On Three Poems Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal

Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal discusses her three poems featured in Issue Eleven of The Lonely Crowd.

While living in Dublin during the year of 2017, I relocated to Antwerp, Belgium for the summer to work on the archives of Samuel Beckett at the University of Antwerp. That summer often felt like wearing the shoes that didn’t quite fit properly. That summer, my brain was constantly blanketed by an eerie haze of sorts—something that hadn’t happened to me in the same manner before. This feeling largely derived itself from an overwhelming sense of living in a new city, a new country where I didn’t speak their language; and the mountain of work that I was supposed to grapple with during that summer which included finishing my MPhil thesis, only added to it. What I missed the most about Dublin during those months was going on an afternoon stroll to the various bookstores around my university campus and spending hours getting lost in the different worlds that these books offered. One day, after having spent enough weeks in Antwerp, I asked my Belgian colleague if there was any bookstore in the city where I could find newly released books in English. I’d some catching up to do. To my surprise, he had a place to tell me about. When I went there the same evening, it felt like walking in an Ikea-like store which had the sterile extravagance of a physical Amazon store. While I struggled to romanticise the futile nature of a store with such setting, to my own surprise, I was finally able to buy the new Ali Smith novel there—the first in her seasonal trilogy, called Autumn. That evening, I went to the café I frequented the most those days. It was called Normo and was located just off the tram track laid symmetrically over the cobblestoned alley. I asked the barista to make me the strongest coffee he could, the kind that would not let me sleep that night. He was by then used to me interrogating him in English about what was what on their extraordinary coffee menu that was in Dutch, and he usually wore his answers on his sleeve. I often trusted him with his sly recommendations. He served me a nitro cold brew which kept me going beyond my usual bedtime to venture into the post-Brexit Britain of Smith’s Autumn which is a story about Elisabeth Demand visiting her extremely elderly friend Mr Gluck in a care home. The novel is about art and literature, to say the least; it’s about the stories Elisabeth and Mr Gluck read and the stories they make up together. It’s about the impact that communicating about art (e.g. Pauline Boty) and literature (e.g. Keats) can do to us while we live through a nation bereft of all hope, eschewed by the barbed wire marking a border on no man’s land.

As an Indian living in Europe, it is hard for me to trace any conversations taking place here about South Asian events—political or social. But it was almost as if a demon had entered this part of the world, this demon called Brexit and suddenly there were a lot of conversations about ‘borders’ in general. This was when for the first time since I’d moved here, I saw popular media in Europe talking about the line (The Radcliffe Line) that architect Cyril Radcliffe on the demands of the British Empire drew between Amritsar (now in India) and Lahore (now in Pakistan). People, including political experts, were keen to chalk out their own prophecies—God forbid, will there be a real border like that between mainland Ireland and Northern Ireland now? The concept of ‘no man’s land’ in my poem ‘Meet me in the morning on no man’s land’, and my other work often is an accumulation of all these anxieties. I got very interested in this idea of ‘what lies in between things/borders’. Edward Said, talking of this no man’s land and exile in his essay ‘The Mind of Winter’ wrote that “the difficulty in describing this no man’s land is that nationalisms are about groups, whereas exile is about the absence of an organic group situated in a native place”. It’s this exile that I see unsuitably placed in the no man’s land. The poem explores its territory, constantly providing it with its features and taking them away quickly like the jigsaw puzzles that didn’t really fit properly. The former part of the title ‘Meet me in the morning’ is borrowed partially from the 1975 Bob Dylan song of the same name and partly from the café on Pleasants Street in Dublin 8 which I’ve frequented for many years now, probably where I first drafted this poem. The right-hand-side alignment of the text providing room to the no man’s land of the poem.

Edward Said quotes Hugo of St. Victor in the same essay, who was a twelfth-century monk from Saxony, calling these lines “hauntingly beautiful”, “The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land”. My attempt at introducing some foreign words in my next poem in the magazine, ‘Bell-bottomed lovers among the hippies and the Himalayas’, is equivalent to my own journey in which I’ve been that tender beginner and the one who is already strong. However, introducing words from another language, in this case, Sanskrit (bhajan, bhang) and Urdu (guftagu), is seen by me as an attempt to try to be that perfect one whom Hugo claims is the one who sees the entire world as a foreign land. Introducing languages that are foreign but should’ve been native into a poem in an almost native language that should’ve been at least slightly foreign and vice-versa, turns the entire landscape of the poem a bit foreign for everyone, including myself. A series of obscure Himalayan villages (“Bhangrotu? Chini Bunglow? Hatu? Pahra?”) listed in the poem is another attempt at establishing this foreignness. Is this foreignness pliable and temporary? Can foreignness be uncoupled from language in this hybrid nature of the poem? I was seeking an answer to both these questions while writing this poem. I still am seeking them.

‘Bell-bottomed lovers among the hippies and the Himalayas’ takes its title directly from a line in Jeet Thayil’s most recent novel The Book of Chocolate Saints. It has little or nothing to do what this phrase is doing in the novel. However, as soon as I read it, it struck my mind like a mantra I couldn’t stop chanting. Perhaps I’d too much to say about ‘bell-bottomed lovers’, ‘the hippies’, and ‘the Himalayas’ and I couldn’t put off the thought about the effect all three of them could generate together. The numbered litany of a form in which this poem is written is scrappy in spirit. The form has nothing meticulous about it. The tradition is most millennial poets’ (or speaking for myself at least) pseudo-modern guilt and thus the poem seeks to establish a narrative that’s tender yet not exhausted. I learnt last week that there’s an expression in Urdu for the evening spent in the city of the beloved. It’s called sham-e-shehr-e-yaaran. Maybe in another life, this poem will be called sham-e-shehr-e-yaaran because that’s what it is but for now the bhajans, the bhang, the bell-bottomed lovers and the hippies in the Himalayas will do. It matters what we call a poem.

Whenever I’m trying to condense a very specific moment in any of the poems I’m writing, I find myself trying to do something with the words, rhythm and line-breaks for the reader that an oil painting from the 18th century must be doing to the person who’s seeing it. ‘A domestic scene from the winter of 2016’ is one such poem. Capturing happiness must be harder but I don’t find capturing sadness any easier. The title is as direct as it can be—something that has been pointed against me in many creative writing workshops. But I feel that this directness is often essential in the way we choose to name our poems that offer no other means of directness in the manner they speak to us. “It matters what you call a thing”, said Solmaz Sharif in the opening life of her stellar book Look. It indeed matters what we call a thing. It matters what we call a poem. In ‘A domestic scene from the winter of 2016’, we have two lovers, the one who’s waiting for another who certainly isn’t going to show up because of the bitterness that slithers in their lives, their mouths (no better metaphor for bitterness than coffee, right?)

Listen to Supriya read the three poems discussed below.

Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal is currently working on a sequence of poems about displacement, art and architecture.