The Mag This Week

Reviews this week:

Aseem Srivastava and Ashish Kothari’s Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India, reviewed by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta

Ajaz Ahmed & Stefan Olander’s Velocity, reviewed by R Krishna

Manish Sethi’s Escaping the World: Women Renouncers Among Jains, reviewed by Karishma Attari

My review of Dom Moraes: Selected Poems is below.

Well worth the having

A stele is an inscribed stone or wooden slab. Often steles are gravestones and epitaphs that commemorate someone’s life. In a series of poems titled “Steles”, Dom Moraes wrote,

“The word walks to the finger
On the key of the machine.
The world rocks on its axis
Like a sleepy sentry.
Entries opened. The mountain.
Quartz, lava, petals:
The debris of life
Where some things were remembered.
… And me, unsteady of mind,
Departing between these textures
With knowledge of worlds, winds,
Lipstick, scent, flesh, fur.
Who will paint this stele?”

When Moraes wrote those lines, there was no answer to his question, but thanks to Dom Moraes: Selected Poems, we can confidently say the man for the job of painting Moraes’s stele is poet, cultural theorist and curator Ranjit Hoskote.

Moraes is perhaps one of the best-known names of Indian poetry. As a precocious 15 year-old, he confidently showed his poems to WH Auden. At 19, he became one of the youngest winners of the Hawthornden Prize. He would, over the next few decades, publish ten more collections of poems, establish a reputation as a war journalist and travel writer, and write three memoirs.
Charismatic and opinionated, Moraes’s personal life vied for attention with his professional exploits. Three marriages — the first of them to the woman who was the model for Francis Bacon’s painting titled “Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe” and the last to the exquisite Leela Naidu — accusations of being a “brown sahib”, his vehement support of Israel, a mother who was clinically insane — nothing about Moraes’s life was mundane.
In the introduction to Dom Moraes: Selected Poems, Hoskote doesn’t ignore the torridity of Moraes’s life and instead presents a considered understanding of how many personal demons and talismans were manifested in his poetry. Much of Moraes’s poetry is deeply personal and consequently, the introduction and notes in Dom Moraes: Selected Poems act almost like a Rosetta stone.Hoskote’s novella-sized essay deftly shows the many facets of Moraes but without losing focus upon the poet. His intention, with both his essay and the selection of poems, is make Moraes’s work more accessible to the reader, to “release its compressed meanings” without reducing the poems to obvious biographical contexts. By the end of Hoskote’s introduction to Moraes, it feels like you’ve won Moraes’s confidence; as though the process of reading Hoskote’s elegant and erudite prose has let you lock eyes with Moraes. It’s worth buying this volume for Hoskote’s introduction alone.

While some of the poems are resolutely hermetic, most have at least one image or idea that demands the readers’ attention. Moraes’s words are like pincers — they grip and pull and refuse to let go. There’s little that is calm in these poems. Sometimes, it feels like one is walking through Moraes’s nightmares. Moraes’s poetic self-portraiture, his descriptions of sex and the poems that came out of Moraes’s troubled relationship with his mother connect with a reader viscerally. The lines crackle, with a despairing and bitter static or the charge of romantic melancholia; even when it’s a poem describing a sleeping Leela Naidu:

“…you slip down the slope
To your private valley of unhappiness
I cannot reach except with kiss and touch.
Your mouth I listen to is a small rose.
Awake, it does not tell me very much.”

The poems that Hoskote has selected for Dom Moraes: Selected Poems will make you pause and reflect, as you wonder about all that they tell and what they don’t.


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