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,
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
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."