A poem of the right shape will hold a thousand truths.— Lao Tzu
But it doesn’t say any of them.
Strangely enough, this viral age as it might come to be remembered, is perhaps the first time in history that much of humankind is caught in the grip of a singular preoccupation. With more than half the world’s population in some form of isolation, this enforced solitude has become a shared human condition. Perhaps, at least, for those of us who can afford it.
For most others, distance remains an impossibility, with hunger an inevitable and unwelcome companion. The metaphors that dominate our discourse, not surprisingly, are those of war and battle that persist in unleashing their divisive power across countries and communities. In an increasingly militarised imagination of the world, a tiny element of the vast expanse of nature has become the enemy we must collectively vanquish. The irony is not lost on some of us.
The epidemiological crisis is accompanied by an isolated response to a singular threat – devoid of context, of the growing distress and suffering that is spreading faster than the virus itself, it erases the fundamental connection between the human and the natural worlds. We find ourselves in these times, desperate for alternate metaphors. Our quest must seek a more encompassing imagination – one that could restore in us the lost connection between our vast interiorities, and the narrow limited view of the world imposed by the restrictive structures that increasingly frame our existence.
It is in such times that art and poetry come to our rescue. A rescue, not an escape – as a window into our collective lives, as a force that can both redeem and transform our thinking. In the three poems which follow (originally written in Odia and rendered here in English), Bishnu Mohapatra responds to the immediacy of this moment and offer us exactly such a possibility. These are poems that are strikingly simple, yet expansive and vast; encompassing the world in a way which is truly human. Locked into our homes, surrounded by threat and fear, battling the “invisible enemy”, the poet prompts us to ask what it is that we ought to search for.
“Distance” has suddenly become a value – so much so that our hands separate and hesitate to approach each other, and all familiar objects become strangers. It is an imposed value that our body, our bodies, relentlessly seek to subvert.
Corona Time I
These days when my hands meet
they speak in a strange new language.
A foamy, bubbly, bursting,
rising and falling language.
And then, they switch to that
At the front door of my apartment
the door knob leaps,
my hand recoils.
I stand in front of the house mirror.
Staring back at me
is that same, old, utterly familiar
A young worker lies at night,
his face to the sky,
Burning bright like an electric bulb,
Is it Venus that hangs over his head?
So close, he reaches – hand outstretched
“won’t you touch me tonight”?
Isolation has a way of stretching and shrinking time to its will. Within hours, our lives changed and the value and quality of time itself transformed. Caught in the grip of this moment, the poet reaches for the world outside, even as the hand continues on its traitorous journey towards the face.
Corona Time II
In the morning, I walk
Champa leaves glisten.
I smell the fragrance of dew drops.
In the sand pit, are
footprints left behind
from a morning congregation.
I cannot tell who was here.
Pigeon? Babbler? Drongo? Mynah?
I am half asleep at midday.
My hand travels to
my nose, my eyes, my half open mouth.
Over and over again –
my hand travels,
A sharp blade of sunlight shuffling
through the curtains falls on my bed.
I move over just a little –
is not my enemy.
A whisper of wind
carries away spiders
with the cluster of cobwebs
on my balcony.
is not my enemy.
Is this my quest?
the search for an enemy?
This crisis for some has felt apocalyptic – yet we are reminded that the times that we are living through are not eternity. The natural world is a grander, more exquisite mystery than the disconnected human world. Who is the enemy? In these paradoxical times, the truth of the natural and the human as inextricably linked is quickly revealed and readily distanced. The vulnerability of the human to the microbial, invisible, viral ocean that we live in is overcome by the devices we deploy to separate ourselves from nature.
Rain in Coronatime
Stay separate, disconnect,
subtract, sustain distance.
Rain – What now, have you to do?
make things merge,
you who connect lips to lips, elbow to elbow,
feather to feather, leaf to leaf,
earth to sky, friends to foes
you who sprinkle, soak and stir
together all that is
Century after century
we cultivate carefully
the craft of enemy-making.
The ocean is our enemy.
Sky, mountains, animals are our enemy.
Germs are enemies.
In light and shadow, we fashion foes.
In every heart, we plant the flags of our victory.
Into those very hearts we fire our bullets.
Groups of migrant workers, families – walk still on the road.
Alone and separated – how is this long distance traversed?
Could you hang a canopy of moist shadows over their heads?
Or give them cold balm for their feet?
Fill a cool breeze in their hearts?
Even at a distance – please –
stand for a while in their company,
before they start to walk again.
In the memories of my childhood,
filled as much with darkness
as you were with light.
When my eyes reached for you,
from my sheltered space
you returned my gaze –
connecting me to the world.
In this untimely time
give me – if you can –
Ursula LeGuin once said, “We can’t restructure our society without restructuring the English language. One reflects the other.” If metaphors shape our thinking, then the proliferation of battle metaphors makes conflict central to our response to this crisis. These poems in Odia nudge us towards the vast silences held in our own personal and cultural memories by calling upon “rain”, to remind us of our embeddedness at a time of great disconnection.
Our false notions of control and separation are disrupted when the skies open up and it rains. This perhaps is the poem’s timely plea, to find refuge in nature, the nature that we are now exhorted to distance ourselves from. It asks of us to carefully (re)examine human ideas of the natural world.
These poems invoke a deep nostalgia for the present – a present that we can still reclaim, one that we can hope to reshape only if we alter our vision. Suffused through these poems is an engaged attention, a sustained and absorbed concern for the other. This is a time that demands such acute attention from each one of us. How else will the journey through this time be a truly transformative one?
The world over we hear calls for reimagining our societies, our economic priorities, our healthcare machinery, our ecological dependencies. This is a crisis which has thrown up the gaping inequality in every one of our social structures. There are those among us, for whom, achieving a necessary distance remains an impossibility. And yet, we hope.
This necessary distance, one hopes, will invoke in us an essential intimacy. It is this very paradox that needs our attention. The poet reminds us with great tenderness that human optimism is rooted in our ability to imagine and to hope. These are times when we need those who turn to nature to unravel its mysteries. We will need scientists and epidemiologists to mine nature and data to protect us from the “invisible”. But let us not forget the artists and poets, whose turn to nature reveals other truths and reminds us of our interdependent existence and the mingled forces that shape our lives.
Aparna Uppaluri works in philanthropy and is trained as an epidemiologist. She shares her love for poetry with Laetitia Drahmani who now works at the Permanent Mission of France to the UN.
Bishnu Mohapatra is a well known Odia poet and Dean at the School of Interwoven Arts and Sciences, KREA University.
The poems were rendered into English by the poet and Aparna Uppaluri.