A Note on the Poetry of Joel David
Creating art is not a matter of expressing emotions alone. Once when an artist moves away from mere dabbling in art to a more serious pursuit of his (or her) calling, he finds himself under an obligation to answer questions related to his own self as an artist, his understanding of his creativity, his relation with the tradition within which he is working and a purpose of his artistic endeavours.
For an artist who is a Christian and who in many ways, thinks and creates in a counter-cultural mode, these questions assume a paramount importance. And since that artist is in the art world but not of that world, he (or she) is aware—or at times painfully so—that these questions must be answered after a deep searching—and perhaps alone.
One finds the coordinates—or guideposts—to that searching in Joel V. David’s collection of poetry The Bowl of Silence (Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1991), four poems from which follow this article.
As a poet, David’s interests are multifarious. However, in this article, we shall explore his approach to the four above-mentioned themes, namely, exploration of issues related to self, creativity, tradition and purpose.
In the very first poem of the collection, “The Bowl of Silence”, we see that the poet chooses not to focus on his individual self but addresses his fellow beings, including poets and artists. Creating of art is not for art’s sake alone. It calls for creating a new culture, which a single self cannot do, and hence the use of plural first-person pronoun “we” instead of “I” in the first three stanzas. The poet is seeking to discover—or uncover—a fresh and authentic voice. But this voice is not an individual’s voice but of a community:
Where is the bowl of silence now
The one we dipped into so often, and emerged
with a sudden face brought up, upturned and lit,
speaking new words, words spoken, spent and born again:
food and drink you know not of.
The poet, however, is aware of past experiences where people sought to construct a new culture on the basis of sheer numbers. It is also an indictment of movements that thought lofty visions of past masters and marauding armies of ancient and modern conquerors could create a better world. Collectivism is not enough.
We had once visions and thoughts of mighty conquest,
the bubble burst and we lie squandered all over our past:
the dust of the done and the debris of the undone;
smoked out day: true confessions of vain ambitions.
Where do we belong, we who long to be gone?
(“Prelude to Departure”)
And this perhaps is the reason that in the ending lines of the “Bowl of Silence”, the poet does begin to speak of the individual self: “Who comes? A gentle spirit longing for home, bringing/food and drink I know not of?”
These is not, however, a retreat into a self-containing cocoon, defeated by odds against a harmonious collective life. It is instructive to contrast it with a later poem “Worship”, where the poet states the possibility of individual selves can come together in unity of action and purpose.
Whose breath shall we turn to,
what spirit will brood over us to give life?
Something divine should stir in our breasts,
bestow liberty and claim us one in worship
The first three poems in the collection, which also appear in the same order here, can easily be read as meditations on creativity. The poet recognizes that his creative ability neither arises solely from within his own self nor is rooted in modern myths of conflicts and complexes. The expression of that ability is a response to the action—to the brooding over, the indwelling—of the “gentle spirit”:
What of our souls, when in the troubled midnight watch
something rises like mist, clings and softly curls?
Invisible, barely felt, the hand of someone touches me.
Who comes? A gentle spirit longing for home, bringing
food and drink I know not of?
(“Bowl of Silence”)
The indwelling of the spirit doesn’t mean that the poet is writing religious poetry; transcending the secular–sacred divide is basic motif of his art. The very treatment of even the “secular” subjects is a sacred action. Creativity is a lover’s response, so to speak, to the call of the beloved. If it were not in response to a sacred calling, the poet agrees that poetry would be a shadowy, insubstantial, affair. Conversely, the call of the divine is what turns the poet’s utterances into song. In the poem “The Song’s Making” we come across these convictions of the poet in the following lines:
The tide returning and the raise of your lips
search out the poet in me; shadows
cast themselves like faint echoes on the breeze
carrying in from far a strange harmony of sounds.
The raise of your lips, the tide’s returning
have made of sounds and shadows a song.
Poet is imagined not only as lover but also a mother giving birth, which would have been a cliché had not the poet also talked about the one expertly helping the delivery.
My doctor’s hands give shape to this emerging
my pain I have kept silent and calm
hidden as something new and naked
while something waits to be born.
This acknowledgment of the doctor is followed by what may be a personal poetic manifesto: “This is my art: to clean the mess of birth/deliver to you, my friend, a fresh pink body.”
Artists in each generation struggle to negotiate their position within the tradition they find themselves in. In David’s poetry one finds, like a refrain, references to a past—more of the imagination than reality—“when sages sang and learning was joy, truly light” (“Untitled”). The poet meditates on the best in the past. This is how “Conversations with India” begins:
Walking through such streets as these
one thinks of long-past and unfamiliar days,
one remembers the wandering mendicants
who sang of the lotus and quoted the Gita with ease.
In the longest poem in the collection, “A Sense of Real Things”, David lets past traditions and his individual creativity have a full and deep engagement. The claims of tradition upon the artist are not dismissed but allowed to settle in the poet’s mind and spirit.
The particular palaces of certain passions
shine forth, sparkling their age-old message:
songs that hum their way into my spirit,
inspiring queries, searching out sky,
and urge me on to wrestle out a meaning,
to make of common feelings a sense,
to wrap it in sound and give utterance.
The relationship with the past and tradition is not simple. The Indian, largely Hindu, past does shape the poet’s sense of aesthetics and beauty, but so do his own convictions as a Christian, which at times, run counter to the concerns of classical elements in the tradition. The glory of the ancient past remains a fascination and even a source of creative expressions; for instance, the beloved can be likened only to Radha (see the poem “Kalpana”) but there is also an awareness of decay and destructiveness undercutting that glory.
Our land in the wake of Time galloping
is such grey as only dry, dead earth can bestow.
There is more blood in the land than water
and such sickness as only thick blood,
sluggishly flowing, can bring about.
This uneasy equation constrains—or inspire—the poet to attempt to speak “new words” and break away from “crafted lives” and “manufactured ideals” (“Bowl of Silence”); and, to proclaim that “Love’s fruit, the branches of our vine/ need a fresh new fire…” (“My Heart”).
From the ruins of the past glory, the poet is indeed able to make a few songs, the pieces can indeed be brought together to effect an aesthetic configuration, but if they have to have a moral—that is, beyond aesthetic—relevance, the poet must turn his attention to “other things”
I jigsawed a song or two, sat content awhile,
then turned to sing of other things.
“A Sense of Real Things”
Creating art is a deep and multi-dimensional engagement with one’s time and space. It often operates between contrasting pulls of, to borrow a phrase from Eliot, “tradition and individual talent”. Our habits of thought and our cultivation of moral sensibilities lend meaning and purpose to our art. In his poetry, David too navigates his way to find the purpose of his art. The form that future poetry will take is not determined only by the images of the past but by the “ground realities” of the present.
The poet says it thus: “…this earth’s dust/ the grain of our being, that hurts and heals, is my song” (“A Sense of Real Things”). There is something imminent and eternal about “earth’s dust” that it fascinates the poet even more than the ancient glories. Our origin and interim destination literally lies in the dust! But dust is also a metaphor for creation waiting to be redeemed; it is also an image of toiling humanity,
We shall sing of this land’s thorny dust,
of storms that blew us over and of rain:
simple songs of lives lived, lives burnt out.
(“A Sense of Real things”)
It is on dusty streets of India, that the poet finds his true vocation, the sure purpose of his art—to open himself up to the suffering and toils of his fellow country man, to use his creative gift so articulate “dard-i-qaum”, the deep, lingering sorrow of the people. Poetry thus becomes a vocation that integrates poet’s creativity and spirituality with the service to the nation:
On such days India spoke a warm
tongue, accorded me welcome as to a friend,
bid me unfurl my prejudices, and lend
my pen a witness to the “dard-i-qaum”
(“Conversations with India”)
– Ashish Alexander
Ashish Alexander, Ph.D., taught in colleges in Chandigarh and Panjab University, while he also freelanced as a journalist and dabbled in theatre and poetry. He then worked as an editor in an international publishing company and from there moved on to edit a magazine. Presently, he is an independent scholar and works closely with his church in Chandigarh. Ashish and his journalist wife Pooja have two children.