Art & Culture

The difficulty of harnessing the strange

Sridala Swami
Sridala SwamiJul 24, 2015 | 18:10

The difficulty of harnessing the strange

The world is a wonderfully strange place and nestled in it, like a matrioshka doll, is the even stranger world of the written word. This month I asked poets to attempt to tap into that strangeness and mine it for inspiration. I asked them to abandon the real and the everyday and plunge into the obsessions of writers committed to the arcane.


Perhaps it was a daunting task; for one thing, there weren't many submissions. For another, among the ones that arrived in my inbox there was a disappointing lack of variety at worst, and at best a safe walk around the park of new-age arcana.

Still, if it meant that for each particular writer they found something to think about in the world they briefly inhabited, that is a good outcome for their practice.

In my column I linked to Luigi Serafini's Codex Serafinianus. It's a dauntingly complex work, with its own invented language and gorgeous but puzzling and sometimes grotesque drawings. There are any number of ways in to the work and no visible way out - it's labyrinthine and phantasmagorical.

Which is why it was brave of David Jairaj to attempt to write a poem based on the Codex. It was always going to be a huge ask, to achieve a poem that captures something of the strangeness of Serafini. Sadly, however, his poem falls at the first hurdle, which is that of self-consciousness.

A poem that ought to attempt to engage with strangeness becomes a poem about the speaker discovering this weird and wonderful book. This is to make the incomprehensible a mere incident. We are not strange even to ourselves; a first person narrative is a sure shot way of making the poem instantly accessible and comprehensible. No strangeness there either in form or content.


Punyasloka Mohapatra chose The Brothers Karamazov as his text of strangeness. What is a classic work of 19th century literature may also be a deeply strange piece of writing. The two categories are not, after all, mutually exclusive. So it's an interesting choice and the poem, 'The Brothers Karamazov and Me' begins and proceeds well for the first two stanzas:

  • When the mad man melted
  • He mothered many tributaries
  • Feeding each a part of his long-cultured madness
  • As colostrum.
  • The soil and vegetation they flew through
  • Gave them their colors, disparity and eyes
  • To look through: Dmitri became sensualist, Ivan- a rationalist,
  • And Alexei, a committed theist, and they all chased "truth" in the
  • paths of their own.

I like the opening emphasis on madness, less a condition than a force of nature. There's a story-telling quality to the voice that makes one anticipate a lengthy tale - filled with familiar archetypes, to be sure, but also twisting and turning in unexpected ways. After all, what can one call strange if there is no everyday to measure it against?

But in the third stanza, Mohapatra, like Jairaj, inserts a first person narrative into the poem. The effects of the work on the narrator are inherently less interesting than the work itself and this has its inevitable effect on the poem. Lines like "Along with Dmitri, I chased mirages and was cursed for the constant culpability that fell around" pepper the poem and their awkwardness does not celebrate or in any way illuminate the strangeness that Mohapatra sees in Dostoyevsky.


Today's final poem is Gayatri Chawla's Mapping, which, she explains in her mail, comes from her fascination with tarot. The variety of decks and the art they contain are, in themselves, a fine rabbit hole down which to fall for the purposes of this exercise. But Chawla's poem does not attempt to describe any physical aspect of the deck, not to explain the major or minor arcana and their significance. Instead, what she does is write her poem to a demanding form whose repetitions and pattern-making echo the nature of tarot-reading better than any overt explication could. Chawla attempts a pantoum and it gave me a thrill to read the lines, a shrewd mix of the directive and the declarative. I would have written the line "she prefers from all colours, the colour white" with an "of" instead of "from"; and in another line I think a different word choice than "silly" would have worked better. But these are minor quibbles.

If I had a criticism to make, it is that I wish Chawla had attempted at least two more stanzas. Three is too few to do justice to the form and to show one's mettle. But I'm glad she chose this form to write in. She has harnessed the strangeness of the tarot in an intricate form and has lost not one bit of the mystery of it in the attempt.

Here is the poem in full:

  • Mapping
  • by Gayatri Chawla
  • Swallow your pride my friend,
  • quench your arrogance from the jaded jug
  • dust your silly nuances away
  • the knives unleash their tongues at night.
  • Quench your arrogance from the jaded jug,
  • undress your ego don't let it dwell
  • the knives unleash their tongues at night
  • she prefers from all colours, the colour white.
  • Undress your ego don't let it dwell,
  • your broken heart needs to mend
  • she prefers from all colours, the colour white
  • swallow your pride my friend.

Here are some examples of the pantoum: "Pantoum of the Great Depression", "Pantoum", "Parent's Pantoum".

Thank you all for your submissions. Look out for The Sideways Door next month.

Last updated: July 24, 2015 | 18:10
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