Day 3, National Poetry Week.
I dug up and reread Judith Beveridge’s spectacular Wolf Notes (2003). Centering the three sections is a suite of 38 poems, ‘Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree,’ a take on Siddhatha Gotama’s search for salvation: Buddha and Nirvana. It’s in the first person and Beveridge practices a hypnotic ventriloquism, which prompted one critic’s impatient brush-off: “their Romantic presumptuousness left me rather cold.” For myself, the poems’ imaginative immersion into Siddhatha’s search for transcendence remains as affecting now as then.
Her previous collection, Accidental Grace, from eight years earlier, included several Indian settings — eg, the remarkably direct gaze of ‘The Dung Collector’ — so her subcontinental interests had been brewing a long time. The Siddhatha suite has, preëminently, a tone one is tempted to call dazed and confused, though more nearly exactly it could be forlorn and despairing. Which sounds rather painful, but — and here is the magic of the voice — it possesses instead a kind of rinsing, astringent self-awareness. It’s poetic fiction pitched at (sunk to?) the most ambitious depth of understanding, which is claiming rather a lot, so perhaps it’s best to resist gilding the lotus any further.
Here are some of the poem titles: ‘The Rains’; ‘Dawn’; ‘The Grove’; ‘The River’; ‘Egret’; ‘The Vow’; ‘Monkey’; ‘Buffalo’; ‘A Vow’; ‘Doubt’; ‘Death’; ‘Ganges’ . . . the sense of stripping back to elementals. It’s not all gloomdoomy; here is the sharp entertainment of Beveridge’s superb observational and metaphoric skills:
E G R E T
by Judith Beveridge
The egret hesitates before it steps
towards an insect — it seems to wear
its stillness like a corset. Its neck
a white ceramic towards which
its mirrored knees might genuflect.
…………….Otherworldly, celibate —
oh, manicured object — you’re some
righteous sect’s uncharred lamp wick.
+ + +
Obviously, you’ll need to read the suite for the full effect but perhaps we can enjoy ‘Death’ as a stand-in for the whole. Part of the effect of clarity and unillusionedness comes from the simple language and unobstrusive rhythm. Listen! Siddhatha speaks:
D E A T H
by Judith Beveridge
Something’s dead in that stand of trees.
Vultures circle and swoop.
Flies fresh from the herds
hum around my head.
I watch the maggots rise, cooking up.
Ants in tiny rows keep convoying
Even the moon can’t keep itself clean:
soap soiled by a dung-collector’s hands.
The carcass is a spotted deer’s.
Only yesterday, perhaps,
it was grazing among the trees,
its hide so much the colour of the trunks,
it would seem to be hardly there.
How many years have I journeyed?
Time. So much its own colour.
Death in every stand of trees.
+ + +
“Even the moon can’t keep itself clean.” It’s fierce, in its understated, sotto voce way. Thankfully, we know Siddhatha gets past this, ah, moves forward . . .