Ai, another great poet has died, and from a disease that meanders and shreds the fullness of life.  Here is an in memoriam at Best American Poetry by Jerry Williams to spell it out for you.

Here is an essay I wrote some years back, when I first really started studying poetry in Goddard’s MFA program (thanks to Bea Gates for pointing me in Ai’s direction).  I remember how much I loved studying the fierce verse, the women characters in this poetry, and what some women poets were effortlessly saying in their work about love, death, truth, and the power of a woman’s essence, even in a person’s memory: Ai is/was one such poet!

A Husband’s Despair Seen through Symbolism: Ai’s “Immortality”

In her book Sin (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986), Ai gathers an array of characters using dramatic monologue.  I am immediately reminded of some of Frank Bidart’s poems, and the idea of characters “living” in poetry looms in my mind.  The birth, rebirth, and reincarnation of personalities intrigues every reader, and in Ai’s poem “Immortality,” not only do readers see the personality of the main male character, but they also feel his love for the dead woman character, who is seen only in his memory. 

This poem, which can clearly be considered a persona poem, is also a love poem packed with symbolism.  Every time I read it, I understand a little more of the underlying issue: the love of a man toward his wife who has killed herself, “giving it all up with [her] poison” (lines 33-34).  What causes me to feel the husband’s anger and disappointment despite his love is Ai’s use of symbolism within the dramatic monologue.

In each of the three stanzas, Ai leaves readers with an extended picture of a husband’s feelings about the death of his wife.  Her male speaker begins, “I dreamed I was digging a grave / that kept filling with water. / The next day you died” (1-3).  Ai presents an image of loss right from the beginning of the poem, yet immediately readers feel more than the heartache of the speaker.  Even though in a dream, the speaker’s attempt to dig a grave, as it fills with water rather than remains hollow to make room for a coffin, symbolizes his feelings of disappointment and defeat, and we see more of this as the poem unfolds. 

With feelings of disappointment continuing in stanza two, the speaker reflects on the days in which he and the woman met, parted, and found each other again:

            I thought of the Great War;

            the day we met.


            And just like that, we parted.

            Then one day you found me hoeing potatoes.

            Let me help, you said,

            and handed me a child

            with bright red hair like yours.

            I married you.  We fought.

            Blood sanctifies and blesses;

            it binds.

            Anna, where are you now? —

            waltzing down a long mirrored corridor,

            wrapped in glory that is red, bitter. (10-11, 21-31)

Here readers understand the depth of the speaker’s initial loss because they see that he has married the woman and taken in her child; they are blood to him, relatives by choice.  Looking more closely at the lines, we also find the symbolism that Ai places within her character’s memory.  The husband searches for his wife, Anna, through the closeness that has bound them, but he is lost.  She has disappointed and angered him with her absence.  The “long mirrored corridor” the husband refers to is Anna’s death—a death by choice as she “waltzes down” it without turmoil or remorse.  Furthermore, it is the resentment of her husband and her own sin that dress her at the end of this stanza, as she is “wrapped in glory that is red, bitter,” symbolic to a robe of a sinful death caused by suicide.

The last stanza not only conveys a husband’s disappointment in and anger toward his wife but also unveils his love for her that will be with him forever.  Throughout the poem the speaker references potatoes, a symbol itself.  And each mention connects to his wife in some way: either he anticipates eating one as he digs her grave (stanza one), he is hoeing them when he and Anna meet again after being apart (stanza two), or finally biting one after throwing dirt on her coffin (stanza three).  Therefore, potatoes, like Anna, are extremely important to him, and Ai’s use of this connection is most profound at the poem’s close.  The last image of the speaker biting a potato epitomizes a husband’s degree of angry surrender to a woman, a wife he was not ready to give up, who selfishly chose to leave him.  The speaker shares his sorrow:

            I can’t forgive your [his wife’s] going.

            I take the potato from my pocket.

            One bite, then another,

            if only this were all it took

            to live forever.

With each bite, the husband hopes for a lasting connection to his dead wife, realizing that the potato is really all he has to help him hold onto his memory of her.  The potato becomes her, alive and in his grasp, yet, ironically, he understands that it, too, will decay or be devoured with no chance of preventing its inevitable end as well.

Ai’s use of symbolism leaves a lasting impact on me, and I do not think I will ever look at a potato quite the same again.  The poet does not center on the object itself to remind the reader of its presence; the potato is the catalyst for the theme of death/immortality that underlies the poem and the speaker’s monologue.  The potato is what is left to hold onto by Ai’s readers and her speaker, but it is what cannot be touched that leaves us thinking, the symbol behind the potato.

~ And what cannot be touched, the spirit of a great poet, leaves us remembering. ~ R.I.P.

Vivekanand Jha, poet and research scholar from India has been working on his Ph.D., studying the poetry of noted
Indian English poet Jayanta Mahapatra.
Jha (left) with Mahapatra taken by Sujeet Kumar Jha

As part of his research, Jha interviewed Mahapatra this November and in February asked Holly Rose Review (HRR) to consider publishing the piece.  HRR is honored to feature Jha’s interview, edited by Theresa Senato Edwards.

Here is Jha’s brief preface:  

Jayanta Mahapatra needs little introduction. There are many features which make him distinct from his contemporaries: he is the most prolific poet in the history of Indian English Poetry, he belongs to a poor and middle class family, he is a scholar from a science background, he is the first poet to receive the Sahitya Akademi Award in Indian English Poetry, he is a poet who commands more respect overseas than at home, and he has a profundity of images and symbols in his poetry.    
He is in his nineties, and he has been a chronic patient of asthma and recurrent migraines.  Moreover, after the passing of his wife, the late Runu Mahapatra, last year, he is internally shaken and weakened, as they were an ideal and exemplary couple. After meeting with him, I spoke to his maidservant who had been serving Mahapatra and his wife for years regarding how Mahapatra feels about the absence of his wife. She said he wept bitterly when his wife died, and even now he bursts into tears occasionally in her loving memory.    

An excerpt of Mahapatra and Jha’s conversation:   

In the book, “Door of Paper: Essays and Memoirs,” are all the essays and articles written by you available?   

Not all, but most of them are available.   

Your theme of poetry is similar to that of your essays and articles?   

Yah, all [about] my childhood.   

You have somewhere talked about A. K. Ramanujan.   

Yes, he was idealistic and [a] very good writer.   

It is he whom you like most?   


In the book, “History of Indian English Literature,” authored by M. K. Naik, Naik mentions that contemporary Indian poets who made names in Indian and English poetry have gotten their first book published by P. Lal. Is it true?   

It is true because all these people were published by P. Lal. He also has done a very good job, very good humanitarian job. We can’t deny it. Giving encouragement to new writers is something not many people have done.   

The very titles of your books of poetry bear significance of bleakness and barrenness. Is there vested interest in doing that?   

No, it came on its own.   

What are the works you are at present busy with?   

At present I am writing my autobiography in Oriya. At least one part I want to publish latest by June, if I am living (smiling). After I finish it, I will publish a new book of English poems. So let me see what happens.   

In your autobiography, you write about your life up until 1989. Are you planning to write or have written about yourself after that?   

I have written [a] small portion of my autobiography because an American encyclopedia wanted it for a living contemporary writers [section], but now I am writing [my] autobiography in Oriya. It’s being serialized in a magazine.   

It is after 1989?   

No, no, no, it’s about my childhood and early days.   

Has it been published?   

I am just writing it now. Only three [parts] have come out. Next will come out soon.  One by one in a series, I am trying to write. I don’t know. I can’t tell of tomorrow. But I am trying to do whatever I can. It’s all about my childhood, my youth, and my days at Patna.   

What would be your advice to the budding poet?   

Write whatever you feel, feel from your heart, from your inside. One thing will also help you. Tilt to a little higher level. If we can go somewhat towards God in the guise of writing–If we can, that should be our goal. Don’t you think so? Your conscience and soul search good things. And when you go about writing a poem as a priest offers the God by picking and choosing the flowers, so we should do with words.   

To whom do you dedicate your success as a poet?   

It’s my wife.    

I would like to know about your reaction on the talk of you being the father of modern and post-modern Indian English poetry.   

No, no. I write what I can. I don’t think about it   

Is Chandrabhaga [a literary magazine] still publishing or not?   

We are not publishing it now. I didn’t have time. I didn’t have the money involved for publishing. All these sorts of problems to take over. That’s why we stopped it.   

In a country of more than one billion people, a magazine such as Chandrabhaga had come to cease publication. In your view what is the fate and future of Indian English poetry?   

Graphic magazines, fashion magazines, movie magazines, you can only get funding. Otherwise nobody is purchasing a literary periodical. Not only in India, I think this is the case of every where in the world.  But especially in India, we have too much emphasis on film and fashion.   

What was your main source of inspiration?   

Main source of inspiration: my land, my people, my place, what I see, what social injustice I see, and political injustice. I should like to write about the hunger. I think Orissa is one of the very, very, very, very poor states, very poor. You go inside the villages; you will see they [the villagers] don’t have places to live in. They don’t have a roof over their heads. They don’t have rice to eat. And only politicians can find out which things are there. During election time they do visit the villages once, and the next five years nothing happens. The same poverty, they sell their children to keep their own stomachs. Mothers sell their daughters; fathers sell their daughters. Even today it’s happening. Especially in Orissa and the interior of India.   

You have talked about some emerging poets from the North-East region.    

There are some good and young poets especially from Meghalay, Mizoram, and also in Arunachal Pradesh.   

Earlier such talents were not there in that region. How now do such things happen to be?     

See, there is tension there in North-East. If you have no tension, you can’t write well. If you have tension, you can bring about your feelings well. Unless you have failure, suffering, and sorrows in your life, how can you write? If you have enough to eat, enough money, a good house and a car, why will you write? What will you write about? You have no problems to write about! If you have problems–may be racial problems, religious problems, hunger problems and social problems. Problems will lead you to think. Unless you think you can’t write, ideas will not come in your mind. For ideas you need the images to supplement your ideas.  So all things make a certain cycle that is necessary. It begins only when you have certain problems in your life to start writing poetry.   

You have talked about one poet from Kolkota.   

You talk about Rudhra Kinshuk. I like this poet. Young boy and he makes good use of new images. I like when you put a new type of image in the poem.   

What do you mean by new images? Innovation should be extracted from new inventions, science, and technology?   

New images mean you try to bring about something that never happened or has never been done by some other poets before you. There was a great Urdu poet from the Allahabad side, Faiz Ahmad Faiz.  He used to write, “I want to drink through eyes not by lips.” Something new like this.   

© Vivekanand Jha, 2010 

Jha’s blog:

Mahapatra’s powerful poems “Hunger” and “Freedom” can be read online, and other information about the poet can be found on his Web site:  

It is also important to note Mahapatra’s most recent awards: India’s Padma Shree Award, 2009, and the Allen Tate Award, The Sewanee Review, 2009.

I wrote this a couple or so years ago.  I post it today in memory of a fine poet.

In Lucille Clifton’s book The Book of Light, the poet covers many thought-provoking ideas using clean, crisp lines.  And although it appears a reader could quickly devour each poem in this collection, I find myself going back and rereading because there is so much more to savor in every one. 

What is extremely clever are the ways in which Clifton uses her titles to begin some of her poems.  One poem, in particular, titled “still there is mercy, there is grace,” begins right from its title and continues smoothly through to the end of the fifth line:

            still there is mercy, there is grace [title]

            how otherwise
            could I have come to this
            marble spinning in space
            propelled by the great
            thumb of the universe? (lines 1-5)

These beginning lines also make ingenious use of alliteration and what Ron Padgett refers to as “[a]lliterative effect […] “when the repeated sound is neither stressed nor initial” (9).  We see this latter technique in Clifton’s use of the words “grace,” “otherwise,” “this,” “space,” and “universe.”  The repeated “s” sounds in these words are found at their ends, with “space” having the repeated sound at the beginning and end.  This effect helps the title connect with the lines and helps the text glide along the page. 

Furthermore, the “s” sound is a sharp yet powerful contrast to the sounds of the other words in the lines that intentionally stand out: “marble,” “propelled,” “great,” and “thumb.”  Thus, the interchanging of soft and hard sounds creates a strong voice for the speaker.  This is what Clifton intends and carries through to the poem’s end to convey the poem’s underlying focus: the humble power of God’s caring compassion.

With this in mind, the juxtaposition of soft/hard sounds makes sense as Clifton continues using similar phrasing, beginning with a phrase repetition and ending with another question:

            how otherwise
            could the two roads
            of this tongue
            converge into a single
            certitude? (6-10)

The two different sounds (soft/hard) heard in the words “otherwise”/“could,” “two”/”roads,” “this”/”tongue,” and “converge”/”single” represent two different languages or differences in general, like “the two roads / of this tongue” that Clifton addresses.  Yet, in these lines, she unites the dichotomy, proclaiming God’s grace without questioning his power, as she does in the first few lines and intimately shows in her last lines. 

The poet continues, again beginning with repetition and juxtaposing opposite sounds:

            how otherwise
            could I, a sleek old
            curl one day safe and still
            beside You
            at Your feet, perhaps,
            but, amen, Yours. (11-17)

The harsh sound in “could” mimics “converge” in the previous lines, connects to “curl,” here, and continues to balance the magnitude of not only Clifton’s words but also her faith in God.  She leaves her readers involved in an image of opposites, of small and large, of God and human, rejoicing in the fact that no matter the degree of contrast, there is compassion and comfort both at the beginning of life, seen at the poem’s start; during life’s struggles, seen mid-poem; and at the end of life, seen here.

It is obvious that Clifton’s faith is strong, yet she does not preach in “still there is mercy, there is grace.”  She skillfully communicates her faith through her craft, using the sound of words.


Works Cited

Clifton, Lucille. The Book of Light. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon, 1993.

Padgett, Ron, ed. The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms. New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1987.

Rick Lupert, creator of Poetry Super Highway, a Web site filled with poetic delights, has launched PSH’s 9th Annual Great Poetry Exchange!

The mission of Poetry Super Highway is “to expose as many people to as many other people’s poetry as possible.”  The reason for the poetry exchange is to get poets from around the globe to share their poetry books. 

I love this idea and would love to see poets at all stages of their writing/publishing careers share their work. 

Since I’ve started Holly Rose Review, I’ve realized that many poets worldwide, whether just emerged in their passion for words or already diligent veterans of the craft, are humble, kind people.  What better way to keep that kindness going than to send a book and get a book in return! 

And that’s what the poetry exchange is all about.  It’s a great free exchange of poetry publications among poets worldwide.  And what better month to swap than February!

Lupert states, “It’s not a contest. There are no judges, entry fees, winners, or losers.  Last year, 92 poets participated both sending their book and receiving another poet’s book from a randomly selected other participant.”

It’d be great to see that participant amount double this year!

All the details are here:

Check it out, swap your book, and get a book back–all for the love of poetry!

Hey, and HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY a little early.