Twilight Speech is a collection of essays and translations by an accomplished American poet who has spent years studying the classical poetries and poetics of India. The various writings in this book take up folklore, music and Buddhist poetics, as well as examining how these have influenced contemporary concerns, such as environmentalism and avant-garde poetry. Many of the essays are illuminated by translations, which serve as guides to the old poetries-secular Prakrits and classical Sanskrit verse forms, the mysteries of Isha Upanishad, poems from early Buddhist monks, and songs of the Rajasthani princess Mirabai. Other essays look at Tibetan Buddhist chant, ecological activism, and the war in Afghanistan. Mr. Schelling, like other American poets of the 20th century, has revitalized the style of the essay.
Andrew Schelling is Assistant Director of The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at The Naropa Institute, Boulder, Colorado. He is a poet, essayist, Sanskritist and editor, and has traveled extensively through North America, South Asia and Europe. He has published three books of poetry. A respected translator, his translations from India's poetic traditions include For Love of the Dark One: Songs of Mirabai (Shambhala, 1993), and Dropping the Bow: Poems from Ancient India (Broken Moon, 1991) which won the Academy of American Poets Prize for Translation in 1992.
It was on the side-grating of a little curbside shrine in Kathmandu that I found the image, welded into a sort of grillwork of iron. Cast out of bronze by one of those unknown metal workers of Nepal, it grinned and danced above a row of saucers crudded with black ash. Vegetable oil and a wick-each saucer lights the lamp of prayer. At night, come on unexpectedly, the flaming saucers seem a charnel ground-the figure dancing is a skeleton, smirk of death, unwaveringly accurate, fixed across its skull. A penis still hangs from the pubic bone.
Years later, scouring Wendy Donniger's book Asceticism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Shiva, I found the same image. Here it was the photo of a skeleton, this one cut from sandstone to decorate-is that the word ?-a South Indian temple. Weather of a thousand years had pocked the figure, freaked and eroded its surface with a leper's rot. The skull strains upwards, un- bearably urgent, teeth clenched on an anguish you'd think must wither a living person. Again, flesh clutches the pubic bone-but this skeleton's cock stands painfully erect.
Cocks and cunts in the boneyard ? Dispense with the Anglo-Saxon terms, substitute the Sanskrit linga and yoni. It hardly matters. The question remains: what is it that slips through the gateless gate of Death ?
Into the weave of images comes the poem by Kalidasa which has troubled my thought for years. Little known beyond the borders of India, it is in its original one of the planet's strangest one of the "terrible beauties." But jealous the guardians, fierce the charms that lock up poetry. Brought from Sanskrit into another tongue, Kalidasa's lines seem a clattering fraudulent thing, cast towards the translator by laughing gods. Better nothing than a crack'd reflection? I would hope, freaked and eroded though it looks, that a trace is visible; the tip of a cigarette in- scribing the darkness-
crafted for pleasure,
hearing a strain of sweet song,
even the satisfied person taken by anguish-
below the threshold of thought
traces of someone
life times ago
held in the heart-
Only the terrible beauties we call art or poetry seem to be braving an answer. It may be that India has fixed her gaze for millennia on the fearsome region' between death and life. Put another way, it would be reductive to see the boneyard genitals as a shuddering that wracks only the loins. Tremblings called imagination swallow the whole body.
Sculpture. Dance. Painting. Poetry. Music. Myth.
In India music's called mga-"passion." It comes to quell, or is it disturb, the organism's passion for sound. From human fingers painting and sculpture drop, to sate the hunger for seeing. Dance is a craving for movement. And poetry-? I guess poetry comes to dispel the most un- answerable appetite of all-the hunger for language.
Precious human birth, the Buddhists say; it leaves us at the edge of the forest of Language.
Or the "Forest of Bliss. 11 Nandavana- an old name for Banaras, India's holiest and scariest city. Before extensive deforestation troubled South Asia, the southern precincts of the city were gracious woodland, one of the city's principal attractions. Yet forest or no, it is from the burning ghats of Banaras-enormous platforms of stone on the river bank, smoldering year after year with the bitter smell of corpses-that half a billion people hope to set off, out of this life. Banaras, among the planet's longest inhabited cities, a maze of noisy twisty alleyways, tiny shops, stone temples and thronging merchants, is Shiva' s city-and Shiva is a most ambiguous god, called sometimes "the Roarer," sometimes "the Protector." A lord of destruction, he is everywhere present in his emblem, the linga or phallus of creation.
On one's first visit to Banaras it is a common sensation-many I've spoken with have felt the. Curious numbness-I've been here before. Coiling in my skull for years, the line from Yeats has never sounded so clear: "Birth-hour and death-hour meet." And all distinction between playground and burning ground is utterly violated.
To sit for a day on the massive stone' walls over the Ganges, watching slow unhungry fires consume the old, the young, the loved, the rejected-corpses wrapped in gauze and muslin, bright colored silk, garish plastic, rough burlap. Keepers of the fire turn the blackening husks with long poles, stirring the wood. Through the smoke spits of flame tell that a bone has snapped from the heat, or a torso suddenly spilt. Hours pass. Later, over his shoulder a Brahmin priest heaves a clay crock of water which bursts on the embers. It is finished. Of what we once called a person, only invisible urges remain. Stepping over the coals pariah dogs set in hungry for suet, and nobody bothers them.
My lingas are everywhere there, like little sprouts arisen out of sheer bliss. Thus it is called the Forest of Bliss.
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