The Vegetarian: A Meaty Book

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Daphne becomes a tree- Artwork by Arthur Rackham

As a life-long vegetarian, I was immediately intrigued by The Vegetarian, the title of the three part novella written by South Korean author Han Kang. The story set in modern day Seoul recounts how all hell breaks loose in a family when a young woman makes the sudden and irrevocable decision to become a vegetarian. But the book is not a treatise arguing the merits or ethical considerations of a plant based diet. Vegetarianism becomes a metaphor for personal choice and rebellion against the patriarchy. It’s a book about the violence and brutality women experience at the hands of different men in their lives when they challenge the status quo and the heavy price they have to pay for non -conformity. One could easily substitute vegetarianism with any act of defiance but I think vegetarianism is an apt and powerful analogy to highlight the vile and base nature of human beings not just in regard to animals but towards their own species. The book was rather unusual and unlike any other book I’ve read but it was spellbinding and a page-turner.

After a blood-soaked nightmare triggered by a repressed childhood trauma, Yeong-Hye decides to become a vegan much to the consternation of her husband and the rest of her family. The structure of the book is tripartite; each part narrated from the perspective of a different family member. The first part recounts the story from the husband’s point of view and is written in the first person. The second part viewed through the lens of Yeong-Hye’s brother-in-law is written in the third person and the third part is in the third person too but written from the sister’s frame of reference. In short it’s a woman’s story presented through the viewpoint of others. Although it would have helped to know the inner workings of Yeong-Hye’s mind ( which is only revealed in sporadic dream fragments), concealing her thoughts is an ingenious narrative device to bring home the point that her voice has been stifled. I found the changing of the narration from the first person to the third person to be slightly jarring but apparently these three parts were distinct stories that eventually coalesced into one novel.

The Vegetarian–  Mr. Cheong cannot come to terms with the fact that his compliant and submissive wife has started behaving strangely. And in Korea, deciding to stop eating and cooking meat is considered strange behavior. In fact he had married her for she was an ordinary and unremarkable woman- a non-entity who posed no threat to him. All this self-absorbed and uncaring man can think about is how the decision will affect him and his social life. Her family is not considerate either. Her father slaps her twice and forcibly feeds her meat which results in her grabbing a knife and slitting her wrist for which she is hospitalized. She spirals down a path of self-destructive behavior as she eats less and less and shows more and more signs of mental illness.

Mongolian Mark–  Yeong-Hye’s brother- in- law is an unsuccessful video artist who becomes obsessed with the idea of painting flowers on her naked body and filming her having sex. His fetichistic interest that slowly turns into a pornographic fantasy was triggered on hearing his wife say her sister hadn’t outgrown her Mongolian birthmark from childhood. While at first you wonder if he is showing empathy towards his sister- in -law, it becomes clear that he is using her in pursuit of his artistic vision and to give a boost to his flagging career. She is the characteristic woman who is depicted as passive to the active male gaze.

This was the body of a beautiful young woman, conventionally an object of desire, and yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated … what she had renounced was the very life that her body represented.

The concept of the male gaze in the visual arts was developed by Laura Mulvey, the feminist film critic in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” who posited that Hollywood films depict women from a male point of view -in other words the male gaze is a sexualized way of looking that objectifies the woman. She was influenced by the theories of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan who had delved into the concepts of  ‘Schaulust’ or the pleasure in looking and ‘scopophilia’ or deriving sexual pleasure from looking at nude bodies and photographs. In the end the male gaze reinforces the patriarchy. The brother-in-law is also taking advantage of a mentally ill woman irrespective of the fact that she consented to be his model. There is undoubtedly an underlying imbalance of power.

Flaming Trees- Through the eyes of In-Hye, we witness the slow disintegration of Yeong- Hye who goes from being a vegan to an anorexic and we learn about her childhood and the abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father. Her husband divorces her and her parents and brother abandon her. She is diagnosed with mental illness and hospitalized in a psychiatric ward. The only one who shows sympathy and takes responsibility for her care is her sister. I was moved by In- Hye’s account of her sister’s descent into madness and how she reflects on her own life choices and wonders if she was a coward compared to her sister:

Though the ostensible reason for her not wanting Yeong-hye to be discharged, the reason that she gave the doctor, was this worry about a possible relapse, now she was able to admit to herself what had really been going on. She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there…

Gradually In-Hye herself starts showing symptoms of mental illness and has suicidal thoughts, leaving the reader with the sobering thought that men are alike in their callousness and women in their misery.

Slowly as Yeong- Hye starts withering away, she expresses the bizarre desire to transform into a tree. I found echoes of both Kafka’s A Hunger Artist and The Metamorphosis in the novel. The ‘kafkaesque’ heroine is undergoing a metamorphosis of her own. The trope of the woman turning into a tree is an archetypal image that can be traced back to antiquity. In the Metamorphoses, the Roman poet Ovid recounts how Daphne, the nymph of Greek mythology entreats the river God Peneus to turn her into a tree so she can escape Apollo’s sexual advances. The woman is safer as a tree in a vegetative state and in a non-human form. It is a defense mechanism to protect herself. A man leaves her with no choice than to regress and efface. As Yeong-Hye withers and wastes away she also becomes more taciturn. Her body, her voice and her mental faculties are all shrinking and becoming invisible.

This is a unique book with a lot lurking beneath the surface. Some people have explained it as an allegory of the political unrest in South Korea but I interpreted it to be a dark depiction of patriarchal hegemony. This book is graphic conjuring phantasmagoric images and the reading experience is visceral and hallucinatory, reminiscent of surrealist paintings. In less than 200 pages, it tackles serious issues like family dysfunction, gender relations, marital rape, body image, eating disorders, voyeurism, mental illness and suicide ideation.

Indeed, The Vegetarian offers us a lot to chew on. ( And yes, I have an affinity for puns however trite they may be!) Originally published in 2007, it won the 2016 Man Booker Prize after Deborah Smith’s translation made it an international success. Much as I was glad to have read the brilliant book, I found the utter despair without a flicker of hope or any chance of redemption difficult to digest. I confess that once I finished the book, I had to rush to read an Agatha Christie mystery to get rid of the bitter aftertaste.

 

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‘The Bustle in a House’-Visiting the Ghost of Emily Dickinson

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The Homestead- Home of Poet Emily Dickinson. The photo is taken from the driveway of the house.

The best way to pay homage to deceased authors is by reading their work. The second best way is to embark on a literary pilgrimage and situate yourself in the same space where creativity once flowed. I enjoy immersing myself in the world of authors- treading on the sacred ground where their footsteps once tread, establishing instant intimacy with them by stepping into the rooms where they lived, ate, worked and slept and developing inspiration for my own writing. The most humbling realization is that in spite of the fame and success they were ordinary mortals like us caught up in the drudgery of life.

Last month I had the opportunity of visiting Emily Dickinson’s stately home in Amherst, MA. She is a kindred spirit from another era as along with a passion for poetry, I share her interests in baking and gardening and her love of nature. Emily ( Yes, I am on first -name basis with her! ) wrote exquisitely beautiful pithy poems on nature, love, longing, life, death and immortality. Her life was shrouded in mystery as she deliberately sought to be a recluse and hardly left her home. Only a handful of her poems were published during her lifetime. I’m grateful to her sister Lavinia who published the rest of her work comprising of nearly 1800 poems after she left this world. Emily never knew that one day she would be regarded as one of the greatest American poets. Her eccentricities  along with the image of a reclusive poet add to her mystique. Although I’m a frequent visitor of her poetic abode, I couldn’t help feeling a little like an unwelcome guest in the home of the poet who lived in self-imposed solitude.

The Emily Dickinson museum comprises 2 historic houses on a 3 acre property in college town Amherst, MA – The Homestead and The Evergreens. The Homestead house where Emily’s grandparents lived was built in 1813. It is the house where she was born and raised in a upper class Calvinist upbringing and it is the same house where she died. She lived there with her parents and her two siblings. The family temporarily moved to Pleasant Street in Amherst where a pedestrian Mobil station now stands and then moved back to the Homestead in 1855 and converted it to the Italianate style in vogue then with a yellow exterior and green shutters and a cupola on the roof. I was shocked to hear that the house was almost razed to the ground after the last inhabitants passed away but thankfully it was eventually bought by Amherst College and restored to its present state.

The house was a very important space as she spent most of her time there. While touring the property, you notice prints of poems scattered throughout the house and the docent herself recited some of them to us. At every step, I was reminded of my own favorite poems that seemed relevant to the moment and experience.

I dwell in possibility- ( 466)

I dwell in Possibility–
A fairer House than Prose–
More numerous of Windows–
Superior–for Doors–

Of Chambers as the Cedars–
Impregnable of Eye–
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky–

Of Visitors–the fairest–
For Occupation–This–
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise—

Even though she lived sequestered in a house with doors and windows that physically confined her, they were not impenetrable for poetry was her true dwelling which enabled her to give free rein to her limitless imagination and access the expanse of the infinite universe.

The house has been restored to look the way it looked till Dickinson’s death in 1886. Most of the furniture pieces are reproductions with the original pieces owned by Harvard University. The main floor has an exhibit area with a gift shop, a parlor and a study. In the parlor is a replica of the original piano that Emily played and a portrait of

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The iconic and possibly the only existing daguerreotype of the poet taken when she was 16.

the three Dickinson children. You also see a copy of the only daguerreotype that exists of the poet when she was sixteen years old. On this floor you also see the conservatory attached to the house and built especially for Emily to grow native and exotic plants.

The most exciting rooms are on the second floor. Across from the hall is a little poetry room where we had a discussion about Dickinson’s poems with the tour guide. She was a prolific poet who wrote, on average, a poem a day. She wrote them on scraps of papers, on envelopes, newspaper clippings and in letters to friends. She would make copies on sheets of paper and sew them together into booklets or ‘fascicles’ as they are now called. We saw the reproduction of one of the ‘fascicles’ where she wrote alternate words in the margin if she needed to substitute words or phrases in a poem. Often her poems revealed unusual vocabulary and syntax and unconventional use of punctuation in keeping with her rebellious nature. She is especially known for her daring use of dashes.

Finally we entered the hallowed territory- the poet’s small bedroom which has replicas of her bureau and her writing desk and floral wallpaper similar in design to the room of the nineteenth century. Portraits of George Sand and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, both, authors she undoubtedly admired, grace the walls. Apparently many visitors get emotional in this small and serene room. It was a contemplative and moving experience for me too as I stood within the confines of that tiny space which produced a staggering number of poems. This was a room of her own where along with spending many productive hours, she gazed out to the hills and meadows from her window and on occasion lowered baskets of cookies and sweets to children who waited below.

Outside the bedroom in a glass case is the replica of one of the long white dresses she wore which reveals a very slender frame. The fact that she only wore white dresses once she retreated into her solitude adds to the aura of mystery surrounding her. It’s easy to imagine a white phantom moving stealthily through the house.

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The Evergreens- Home of Austin Dickinson.

Next I proceeded to visit ‘The Evergreens’, the second house on the property built in 1856 for Emily’s brother Austin who married Susan Gilbert, Emily’s best friend. Emily took part in parties and musical soirées at this house ‘a hedge away’ when younger but avoided them later when she cut herself off from society. The comings and goings between the two houses made for some fascinating encounters and anecdotes.

This house is interesting both from an architectural standpoint and a historic perspective. Unlike the house next door, the subsequent owners of the property retained the original features and the furniture. Virtually every piece is intact- oil paintings, curios, books, lithographs, carpets, wallpaper and an adorable cradle. The kitchen has retained pots and pans and other equipment from the nineteenth century including call bells for servants. You feel like you’ve stepped back in time. To me the most charming room is the nursery – there are toys on the floor and clothes on the bed made more poignant by the fact that Austin and Susan Dickinson had lost their eight year old son to typhoid.

Emily was plagued with health issues. She was losing vision and was prone to epileptic fits. She could have suffered from a mood disorder which seems to fit with her outbursts of joyous creativity and her poems that suggest both euphoria and despondency. She never married but her personal life has aroused a lot of curiosity. She wrote letters addressed to an unknown ‘Master’ who people speculate could have been any of the following: George Gould, a close friend, Otis Lord, a prominent judge and a family friend, Samuel Bowles, a local newspaper editor, Rev.Charles Wadsworth or even her sister- in law Sue- her friend, the reader and recipient of her poems and a trusted critic to whom she had written intensely passionate letters. There is no way of knowing for sure if she was a lesbian or bisexual although many of her poems have homoerotic overtones.

I stepped into the garden and was quite disappointed. It was early spring and a few crocuses were blooming  here and there. But for a woman who was a botany expert, an avid gardener and a high priestess of nature, the museum could have done a better job preserving it. What a travesty considering the poet burned incense on the altar of nature! She decried organized religion but was immensely spiritual. Nature was her religion as we can see from the parody of the trinitarian formula in this poem:

The Gentian weaves her fringes- ( 47)

The Gentian weaves her fringes-
The maple’s loom is red.
My departing blossoms
Obviate parade.

A brief, but patient illness,
An hour to prepare;
And one, below this morning,
Is where the angels are.

It was a short procession, —
The bobolink was there,
An aged bee addressed us,
And then we knelt in prayer.

We trust that she was willing, —
We ask that we may be.
Summer, sister, seraph,
Let us go with thee!

In the name of the bee,
And of the butterfly,
And of the breeze, amen!

As I was about to leave the property, I was struck by the realization that it is ironical that a woman who shunned fame and eschewed company is now swarmed with visitors.

I’m nobody! Who are you? ( 260)

I’m nobody! Who are you?Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish — you know!

How dreary to be somebody!
How public like a frog
To tell one’s name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

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View of The Homestead from the garden framed by a giant oak tree!

I felt like an intruder invading into this very private woman’s space and thoughts. But then on my way out, I noticed the giant oak tree in her garden which was barely leafing out at the time. I hugged the tree absorbing its vital life force energy with the thought that perhaps Emily had once spread her arms around it too for it is the same oak from her time that still stands tall. I hope by connecting with the natural world so dear to her, I atoned a little for the transgression of trespassing.

 

 

A Rose By Many Other Names

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Zéphirine Drouhin- Antique Bourbon Rose

I’m taking a slightly different turn on my blog today. I had submitted an article a few years ago for a contest on a gardening website where we had to write an essay based on the famous lines from Romeo and Juliet about a rose by any other name smelling just as sweet. Unfortunately the contest was called off as they didn’t have enough participants. Roses will be blooming soon in my garden. They are already awakening from their winter slumber and putting out new shoots and leaves. I thought it would be timely to post the essay I had submitted pertaining to gardening but inspired by literary lines.

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

Juliet declares these impassioned lines in Act 11, Scene 11 of Romeo and Juliet. There is a feud between the noble families of Capulet and Montague but for Juliet, Romeo would still be perfection incarnate with a different family name and she would still love him wholeheartedly. But would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?

Fragrance is not exclusive to roses. We just have to smell a jasmine or a hyacinth or get a whiff of a lilac or a sweet autumn clematis to know that there are other alluring scents in the world of flowers. Besides, the scent factor varies a lot among roses. A rose can be virtually scent- free or it could have the most intense and intoxicating perfume on earth. Take a look at any rose catalog and you would think they were describing the aroma of an old wine. A rose could have a spicy fragrance with hints of cedarwood and vanilla or a deliciously fruity fragrance reminiscent of raspberries.

Fragrance is not the only quality of roses. Color, form and habit are equally important to the gardener. Nowadays we can’t really say that a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. The name rose has become generic. There are thousands of roses in mind-boggling varieties: hybrid tea roses, grandiflora, floribunda, miniature, climbing, antique and rugosa to name just a few. How do we distinguish between the different varieties of roses? By their names of course. The names are often majestic and meaningful and reveal their outstanding characteristics.

I must confess that many a time I’ve bought a rose solely for its fancy name ignoring all its other attributes like disease resistance and hardiness. Who can resist the allure of a romantic name like ‘Moondance’ or ‘ Sweet Intoxication’? Or roses that transport us to faraway places like ‘April in Paris’ or ‘Tahitian Sunset’? ‘Mister Lincoln’ and ‘John F. Kennedy’ named after famous Presidents would appeal to history buffs. A religious person might be inclined to buy ‘ Pope John Paul II’ or ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe’. I once bought ‘Queen Nefertiti’ from the David Austin Roses catalog only because the rose sounded regal and exotic. Her Majesty has certainly lived up to her name, rewarding me every year with exquisitely scented apricot blooms.

 

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David Austin English Rose – Queen Nefertiti

I also have a predilection for roses named after famous authors and literary characters and again, it is the David Austin collection that fulfills my fantasies. ‘Jude the Obscure’ and ‘Tess of the D’urbervilles’ fit the bill perfectly as I am a big fan of Thomas Hardy. There is ‘Gentle Hermione’ from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, ‘The Lady of Shalott’ named after Tennyson’s poem and ‘The Pilgrim’ from The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer. Then there is the crimson rose ‘William Shakespeare’ named after the Bard himself.

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David Austin English Rose- Tess of the D’urbervilles

However the sweetest smelling rose in my garden is ‘Zéphirine Drouhin’, a fuchsia pink antique French rose. It puts on a spectacular show every June in my zone 5b garden and continues blooming sporadically through the summer into the fall. The most remarkable characteristic of ‘Zéphirine’ is that it is virtually thorn- free and can grow in semi-shade unlike most roses which require full sun. The only drawback is that it is susceptible to black spot and powdery mildew. The very name Bourbon for this class of climbing roses conjures up images of powerful monarchs. 

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Zephirine Drouhin- Antique Climbing Rose

‘Zéphirine’ itself is quite a rare and unusual name. The word ‘zephyr’ could refer to a light breeze or remind us of ‘Zephyrus’ the Greek God of the west wind. This rose is also known by other names like ‘ Mme. Charles Bonnet’ and ‘La Belle Dijonnaise’ ( the beautiful lady from Dijon). ‘Zéphirine’ has the quintessential old rose fragrance. It is the distinctive scent of ‘attar’ or the essential oil extracted from the petals of a rose. I have my own pet name for ‘Zéphirine’. Madame Zeffy as we lovingly call her at home can be quite temperamental and moody. There are days when her perfume is elusive. She needs the perfect warmth and humidity to release her captivating fragrance.

I know that ‘Zéphirine’ will have an enchanting fragrance with any other name but it is her name that makes her sound ethereal. Despite Juliet’s fervent declaration, it is on account of their names that the story ends disastrously for the star-crossed lovers. A rose will always be known for its beauty and redolence but the short and sweet one-syllable name enhances the charm of a rose and imbues it with character. Could you imagine a rose being called a thistle? Somehow it doesn’t have the same effect.

~ Jayshree

An Amethyst Remembrance- Three Dickinson Poems on Love and Loss

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Cover of the first edition of Emily Dickinson’s  “Poems”, published in 1890

In recognition of National Poetry Month which wraps up today, I am celebrating Emily Dickinson, one of America’s most innovative and unique poets. She is known for the economy of her verse, her unconventional use of grammar and punctuation and blatant disregard of poetic conventions.

She is first and foremost a nature poet who through robins, bees and flowers expounds profound truths about love, life, death and immortality. Her concise poems manage to pack the hardest punch. Typically one or two metaphors are enough to convey the message or the emotion. I have chosen to highlight three poems on love and loss explicitly for their novel use of figurative language.

To lose thee — sweeter than to gain
All other hearts I knew.
‘Tis true the drought is destitute,
But then, I had the dew!

The Caspian has its realms of sand,
Its other realm of sea.
Without the sterile perquisite,
No Caspian could be.

This bittersweet poem on pain going hand in hand with pleasure illustrates Tennyson’s famous lines that ” ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Where there is love, there is loss but there is something sweet about the loss too. The speaker is bereft but she was lucky enough to have had something to lose. Being in drought makes her appreciate the dew or the contrasting emotion of elation she once enjoyed.

In this particular poem I was intrigued by the image of the Caspian Sea as a metaphor of life, love and vitality and the dry sand the pain of loneliness and desolation. Marine images feature in many of Dickinson’s poems. In fact there are other poems that allude specifically to the Caspian Sea like this succinct two line poem on submitting to her beloved :

Least Rivers — docile to some sea.
My Caspian — thee. 

The Caspian sea interestingly is not a boundless sea but a landlocked body of water. It  could not exist without its boundaries. Everything has its limits and must end somewhere. The sand marks the end of the sea. Similarly love must end too. Loss is a necessary part of life. Without the sterile desert, there would be no appreciation of the sea. It is fascinating how Dickinson employs a topographical feature to illuminate the workings of the mind.

I held a Jewel in my fingers—
And went to sleep—
The day was warm, and winds were prosy—
I said ”Twill keep’—

I woke—and chid my honest fingers,
The Gem was gone—
And now, an Amethyst remembrance
Is all I own—

The speaker/poet thought her love as rare and exquisite as a jewel would last forever but it was evanescent and only memories remain. She went to sleep lulled by the comfort that she was secure in her relationship but maybe she took it for for granted. She blames herself for when she wakes up her precious treasure has slipped away and what remains with her are her cherished memories. Love is fleeting and is synonymous with loss but there is a vague triumph in the loss. I interpreted “Jewel” to denote love but the jewel could mean life, possessions, dreams or anything we held on to dearly. The nostalgic tone of the poem is accentuated by the use of innumerable dashes which could denote a pause in her thoughts as she strives to recollect her past.

This is one of my favorite Dickinson poems as I love the image of ” an Amethyst remembrance”. An amethyst is a semi-precious stone compared to the precious jewel. So one could argue that what remains is definitely less precious than what one has experienced. But it could be the opposite too. Isn’t it interesting that we don’t have a precise picture of the jewel but the description of the memory is more concrete? Our memories are often idealized versions of a past that was far from perfect. The colorful, lustrous and sparkling picture of the amethyst evoked at the end of the day and perhaps at the sunset of her life suffuses the poem in a violet glow. What a gem of a poem!

We outgrow love like other things
  And put it in the drawer,
Till it an antique fashion shows
  Like costumes grandsires wore.

We outgrow love like other things. What a cynical start to the poem! Love and everything else in life is temporary. Sometimes we hold on to letters and photographs of an ex even if we no longer have any feelings for that person. We don’t want to completely destroy the evidence of the past even if it were painful or even if we are totally indifferent to the person now. We put our feelings in the drawer as we don’t want to deal with them but do we really outgrow love if we are putting it away? There is some lingering affection or sentiment attached if not to the person then at least to the experience or why wouldn’t we just throw it all away?

The object we once desired loses its appeal and charm and becomes an antique that is out of fashion. Again, the use of figurative language is striking. These objects are not necessarily heirlooms that we cherish or that even have a sentimental value but things that get tucked away in a drawer forgotten and possibly never removed ever again “like costumes grandsires wore.”Grandsires” is an archaic word to describe male ancestors. Was love just a short-lived performance? Did we wear love like a costume to be discarded after the act? We want different things in different stages of our lives and what we once prized is now devoid of any value.

Emily Dickinson is my bedside companion. Along with some other cherished books by favorite authors that have found a place on my bedside table, I have an edition of her poems that I turn to for a quick read when I am too tired to read something long or when I am in between books. Dickinson’s poems are just the perfect size for me to savor and to indulge in some introspection. Today is the last day of National Poetry Month. Every day is poetry day and every month is poetry month for me but just like we honor our mothers on Mother’s Day or our significant others on Valentine’s Day though we love them throughout the year, it is wonderful to have a whole month dedicated to poetry appreciation.

 

A Poem For Arbor Day

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April is National Poetry Month in the US. Today is also Arbor Day, a day on which the poem “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer is recited all over the country during arboreal celebrations. Incidentally, Joyce Kilmer was a man. The first name led me to believe otherwise but on researching the poet I discovered, along with his gender, a lot of details about his life; he died during the fighting in the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918 in World War 1 at the young age of 31. He was an atheist who found faith when his little daughter was afflicted with polio and lost the use of her limbs. He was derided for writing simple and sentimental rhyming poems at a time when ‘avant-garde’ poetry was all the rage. He is best known for ‘Trees”, inspired perhaps by a view of fall foliage from the window of his home in Mahwah, NJ. Surprisingly, even this poem which succinctly captures Nature’s beauty and God’s hand in creation was dismissed as trite by many critics.
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I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

~ Trees, Joyce Kilmer

“Trees” is a short poem in iambic tetrameter with six rhyming couplets that make it flow in a sing-song fashion and make it easy to memorize. The rhyme scheme is aa/bb/cc/dd/ee/aa. The final words of the two lines in each couplet have the same sounds and the words of the last couplet have the same sounds as the first couplet.

Lines 1 and 2- The speaker starts by saying that a poem doesn’t compare to a tree. Humans can’t create anything as beautiful as God. It is interesting that being a poet himself, Kilmer is modest about his art.

Lines 3 and 4-  The tree depends on Mother Earth for sustenance. Nature is portrayed as a feminine entity who is generous, giving and nurturing. The roots of the tree suck water and nutrients from the earth as a child would milk from its mother’s bosom.

Lines 5 and 6-  The tree extends its limbs in supplication as if it were praying to God. The tree is personified in these lines and throughout the poem with human attributes like hair, arms, a hungry mouth and a bosom.

Lines 7 and 8 –  The tree is a place of refuge for creatures. The tree is the protector whose foliage offers shade and shelter to birds. The relationship of the trees and birds echoes the relationship of the tree and the earth. These lines beautifully highlight the interdependence of living things and the regenerative cycle of nature.

Lines 9 and 10- These lines describing the relationship between snow/ rain and the tree are vivid in sensual imagery. The tree with its bosom and knotted hair has feminine traits just like the earth. In describing nature, the poet resorts to anthropomorphic images which transport us to an emotional and spiritual plane. The tree is first portrayed as a child suckling from its mother and eventually as a young woman who lives intimately with the elements. The tree then could represent a person and God’s ingenuity in creating humans along with nature.

Lines 11 and 12-  The last two lines take us us back to the first stanza perhaps reinforcing the idea of the cyclical pattern of nature. Divine creation surpasses literary creation. The speaker/ poet is humble and there is a tinge of self-deprecation in his humility.

This poem is a hymn to nature’s beauty and bounty. The use of poetic devices like simile, personification, repetition and alliteration imbue it with a musical quality. In fact it has been set to music many times. It is also a poem with a spiritual bent, rich in religious symbolism. In a span of twelve brief lines, the visual and tactile imagery took me into the woods and up to the heavens and back. The poem is charming and striking in its simplicity. Let me not kill it by overanalyzing it. I’ll just end with this thought: I think that I shall never see a poem as pithy and profound as this poem.

Don’t you think the best way to pay tribute to this poet would be by going outdoors and planting a sapling?

 

Notre-Dame de Paris: Gypsies, Gargoyles and Grotesques

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View of Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris from the Seine

My heart was ripped when flames ripped through the Notre Dame Cathedral a week ago. So many memories came flooding back as I helplessly watched images of smoke billowing over the city. As a medievalist and as an art history buff, I’ve never left Paris without visiting the Notre Dame. In fact it usually tends to be my first stop in the city. Standing as a beacon of hope and light on the banks of the Seine with the entire vista of Paris visible from its towers, it is undoubtedly the geographical and cultural center of this beautiful and historic city.

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Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, West View

Notre Dame is also a place of pilgrimage in more than one sense of the word. Along with being a place of worship for millions of devout Catholics from around the world, it is also a sacred site for literary pilgrims where Victor Hugo’s novel Notre- Dame de Paris known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame comes alive. Not surprisingly, Hugo’s book has soared to the top of the bestseller list in the wake of the tragedy.

Published in 1831 but set in 1482, Notre -Dame de Paris is the melodramatic story of the extraordinarily beautiful gypsy Esmeralda who is pursued by several men including Quasimodo, the deformed and deaf hunchback and bell-ringer of the cathedral. It is a touching and tragic story about ill-fated love. Hugo was inspired by the Greek word ‘anatkh’ which he found inscribed on one of the walls of the cathedral and which means Fate. This is a novel with a social conscience like Les Misérables, which he wrote a few decades later. It evokes medieval life in Paris and portrays people from all strata of life from kings to vagabonds and beggars and focuses on the themes of class divisions, social inequality and justice.

Notre Dame Cathedral has been through tumultuous times and has been on the brink of destruction on several occasions throughout its history – it has suffered the ravages of weather and has endured floods, famine and even fire. It has survived rioting Huguenots in the 16thcentury, The French revolution of 1789 and two World Wars which had all resulted in widespread desecration of its statues and relics. It was also the victim of changing fashion trends as from the Renaissance through the 18thcentury, classical architecture was in vogue to the detriment of gothic art.

Notre Dame de Paris is a plea for the preservation of this Gothic architecture that had been subjected to vandalism and neglect over the centuries. According to Hugo, the cathedral is the cultural and political center of Paris and the symbol of the city and its glorious past. Hugo felt that the arrival of the printing press was going to mean the death of architecture while ensuring that the written word would be indestructible. But ironically it was Hugo’s writing that saved the cathedral from further damage.

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Flying buttresses

The novel was instrumental in initiating a massive renovation project by the King in 1844 to restore the dilapidated cathedral to its formal glory with the help of architects Baptiste- Antoine Lassus and Eugene Viollet-le-Duc. The project included rebuilding of

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Gargoyles and Grotesques

the spire, the restitution of statues and the addition of gargoyles and grotesques which interestingly were not part of the original structure. The cathedral represents a 19th century vision of what medieval art is supposed to look like- spires, turrets, gargoyles, chimera and flying buttresses symbolizing ascent towards the heavens gave flight to the imaginations of architects and authors alike.

The English translation of the title doesn’t do justice to the novel.  This is not just the story of the hunchback Quasimodo’s unrequited love for Esmeralda but also the story of love for a cathedral. Chapters 1 and 2 of Book 3 are dedicated to the edifice and its architecture. Most of the action of the novel takes place in and around the structure and from the top of its towers. The cathedral sets the plot in motion and offers sanctuary and support to the pariahs of Parisian society including the orphaned Quasimodo:

After all, he turned his face towards men only with regret; his cathedral was enough for him. It was peopled with marble figures,—kings, saints, bishops,—who at least did not burst out laughing in his face, and who looked upon him only with tranquility and benevolence. The other statues, those of the monsters and demons, harbored no hatred for him, Quasimodo. He resembled them too much for that. They seemed rather, to be sneering at other men. The saints were his friends, and blessed him; the monsters were his friends and watched over him. So he was in intimate communication with them. He sometimes passed whole hours crouching before one of these statues, in solitary conversation with it. If any one came, he fled like a lover surprised in his serenade.

And the cathedral was not only society for him, but the universe, and all nature still. He dreamed of no other shrubs than the stained-glass windows, always in bloom , no other shade than that of the stone foliage which spread out, loaded with birds, in the tufts of the Saxon capitals; of no other mountains than the colossal towers of the church; of no other ocean than Paris, roaring at their feet.

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The North Rose Window

 

Après tout, il ne tournait qu’à regret sa face du côté des hommes. Sa cathédrale lui suffisait. Elle était peuplée de figures de marbre, rois, saints, évêques, qui du moins ne lui éclataient pas de rire au nez et n’avaient pour lui qu’un regard tranquille et bienveillant. Les autres statues, celles des monstres et des démons, n’avaient pas de haine pour lui Quasimodo. Il leur ressemblait trop pour cela. Elles raillaient bien plutôt les autres hommes. Les saints étaient ses amis, et le bénissaient ; les monstres étaient ses amis, et le gardaient. Aussi avait-il de longs épanchements avec eux. Aussi passait-il quelquefois des heures entières, accroupi devant une de ces statues, à causer solitairement avec elle. Si quelqu’un survenait, il s’enfuyait comme un amant surpris dans sa sérénade.
Et la cathédrale ne lui était pas seulement la société, mais encore l’univers, mais encore toute la nature. Il ne rêvait pas d’autres espaliers que les vitraux toujours en fleur, d’autre ombrage que celui de ces feuillages de pierre qui s’épanouissent chargés d’oiseaux dans la touffe des chapiteaux saxons, d’autres montagnes que les tours colossales de l’église, d’autre océan que Paris qui bruissait à leurs pieds.

 

The cathedral holds a special place in my heart too as it instantly transports me to Hugo’s medieval world of gypsies, gargoyles and grotesques. Every time I saw gypsies outside the cathedral nursing their babies, playing with their children or accosting tourists for money, I was reminded of the captivating Esmeralda and I could visualize her dancing in the square or regaling her spectators with her tricks. And whenever I climbed the belfry, I could almost sense the presence of Quasimodo, the hunchback whose grotesqueness mirrors the cathedral’s own deformities. The hideous bell ringer whispered to the bells and caressed and loved them even though they had made him deaf for mothers often love best the child who has caused them the most suffering. (“les mères aiment souvent le mieux l’enfant qui les a fait le plus souffrir.”)

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Stained glass windows inside the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris

The Notre Dame Cathedral is not just a touristic spot or a literary haven but a working place of worship pulsating with spiritual energy. Even if you don’t entertain any religious beliefs you cannot help but be moved by the grace and serenity the space emanates. The majestic edifice was engulfed in flames during the most holy week for Christians. Although Hugo ends the book with the grim prediction that the church will disappear from the face of the earth, it is hard to overlook the Biblical symbolism. The miraculous preservation of the relics of the Passion and the Crown of thorns is a prophetic reminder of the resurrection. I sincerely hope that The ‘Grande Dame’ as the French affectionately call their beloved cathedral ,will, as she always has, rise from the ashes.

*The translations are mine.

*The photographs are from my personal collection.

 

 

 

 

When Death Comes: In Memory Of Mary Oliver

Dragonfly

The 18th of April is Poem in Your Pocket Day, part of the month-long celebration of National Poetry Month in the United States. The poem I chose to carry in my pocket yesterday was written by Pulitzer Prize -winning poet, Mary Oliver who left our earthly abode two months ago. Her soulful rapport with nature and meditations on the human condition have touched and transformed many lives. To mourn her demise or celebrate her life as the case may be, I fittingly selected a poem on death that teaches us to live. For, after all, aren’t life and death two sides of the same coin?

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

–Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver imparts her wisdom in a gentle way in her poems. This poem is a meditation on mortality or immortality depending on your perspective; it is a mantra on how to live our lives. The speaker resorts to similes and personification to imagine the arrival of death which can take several forms. It can appear as a ravenous bear, as a merciless man with a coin purse, as a dreadful disease or as a huge and chilling mass of ice. Even if death charges at her ruthlessly, she wants to welcome it with curiosity. The “cottage of darkness” is an arresting metaphor as a cottage conjures up an image of a cozy, comfortable and warm place as opposed to death which is cold and frightening. It is interesting that she doesn’t capitalize death. It is just another ordinary and inevitable event in our lives.

The poem is written in free verse without a set rhyme or meter. The twelve stanzas of varying length convey a continuous flow of thoughts. You almost feel like she is having a conversation with you. The liberal use of the comma instead of a period enables us to read the poem without pausing. The use of poetic devices like the ‘enjambment’ or technique of continuing one thought beyond the end of a line to the subsequent line ( lines 11-12 ) and the ‘anaphora’ when a line is repeated at the beginning of a number of lines (“when death comes”) gives the poem an incantatory tone like a prayer chant.

The speaker goes on to question conventional notions of time as linear and finite and considers “eternity as another possibility.” Each life is individual and unique like a flower. Yet all existence is interlinked and the speaker wishes to live with awareness and curiosity and to also live in close communion with nature and the universe. The individual human is a “lion of courage” fearlessly confronting the mysteries of life and the individual human experience is music which moves collectively towards silence or death. The juxtaposition of music and silence is akin to that of life and death.

The speaker wishes to make use of the gift of life she has been offered by embracing the experience fully. She doesn’t choose one or the other but wishes to be married to life both as a bride and a groom- to avail of all the experiences life has to offer. She doesn’t want to just visit the world but inhabit it and immerse in it fully with amazement and wonder. Bridal symbolism to convey the relation between earthly and spiritual love is a recurrent motif in many mystical traditions of the world including Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Sufism where the soul is the bride yearning for union with her divine beloved, the Universe. Mary Oliver was perhaps influenced by these spiritual traditions as in a radio interview she had revealed that she read Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet every single day.

Mary Oliver enjoyed going on long walks to seek solace in nature and to be one with the birds, flowers, forests and rivers- to contemplate tiny miracles whether it was a grasshopper moving her jaws back and forth, poppies swaying in the wind or mushrooms sprouting through the ground. In fact, many of her poems are used in workshops on mindfulness. I channel her sometimes when I go on nature walks, when I slow down to gaze at a dewdrop on a flower, or delight in the antics of a determined squirrel or observe a jewel of a dragonfly flapping its gossamer wings on a branch. I, too, hope that at the end of my life I can say that I was a bride married to amazement and that I didn’t end up simply having visited this world. I leave you, friends, to ponder this question that Mary Oliver asked us in one of her most famous poems:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”