restricted access Dark Clouds
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Dark Clouds

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malinahutabhugadhūmaśyāmair diśo malinā dhanair    aviralatṛṇaiḥ śyāmā bhūmir navodgatakandalaiḥsuratasubhago nūnaṃ kālaḥ sa eva samāgato    maraṇaśaraṇā yasminn ete bhavanti viyoginaḥ

  • malina. dark colored, black, dark gray, mendicant

  • huta-bhuga. “oblation eater,” fire, fire-sacrifice, Vedic offering

  • dhūma. smoke, vapor, incense

  • śyāmaiḥ. with darkness

  • diśo. the directions or quarters of the sky

  • malinā. darkness

  • dhanaiḥ. (adj. with grass) plenty, abundant

  • avirala. dense, close, tangled

  • tṛnaiḥ. grass

  • śyāmā. dark

  • bhūmiḥ. earth

  • nava-udgata. newly arisen

  • kandalaiḥ. a white-flowering plant which appears plentifully and all at once with the rains

  • surata. lovemaking

  • subhago. eating (or lovemaking)

  • nūnaṃ. now

  • kālaḥ. time

  • sa. it

  • eva. surely

  • samāgato. to come together, draw close, make love

  • maraṇa-śaraṇā. (bv. cmpd.) they who go to death for refuge

  • yasmin. from those (who are beloved) ete. these

  • bhavanti. they are, become

  • viyoginaḥ. those separated (from their lovers) [End Page 26]

Dark cloudsmount the directions,the skyseems tossedwith flame and vapor.Dark earthpresses white blossomsout of the tangled grass.Time nowto draw close,talk, eat, make love.Whoever’s loverhas left hergoes to the pavilionof Death.

Over the poem, over the poet’s mood, clouds appear, pregnant with rain. This seasonal imagery—the slow building of monsoon clouds—is shorthand for the arousal of sexual moods. Do I detect in the repeated accumulation of rainclouds in Sanskrit poetry a whiff of shamanism, sympathetic magic, or animist weather control? By arousing erotic moods, can humans draw rain to the landscapes of India, which by late winter become parched?

Vidyā came from a highly refined world, more civilized and monumental—as well as far more ancient—than Homer’s. The gods in her India seem shadowy, a bit like the Greek pantheon did for Shakespeare, Shelley, or Keats. Whoever they may be, by Vidyā’s day the old Vedic devas that govern the elements (fire, wind, thunderbolt) have withdrawn into the distance. Of them, only whispers or echoes remain. Certainly they take no active role—are not meddlers—in human affairs. Nor do they hold much power. They cannot ward off death. Only love has that capability. When love departs, life goes also—to the mansion or sanctuary of the king of the underworld. The membrane separating the two realms, this and the other world, is perilously thin—a terrible truth that runs through so much early poetry. I’m reminded of Japanese poet Issa: “We pick flowers / on the roof / of hell” (translated by Robert Hass).

Vidyā complicates the beauty and gloom of her poem by conjuring the ecology in terms that sound liturgical. The dark sky is malina, a religious mendicant, the flaming [End Page 27] horizon huta-bhuga, a Vedic fire sacrifice, the clouds dhūma, incense. Religion, love, and death converge in the poem. The formula maraṇa-śaraṇā (death-refuge or sanctuary-ofdeath) is a twist on religious themes.

This use of double meanings has been called sandhyā-bhāṣā (twilight speech). As with puns, two or more meanings land on a single word. In some cases it requires a string of words or phrases to generate the twilight, the shadow meanings, the echo of other texts, or to conceal one poem under another. In this verse, Vidyā has constructed a language-within-language that speaks on several psychic levels at once.

In the years before World War II, the French poet René Daumal devised a method of “vertical” translation to get at such layered meanings in Sanskrit. His translations look like worksheets, columns of possible words all reaching your eye simultaneously. “The words placed beneath a word of the text denote principal images or thoughts evoked by the word … by associations of meaning, sound, or etymology,” he explains. “Words in parentheses denote a literal or strictly etymological translation … the words in brackets are not in the text but are implied.” As he recognizes, a translation can pack in levels of meaning, but other powers of poetry are lost: the singular weave of rhythm, bright image, and sound. [End Page...