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On Makeshift Bedding

From: Manoa
Volume 25, Issue 2, 2013
pp. 24-25 | 10.1353/man.2013.0062

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The sixteen Deccani miniature paintings featured in this volume come from an album of ragmala—visual representations of male and female musical modes or melodies. Now in a brown goatskin binding, the album, or codex, was formerly in an accordion format. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore [w.669].

India’s Sanskrit poetry arose as a classical tradition in about the fourth century and continued into the twelfth, often subsidized at the courts of princes or warlords, or finding haven in huge Buddhist universities. Its main theme was erotic love. Bright as an Autumn Moon is a collection of poems from that full time span. Some have been recognized as superb Sanskrit lyrics for centuries, both within and outside India. Others are less celebrated perhaps, but each holds something to treasure. Every time I’ve translated one, and found what I thought a lovely match between languages, an impersonal thrill has raced through my blood. But there are not many people I can share that thrill with. Not at its deepest level, the level that goes back into the original language, takes stock of the words, the sounds, the cadences themselves, the simple astounding effect of these minute elements in combination.

The American scholars who write about Sanskrit poetry focus largely on cultural issues: linguistics, power dynamics, the role of women in Old India, erotic practices, history, caste, religion. These subjects—or rather these forces—ripple through every poem, sometimes close to the surface, sometimes hidden beneath. But poems also exceed these things. A poem carries more than its “meaning.” This “more” includes musical values, images that raise bright scenes to our inner vision, ideas that occur inside the emotions. Because of this, poems slip free from explanation, and probably the fascination or bewilderment readers feel in their presence comes from how they illuminate cultural forces but always manage to escape paraphrase. This is what makes translation tricky. You cannot simply isolate a meaning, transfer it into another language, and pass it off as a good poem.

I believe every language has its own genius. Yes, there exist aspects of the poem that the translator wistfully has to leave behind in the original language, especially sound values. But every language you translate into will possess its own, equally subtle characteristics, some quality that a translator can find to devise an echo, a parallel effect. If I read Walter Benjamin correctly, he seems to say that translation is what makes a poem enter the deep stream of world consciousness.

There are mysteries of poetic craft. There is the magic of language (something to which Old India proved exceptionally alert). And there are poems where multiple ideas occur at the same time, even confounding or contradicting [End Page ix] one another. Influenced by Tantric practices of coding language—to conceal meaning, to devise secrets for initiates, or to produce a subliminal or subconscious effect—the Sanskrit poets called these possibilities sandhyā-bhāṣā, or twilight speech. Modes of expression based on ambiguity, homology, dual meanings; linguistic events that get under your skin.

Linguist and South Asia scholar Murray B. Emeneau says,

It is noteworthy and perhaps to be interpreted as a general tendency in Hindu culture to raise certain aspects of the subliminal to consciousness, that Hinduism in general and the Tantric sects in particular make extensive use in ritual and religious practice … of intrinsically meaningless vocables. For example, the famous om and hum and the not so famous hrim, hrām, phat, and many others.

This practice—using the power of seed sounds for psycho-spiritual effect—pervades poetry as well. The poets make use of two distinct levels at once: the meaning of the words, and the subliminal psychic discharge from “meaningless vocables” that underlie the words. Handbooks and grimoires of the period laid out for poets the way particular sounds evoke precise emotions.

The Sanskrit kavi, the poet, had a name for that which exceeds culture and politics and religion: rasa. Rasa is poetic power.

Anselm Hollo used to say translation is the closest reading you can give a poem. In his way of thinking, this book would then be a toolkit for close reading. Every year a group of dedicated...

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