Friday, February 16, 2007

Poetess Abused, But Willing

Mahadai Das (1954 – 2003)

Since her death in 2003 the poetry of Mahadai Das has been embraced in some quarters with as much fervor & sadness as the poetry of Martin Carter. Not far behind the glowing tributes are many references to her personal life. You could develop any number of profiles from intimate details made public about her.

Consider these for instance: “Delivered by midwife on October 22nd 1954”, with its hints at susceptibilities and risk. “The oldest of ten children”, upon whom great expectations were hoisted, and a fate beyond multiple childbearing. Her death after illness & “open heart surgery”, suggesting a child might have come into the world already marked for death.

Other details may or may not support the notion of a foreshadowed life: former beauty queen (Miss Diwali, 1971), standard bearer of beauty for her racial group; political activist, going against the current, aligning her hopes not with a race-based party. Answering instead a post-Independence call to nation building. “I Want to be a Poetess for My People.”

Gender and race might have been questions Das grappled with as she worked through tertiary institutions (Universities of Guyana, West Indies, Columbia/ NY, Chicago), and courses in Philosophy. In Bones (1988) you might anticipate the shelling of women “issues”, or a feminist rigour in the lines. There is, instead, delicate sentiment and a wistful self-probing. “Though I have reason/ to blow trumpets, I play/ an elegiac flute in silver hours/ of a misty morning, calling birds with songs.” (from “Resurrection”).

Bird images are plentiful in this collection; but then there’s so much one would wish to take flight from in Guyana – the cages of poverty & race, the cast nets of leftover ideologues. Das admits to being “Bird stricken. / Shrunken my globe, my joys, small circumference.” Birds like thoughts fly out of her head; sometimes their fate is the clipped wing, or like “a pigeon anklestrung/ homefed” the trapped availability of spirit.

Das has been gathered in the folds of ethnic heroism, her past mistakes forgiven. Her folly as an Indian woman (in the 70s) was to cross over into political territory controlled vindictively by black men. No doubt reviled for this act of infidelity, she was welcomed back in death by the heritage keepers (and others lost in blind sympathies) and embraced as victim of her own “naïve faith” and idealism – wanting to be a “poetess” of the wrong people. For she believed in a hairy concept of “national allegiance” being promulgated at the time by those hard black men.

What’s not so openly acknowledged is the first surge of bravery that pushed her craft out against race-based currents; that first-born, front running individuality that landed her eventually in the company of black men. (There were reports – and more recently the trashiness of newspaper comment – of sexual assault on Das while she did National Service in the 70s). Insular group thinking, not base impulses, was surely what worried Das most. And the irony cannot be missed of her life running out on a more accommodating island of black men (Barbados).

One wonders what if anything Das was “committed” to after her flight from Guyana. There is ample record of “travel” and “study”, but in Bones little evidence of all the harrowing or enlightening stuff she must have lived through as she moved among men and around the world. Poems set in North America (“Chicago Spring”) or drawn from her reading (“For Anna Karenina”) don’t display much more than transient insight and metaphor.

What Bones reveals, however, is the readiness of the Diwali beauty queen to be participant in parades of national achievement. Finding no nation, no worthwhile “people” achievement Das wraps herself up and ships away. “In your heart, I have not found a port/ but wide-open seas where I may dream.” In low, dark moments of limbo her lines wander away from her declared purpose into self-commiseration. “I mourn unflowered words, / unborn children inside me.” “Like a packcamel in desert terrain/ I will ride, the load of existence/ upon my camel’s hump”.

If the sentiments there sound a bit lush & long-suffering for a still young ‘poetess’, wallowing on the page in wet clichés, you could blame her welcome backers for ignoring her flaws, for shielding person & poetry, as it were, from gossip and unwanted assault.

There are poems in Bones about regret, isolation, yearning and death, but Das offers only thoughtful reflections on these themes – “Tomorrow, I rise/ between dead thighs of another day” – leaving an occasional puzzle at the end for reader homework. In one long poem (“For Maria de Borges”) Das conjures auras of vulnerability and circling doom with vivid if uninspired imagery: “Death rides, high black moon over all my dreams. /Secret rider across sky’s low fields.” The tremulousness of the estranged heart, rather than beauty and body beset on all sides, was the subject that really preoccupied her.

At age 40 to 49 life expectations, you suspect, begin to solidify. In Das there’s a sense of business unfinished, of something ambivalently poised & pained but not yet formed. The “bird” images again come to mind. Das seems constantly up there, lone sparrow in bruising winds; still beating against currents, but wanting some strong arm or rock to rest on; and unable to find rest (or laurels) in religious faith or ethnic solidarity or diasporic achievement.

For she might have considered becoming a niche poet (like Guyanese Grace Nichols) writing long-memoried, winning poems about her race and her uplifted womanhood. She could have sneaked into academia, funneling her roots & victim experience into Ethnic or Gender studies. There was certainly no lack of agreeable choices. Circumstances and her illness, it seems, cut options thin.

Still, you can’t help but admire her tireless wings, the tribe-challenging individuality that ignored fears & warnings and kept daring the unknown. The nerve of her, her uncommon will to work against the odds – “My bark of reeds/ is frail, light stems – insufficient. The current is fierce.” You sense sparks of bright courage & goodness, a (pre)disposition perhaps too openly trusting for road or sea (“Unlike Columbus/ I am neither helmsman nor sailor”).

You sense, too, in the lines an embryonic “consensual” Guyanese identity, the birth of which seemed precious & important to Das. It is for this reason her poetry merits our patience and attention.

In the end the serious reader returns to the first poem in Bones, “Sonnet to a Broom”. Trust this Guyanese poet to think a humble broom deserves a sonnet, though given the omnipresence of brooms in our rural culture you begin to understand. As imagined by Das its function is to “gain only a clean floor of truth”. When work is done it withdraws unremunerated and (like many a poet’s work) “unpublished” in attics.

The last lines of the poem read, “Yet unreproachful, you return to use/ efficient though abused, but willing.” Comes close, doesn’t it, to a portrait of that familiar ethnic stereotype, content to toil one arm behind her back. More likely you’re hearing the resilience of a CEO’s pretty secretary who keeps hidden in her drawer desire for creative self-expansion, a wish to be called up for higher responsibilities.

But as it seems there was so much still forming in Mahadai Das’s poetry; and in her life – as in the lives of “the people” she once wrote for – so many transitions incomplete. Though from all indications you’d have to think she was getting there.

Book Reviewed: Bones: Mahadai Das: Peepal Tree Press, England 1988: 53 pgs.