Where have all the poems gone

All Bengalis are poets, as we have seen. It’s a kind of adolescent disease which rarely lingers on into adulthood. Then there are those cases of late flowering such as the retired bank managers and government officers who begin to write poetry after prostate surgery; but they are like the flowering bamboo, which dies after it flowers – the habit, not the man! The question still remains, exactly as Pete Seeger put it back in 1955: Where have all the poems gone? Young girls read them every one. When will they ever learn – that it is hyperacidity that causes heartburn and so on.

My own poems, and Bengali poems at that, all forty-four of them, you’ll find put together a bit carelessly but handsomely bound, with a lovely cover designed by some young man who doesn’t know me from Adam but hit the spirit of those poems to a ‘T’ – things fit to a ‘T’, but can you hit them to a ‘T’? Who knows. Mine didn’t, one way or the other – I mean my poems and the Bengali poetry-reading public, no fit and no hit.

This talented young man put a young girl in an old-fashioned frock on the cover, with a large, male, butted, tattered and shapeless umbrella – unfurled – floating away over her head as if in a strong wind, in front of what looks like a waterfall of colours – autumnal colours, of the European kind – whereas the girl is unmistakably a Bengali girl. The girl and the umbrella are in black, as the rest of the cover, though the girl is already drowning in that deluge of colour. The back cover is just black, there’s only that umbrella floating away and taking all the colour with it, being the only object which is in colour. In colour? No, you see a bit of the front cover through the silhouette of that umbrella – computer trick? Computer graphics? I wouldn’t know. All I know is that this young man – whom I’ve only had the opportunity to congratulate on the phone – had wrapped my poems in a poem of his own, like a greeting or a salutation from one artist to another, across generations and continents and cultures. ‘I understand,’ this young man was telling me, and I’m sure he did, though I still don’t know how.

I wish I could tell him how those poems got written. They were mostly written during a series of holidays in Poland, mostly on the Baltic coast or in the Danziger Lakeland, in tiny beach resorts and fishing villages on the banks of tiny lakes. Bits of Poland are still like Europe in a dream, like the abandoned sets of old movies about war and deportation. Usually I don’t carry my laptop with me on my holidays, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t get up with the birds and have my first cup of tea – after which I have to write. As imperative as going to the toilet for me.

So I used to sit down somewhere on the wooden verandah or the wooden steps of the bungalow and open my notebook (ordinary kind, 0.0 version) and write – poems, in Bengali, about Bengal, about my mother, about the women in my life (beginning with the girls!), about the city that we Bengalis love to hate – Kolkata. I write poems only in rhyme and with rhythm, in the traditional Bengali manner. And I write them only in places with names like Pobierowo and Spore and Wiselka, about the craziest thing a Bengali can do.

What I didn’t realise was that this was about as close as you could get to Yeats’ (actually his wife’s) automatic writing. Those poems came over a number of years and a number of holidays and I added two leftovers from my early youth like village ruins for the others to land upon – but in the end they were like a flock of birds coming together and settling down to tell each other all about the pains and pleasures of migration in loud peeps and squeaks and chirps and trills. I could hear the words, I mean the birds flap their wings and preen their feathers before they found their place in stanza and verse.

I just had to arrange those poems and out came the most perfect circle – I mean a cycle of poems relating the story of my life as only poems can. Good friend of mine – again a young woman, at least compared to a Methusalem like me – prevailed upon a publisher friend of hers in Kolkata to bring out the slim volume which appeared and disappeared like a pebble in a pond at the next Book Fair, without a ripple. Except for the critic who noted that the poems dripped, oozed and squelched in nostalgia like wet shoes in the Kolkata rains – no, even that image is mine, we should leave the poor critic in peace.

In peace? Is that why I haven’t written a Bengali poem since? Did those birds flap their wings and preen their feathers for the last time? Did the whole flock rise like dust at the approach of the combined harvester-dredger of Time and float away towards the horizon like pollen in the wind, furling and unfurling in the intricate, billowing spacetime patterns of future intergalactic migration?

Why don’t you ask my critic.

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