One of my favourite stories from Dom Moraes’s life is about the day before he died. A few weeks shy of his 66th birthday, he went shopping for a fish tank, some Siamese fighter fish, and terrapin turtles. Some of the poet’s strongest work is visceral, lush and evocative – it stands to reason he would seek a moving, inhabited world to observe and to imbibe in the comfort of his house. As Michael Schmidt wrote of him, “He loved to watch…a close attention, a gaze into human and inhuman occasions.”
In the last year of his life, Moraes was still going strong despite the tumour he had nicknamed “Gorgi”. He published five books in those last twelve months. This surge (or return) to his writing is often attributed to his partner in the last thirteen years – the writer and architect Sarayu Srivatsa, who co-wrote the award-winning Out of God’s Oven: Travels in a Fractured Land with him. In the poem “Fourteen Years”, Moraes writes of their relationship, “We have been more than married.”
A poet of no fixed skin
Born to a Goan family who settled in Mumbai, Moraes was never comfortable with being called an Anglo-Indian poet (a term that loosely referred to writers in post-colonial India writing in English). As he made his way through literary fame and interview questions, he distanced himself from canons and labels. Moraes wanted his work to speak for itself. But, instead, the legends around the man were far better-known and were far more written about than his work.
The son of the prominent journalist Frank Moraes, Dom Moraes travelled around the world. His first book, at the age of thirteen, was a series of essays on cricket called Green is the Grass. The slim, green book was memorable and novel enough to never really fade away from the world of cricket literature. When he was fifteen, he showed WH Auden his poems and walked away with praise. Here was a young man set for literary greatness. His first book of poems at age nineteen, Beginning, won an important British literary prize called the Hawthornden Prize, worth £15,000 in 2017.
Moraes’s career is often described in terms of a luminous beginning that faltered and of a resurgence in his later years. Moraes himself addressed this lull in a interview where he said, “The thing I missed for 15 or 16 years was the sound, a kind of insistent sound – it may be two words, might be one line – the noise it makes becomes obsessive so that you have to fit it into a complete, larger noise.” Moraes’s ability to weave a striking line or an unusual image into a poem makes his work accessible even to the modern reader. In a poem titled “Key”, whose rhythms and instincts still feel relevant and contemporary, Moraes writes of his son:
“But the child with brown hair and eyes,
Smudged all over with toffee?
I lick his cheeks. I bounce him in air.
Two bounces, he disappears.
Fifteen years later, he redescends,
Not as a postponed child, but a letter
Asking me for his father who now possesses
No garden, no home, not even any key.”s
What stays with me is how easily the loving and the desolate combine in Moraes’ poems. He takes the voluptuous image of a child whose cheeks are licked and ties it to a father so bereft he no longer has a garden in which to invite this child. In another poem titled “In Cinnamon Shade”, which makes references to absence, he writes “But wherever you are, I imagine you still, /…Rest in cinnamon shade.” He even laments this absence in tones of reverence, “of two once made one, what will be left? / Only footprints on water, only handmarks on wind.” For a poet whose lines stay fresh decades after he wrote them, it’s remarkable that people know his name but not his work.
Tongues and voices
In another avatar, Moraes, who lived in Israel for over a year, also translated poems from Hebrew. It was once said that his English translations of these poems were even better than the originals. In the inaugural issue of Modern Poetry in Translation his translation of a poem by Yehuda Amichai was published: “And suddenly a seawind feels me/ As women feel the cloth in a store;/ Is he good, will he wash well in the laundry?”
Some poems written in collaboration with Israeli poet T Carmi were compiled in a 1965 collection called A Brass Serpent. Three decades later, Moraes remained engaged in Israeli affairs and Hebrew poetics, and translating Israeli poems for the Penguin anthology titled A Chance Beyond Bombs: An Anthology of Modern Hebrew Peace Poems.
Moraes’s collected memoirs are fittingly titled A Variety of Absences. Written at different junctures in his life, Gone Away, My Son’s Father, and Never at Home were individually well-received. My Son’s Father was called “a masterpiece” by Ramachandra Guha. Long before Jerry Pinto wrote the moving and disturbing story of his mother’s mental illness and its effects on his childhood in Em and the Big Hoom, Moraes chronicled a young boy’s efforts to support his mother as she descended into severe depression and his frightening encounters with her violence.
The ensuing guilt and estrangement are also echoed in his poem, Letter to My Mother, where he writes, “You know I will not return. / Forgive me my trespasses.” The other books narrate his migrations, his tussles with alcohol, and his marriages and other loves.
In one of those surreal exchanges that follow people with substance issues who are also in the limelight, a reporter asked Dom Moraes on his 65th birthday in 2003, “Do drinking and writing go together?” Moraes, who had struggled with alcoholism most of his adult life replied with astonishing calm, “I haven’t been drinking for some time.”
With a deeply unsettlingly consistency, Moraes’s life and literary career have been chronicled in broad, sensationalist terms. In a 1990 interview, a question was posed by Tarun J Tejpal to Moraes about whether unhappiness, drinking and suicidal tendencies were necessary circumstances for writing poetry. Moraes dismissed the idea and pointed out that the later poems of Auden and Dylan Thomas were “shit”.
Though he turned away from a false connection between sadness and writing, his poems spoke of his melancholy. In Alexander, he writes, “With all my fears, unschooled, sorrow is known / better to me than most.” But Moraes’s work also shows that he found a way of making peace with his fragmented, crowded life, as seen in Absences, which ends with these words:
“No sound would be heard if
So much silence was not heard.
No longer any foreshore
Or any abyss, this
World only held together
By its variety of absences.”