder and remember me, And think: she wanted storms. The rim Of the sky will be the colour of hard crimson, And your heart, as it was then, will be on fire.

That day in Moscow, it will all come true, when, for the last time, I take my leave, And hasten to the heights that I have longed for, Leaving my shadow still to be with you.”

I believe that “Reading Hamlet” and “Cleopatra” were added simply because people feel more confident in their own literary intelligence if they see the word Shakespeare on the page. “The Muse” and “Dante” both refer to Dante’s Inferno and although they have a solid structure and are cleverly metaphoric, they don’t paint a portrait of the woman behind the pen. And although I usually reject the notion that poetry should reveal the poet, in Akhmatova’s case it seems that her most powerful poetry is bolstered by her incredible life story. Her first husband was executed, her son was imprisoned, and her friends were hunted. Her son was actually freed on the condition that Akhmatova would write poetry in support of the government. She did so for some time until his freedom then quickly destroyed those poems in the wake of a new, radical collection.

I am actually writing this review during a thunderstorm. I am in the den of my cousin’s condominium. I can hear the thunder outside through the thick porch door and over the cycle of the dishwasher. It is after midnight and I know if I turn off the dishwasher and open the door I will be terrified. The loud roar of the sky is the strength behind Akhmatova’s words. Her words intimidate during a time when everyone was out to intimidate her.

A very small section of the anthology, from page 393 to 405, is titled India. A.K. Ramanujan is the only poet of the section. It is a true shame India’s section is so small because it is a country of great culture, turmoil, and intricate beauty.

Ramanujan’s poetry is incredibly impressive. I was struck by the very first poem, “Self-Portrait:”

“I resemble everyone but myself, and sometimes see in shop-windows, despite the well-known laws of optics, the portrait of a stranger, date unknown, often signed in a corner by my father.” (p.399)

It is a simple poem. A reader easily understands that the narrator feels as if he does not have his own identity. But the poem strikes at the end because the narrator knows that in a true reflection of himself he can only see himself as the masterpiece of his father. The poem walks a fine line of whether the narrator’s feelings are due to a lack of opportunity or a prevention by an authority figure, perhaps his father, to see his true self. I believe that it is the latter due to the opening of the poem, “I resemble everyone, but myself.” With this, we know that the narrator’s identity exists because he realizes that the reflection fails to represent this true self. Thus, the narrator’s true being is located beneath the surface.

The section continued to amaze me with an emphasis on the body. This defies the stereotypical tradition that poetry must be an expression of the soul or heart. Ramanujan’s last poem in the section, “Pleasure,” uses the body to convey the yearnings of a celibate Jaina monk. The poem ends with a vivid image of red fire ants “tattooing him, limb by limb” as a solution to the sexual pleasure he was craving. “Pleasure, Pleasure, Great Pleasure!” he cries at every painful twinge and in response the reader cringes, relating to the crave for pleasure through the sense of touch.

There is a reason that some cultures see the body as a temptation and others praise the body as much as the mind. Our skin has a mind of its own and thanks to the nerve endings that reach to the very tips of our fingers, we are able to experience our surroundings through the body. This is wonderfully praised in an excerpt from Ramanujan’s poem “A Hindu to His Body:”

“You brought me: do not leave me behind. When you leave all else, my garrulous face, my unkissed alien mind, when you muffle and put away my pulse to rise in the sap of trees let me go with you and feel the weight of honey-hives in my branching and the burlap weave of weaver-birds in my hair. (pp.399-400)

In the poem Ramanujan dares to praise the body over the “unkissed alien mind.” The narrator’s wish that his skin takes him with it when he dies is more beautiful than the old-fashioned concept of the soul rising. The image of his body becoming one with nature is where the spirituality comes into play. An overwhelming joy at the end of life is achieved through an intertwining of the narrator’s body and the earth.

Although the world cannot be squeezed into one anthology, I do respect the poets chosen for the anthology. I believe many of them are strong representations of their country and the time in which they live(d). There was a lackluster poem here and there, but it was the collective unit of them that gave strength to the country represented in each section. The anthology gives the reader just a mere taste of what they are missing on the other side of the globe.