Poem Against the End
I raised the blood’s memory,
complex water swirling against
desire’s drooping head, and
with soul hurled at the skies
I remained for you,
for berries to turn wine,
when your pensive laugh
of a hundred scents
tore the mildew of years.
But no more veiled by the black vigil,
or fevers of men and children,
your body ululating
the myths of Hynniew Trep
and the crossing of mountain rains.
O, those seasons of anxiety
when your mouth, a wet smoky room
kept evenings eager,
now thinning into delusion.
Until it’s time to speak
even with accents of defeat.
Hynniew Trep: Seven huts in Khasi. The Khasis call their hills the Land of the Seven Huts
What they don’t need is poetry,
these gnarled men and wrinkled women
who work the slopes,
swaying in the rain like knotted,
weather-beaten pines, breathing
mountain air, these weavers and herdsmen.
What matters if I can’t explain to them
the nuance of an ode or a ghazal,
the iron and flint of an Akhmatova
or a Guillén, how do I impress upon them
their miserable plight
when all they want to do
is smoke and chatter away time.
When he hears poetry
the peasant will lean on his hoe
in exasperation while his fields lie fallow,
the hunter will return empty-handed with
a sad poem, and if the goatherd listens
to poetry’s demented cadences
his goats will not give milk.
Let me explain.
Like the great poets
pardoned by time
I wanted to gather words
from arrows nocked in a turquoise sky.
I wanted to catch words in my embroidered bag,
rainy words spattered, thrown about
by the March wind, I wanted to collect
pebbly words from riverbeds, smooth,
geometrical consonants of primary colours.
I wanted to unearth roots and herbs
and compound a word-salve, I wanted
to forge words on an anvil.
I’ve always wanted to be a wordsmith.
The sweeper wakes up the morning without irony.
I want him to burn my anxieties and not
sweep them under the mat as I used to.
I want the carpenter
to fashion me a word-chair
to sit me down and calm me,
I want him to nail me down a poem.
The carpenter has learnt his trade and cannot
waste hours chiselling and planing couplets.
I wanted the mason to lay
the cornerstones of living for me.
The mason awaits cargoes of sand and bricks
on the shores of afternoon and doesn’t need
silken rhetoric or spiced adjectives.
All I wanted was to sing
with the mystical sparrows,
but only a murder of crows
nest in my throat at dawn.
I wanted to harvest words
which grow on their own, words
which die without tawdry funerals;
of creepers and vines, stars and stone,
wisdom and folly, flowers and moss.
A Libran Horoscope
Somewhere among earthbound stars it slept
curled up in its parchment skin,
muttering the story of the fool
who will return one day
to his unbelievable superstitions, and
having consulted the world
will return pursued by many fears.
My horoscope slumbered, thoughtless,
on my mother’s heirlooms.
It dozed among heady flowers
quiet in the warm darkness.
Childhood took place
free from mannish fears
when I had only my mother’s love
to protect me from knives,
from fire, and death by water.
I wore it like an amulet.
Childhood took place
among moonflowers and sunstone,
in nakedness with the wind as your wet nurse.
Childhood took place
among fairies and weretigers
when hills were yours to tumble down
before they housed soldiers and
dreaded chambers of torture.
Childhood took place
when boys built fugitive fires and
talked only of women
until your friend adored a gun
to become a widowmaker.
Childhood took place
before you ate from any tree and
before grapes were suspended over your head.
until a boy’s wet vision became flesh
by the grace of a forlorn woman.
My horoscope fell from innocence and
lost its sleep.
It came out from my mother’s closet and
could not remember
the fragrance of roses.
It changed hands with money and
began suspecting many people.
It is in my safekeeping now.
Before they used terror when things were beginning to go out of control and people showed aberrant behaviour, revolutionaries had asked poets in their lower ranks to compose patriotic songs for a country which cannot be found on any map. They would coerce nocturnal drivers of interstate buses to play tapes of one-act plays which are designed to make unsuspecting passengers weep with patriotic shame. I know this for real, I grew up with revolutionaries. They had even asked me to translate a press release over the phone.
Before he became the sharpshooter of a revolutionary band my childhood friend smelled of straw and cattle, and then one day he bridled a horse and rode it hard through a busy marketplace scattering customers and traders alike like straw in a gale. I was told that he buried a pistol at my cousin’s backyard just before he went under the ground. Only after he came over ground with the venerable title ‘teacher’, because Chinese masters trained him, did I meet him on the street and he smelled of designer clothes. He now keeps himself occupied with work contracted out by the public works department and once asked me if I were married. He has two wives, one of them an actor.
Before the crackling fire of revolution which warms the hearts of boys we sat in a circle and talked endlessly about oppressors and life in the jungle. Friends brought stories of the ordained, who survived on roots and eggshells. We looked at Che’s hammock with longing and even mixed his cocktail but had no idea of when to dig a tank pit. When little books with a star and red skins appeared it was too late for me. I had fallen in love, and although it broke my heart, my father sent me to another land with gentle hills, so that I can read other books which will make me stand on my bourgeois feet.
When they are not around they become butts of fun. The roving story then was of a wastrel who went home after midnight because he had wasted all his time with his layabout friends around a fire one winter night. He had to cross a walled house guarded by fierce dogs to reach his home. When the owner of the house who was woken up by the dogs asked ‘Who goes there?’ the wastrel found his wits and replied, ‘In the service of the motherland’ in a solemn voice as one would expect a revolutionary to reply.
When they became arbiters when someone’s duck was stolen or two women were fighting over one man I stopped being furious with them.
You should write when you can still laugh at yourself and the world, before you give yourself up to revolution’s despair.
Poem for Joseph
‘It is never too late to come home.’
But I need a homeland
where I can recognise myself,
just a map or even a tree or a stone,
to mark a spot I could return to
like a pissing animal
even when there’s nothing to return for.
Although it’s true
that in my native land,
children have crawled out of burrows
they had gouged under hard beds,
long after the grownups had fled and
roofs came apart
like charred heads.
You said, you didn’t regret
how ethnic cleansers had palmed
your newly-built home off on a people
well on their trail back to pure blood,
you didn’t mind leaving behind
objects of desire
you had collected over twenty-five years,
or, how you came to live in a rented room
with your wife and your children
in dog-eat-dog Imphal,
among the callous tribe
I call my own.
Only the photographs you mourned,
the beloved sepia of one family tree,
since you’re the reason why your fathers lived;
but, who’ll believe now
that you lived at all?
(From The Desire of Roots, Red River, New Delhi)
Robin S Ngangom is a bilingual poet and translator who writes in English and Manipuri. Born in Imphal, he studied literature at St Edmund’s College and the North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, where he currently teaches. His poems have appeared in The New Statesman (London), Verse (Georgia), Kunapipi (Denmark), Planet: the Welsh Internationalist (Ceredigion), The Literary Review (New Jersey), The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (HarperCollins India), These My Words (Penguin India), Chandrabhaga (Cuttack), Kavya Bharati (Madurai). Ngangom describes his poetry as ‘mostly autobiographical, written with the hope of enthusing readers with my communal or carnal life — the life of a politically discriminated against, historically-overlooked individual from the nook of a third world country’.
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