The Tribune - Spectrum

, April 14, 2002

Packaging Gorky in an avant garde form
Shalini Kalia

Steppe Tramping with Gorky
by Arun Gaur, Writers Workshop
Pages: 95 Price: Hardback: Rs 180; Flexiback: Rs 120

We were our stories, and when we died, if we were very lucky, our immortality would be in another such tale. (Fury, Salman Rushdie)

THE poet in this case is probably trying an experiment in reverse alchemy. Inspired by the prose works of Maxim Gorky, whose characters, as he admits, had stayed with him for nearly two decades, he tries to play God and reincarnate them in poetry. No wonder he must traverse a difficult path in order to reach the Uncreated World, the primordial chaotic situation that existed in the mind of Gorky.

If life is to be judged, as some philosophers have suggested, not by duration but by intensity, then Gorky's characters have lived a fuller life than most of us and probably will achieve a kind of immortality, not by transcending the laws of clock time, but through being reborn in translations, repeat editions and in works like these poems. In their new 'avatar', they do retain traces of their old self(I cannot live but I must not die,'Two together') and are quite consciously aware of their archetypes in the 'original' works of prose. And the insights coming from the poems are as original as those after going through the prose version. The poet, for example, poses a pertinent quer: Is devil master of body of God? (To Monk's House, based on the novel,The Artomonovs) or as in, A woman and no desire! /Woman you are sick('Or a Something' based on the play,'Summer Folk') or Now Mother where is your cloak/And sleep songs?/My heart waits/Only you know where it beats so well(Traitor's Mother).


The process of individuation, however, continues for the poet as well the poems: Many a time we have worn each other/In this licking and this kicking business/Many a time(Wall that closes sky). Shades of Neruda creep in(Spring it would be Sonya/When love odour and bloom would mix together). The abandon with which the poet goes about throwing nuggets doesn't require too much of panning: Soul once severed/Cares not/Whether you live laugh or cry/All same.

Some of the writing that emerges, in fact, has a voice of its own, requires no references in parenthesis and the characters have veritably cut the umbilical cord and arrived.

Steppe tramping... may also be profitably read as a companion to Gorky's works even though the poems do not move in a linear progression as do the stories. In fact, sometimes the circular back and forth movement of the poems lends credence to the theory that the poems are (female?) consorts of the original stories.

But having said that, there is a world of difference in the ambience of the two writers' works. Early on in Gorky's works, we admire the towering patriarchal strength and wisdom of the narrator, his natural and keen ability to size up people, his dry wit, his refusal to become cynical and disillusioned with his own hard lot in life and his tenderness for his sometimes pitiful characters. However, Gaur's characters are rather watered-down versions of the originals, owing perhaps to the demands of a different genre. They play a game of musical chairs all along and are shown to us in a hall of mirrors leaving us to fathom who is who. The poems, acting at times, like the missing beads, string themselves into the narration. While at others, failing to grasp the essence of the tale, are left hanging high in the air. In addition to this, his sometimes cloying use of onomatopoeic words and phrases(And sometimes drops came/Flip flop flip flop flip flop) as well as surprising absence of articles(He judged world/And dragged me in him)and sometimes perpendicular use of prepositions:To jump on cliffs, when time came(instead of jump 'off' cliffs) or She has come to stand in door(instead of 'at the door'), make these poems a sub-editor's nightmare, salvaged only by the umbrella term poetic license. Also some phrases arouse a sense of deja vu:This knowing and not knowing(Eliot?) or I'm old/Go and find some pearl/Straight out of oyster's mouth(Donne?)

Ideally, real-life incidents happening either to self or relevant others, poignantly striking a chord somewhere within us, are transmuted into a poem. However, picking up a motley set of characters shaped by the mind of another author, adopting them and resuscitating them with your own idiom is a difficult proposition, something that Gaur seems to have achieved, albeit with some effort. Which was not the case in his earlier anthology, Woodcutters, where the poems were like street children dancing in the rain shorn of such esteemed genealogical baggage.

Syntactical errors apart, the poet has adopted the characters, from a time and place which have ceased to exist, as his own and breathed life into them. Another thing that he succeeds in persuading the reader to do is read the great master all over again. So Gorky's magic in a world of avant-garde literature, after all, is not passe. Thank Gaur for that!