ESSAY ... Tishani DOSHI
Singing in the Forests
Forward Prize-winning poet TISHANI DOSHI on why poetry matters
SOME YEARS AGO, when I was working with the legendary Indian choreographer Chandralekha, she told me about an idea she had for a dance production based on language. It would explore a particular myth where the entire alphabet—the vowels, consonants, punctuation, and grammar—all trooped off into the forests to hide because they couldn’t bear to see the destruction of the world. For a long time the world would be silent, wordless. Men and women would be unable to speak to each other. They would be forced to live like animals, reduced to grunts and squawks. Finally, the poets would go into the forests to beg language to return to the world. One by one, they’d coax the letters out from behind leaves, from the deep snares of roots; they’d promise to honour them, give new voice to them filled with beauty, and by doing so, they would bring language back to humanity.
I will always regret that Chandralekha passed away before making any headway on this production, but that image has stayed with me ever since: of the poets going into the forests to restore the world with words. In India, of course, the idea of going off into the forests isn’t entirely new. According to the Laws of Manu, men in the fourth and final stage of their lives were meant to surrender all worldly interests, renounce their belongings and seek enlightenment in the wilderness. The poets of the Vedas—the kavis—have always been seen as prophets, possessed of a divine insight—dhi—which again, stems from nature, from modes of seeing and experiences of light which have the power to bring together the world of humans and the world of Gods.
I thought about all this recently in a slightly incongruous and prosaic setting—around a conference table in the University of East Anglia, where I was attending a four-day seminar titled “Human: Nature.” Various types and statures of writers had been invited to discuss the role of the writer against the changing face (or rather, defacement) of nature. For four days we talked about the seductiveness of the apocalypse, the danger of propaganda, Keats’s idea of negative capability, and Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents.
Richard Mabey, one of Britain’s most distinguished nature writers, talked of our relationship with nature as something that was still colonial, which involved taking possession of the land. Imagine instead, he said, the view of a marshland, or a mountain. Gretel Ehrlich talked of carbon sins, climate refugees, and how the Inuit believe we must speak with dignity because polar bears listen to what we say by putting their ears down to the ground. For four days we exchanged ideas of nature and panic, nature and the imagination, nature and nation, until a steady escalating sense of doom enveloped us. As writers, we were facing a world steadily depleted of its resources, and we were asking the question, what do we do? Or indeed, do we do?
On the final day, the American poet, C.K. Williams, presented a paper, which for me, was the most important of the entire seminar. He began by reading his poem “In the Forest” in which an old man goes off to live in a forest thinking that in “that mute, placid domain of the trees,/ he might find beyond the predations of animals and men something like the good … but No, he says, No, the trees and their seeds and flowers are at war just as we are,/ every inch of soil is a battleground, each species of tree relentlessly seeks its own ends.” The poem goes on to make a powerful point about language, how even “the most tormented souls” will “come together/ to commune and converse;” how even in that “moral murk that promises nothing but extinction, the voices go on. … The wretched page turns, and we listen, and listen.”
What Williams then went on to say was that while paralysis might be the rational response to the dilemma, what we must do instead is to live through the pain and function whole-heartedly. He talked of beauty, and how it could save us: beauty as an active act, not a thing of consolation. As an artist, he said, beauty is where it begins and ends, “It’s the most important thing we have because we live in an age of astonishing ugliness … The dream and execution of the beautiful is what makes the world.”
Later, J.M. Coetzee, who was also part of the panel, and who for the first three days had terrified most people into silence because of his sheer aura of gravitas, opened his mouth to say something. We all leaned in eagerly to listen, for he is a soft-spoken man, and quite economical with his words. He told us of the place where he lives in Adelaide, on the edge of a forest reserve, where for a long time he struggled with a morning cacophony of birdsong, particularly crows. Slowly though, he said, he lost track of which birds were making what noise, it was enough that they were there, everyday, insistent. And it seemed to him that they were saying, I am I, I am I, demanding to be counted.
Coetzee went on to say that he’d had a similar moment during this conference, sitting in a noisy library, trying to listen to Williams read his poems. Despite the external noise, he said, people were leaning in to listen (much as we were listening to Coetzee), and he described that triumph of word over noise as a collective moment for writers, something that was strident and strong, that said, We are we. We are we.
When Coetzee said this, it made me think of the fate of the modern prophet or seer—poets as we may call ourselves, largely unseen and unheard. I thought of the 16-year-old Rimbaud writing to his friend Paul Demeny, “I say one must be a seer, make oneself a seer … by exploring all forms of love, suffering and madness, exhausting the poisons and keeping the quintessence.” I thought of those ancient kavis, looking for that evanescent rasa—that element which gives form to formless things. I thought how far our fall from grace has been. And then I thought of the persistent birdsong at the edge of Coetzee’s forest reserve, of all the preserves of land we still inhabit, be they large or small, shrinking, native, far-flung. More than ever, it made me think our job is to find those forests, fall on our knees, and come singing back into the world.
TISHANI DOSHI was born in Madras, India, in 1975, to a Gujarati father and Welsh mother. She was educated at Queens College, North Carolina, and the Johns Hopkins University. Her longest standing job was at Harpers & Queen magazine in London for 10 months. Since then she has moved back to India where she works and performs with a contemporary dance group all over the world and moonlights as a writer. Her first book of poems, Countries of the Body, won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2006, and she also won the All-India Poetry Competition in the same. Her first novel, The Pleasure Seekers, will be published by Bloomsbury in May 2010.
Reproduced from the special 2008 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival issue of Quill magazine