Poetry can be described as a home where language settles down, finds respite and moves out, to return when frayed. Wallace Stevens in his poem “Architecture for the Adoration of Beauty” alludes to poetry as a house of language. The idea that poetry creates a thriving space for language has long fuelled its comparison with the art of architecture, with similarities such as architecture as an arrangement of solid and void and poetry as a movement of sound and silence.
This is essentially viewing poetry only as material, what it is composed of, how it reads on paper, how it feels like in mouth and sounds like while reciting. But poetry is also a metaphysical document. It is a language to tell truths of human experiences, of what one witnesses, and what germinates within as a result, on a spiritual and psychological plane. It is in portraying truth in language, in a manner that creates impressions within, that poetry derives its strength from and has some effect on the world.
In the same vein, as a portrayer of truth – presenting the building material components as they are – architecture achieves its purpose in Brutalism. Its proponents claim that Brutalism architecture is more about ethic rather than aesthetic. It is about representing the essence of a material, like iron-ness of iron or grittiness of grits.
This honest portrayal of building materials and efflorescing their intrinsic nature on the surface of structures put Brutalism in the same fold as poetry of witnessing and giving voice to the mute elements, bringing about the response of the inner self while gazing at the outer world. Just as poetry of witnessing forges a connection between the inner self and the outer world, Brutalism in architecture makes the boundary between inner and outer fade, fusing the interior with exterior in one continuum of the structure.
Reading The Natural Language of Grief by poet Vinita Agrawal, one sees that the act of witnessing becomes a metaphor of inhabiting the ruins of our world. And the grief of witnessing is articulated in the architecture of language. Just as there are shades of grief from personal to social to political, one finds them fused “as found,” giving shape to the ruin, constructing structures in the tradition of Brutalist structures.
The collection opens with a meditation on grief as a disconnectedness of the self with divine and natural in an event of losing someone close.
For years I’ve been trading promises with God.
Offering flowers for mercies
Fast for protection
Money for more wealth.
And now, it’s not as if I’ve stopped praying,
but something’s muted over the years
Grief can create ruins within the landscape of a heart. The key to overcoming grief is to articulate it. As healing begins, a structure takes shape from the ruins, connecting the divine with nature, within a self.
The river is the end of the wait
the final quencher of thirst.
Tonight I lie porous
Tomorrow the river will consume the ashes
and fill me with prayers again.
In “Wallflower”, Agrawal suggests that if something is intrinsic it will appear, but transformation as a task must be undertaken, one must burn a part of the self to move on to the next stage of appearance. The poet suggests that just as a raw form of material hides within itself its most refined state; in its most refined form, its rawness persists. This perspective situates the poem in the realm of Brutalism making us see the objects as they are:
the floweriness of flower.
God knows in which hour of the night
I can make flowers.
Seeds and soil can make flowers.
The flowers are always there.
In “Pelt, Fur and Chamois,” we witness images that brings out the innards of our existence into its full rawness, merging them with forms that make them familiar and therefore, perhaps tolerable.
I hear calfskin differently.
Sheepskin, lambskin, goatskin, kidskin
– the shaved pile surface of a life.
The wind burying scents of terror beneath finger nails
the way the image of the napalm girl running in naked
is buried in our collective conscience.
Among many other commitments toward one’s art, one major responsibility of a poet is to draw attention of her society to aspects which are uncomfortable, in a gentle manner yet
touching the raw nerve, making us wince and pay attention to the wounds caulked within us.
We notice that the poet has put fingers in our eyes, calling us to attend to something of
The breeze ruffles the pelt, fur and chamois wherever it’s
like a blind grandfather feeling his children with his
Like it failed to save a precious thing.
Carolyn Forche writes in the introduction of her collection, Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, that we need to look beyond the idea of personal and political and define a more concrete space for citizens. She mentions “the social” as the space “between the state and the supposedly safe havens of the personal,” and further adds that the task of the poetry of witness is to reclaim the social from the political, and in doing so to give voice to individuals against coercion.
Agrawal has extended the social to include not only to defend against political coercion, but her poems in the collection also speak for nature, environment and gender issues, reminding one of Lorca: “Nobody knows you. No. But I sing to you.”
In, “Arid,” we witness the landscape of desert cut open into its elements, and how parched even the clouds and dreams are, and then quite gently we see its most vulnerable element – its women who ferry water from large distances daily, squint, and speak.
This shaken expanse
breaks every promise that time ever made to life –
that of relenting.
A sheep with slumped shoulders walks through me.
I become a burned hoof. A sore mouth.
Rain could ease the ache of this supine topography.
Rains and rivers and water tables.
That brilliant liquid
shimmering in dreams
that women would trade with their blood.
But clouds too are desert here,
deserts in the skies.
Similarly, “Trees have Always Spoken to Me” one hears the trees speak through their multiple tones, urging us to listen to them, so that something can be done about them.
They speak of woodpeckers
Who’ve hammered patterns on its crinkly bark
like intricate, wooden block prints,
of crows who’ve built nests in its Y-branches
parakeets who’ve roosted in its hollows
and made it feel like a Grandpa.
Trees speak to me of touch.
For any poet, a major challenge in giving voice to the others is that one is writing from a position of an observer, one has not necessarily undergone such sufferings oneself to whom a poet attempts to speak for. In that case, one attempts to inhabit the material as much as possible and bring in the depth of imagination and articulation of language. But even then, a poet is aware of the gap that separates her subject and herself. Inevitably, a guilt fills that space, and this adds further to the beauty of poetry and makes it a more humane art – vulnerable and limited by its humanity. In the collection, one finds resonance of a similar guilt lingering within the poems. In “A Poem Born Form Guilt” one feels the guilt of capturing nature and its elements with herself being incapable of being a part of it.
Long years ago I’d got him home
from a parrot poacher
(how could I)
expecting him to enjoy the cage
enjoy his enclosure in my home
enjoy his lavish pantry
enjoy his name Mitthoo
enjoy my cheerful “Good Morning!”
He survived for all of forty eight hours.
Just fell over, the Rigor Mortis, instant.
Eyes that closed naturally in sleep,
wide open like fossils of deep hurt
This sleep too cold
to afford the warmth of eyelids.
I look for him now in all the birds soaring free;
he who belonged to the firmaments,
whom I envisaged
would be a household spectacle;
but for whose wings
I could not provide a span.
Similar inability of not actually belonging to the subject one is writing about is witnessed in the poem, “Home is a Crusade.”
We believe in many things
but right now I believe in the walkers
who trudge from Mumbai to Khurja
with children too tiny to leave the breast
who rest by day and walk by night
cleaving lands with their bare feet
lands whose names I can’t pronounce
their belongings in shapeless sacks.
What it is to be a labourer. A migrant at that.
I am guilty of a roof over my head
of the rent not burning a hole in my pocket.
The digital newspaper carrier their photos
the women wearing bangles, bindis, pretty beads,
trinkets he must have bought one rare day
when he didn’t have to work.
Togetherness is a jewel that can dim a solitaire.
When Agrawal writes about the pain and loss of others, in essence, she is making grieving a social exercise. She is not building a private room for one’s own mourning, but she is creating an amphitheater of grief, shining it to the world, to take notice and come together in protecting what is at risk, our collective future.
She was twelve when she died.
She didn’t die of Covid.
Nor of any other virus
nor any disease.
She’d walked from Telangana
It feels as if the poet has worn “Jeeta Madkana” clothes after her death, and then revealing to the world, how it weighs over the conscience.
I’ve saved her photo on my phone.
It takes a lot to look at her though.
She, who died of exhaustion.
In poetry of witnessing, the purpose is to expose the material wholly and honestly, as in Brutalist architecture, not necessarily concerned with the material but with the quality of the material. There is actually a reverence for the subjects that impels the poet to touch them, and not merely as an exercise in responsibility. The poet, however, admits the limitation of “Human Touch.”
In a long-stretched-out isolation
this human water comforts.
Touch is an illusion
It always was.
Admitting the limitations, should we forego this exercise, of touching lives, telling their stories? No, because creating poems out of the ruins of the grief is a vital act, it gives an architecture to our experiences, shining forth a light of hope to the people and places where it is still dark.
There must be a silver wind
that will bring moisture laden on its shoulders
beneath whose dampness— "Memory of Rain".
my aches will unfold
The Natural Language of Grief, Vinita Agrawal, Proverse Hong Kong.