Six poems by Eunice De Souza (1940-2017): sharp, condensed, luminous. (And a tribute.)

The ‘savagery of her understatement’ lives in on in the works of the poet who died on Saturday.

Advice To Women

Keep cats
if you want to learn to cope with
the otherness of lovers.
Otherness is not always neglect –
Cats return to their litter trays
when they need to.
Don’t cuss out of the window
at their enemies.
That stare of perpetual surprise
in those great green eyes
will teach you
to die alone. 

Don’t Look For My Life In These Poems

Poems have order, sanity
aesthetic distance from debris.
All I’ve learnt from pain
I always knew,
but could not do. 

For Rita’s Daughter, Just Born

Luminous new leaf
May the sun rise gently
on your unfurling

in the courtyard always linger

the smell of earth after rain

the stone of these steps
stay cool and old

gods in the niches
old brass on the wall

never the shrill cry of kites


In every Catholic home there’s a picture
of Christ holding his bleeding heart
in his hand.
I used to think, ugh.

the only person with whom
I have not exchanged confidences
is my hairdresser.

Some recommend stern standards,
others say float along.
He says, take it as it comes,
meaning, of course, as he hands it out.

I wish I could be a
Wise Woman
smiling endlessly, vacuously
like a plastic flower,
saying Child, learn from me.

It’s time to perform an act of charity
to myself,
bequeath the heart, like a
spare kidney –
preferably to an enemy.

Miss Louise

She dreamt of descending
curving staircases
ivory fan aflutter
of children in sailor suits
and organza dresses
till the dream rotted her innards
but no one knew:
innards weren’t permitted
in her time.
Shaking her graying ringlets:
“My girl, I can’t even
go to Church you know
I unsettle the priests
so completely. Only yesterday
that handsome Fr Hans was saying,
‘Miss Louise, I feel an arrow
through my heart.’
But no one will believe me
if I tell them. It’s always
Been the same. They’ll say,
‘Yes Louisa, we know, professors
loved you in your youth,
judges in your prime.’”


Sweet Sixteen

Well, you can’t say
they didn’t try.
Mamas never mentioned menses.
A nun screamed: You vulgar girl
don’t say brassieres
say bracelets.
She pinned paper sleeves
onto our sleeveless dresses.
The preacher thundered:
Never go with a man alone
Never alone
and even if you’re engaged
only passionless kisses.

At sixteen, Phoebe asked me:
Can’t it happen when you’re in a dance hall
I mean, you know what,
getting preggers and all that, when
you’re dancing?
I, sixteen, assured her
you could.

“Eunice de Souza was a teacher, a compatriot, a poetic instigator”

Nabina Das

I have known Eunice de Souza only as a face, or words. I have known Eunice as a remote email communication, or as a Eunice who left the room just when I entered, and who believed “There are ways of belonging”. As a face, she reminded me of the benevolent sarcastic grand diva who flourished in her own personal space. As words, she stomped around, by her own quaint admission, like “a sour old puss in verse” with aplomb. At any rate, I do agree that it’s “best to meet in poems” and that is why I cherish her.

This is also to say that I read her poetry as a special place. A place where one would chuckle over her “forty-eight words too many.” and suddenly marvel at her no-nonsense ways.

Eunice de Souza’s place in Indian English poetry is not one that ever suffered a contention. In the tradition of Bombay poets, if one at all has to delineate her oeuvre in these terms where mostly male poets are visible, she remains a minimalist of senses.

Her feminism is a surgeon’s knife, swift and non-messy. The spillage on the page is contained, and the poetic act is sealed. Author of four books of poetry – Fix, Women in Dutch Painting, Necklace of Skulls, Learn from the Almond Leaf – the poet’s kinship in style has been compared to Nissim Ezekiel’s craft.

While one finds Ezekiel’s pithiness and Keki Daruwalla’s austerity in de Souza’s caustic craft (she says in a poem: “My students think it funny/that Daruwallas and de Souzas/should write poetry.”), the latter shimmers in her own right in lines such as “A compound full of silver cars./The sky with not a single silver star.”

I would avoid oft repeated allusions to her Goan Catholic roots and the resulting influences in her poetry other than the fact that even when De Souza is cantankerously funny in her writing, she’s empathetic and nuanced:

“No, I’m not going to
delve deep down and discover
I’m really de Souza Prabhu
even if Prabhu was no fool
and got the best of both the worlds.
(Catholic Brahmin!
I can hear his fat chuckle still)” 

— "De Souza Prabhu"

How else do I read de Souza? What makes her voice special is the lyrical precision combined with unabashed straight-talk. The anthropology of her poems are imprints of the moon and tree in companionship, the fires of Holi, the “daddy” reference, as well as the human body in agony or in ecstasy.

The poet’s voice is that of non-fussy introspection:

“I could pinch a line from Neruda for you:
‘I want to do with you what spring does
With the cherry trees’
There you have it: the apparent ease 
Of love and poetry” 

— "Unfinished Poem"

Being de Souza also meant that she kept her tongue polished and the irony sharp.

“My love says
for god’s sake
don’t write poems
which heave and pant
and resound to the music 
of our thighs
Just keep at what you are:
a sour old puss in verse
and leave the rest to me.” 

— "Alibi"

Eunice de Souza was a teacher, a compatriot, a poetic instigator. In her earlier work, she spun her verse like a strong net one casts in an ocean of words. The latest work, Learn from the Almond Leaf, is also singularly unique, if a little mellow. The allusions of a father or death or even a lover who devours her men might come across as Sylvia Plath-esque. But in the depth of her writing, de Souza tugs at the life strings. Death was her song, not so much a deathwish:

Fling my ashes in the Western Ghats
They’ve always seemed like home.
May the leopards develop
A taste for poetry
The crows and kites learn
To modulate their voices.
May there be mist and waterfalls
Grass and flowers
In the wrong season.

— "Western Ghats"

Today de Souza is dead. She has left us the crystals shaven by her razored rhymes. Did she utter her own lines at the final moment? I believe she did, her sharp diamond voice glittering on:

“Tell me, Mr Death
Date, time, place.
I have to look for my
Life-of-sin panties,
Make an appointment
for a pedicure”

— "Tell me"
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