Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Thursday, November 1, 2012

Notes on Recent Reading 13 [Mirabai, Wood, Trocchi]

Poems [Mirabai]

Mira is one of the great Rajasthani poets in the Vaishnava bhakti or devotional tradition called Sant, a lifelong lover of Krishna who was moved to dance before the image of her lord like the tumbler of our lady of whom Gautier de Coinci tells. Her poems provide yet another example of the courtly adaptation of love poetry for the service of the divine. No other figure in the numerous pantheon of Hinduism has attracted more such love than Krishna.

Reading Mira, I think of the altogether proper wife of an engineering professor I once knew who startled me at a festival when she and the other Indian ladies, a group of sophisticated women, physicians and intellectuals for the most part, danced in the role of the gopis. These ordinarily demure ladies moved their bodies with a sort of abandon that, holy or unholy, was striking indeed.

I read The Devotional Poems of Mirabai, translated by A. J. Alston. The interested reader will find related material in Archer’s book The Loves of Krishna, and examples of quite marvelous popular lyrics expressing similar sentiments in the renditions of the songs of the Bauls of Bengal by Denise Levertov (with Edward C. Dimock) or those of Deben Bhattacharya.

Heavenly Discourses [Charles Erskine Scott Wood]

Wood, most improbably, fought Chief Joseph in the 1870s and then recorded (or perhaps composed -- the degree to which it is an accurate transcription is unknown) the celebrated surrender speech. The men remained friends. Wood became an activist lawyer, defending labor unions and clients such as Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger.

These dialogues in heaven are fanciful polemics written with the Masses in mind. The cast includes God, a number of past worthies such as Christ, Confucius, and Voltaire, more recent exemplars such as Wood’s friend Mark Twain mixing it up with villains like censor Anthony Comstock, evangelist Billy Sunday, and a notably priggish St. Paul.
The mission of the Masses mingled fierce anti-war propaganda (which led to the publication’s two trials) with first-rate labor reportage, but its heart remained in bohemia. It was, after all, a Greenwich Village collective, and Woods’ tone is generally gay and even a bit supercilious. One gets the impression from Wood that the enemy is less a group of murderous and selfish plutocrats than a bunch of philistines who are simply silly.

Cain’s Book [Trocchi]

To the history of addicts’ literature that runs from De Quincey through Burroughs and on to the Velvet Underground, Trocchi adds a mid-sixties take in which Beckett, Godot, and Kafka lurk always about the margins. A belated prophet of the existential dilemma, Trocchi regards himself as an imposter in his own identity. (70) Seeking a mode of negotiating life in the mid-twentieth century, Trocchi reduces the formula of survival to its barest terms. In this book, heroin is a reasonable resort for the sensitive, and the details of addiction provide salient data about life in these bodies.

It’s almost quaint, now, the way that Manhattan generated this view of the junkie as hero to the applause of many who could never stomach a moment’s first-person experience of such lives. Though he recognizes all the selfish dodges of his associates, to Trocchi the addict has a kind of nobility. He goes on about the travails of addiction, suggesting that his is an unfairly put-upon class. He is the Romantic artist, putting himself at risk for the good of those lesser souls, his readers.

Heroin provides a dramatic yet tidy confession, offering little in the way of real self-revelation. But for Trocchi it is plenty. “For a long time now I have felt that writing which is not ostensibly self-conscious is in a vital way inauthentic for our time.” (59) His nausea (of the variety familiar from Sartre) stimulates his creativity: “I found dissent, sedition, personal risk. And there I learned to explore and modify my great contempt.” (220)

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