Castaway Cantos

Sujata Bhatt opts for the firecat.

I have to confess that I spent a great deal of time imagining the island where I would be. I tried to picture the flora and fauna and the way living there might change me. The island would have to be tropical and unspoilt and maybe even on another planet, another earth where people are completely at peace with each other and with their environment.


It was difficult, of course, to narrow down my list of poems to eight. I kept changing the poems and the poets. Even now, I think this list is just one of many equally good ones I thought of. I've chosen some epics and some shorter poems.


To begin with the epics, I would need 'The Ramayana' and 'The Mahabharata' introduced to me by my mother as bedtime stories when I was very small and could not read yet. For many years, until I was eight or nine I believed that these epics were the absolute 'Truth'. In my mind, I can still hear my mother's voice, her intonations in Sanskrit and in Gujarati. For she would often pause to recite a line or verse in Sanskrit and then continue with the narration in the Gujarati translation. Then, to jump ahead, I would take Ovid's 'Metamorphoses', the version translated by Rolfe Humphries, which I've had with me for more than twenty years now. Transformation, in the fullest, deepest sense of the term has always been one of my crucial interests. This leads me to Lorca's 'Sleepwalking Ballad' which begins, "Green I want you green. / Green wind, green boughs. / The ship on the sea / and the horse on the mountain". It is a haunting, gripping poem. When I was younger, I identified with the 'bitter girl' and the 'bitter sea'. I would take Christopher Maurer's translation (which I have quoted from here) but I would also want to have the original Spanish with me. I have been reading Lorca since I was in my early teens, so he feels like an old friend, so to speak. Also, more recently, Andalusia has become a sort of 'second home' for me, making me feel even closer to Lorca. William Carlos Williams is another "old friend" whose poem, 'To Waken an Old Lady', must come along. I love the images and the movement in this poem, as well as the optimism which is there from the opening "small / cheeping birds" (which makes me think of newborn beings instead of 'old age') to the closing "shrill / piping of plenty" despite "a dark wind" and "broken seedhusks". I would need optimism in order to survive my solitude – no matter how beautiful the island is.


When I was seventeen, I was completely under Wallace Stevens' spell. He remains a powerful source of inspiration for me. I would take his 'Earthy Anecdote' to my island. I'm fascinated by the firecat in this poem: what does it look like, for example? It is identified as a "he". So what will happen after he closes his "bright" eyes at the end? The firecat seems to be a sort of muse figure although he interferes with the movement of the bucks. And who are the bucks? That's another thing I like about this poem: it raises questions that cannot really be answered.


Despite my desire for optimism, I could not do without something by Paul Celan. I would take his 'Todesfuge' in the original German since I wouldn't need a translation. And I would take a recording of him reading this poem. Finally, I would want to have Eleanor Wilner's voice with me, always. (She is the only female poet and the only living one in this selection.) I would take one of her early poems, 'The Illuminator', which can be found in her Selected Poems, Reversing the Spell published by Copper Canyon Press. 'The Illuminator' is (among other things) an exquisite portrayal of the tensions between life and art – which is another ongoing struggle for me. And who knows how the relationship between life and art on the island would develop?


Sujata Bhatt's latest collection is A Colour for Solitude (Carcanet, 2002).

Poetry News, Spring 2003