Thursday, July 12, 2007

A. K. Ramanujan

Just recently I seem to have lost my ability to ignore the horrific music that pervades every public space in the developed world. I used to be blessedly deaf to it, but no more. Now, I am no music snob--I have voluntarily listened to some pretty god awful pop music in my day. And I live with a saxophone player who loves free jazz and noise bands. We have begun many a musical conversation with me saying, "What the hell is that?" So, I'm not a sheltered or prudish listener. But I have my limits, and being subjected to the tinny chorus of "Afternoon Delight" while wheeling a cart through Kroger exceeds them. Mightily. Yesterday I was in a TJ Maxx and they were playing a cover of a Jewel song. Not an actual Jewel song, which would be bad enough, but a cheesed-up cover. It was the auditory equivalent of having hot needles inserted under your fingernails. (I would have run screaming from the store, but there was a new shipment of gray market 'fumes that had to be checked out first. I'm sure some of you understand.)

I am completely baffled by this sudden curse of awareness. I don't know why my underworked brain has suddenly decided to latch onto evil sounds. It's just a mystery of the brain's filtration system. We receive a constant flood of sensation from without, and there's a constant tide of memory within. It's far too much to process, so most of it just flows away unnoticed, but a seemingly random portion gets stuck in the mental drain. Then, for better or worse, we have to deal with it.

So, I bet you're wondering what all this has to do with A. K. Ramanujan. Frankly, nothing, except that his poetry is some of the better stuff that's gotten stuck in my mental drain lately. Here's the backstory: Ramanujan's wife, Molly Daniels, has led a writing workshop in Chicago for decades, and I was a student of hers for a couple of years. ConsequentIy, I got to know Krittika Ramanujan, their daughter. Krittika is a very fine artist, and we are lucky to have a little pastel of hers hanging in our house. We've had it for 15 years, so I had gone pretty well blind to it, but the other day, for no particular reason, it caught my attention--and I remembered a birthday party for Krittika where I met her father for the first and only time.

He was an academic celebrity, both a celebrated poet and a respected South Asian studies scholar. He was the recipient of a MacArthur genius grant. His students worshipped him. My own reaction to his poems was "eh." I just didn't get them. I didn't get him, either, when I met him. He was perfectly nice and all, but he was a small, rather unattractive man, and at least that night, was not especially witty or fascinating. Still, people clustered around him reverently. He died suddenly not long after that, and his students and colleagues openly mourned him.

I never felt the need to revisit his poems, but something about that flash of memory made me seek them out--and gee, what a difference time can make in one's perceptions. I've been happily obsessed with these poems for days now. His connections between homely American life and the mythical imagery of India always seemed false and forced to me; now they seem brilliantly syncretic. I missed his passion and humor before--a failure which amazes me, because they are certainly obvious. There's something both wry and giddy in the tone of this one:

"Chicago Zen" (Second Sight, 1986)

Now tidy your house,
dust especially your living room
and do not forget to name
all your children.

Watch your step. Sight may strike you
blind in unexpected places.

The traffic light turns orange
on 57th and Dorchester, and you stumble,

you fall into a vision of forest fires,
enter a frothing Himalayan river,

rapid, silent.

On the 14th floor,
Lake Michigan crawls and crawls

in the window. Your thumbnail
cracks a lobster louse on the windowpane

from your daughter's hair
and you drown, eyes open,

towards the Indies, the antipodes.
And you, always so perfectly sane.

Now you know what you always knew:
the country cannot be reached

by jet. Nor by boat on jungle river,
hashish behind the Monkey-temple,

nor moonshot to the cratered Sea
of Tranquillity, slim circus girls

on a tightrope between tree and tree
with white parasols, or the one

and only blue guitar.

Nor by any
other means of transport,

migrating with a clean valid passport,
no, not even by transmigrating

without any passport at all,
but only by answering ordinary

black telephones, questions
walls and small children ask,

and answering all calls of nature.

Watch your step, watch it, I say,
especially at the first high

and the sudden low
one near the end
of the flight
of stairs,

and watch
for the last
step that's never there.

You can read a number of other poems here. I especially recommend "A River" and "Prayers to Lord Murugan."


chayaruchama said...

What a complicated little man.

This is why you and I revisit writers; they hound and nag us, until we do.
It often takes more than one reading to grasp the intent more fully.

[I used to feel dim and chagrined that such was the case- now, I accept it meekly, as a fact of life, rather than a personal failing]

Thank you for bringing him to my attention.
I'm enjoying this.

Mary said...

Cool stuff, babe. Thanks from me as well for pointing his work in my direction! I heard something the other day that may actually trump the horrific Jewel cover your ears were assaulted by. I actually heard a 'Musak' version of Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'. Poor Kurt, he's rolling in his grave, or maybe just laughing.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand a lot of contemporary poetry, but this poem is meaningful and accessible to an average reader like me.

A friend once tried to explain to me that the Eagles were "classical" musicians since their tunes were played on Muzak, "with violins and everything!"

It is fascinating to me that hostage-takers are often subjected to constant deafening rock music as part of police procedures to unhinge and dislodge them. This is one of the central images in Ann Patchett's novel about the power of opera, "Bel Canto."

BitterGrace said...

You're so right, Chaya, about revisiting writers--but the terrible flip side to that is checking in with an old favorite and realizing you have fallen out of love. Completely.

Glad you like Ramanujan, Mary. And yeah, SLTS as Muzak trumps the Jewel cover. I am getting slightly nauseated just thinking about it.

Gee, Bozo, you make me feel guilty. Here I am, a Nashvillian (more or less) with literary pretensions, and I have never read Bel Canto. Must rectify that...

Aditya said...

Found your post while searching for the poem "Chicago Zen". I'm not really able to understand his poem like the metaphors etc. and what is he trying to say in the poem. Can you help me with this?