Review: Songs of Kabir transl. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (NYRB, 2011)

Kabir (dates uncertain, but he was active in the fifteenth century) was an Indian poet-saint whose influential work, deeply imbued with a challenging, paradoxical mysticism, opens out into an energetic, sly and ultimately affirmative greatness. The poetry melds Hinduism, Islam and even Buddhist Tantrism, offering a blend that is forthright and wry, direct and subtle, exultant and demanding. Kabir’s is a humane and universal spirituality.

He once scoffed at the Hindu and Moslem religions: “One slaughters goats, one slaughters cows; they squander their birth in isms.” Though it’s not surprising both religions berated him in his lifetime, one learns with a jolt of delight (an appropriately Kabir-ish response) that both faiths tried to claim his as their own after his death.

Such is the kind of paradox in which Kabir rejoices. Impossible contradictions spark life into his words, urging the reader to resolve them in his/her own mind:

‘The question that’s killing me, says Kabir
Is whether the pilgrim
Or the pilgrim town is greater?’ [p.93]

‘…I’ve seen….
A mother delivered
After her son was…’ [p.3]

He loves to make a mockery of the ways in which humankind debases its spiritual potential:

‘Were the Creator
Concerned about caste,
We’d arrive in the world
With a caste mark on the forehead.’ [p.28]

Bam! In one irresistible swoop, Kabir unforgettably ridicules a deep-rooted inequality in his society.

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s translations are vivid and dynamic, at once riotous and contained:

‘Put the bit in its mouth,
The saddle on its back,
Your foot in the stirrup,
And ride your wild runaway mind
All the way to heaven.’ [p.14]

Pound, Bly and Milosz are but three of the eminent poets who have tried rendering Kabir into a new tongue, but Mehrotra’s colloquial, anachronistic poems feel as assured, lively and convincing as translation gets; they don’t read like translations at all.

‘It’s a load of crap.
Laughing, skipping,
Tumbling, they’re all
Headed for Deathville.’ [p.67]
The outspoken tone of the poems is well served by a translator unafraid of making an uncommon music out of common words:

You had one life,
And you blew it.

From sticky spunk
To human shape…’ [p. 78]

‘Though a buzz saw on my neck
Would sound sweeter than your snoring,
I’ll put my arms around you
And whisper in your ear.’ [p. 48]

I’m quite smitten with the Kabir-Mehrotra voice, charged as it is with upside-down thinking, a ‘twilight language’ in which impossible inferences lead the reader to a lyrical, revelatory, supra-rational experience. A clinical reading of lines like ‘Fish spawning/on treetops;/A cat carrying away/a dog’ or poems such as the one in which Kabir eats his family then has the townsfolk for dessert might well leave us flummoxed, but in context the poetry makes sense – a wayward, specific kind of sense, the kind of sense that resonates at a spiritual level. Logic cannot resolve the problem because logic is the problem.

Such a huge, tight, punchy, visionary style of poetry is hard to achieve at the best of times, but to do so with a simple, resonant lucidity is difficult indeed. Clear sources such as the Rig Veda, the Ramayana and the Caryapada aside, the poetry establishes wonderful associations in the mind (or my mind, at least) which have nothing to do with direct influence, eg John Donne (muscular, witty, iconoclastic, erotic-religious) and Shinkichi Takahashi (charming, distinctly purposeful, disarming, epiphany-laden). Readers of these poets will, I suspect, love Kabir’s work.

Songs of Kabir is an important publication, heralding the revitalisation of a magnificent voice in world poetry. The poems in the collection enthral, challenge and refresh the reader while pushing teasingly at the boundaries of what poetry actually does.

‘After the storm,
A drizzling rain, soaking me through and through.
Seeing that dawn, says Kabir,
My mind lit up.’ [p. 16]