Only poetry is not shit: Jeet Thayil on writing

[Book extract] Preface of Collected Poems.

 |  4-minute read |   24-11-2015
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I was born the year Billie Holiday died, in 1959. In my recurring dream of Billie, she is a photo on the front page of a newspaper that prints only obituaries. It's a dream stolen from a poem called "The Day Lady Died" but that doesn't make it any less strange. Someone sent me a photo of Billie, in which she's leaning into a microphone, her face swollen. There's a red whisky tone on her skin and she seems to have nodded out standing, though you can't be sure because cat's eye sunglasses are obscuring her eyes. I put the photo on my desk and that night my usual dream of Billie was replaced by another: Billie and Roberto Bolaño smoking smack in a Parsi sanatorium on Bandra Bandstand. When dawn lit up the dirty sea and shit-stained rocks and crowds of morning strollers, Billie was sitting cross-legged in front of a candle, a ripped seam of burnt foil in her hand. A matchstick burned in her slender fingers and a strand of fresh seaweed was entangled in her hair. As Billie's head finally touched the floor, Bolaño got to his feet and gathered his briefcase. He told me that the sun was high and soon it would be too hot to walk or work. "Only poetry is not shit," he said.

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Collected Poems; Aleph Book Company; Rs 599

"Stop wasting so much time." Even in the dream I realised that this was a fairly accurate rendering of my writing career. I've written four books of poems, two libretti, and one novel. The thousands of pieces of indifferent or bad journalism do not count since I wrote them for money. The poetry books are out of print, but that is as it should be if you're an Indian poet writing in English. The libretti were privately printed, which means they were never in print in the first place. The novel, Narcopolis (2012), in which I tried to write of Bombay as a city of violence and intoxication, is the only thing I've written that remains in print; again, this is business as usual for an Indian poet. Considering my modest oeuvre and how little of it is available, it's an odd and oddly gratifying sensation to put the four books of poetry together in this volume, along with some new poems and poems that were written many years ago but never published. While compiling it, I left some poems unchanged, some I discarded, and some I rewrote, because, among poets, the rewrite tradition is an honourable one. As an example, here is a poem from Apocalypso, followed by the new version, in which Kafka makes an unannounced late entrance:

SELF-PORTRAIT

(1) He likes the stark symmetry of this place;

nothing excess, nothing wasted,

each book in its nook, slotted in.

(Unhappiness is something

altogether ambivalent: Do you want to be happy, 

he asks himself periodically,

or do you want to write?)

 

Now he lifts saucepan to stove, 

images atone forever in his hands.

Ghosts of celebrations past

throw themselves lemming-like

into the insufficient flame.

 

Each small act is attended 

by a whole host of demons,

friendly and not.

 

At nightfall, exhausted by toil, 

he falls instantly into

a dreamless, honest sleep,

 open to the elements.

 

SELF-PORTRAIT (2)

Unhappiness is a kind of yoga, he tells himself

each morning, a breath meditation; besides,

do you want to be happy or do you want to write?

When he lifts saucepan to stove, images atone 

forever in his hands. Ghosts of celebrations past

throw themselves lemming-like into the meagre

 flame, each small act attended by a host of demons,

 friendly and not. The world is code, smoke signals the

dead have left us to decipher, knowing we cannot.

At nightfall, exhausted by toil, he falls deep into

the dreamless light changes, the dead or dying sea.

A mountain moves and nobody notices. The world

is old and set in its ways, and K. is saying, Of course

there's hope, there's always hope, but not for us.

I want to say, at this point, that it is difficult to ignore the posthumous nature of a preface such as this. It is usually a task left to others, preferably after the poet's death. In my case, there are circumstances that make this writing inevitable. These Errors Are Correct (2008), written in dedication to my wife, who died, is the last full-length collection of poems I intend to publish. For various reasons, I am unable to equal the poems in that book and it seems to me that if you cannot equal or improve on your last book, it is better not to publish at all. I am fifty-five years old. Time, once a friend, is now the enemy. Each day is a gift that must be returned. I live in a rented house in a large Indian city. The thick air is alive with chemicals. Chaos is my friend and closest neighbour. This is my life and these are my collected poems. There is nothing collected about any of it.

(This excerpt has been published with permission from Aleph Book Company)

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Jeet Thayil Jeet Thayil @jeetthayil

The author is an Indian poet and novelist.

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