The Sympathetic Ironist

A richly rewarding collection with a few blank pages

De Souza: “Sometimes we compare notes:/ I talk about the parrots/ She talks about her children...” © MADHU KAPPARATH FOR THE CARAVAN
01 April, 2010

LATE IN HERA Necklace of Skulls, Eunice de Souza says, “We push so much under the carpet—/ the carpet’s now a landscape/ A worm embedded in each tuft/ There’s a forest moving.” We’re almost a hundred pages in so can at this point say with confidence that de Souza’s poetry has a great deal to do with this metaphorical, infested carpet. Saying the unsayable, bringing things out from under the carpet, is what gave her first collection—Fix (1979)—its potency, a collection which, 30 years on, still comes across as powerful, funny, uplifting and, despite the poet in rebel mode, wonderfully restrained. Is this continued appeal a sign of the timelessness of all good poetry, or is it the result of more local factors?

Perhaps both. De Souza doesn’t just say the unsayable, she says it the way characters in her poems say the sayable—the voices in which they push things under carpets, complain about their husbands, scold their children, make idylls of the past and speak to God or his intermediaries. In Fix, many of whose poems concern the life of the Goan Roman Catholic community, de Souza takes apart the clichés—the marriages made in heaven and the pillars of the Church. These should be, conventionally, sneering poems, but they turn out, on closer reading, to be sympathetic ones. Take Mrs Hermione Gonsalvez:

In the good old days

I had looks and colour

now I’ve got only colour

just look at my parents

how they married me to a dark man

on my own I wouldn’t even have

looked at him…

This, at first blush, reminds one of de Souza’s predecessor, Nissim Ezekiel’s experiments with ‘Indian English’ poems, which featured characters speaking a strained, ‘funny’ English in lines such as “You are all knowing, friends,/ what sweetness is in Miss Pushpa./ I don’t mean only external sweetness/ but internal sweetness…” (‘Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T.S.’) Ezekiel is not, however, speaking in the vernacular; he is at best ventriloquising it, and at worst, caricaturing it. De Souza does neither. There is a subtle alliance between her voice and the other voices in her poems, an alliance both of idiom and emotion.

In the poem above and in many others, de Souza dispenses with all but the most essential punctuation. There are full-stops and colons where they’re absolutely needed but for the rest of the time, the formal pauses signalled by comma, dash and semi-colon are abandoned in favour of the more run-on style of spoken conversation. In Mrs Hermione Gonsalvez’s head there is no measured, literary progression through the three separate thoughts contained in lines one and two, line three, and in line four and on. She is speaking the way she thinks—a jumble of vanity, self-pity and regret that pours out in a torrent and whose ferociousness we instantly recognise because we feel—have so often felt—this way ourselves.

The language Mrs Gosalvez speaks is similarly recognisable—the comforting cliché of ‘the good old days,’ the unqualified use of the word ‘colour’ (a use which assumes that the reader knows which colour it is she’s talking about) and the colloquial “I wouldn’t even have looked” rather than the standard “I wouldn’t have even looked.” All of this runs gently below the poem—it isn’t what the poem is about in the way that Ezekiel’s ‘Indian English’ poems are about the way his characters speak. The poem adds up, therefore, to create an effect of not just—anthropologically speaking—authenticity, but also—poetically speaking—tenderness.

Of course, there are also potentially darker poems in Fix. There is ‘Autobiographical’ which starts: “Right, now here it comes./ I killed my father when I was three. / I have muddled through several affairs/ and always come out badly./ I’ve learned almost nothing from experience./ I head for the abyss with/ monotonous regularity.” And later “Yes, I’ve tried suicide…I was surprised/ to wake up in the morning.” This is Sylvia Plath territory—“Daddy, I have had to kill you./ You died before I had time…” and the famous “Dying/ Is an art, like everything else” from the poem ‘Lady Lazarus.’ De Souza’s confessional poems have none of Plath’s fascinating neuroses, however. The dead daddy in Plath’s ‘Daddy’ is a figure whose absence is full of sinister meaning, the terrifying Fascist brute, the devil the villagers are stamping out with their dance, the bastard who must be—not remembered but—reckoned with.

To explore what de Souza can do with personal tragedy, it is worth turning away from poems like the one quoted above and instead consider others that are not self-evidently confessional. There is a kind of awkward briskness about the phrases, “Right, now here it comes” and “Yes, I’ve tried suicide” above, a half-embarrassed sense of needing to get over with the confessing. Whereas in a poem like ‘One Man’s Poetry,’ which starts out in confessional but quickly moves into recollection mode, the sympathetic note re-enters and de Souza is suddenly on much firmer ground. She is talking about a dead father.

He left a desk, a chair,

a typewriter and a notebook.

At family gatherings

my mother smiled

in her best faded chiffon

and travelled third

with her in-laws travelling first

in the same train.

In eight lines, de Souza pretty much sums up a life. There is the quick sketch of a father whose unfinished work, as captured starkly in that desk and notebook, we immediately start to miss, and the swift closure of any sentimentality by jump-cutting to an unforgettable image of a mother as a widow struggling to keep her dignity. This is what de Souza is best at—irony not as a way of shutting things up into a solipsistic poetry, but as a means of making things accessible.

EUNICE DE SOUZA’S POSITION as a sympathetic ironist is connected not just with her immediate aims as a poet but with her larger convictions as a feminist. The collection is called A Necklace of Skulls but is de Souza really Kali? I think not. Plath (“I eat men like air,” etc.) is a more convincing Kali, whereas in the de Souza poem in which the phrase ‘necklace of skulls’ occurs she has only ventured as far as jokily terrorising bank managers. Kali and Medusa (“Remember Medusa,/ who could not love/ even herself?”), are figures who represent the full force of female rage. They can be invigorating reminders but they do not enter the fibre of de Souza’s poems in the way that an idea of feminism as solidarity and sisterhood does. (Among de Souza’s achievements is the anthology Nine Indian Women Poets in which she presented often-ignored, contemporary poetry in the light of poems Indian women have been writing since 1000 BCE.)

‘Transcend Self, You Say’ is an illustration of this kind of solidarity—a poem where, in response to that injunction and to the suggestion that she should connect with myth and history rather than just talk about herself, de Souza suddenly plucks out, from that very same history, a teenage widow who was forbidden to see the sun for a year. This is the larger history de Souza fits herself in, this long and subterranean history of women and their silences. In the poem ‘de Souza Prabhu’ she starts on a more personal note, however:

No matter that

my name is Greek

my surname Portuguese

my language alien.

There are ways

of belonging.

I belong with the lame ducks.

This question about ‘ways of belonging’ has long been native to Indian English poetry. Ezekiel, who also had to bear the burden of his name, and whose poetry has dwelt on it, again compares interestingly with de Souza here. He can be equally succinct about his mixed up roots: “I went to Roman Catholic school,/ A mugging Jew among the wolves./ They told me I had killed the Christ,/ That year I won the scripture prize./ A Muslim sportsman boxed my ears.” But yet again, the comparison between the two poets cannot be sustained for long because de Souza has made a quick jump from the cultural alienation described above to, in the very next lines, another kind of loss—“I’ve heard it said/ my parents wanted a boy...” Suddenly, a private history of being sidelined has become a shared history of being sidelined.

The opening poem in De Souza’s second collection—Women in Dutch Painting (1988)—carries forward the idea of giving voice to the silent or silenced ones (“…an aunt who did not answer her husband back/ and not because she was plain”). The phrase ‘giving voice’ can be misleading, though, because I don’t want to suggest that there is anything missionary about de Souza’s poetry. Her poems are all the more powerful for not being arguments—they merely relate, and they relate as laconically and deftly as possible.

Talking about her own poetry in Nine Indian Women Poets, De Souza says she learnt after the publication of Fix that it had been denounced from the pulpit at St Peter’s Church in Bandra. She also quotes a critic called Victoria Brady who considers her poetry ‘religious.’ The contrast between argument and portrayal becomes important here. In what ways are de Souza’s poems about faith? Christianity has a very concrete presence in her poems but it has less to do with theological questions and more to do with the social forms Christianity takes in Goan life—as conversations, gossip, family history, material aspirations, prejudices, and hypocrisies. The concerns here are not so much about good, bad, right and wrong as about who should marry whom and “who should decorate the altar and how.”

For a grappling with Christianity as belief one has to turn to a poet like Emily Dickinson, who has no qualms about directly addressing the pulpit: “You’re right– ‘the way is narrow’–/ And ‘difficult the Gate’–/ And ‘few there be’– Correct again–/ That ‘enter in– thereat’–.” This is from a poem in which Dickinson mocks the idea of religious salvation as some kind of a deal with the divine which you pay for with death and following which, if you’ve been a good investor, you receive the ‘dividend’ of heaven. Both poets can be scornful but de Souza never generalises her scorn, whereas Dickinson is a poet of abstractions.

One of my favourite poems in Necklace illustrates this quality of intimacy:

The Road

As we came out of the church

into the sunlight

a row of small girls

in first communion dresses

I felt the occasion demanded

lofty thoughts

I remember

only my grandmother

smiling at me.

They said

now she wears lipstick

now she is a Bombay girl

they said, your mother is lonely.

Nobody said, even the young must live.

In school

I clutched Sister Flora’s skirt

and cried for my mother

who taught across the road.

Sister Flora is dead.

The school is still standing.

I am still learning

to cross the road.

This is not obviously a religious poem but neither is it obviously not one. Religion is a film that settles over things—a faint wash that makes things both sadder and more exasperating. The poem weaves back and forth unstrenuously between the images of girls in first communion dresses, the wordless smile of a grandmother, the memory of a nun who possibly provided some kind of a bulwark against childhood anguish, and the guilt-inducing as well as guilty ‘they’ who appear in several of de Souza’s poems.

‘The Road’ is a poem in which the question of faith is rendered as a kind of nostalgia. The Emily Dickinson kind of conversation with the pulpit may have taken place in the poet’s mind, but if so, it took place at some indefinite point way before the poem came to be. In the present of the poem all that remains is the gently ironic wish for lofty thoughts, ironic because de Souza neither wants to be—nor can be—lofty.

This is liberating for both poet and reader. The critic Craig Raine says of Emily Dickinson, “Her attitude is theologically relaxed rather than atheistically militant. She can be sarcastic about sectarianism yet tender towards the central Christian myth.” De Souza has an even more relaxed attitude, for she is concerned with the tenets of Christianity only insofar as they seep into local life and she is, besides, concerned with much more than those tenets. She talks to the saint-poet Tuka, tells him she loves his verse but scolds him for neglecting his wife. She offers a coconut at the temple for her lover. She addresses, in different poems, a kind of immanent ‘god rock.’ “God rock, I’m a pilgrim./ Tell me—/ Where does the heart find rest?”

A NECKLACE OF SKULLS brings together four collections of Eunice de Souza’s poetry and also includes older, unpublished poems as well as recent work. This represents a career spanning 30 years and, at a little more than 100 pages, it is an undeniably slim output. This slimness, however, is entirely acceptable, even welcome, because it is an indication, in de Souza’s case, of rigour. She is the kind of poet who will not make public a line more than what she absolutely must.

What is worth considering, though, is the sense in her poetry, from her second collection on, of a closing inwards, as if she has been moving from very early in her career towards a place where silence will take over. (“Where does the heart find rest?”) There are marvellous poems in the collection Women in Dutch Painting such as ‘The Road,’ ‘Transcend Self, You Say’ and ‘Five London Pieces.’ But on the whole, that particular collection sometimes comes across as a reprise to Fix and at other times seems focused on the need to stop the fevered wrestling with the self via poetry and just let things be. In the five-line ‘Don’t Look for My Life in These Poems’ we come very close to a feeling of complete negation: “All I’ve learnt from pain/ I always knew,/ but could not do.”

By the time we come to the poems from her fourth and last book, Selected and New Poems (1994), this growing, ‘why bother’ feeling has been made explicit. “Your poems are no longer/ messages for me/ and mine have become/ an epitaph” she says in one poem, and in the next, “It’s time to find a place/ to be silent with each other…Even this poem/ has forty-eight words too many.” In the new poems that form the last section of the book there is some evidence that de Souza has moved beyond this blankness to a state of tentative rapprochement with the world, and these are pleasing poems even though they lack the vigour of the early work.

And yet A Necklace of Skulls is nothing less than the collected work of a pioneer. What this pioneering most singularly consists of is de Souza’s confidence in her own voice and her loyalty to it. Talking about how the ‘pitch’ of a line is an index of its honesty, Derek Walcott says, “The strange thing about poetry that makes it survive and makes it immortal is that somehow in the language of the mind of any race…what survives is that reality, that vibration that happens differently to millions and millions of people over generations, and that is where the validity of the thing is.”

He is talking about de Souza’s poetry. It will survive in the language of the mind, the vernacular in the deep sense, because that is the language in which she has, with unerring instinct, chosen to write it.