SWADESH SEN :: WHERE NEW POETRY ROOTS
An introduction to Swadesh Sen's poetry
So, the center doesn't hold, as we know. Never did. Instead, it unleashed the centrifuge. And finally, we had a major poet, whom the center didn't hold, neither reject. A poet, who never gave a public reading, never approached a publisher. A needle, that chose to stay away from the haystack, so we can discover it every now and then with a little moonshine followed by a few lazy sunbeams. The one time Swadesh Sen (1935-2014), was felicitated by his small town (Jamshedpur, a steel city in eastern India) poetry folks, he remained off-stage that evening, seated in the audience the entire time; he spoke little, read a couple of poems.
Barin Ghosal writes, "According to ancient Hindu metaphysical texts, five spirits shape the human body and mind - marut (wind energy), byom (space exploration), khiti (a sense of the earth), apa (water energy) and tej (solar power). Environment and education bring him character and consciousness. These nutrients help grow the poet's persona (bodha). Heritage, legacy, indoctrination, values and feelings pick up the pieces of a chaotic consciousness and roll them into one. Now it is glued, sharpened and honed.” What results is a strange, pearly light that seems to transude from Swadesh Sen's poetry.
Swadesh wrote a "public" poetry referring cogently back to the "familiar", reliving its daily intonations, scenes and chores, while the rest of Bangla parallel poetry competed against each other mostly by tweaking language, form and expression. They wrote a public poetry too – a wholesale poetry about and from factories, markets, battle fields and brothels. Rarely from Academia. Swadesh Sen came back to active production in the early 1970s after a dull term with some conformist literary groups and leftist cohorts. He admitted in an interview with Barin Ghosal (Kabisammelan, 2006) that his proximity to the younger Kaurab group of writers became a catalyst for this resurrection. Swadesh began refurbishing and reconstructing simple, weightless words (many of them clichés) and phrases to arrive at a new language – an enchanting carriage for his soulful self. This new language, shining in its own new light, was, at the same time, striving to rediscover a deserted world – of our homes, farms, hinterlands and small towns. That's his country (the word "Swadesh" means "homeland" in Bengali), his haven and his laboratory.
From this deep-seated private desk, (which would sometimes be infested by an inspiring group of radical, local poets) he once wrote to an younger poet, "what do I look for ?.....a profoundly personal reasoning, the best reasoning and the best judgment that there exists, that is poetry to me, my poetry". Swadesh's poetry creates a stretching private space inside the outer vortex that we often need to ignore and overlook. The "best reasoning" can often be found in the inner eddies that are ceaselessly swirling up in that private space – from mirth, joy, laughter, life's little splendors, although toned down to taste and rediscovered, as Yves Bonnefoy had once said "poetry helps us return an object to its real self".
Sometimes Swadesh would make a quiet observation, as if in a repose, and a search for the true shape of the vortex we live inside, while never really caring to determine its shape. He loved to occupy a corner of the yard that is Bangla Kabita (Bengali Poetry), moistening his cult-like poetic language with a fresh ink only his machinery could manufacture. His language was embroidered with the ordinary, fragranced like the fresh, renewed and vernacular as if made in local factories; habituated, yet anew in its inner diasporic breath. He writes
take a shower, eat full and well, stay in beauty and style
while you write your poems with a Bangla feel
naked senseless delicately quiet and broken stacks of poems
stuff in your free birds in the real woks of West Bengal
welcome the fine thought to your literature
Swadesh's language is lyrical in the sense that it has a fresh phonetic quality about it, completely unheard of in Bangla poetry. It is born fresh from an inner-diasporic Bangla, spoken in large parts of eastern India outside the state of West Bengal. To that accent and rhetoric, he adds his minimalist recipe of shifting prepositions, reductionist verbs and a conjunctive blending of lines making it distinctive, musical and inimitable.
Swadesh Sen, April, 2009
One might be able to see a ghost of William Carlos Williams living somewhere deep down in Swadesh Sen's trenches, but we also know, that is purely coincidental, like mildly matching phenotypes that are genotypically dissimilar. Like Williams', Swadesh's poetry had a small town demeanor, like Patterson is to Jamshedpur, a small town of cultural inconsequence (although an important industrial city in the Indian map). One might also argue, that because Sen's poetry is inexorably trying to connect to the goodness of common life around him, one might find some fingerprints of John Ashbery (whose work attracted Swadesh far less than let's say, Ginsberg & Corso). Once I spoke to him about the possibility of such misreadings towards the end of 2006. He admitted that he had never read Ashbery, (although curious about his work which he would go on to read later) very little Williams but more of Yeats, cummings, Whitman, Frost, Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens, Eliot, and Ginsberg.
Swadesh Sen's work seems to solemnly respect all the great traditions of Bengali poetry in its poetics, use of language and artistry. His work resembles the first etchings on the murals of parallel, experimental, avant-garde Bangla poetry. The Kaurab group of poets, in the 1970s, began what they called Poetry Camps, which represented a voluntary retirement into nature, far-from-the-madding-crowd, where they camped for a few days in the intensive care of the cosmos of quietude. Swadesh Sen's participation in these camps made the discourses and the writing invaluable for his cohorts and followers. Kaurab's "experimental literature" was born right here in these camps of literary and social isolation. "The Orange Is Placed" (1982) was the first book published from these camps. It was followed a decade later by "Milk Glass On The Floor" (1992) .
Swadesh Sen once wrote - "Newness has no grief, it’s unknown to it". A group of younger poets, at the turn of the millennium, began to cross-refer to his work trying to draw support for their own. They called their genre - New Poetry (Natun Kabita). A journal with the same name (editors Swapan Roy & Ranjan Moitra) soon birthed in 2002. Although, Swadesh Sen never made any claim to New Poetry, many, especially younger Bengali poets, see him as a beacon of their path.
His books are listed below chronologically -
The Orange is Placed (1982)
Milk Glass On The Floor (1992)
Come In the Shade (1998)
Swadesh Sen's Swadesh (Collection, part I, 2006)
The Orange Is Placed
Here is all the care this room can offer
this mind and body. This is my care for today
A much plainer chill is in the shower
Today's flower has slow-cooked its fruit.
Some tin smeared somewhere in the iron
one mind ringing in the mines
one use shines up so fine
a someone who has perfected his cry for us
Someone from all day and all places
no skin and flesh, a morning torso
The water here, the recursive water from here
a pill and a whole attire
slow dawdling mirth and its glob glob
Here is all the care my room can offer
The orange is placed
What was seen in today's light was written today.
Give me the pale red language of a newborn tongue
Show me the flickering lights of this stone world
faraway – water of the dark – show me its stream.
Follow the traces of happiness
In which sky does its monotonic noise linger
Why so beautiful so immensely beautiful
is a Munia and its white egg
A new tricycle clacking along like a golden chain
Insects flutter in between the forest and fall
Fields, playgrounds that look up to a horizon of worlds
They, who, like luminous spirits quietly serve us the light
There are my greenrooms among sorrows, afar in the stars
Just a drop of sweat clings onto Akbar’s strings.
Munia - Small bird found in eastern India
Akbar - Celebrated Sarodist Ali Akbar Khan
The Sleeping Apple
The apple's asleep. Wake him with your teeth
blood pressurized under new skin, this teeth play with
easily, with a mind of its own
a murder looks at its calm landscape
that's the end of apple blossoms, non-chalant teeth grow everywhere
Really, there isn't a single spirit on earth - all human
all unearthly starving vines nearly absent
the fruitlings of milk wither leaving behind cow and water
The apple in the sky wakes up and sleeps again.
Murder him. It. Slash, press, break and pierce
into pieces without signs - folic acid, get to work
Like the silkworm, destroy your self-impression and convalesce
The apple sleeps in the morning - wake him with your teeth.
who shivers, who is scared, who is on the phone with the scheduled, when truth is nearly more mystery, this is fine, fine with me, this, the hum, the Lalgola and Bhagbangola, from a state meditated to a loosened, untied being, the easy linear signs now falling, clouds sprouting from spring, bend, they come down as far as lower Damodar, then they come and go, come and go, sketchy buttermilk of fog, autumn porridge and let me tell you about this one unhappy twig who bends and bows with all of its content and blows up finally the contemporary flower, while the ruly man shows his manners, his skin dark, wears glasses, consults his year-planner, he runs on loans, catches his flight to the many foreign lands, someone bribing him with gold, I know one who runs from poptime to skyshop, another sleeps in the hospital, a hospital sleep, one dying instead of living, one can't even die after death, vegetables in the flea market, easy words, one gets in control of them, another looses comfort, content.
Lalgola, Bhagbangola - small towns in West Bengal, India
Damodar - A tributary of Ganges
The sky is such
even the pigeon might slip
Sunshine so lustrous
it’s worth printing it.
No matter how wide and narrow one looks
how much one tries to hold onto oneself
it spreads out in the end
and makes trauma.
Such people are out in the world
Such celebrations inside
The way women walk in their Orissi wraps
the way they hide their vermillion
no one is able to see
no one is able to follow.
You won’t know
when your job’s not permanent anymore.
The Wish to live Well
Need to live well
We know just that
Need to drink pure water
We know that much
that the elegance of Katthak
comes from a grace at the heels
What other truths
have we learned thus far
There is a life in baggages and bundles
a life that’s here and there
gold weighing in the cases.
How much of what fills us do we know
Where is the truth in the travelogue?
How does it work, a fuller flint
What in the blue splint has a link to life
Where does life keep its differentiator
The one who chuckles, looking away and aloof
who can tell what might edge him out and where
what might bring in a gush of death
in this weather.
Have to live well
We know just that
Need to drink pure water
We know that much
What else do we henceforth know in this utmost life?
Katthak- Indian classical dance form
I make birthdays
That birthday can't be found
as there is no room in June.
A treemother asked, are you ok, my baby ?
We won't let you die like that, they say
and they leave us like that
It wasn't wise to dip your finger in the cup
Milk lives on waterland
Beware of unmindful milk
They come raging in from outside
in Bangla words
Lifetime catches me in my flight
Well, why don't we express April to its fullest
spread out the fine colors and print a skirt
for the autistic girl
An outwardly poet sits and stands there
watches cobbles that make the path
with its monostrings and red lettuce
Palmistry of palm trees
Poetry, something will happen now
some incident in a fresh egg
a different caste and Sagittarius
Look what is happening under the earth
Poems translated by Aryanil Mukherjee
Copyright © 2014 Aryanil Mukherjee
Last updated: March, 2014