Going Nowhere Always

In his poetry, Moraes both drew upon existing myths and imagined his own myths. DINODIA PHOTO LIBRARY
01 August, 2012

IN HIS BOOK ON THE ART OF THE NOVEL, The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts (2007), Milan Kundera defines the novelist by contrast with the lyric poet. He believes that the inspiration for lyric poetry is the young poet himself. This is the lyrical attitude—this heightened self-interest. When the poet understands that there is more to the world than himself and his own emotions, he moves into the attitude of the novelist, “the novelist being born from the ruins of his lyrical world”.

Kundera had already explored the nature of the poetic attitude in his novel Life is Elsewhere (Životje jinde, 1969), about the sentimental poet, Jaromil who embraces the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948. Despite Kundera’s disclaimer at the novel’s end (“Don’t say that Jaromil is a bad poet! That would be too cheap an explanation of his life’s story!”), it is difficult not to feel that this idea—youth marks the lyrical age—is but one step away from the belief that the poetic attitude is juvenile.

Dom Moraes’s poems as well as his life story are inescapably tied up with this idea of charmed and self-absorbed youth. The Bombay-born poet of Goan and ‘East Indian’ descent—the latter term referring to Bombay residents who converted to Catholicism under the Portuguese—published his first book, a stylish account of the cricket matches he had watched on his journeys around the world with his journalist father, at the age of 13. While still a teenager in London, he adopted the persona of the solitary poet and the idea of poetry as something that exerts a primordial pull. In a poem from that era he writes:

I have grown up, I think, to live alone

To keep my old illusions, sometimes dream,

Glumly, that I am unloved and forlorn


I have grown up, hand on the primal bone,

Making the poem, taking the word from the stream,

Fighting the sand for speech, fighting the stone.

Moraes’ first book of poems, A Beginning (1957), appeared when he was 19, and won a prestigious British literary prize. More importantly, he was being published and read in Britain during a post-war Renaissance in British poetry, which makes his precocious achievement all the more remarkable. In his excellent introduction to Dom Moraes: Selected

Poems, a pick of 80 poems from over a 50-year career, Ranjit Hoskote points out that this was the time when Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin were gathering force, and when Ted Hughes was making his presence felt. Moraes’s second book, Poems (1960), was published the same year as Sylvia Plath’s debut, The Colossus and Other Poems.

<strong.Dom Moraes: Selected Poems Edited and with an Introduction by Ranjit Hoskote PENGUIN MODERN CLASSICS 282 PAGES, Rs.499

Yet Moraes’s early poetry stands somewhat apart from the work of his contemporaries. In his grasp of metre and rhyme, in his extraordinarily consistent ability to make music in the language, Moraes is in some sense an ‘English’ poet, yet his influences seem to date further back in time. He is especially drawn to the English Romantics, and to the immortal landscapes in which they located their eternal subjects—art, love, death and doom.

The subjects or addressees in many of Moraes’s poems are people in his life: his mother, who was clinically insane and with whom he was never able to make peace; his succession of lovers and partners; his friends and acquaintances in the London of the 1950s and 1960s as well as in Israel; and, on a couple of occasions, the son whom he never really got to know. Such poems are nuggets of autobiography, both glimpses of development of the poet’s style as well as records of his feelings on specific occasions about specific people.

However, he also wrote a substantial number of poems in which he was not quite himself, speaking through what he would go on to call his “masks”. Moraes is, in turn, Sinbad, Dracula, Frankenstein and Merlin, the magician (from the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table). He is a lonely prophet (“I followed desert suns/Alone, these thirty years…”); a general returning home, weary after some medieval battle; Jason from Greek mythology, on a quest for the Golden Fleece, discovering in the end that it is nothing but “a burst quilt someone had left/To ooze its heart out on the shore”; and a Roman gladiator who must fight his brother in the arena under Caesar’s watchful eye.

Moraes also fashioned his own myths, such as that of Beldam, the buried poet who “was shipped to a foreign war” and now scratches under his tombstone, trying to get out. Moraes’s fifth collection was called Beldam Etcetera (published by the prolific poet in 1966 when he was not yet 30); Hoskote says of this spooky figure of the undead poet who yearns to be let back into the world that he is “one of the characters who will haunt DM’s poetry over decades”.

Drawing from older myths or inventing new ones is something the Romantic poets excelled at, too. Blake, inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, created a mythology around Urizen, a figure embodying reason. Coleridge created the unforgettable Ancient Mariner and Shelley wrote the lyrical drama Prometheus Unbound, an inversion of the older Greek play Prometheus Bound based on the myth of the god who brought fire and civilisation to man.

Following the Romantics, Moraes’s ‘mythological’ poems obviously have allegorical intent. Sinbad embodies the figure of the restless traveller. “Choose your rock, seamate, stay with it”, he advises the voyager but then concedes at the end of the poem that “Some of us never know home.” When he speaks in the voice of the maiden who, instead of being the one true mate of the mythic unicorn as per the story, murders him, or when he is Jason looking for the Golden Fleece, Moraes is articulating the fears of the artist who might destroy the source of his creativity or the worry that this source might turn out to be a cipher.

At the same time, these are highly modern poems—they are much more about inner complexity than outward drama. Moraes’s characters speak for him and in doing so they speak to us. He reinvents Hamlet, in a startling rendering, as a mad man in a mental institution who, confusedly, kills Ophelia instead of his mother, upon which “His shaken fathers in white coats run out/Of the black house to dead Ophelia.” His Merlin, a portrait elaborated in a 10-part poem, is a remarkably vivid character too, wandering around destitute in the aftermath of King Arthur’s Golden Age:

Wolfsbane, hellebore, in my hair,

Arachnids in my beard,

Rags and rats my companions everywhere:

I, obese pauper with one eye.

Alongside Nordic and Greek mythology, Christian themes abound. These take more oblique forms, the most persistent being the idea of a visitor from heaven who could be angel or devil, God or ghost, but in all cases provokes disturbing yet compelling visions. Already in his first book, he was writing of this apparition:

He could not bear to lose the holy stranger,

And pleaded that he stay, and alter fate,

Stretching his hands to one who would not wait.

In a later poem, the shapeshifter (who calls himself the poet’s lover, the enemy, God, “or anything you like”) declares:

…I am the last pretence:

Dark angel of the world, who moves behind

Dayfall, and whispers truth to innocence,

Hurting it into tears...

In yet another poem the visitor is Santa Claus, a saint who is flayed and mutilated; in a horrible closing image, children watch in surprise as he comes down the chimney and “Lifted his claws above them, holes for eyes”.

Moraes wrestled elegantly with these visions all his life and towards the end perhaps conquered them. ‘Brandeth Ended’ is the name of a poem from his penultimate collection, Typed with One Finger (2003), Brandeth being another of his creations—a dead, forgotten poet who yet remains a roving, derelict, zombie-like presence. In an earlier poem we were told of the “The obsolete eyes and putrid breath/And the corrupt wisdom of Brandeth…” In this later one, Moraes recalls how once Brandeth “never called, words came/tamely as birds to him”, while now:

In this stark theatre of stone

they wail, wheel from a death,

as they hear Brandeth’s bones

crack in God’s black teeth.

MORAES WAS A CONSTANT TRAVELLER and his 10 prose books of travel and reportage are testaments to a life of continuously-sought experience. While his poems feature occasional pieces set in the places the poet visited, this highly active life is mostly distilled into a calmer scrutiny of the self. “Autobiography was a genre at which he excelled,” Hoskote says. For a man who was writing his first memoir aged circa 20, and who went on to write two more, all meditation eventually circled back to the self.

Like the Romantic poets again (and recalling the lyric poet as Kundera imagines him), Moraes takes his emotions and observations as his primary subject matter. In a long poem called ‘John Nobody’ (also the title of a 1965 collection), Moraes elaborates on his own situation but adopts a figure from a medieval ballad—John Nobody—as a persona. The poem features concrete bits of history: memories of a trip to Belgrade in the 1950s, travels in Israel, a mention of having to leave India when the government took issue with his opposition to the 1961 takeover of Goa. Yet in being about John Nobody rather than Dom Moraes, the poem also reminds us that there is something either more, or less, than personal history that poetry pushes towards.

This new selection of Moraes’s poetry benefits from a lucid and thorough Introduction by Ranjit Hoskote. COURTESY PENGUIN INDIA

Nevertheless, it is personal history that makes this volume so exciting. Hoskote’s introduction—easily one of the most lucid and thorough appraisals of an Indian poet ever to appear in print—locates Moraes’s poetry in his biography and uncovers the cultural sources underlying it. The result is not just a reader’s guide to accompany the poems; it is a passage into the poetry. Jeet Thayil’s personal, insightful, offbeat introductions to the poets in his 60 Indian Poets (Penguin India, 2008) revealed a way of commenting on biography in relation to poetry, rather than compiling biographical data about poets. Hoskote’s approach is more linear and exhaustive but equally illuminating.

His notes do much for our reading of the poetry but what they do over and above that, because of his driving curiosity about the possible meanings and references in each poem, is simply to imbue the act of reading poetry with an unusual seriousness for our context. At some point in his annotations, talking about how Moraes’s Dracula is shown embracing the void, Hoskote says this is “a characteristic Moraesian gesture”. The use of the word “Moraesian”, the suggestion that there is something running through these poems worthy of its own adjective, surely marks a shift. If we did not read Moraes before or if we read his poems randomly and singly, we are now being asked to recognise a worldview, a distinct project, a poetic vision.

We don’t have too many poets in English on behalf of whose poetry this claim could be made. We also don’t have too many biographers who value the nuances hiding in the litany of facts. Hoskote shows us Moraes as irredeemably lonely, but also as a writer at large in the world, someone who travelled tirelessly to the globe’s flashpoints, always drawn to places where, as the phrase goes, history was being made: the war-crimes trial of the former Nazi SS lieutenant-colonel Adolf Eichmann in Israel, the Algerian revolution, the Vietnam War, Indonesia during Suharto’s repressive regime. He was, in this sense, a quintessentially 20th-century figure, only conceivable in a world not saturated and jaded by media, someone for whom being witness was both an act of moral courage and a source of creative excitement. A parallel that springs to mind is Graham Greene.

Like Greene, Moraes was perhaps something of an escapist, too. Hoskote points out that it was only in 1968, after the poet had lived in Britain for a good decade, that he noticed he was not quite British:

As a person of privilege, with his Oxford accent, public appearances on television and in the newspapers, and his almost entirely white circle of friends, Moraes had felt himself to be immune from the race question; it was only when he began to research and write about the new arrivals, disoriented and dispossessed as they were, that he realised that he too was in fact an


The question that has dogged Moraes and his work is, of course, the perennial one: Is he an Indian poet? Despite his long years in Britain and his world travels, Moraes in fact spent most of his life in India. Interestingly though, in his poems, or at least in the ones selected for this volume, the country is always held at arm’s length. When he invokes legendary historical figures to speak through, they are those who were ‘outsiders’ to India, like Babur and Alexander. When he talks about the Indian landscape, in poems such as ‘Kanheri Hills’ and ‘Gondwana Rocks’, he seems to prefer ancient and deserted scenarios to living and populated ones. “…I came back, but not by my own choice,/to sour polluted land, strewn with dead roots”, he says in one poem, while in another, addressing his dead mother, he writes:

Your eyes are like mine.

When I last looked in them

I saw my whole country,

A defeated dream

Hiding itself in prayers,

A population of corpses,

Of burnt bodies that cluttered

The slow, deep rivers, of

Bodies stowed into earth

Quickly before they stank…

The equation of sick mother with wretched country is obvious. Hoskote suggests that Moraes’s relationship with India was unique and cannot be properly understood within the framework “of early postcolonial theory, the social, political and economic space of the colony, the stage for the binary engagement between coloniser and colonised…” Instead he suggests that we look at Moraes as a “transcultural artist”, someone who broke free of his early dilemma about belonging to either Britain or India, and began moving dextrously between different zones—both physically through his worldwide travels and encounters, as well as through dynamic practices like translation, reportage and research.

There is little to quarrel with in this idea but at the same time, one wonders: Doesn’t this dexterity apply to many Anglophone poets of his era? Doesn’t each have a singular cultural inheritance? Didn’t each have to make difficult choices about where to live and work, and seek out a range of experiences from which to fashion poetry and identity? Isn’t each one-of-a-kind? Like Moraes, Nissim Ezekiel went to England to find himself, but his Jewish Marathi background has only a subtle presence in his poetry, unlike Moraes’s very different Catholic inheritance, which looms large in his verse. Both poets wrote in elegant metre, both wrote about being in England, and yet Ezekiel made India his home and his subject matter in a way Moraes never did. (It is impossible to imagine Moraes writing an everyday Indian poem like ‘Night of the Scorpion’ or rising to the defence of his country as Ezekiel did in his famous essay ‘Naipaul’s India and Mine’.)

Adil Jussawalla, a contemporary of Moraes and Ezekiel, also had an early and formative phase in England; like both these poets, he too expresses anxiety in his poetry over the question of being a modern Indian. But he is able to move beyond personal angst to collective horror. Jeet Thayil says in 60 Indian Poets of the alienated hero of Jussawalla’s book-length poem Missing Person that his “bigotries extend to everyone, gay, straight, black, white, brown, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Parsi…” This remark reminds us of a contemporary to Moraes, Ezekiel and Jussawalla—Gieve Patel, whose most famous poem is ‘The Ambiguous Fate of Gieve Patel, He Being neither Hindu nor Muslim in India’. Like Patel, Jussawalla is also from a Gujarati-speaking Parsi background. What unites them as well as Ezekiel, and possibly distinguishes them from Moraes and other Indian poets, is their relationship with religious culture. The critic Bruce King writes in his Modern Indian Poetry in English (1987):

There is a different relation to the scene in writers from Hindu backgrounds…and those raised in Jewish (Ezekiel) and Parsi (Patel, Jussawalla, Daruwalla) environments. Although this difference is apparent in the way those raised as Hindus refer more often to their family, rituals and temples, it is also a matter of emotional involvement. No matter how distinctively an Ezekiel, Patel or Daruwalla observes his environment, there is space between himself and how he observes others.

My point through these examples is to emphasise the discontinuous, criss-crossing and overlapping nature of the Anglophone poetry scene. Further, there are the different languages clashing creatively in each poet’s head. Agha Shahid Ali, for example, drew on the North Indian Urdu tradition while living in the United States. Jayanta Mahapatra’s English poems cannot be imagined separate from their setting in his native Orissa. AK Ramanujan wrote in Tamil, Kannada and English and moved expertly between these languages. As Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, himself steeped in Hindi literature and a translator of Kabir, wrote in the introduction to his The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets (1992):

Each poet’s ‘continuous’ language or idiolect is constituted differently: Ramanujan’s is of English-Kannada-Tamil, Kolatkar’s and Chitre’s of English-Marathi, Ali of English-Urdu, Mahapatra’s of English-Oriya…

In his classic introduction to the anthology New Writing in India (1974), Adil Jussawalla states simply, “Anyone who is concerned with Indian writing should, at some stage, state his limitations.” This seems to capture a fundamental truth about Indian literature. It is by definition a fragmented whole, each writer representing something unique and yet, for cultural reasons, this uniqueness graspable only by a limited number of people. Could this fragmentation be the basis for a new understanding of a literary tradition?

To come back to Milan Kundera’s not entirely flattering portrayal of the figure of the lyric poet, we discover from his postscript to Life is Elsewhere that this poet is actually a historical figure. He is the European poet, whose predecessors were Dante, Goethe, Lorca, Breton, Rimbaud—men who have represented different things through their writings but are united by their recognised greatness. In the latter half of the 20th century, however, says Kundera, the poet has fallen from his pedestal; his voice is no longer heard. The last time the poet was relevant was during the mid-century communist revolutions in Europe.

Hence the project of his novel: to examine the trajectory of the poet. And hence the conclusion in The Curtain, that the poet is always immature, self-absorbed, unaware of how he appears to the world. Kundera’s is essentially a proposal of where the European poet stands today; he seems to suggest that because European history has become farce, the poet has become a buffoon. His idea of what constitutes a tradition in poetry draws on several ideals: Europe as a culturally unified place, the poet as the voice of the nation or a revolutionary spokesperson, as well as the poet as conscience-keeper. Seen in the light of such a theory, which brings together language, nation and time-tested worth to create the idea of the ‘great’ poet, every Anglophone Indian poet will seem like a latter-day interloper to a greater or lesser extent.

This suggests one problem with Hoskote’s concern over where to place Moraes culturally (in post-postcolonial interstices rather than in a postcolonial binary). In attempting to subvert conventional Kunderian ideas of ‘tradition’ and ‘authenticity’, he possibly perpetuates them. His reading reinforces the image of Moraes as the lone outsider, making a series of difficult negotiations on his own. Whereas there is another way of looking at Moraes: as part of a groundswell if not a tradition of Anglophone mavericks who must at some point, through their numbers, acquire a collective quality of something other than outsiderness, if not quite insiderness.

Perhaps future readers of Moraes’s—and may he find many via this edition—will contribute to this reimagining of historical worth in poetry. Given the contemporary interest in the themes of horror, supernatural and fantasy, might not Moraes’s poetry acquire a new dimension? William Blake’s Urizen is now a comic book character. Could Moraes’s Brandeth one day achieve a cult following among fantasy fans?