Well-crafted tsunami musing
by Arun Gaur
Only the Sea Keeps: Poetry of the Tsunami
Eds: Judith R. Robinson, Joan E. Bauer and Sankar Roy.
Rupa & Co. Pages 184. Rs 195.

COMING of the tsunami was a big event—Lucifer would certainly call it so. If it was not an event, it was at least an interlude in the terrestrial drama. But was it outrageous? And if it was so, how outrageous? Can nature or nature-god be outrageous at all? If it is so, does it cause a sea change in our metaphysical notions? And what about our conditions of living and the idea of living—the existence itself?

Here 83 poetic minds brood over all these and many more questions connected with the nature of the tidal wave. Metaphors do not come easy. The wave is an assortment of monosyllables "tsu tsu tsu," "na na na," "mi mi mi" (Tom Donlon)—deadly and soothing, rising and falling. It comes driven by some "lunatic compulsion" (Patrick Corbett) and turns the geomorphology topsy-turvy: "A ship prows through the door/of a ruined mosque" (Ben Hartlage). Encounter with the wave is primarily a one-sided encounter with death: "She swept/past, clutching a ragged palm frond. Calling me" (Kathleen Tyler), but an encounter not easy to define in familiar terms: "How do you explain water wider than a forest/to children who trust in trees?" (Luisa Rossina Villani). It brings about quick transmogrification, more complex than a simple elemental exchange: "as heat became water,/as water became mud, as mud became burial ground"(Jean Bass). It destroys not only life but also the very condition of life: "The midwives are dead, the husbands are dead" (Joan E. Bauer).

But then the life force has to assert itself at some point. First, there is a Whitmanesque courting of the death-dealing ocean: "The ocean is within you now,.../ This is your welcoming drown" (Rasma Haidri). Then something bides and bides aesthetically: "And so you stay, somewhere,/Perfecting the exquisite art of disintegration" (Grace Cavalieri). As the distinction between the living and the dead gets blurred even a challenge is thrown to the sea: "Where will you throw these bones?...The body can dissolve in ocean/and rise again in another form"(Haidri). This love and hate relationship gets mystified: "How can you love your enemy/Or hate it when it is the sea?" (Joseph Bruchac). Ocean has power to raze manly definitions.

Whatever the human attitude towards the wave, the after-life does not remain the same. Social reality changes and queer difficulties arise: "where I was born /.../ they said the land was never mine" (James Penha). Perhaps the time demands a metaphysical address to God but the desire remains dubious, as God cannot free a man "from the world’s quicklime" (Dick Allen). So the untamed terror would always lurk somewhere nearby and we must always be wary: "Tread gently,/my friends, for the earth is almost all air/and air is fire and the waters may yet/astound those who fear only hell fire and the gods" (David Ray). One thing that Tsunami has made eminently clear is that we must pay our respects to life, to the very precious feeling of being alive: "I am aware of my breathing—/a constant exchange/with divine energy /...There is a need to take life/more seriously" (Sabine Pascarelli).

Almost every poem included in this anthology has found a place in some well-known poetry journal or magazine. The contributors, more or less, are poet-laureates, winners of prestigious prizes or professors teaching courses in creative writing in the West. As expected, majority of the poems are well-crafted pieces. They are as powerful as some sensitively taken still-camera shots of the Eastern upheaval. Only occasionally there is a feeling that words have been too cleverly over-wrought and then naturally the question arises about the inter-relationships among human sincerity, the perfection of craftsmanship and the "event" (the term I used so ambiguously in the beginning). That is a separate issue and not easily answerable.

Four hundred years back, John Donne ruminated about the "trepidation of the sphere"—what it did and what it meant. That poetic tradition still continues.