‘I want a kind of poetry that doesn’t bother either to praise or curse at parties or leaders, even systems, but that reveals how we are – inwardly as well as outwardly – under conditions of great imbalance and abuse of material power, How are our private negotiations and sensibilities swayed and bruised, how do we make love – in the most intimate and in the largest sense – how (in every sense) do we feel? How do we try to make sense?’
Adrienne Rich: Jacob and the Angel (2003) in ‘What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics.’
You know the way books fall into your hands? For months I search my bookshelves for something and then, suddenly, there it is – the ‘Purloined Letter’ manifest. Then again, idling, we pick up something that is exactly what we needed to read at that moment. This is what has happened between Adrienne Rich and me. I love her poetry, ‘Diving into the Wreck’ has been in my mind recently as I try to write ‘sea’ poems on the Poetry School course with Claire Trevien. I’ve been underwater and thrown on shore, picnicking and struggling both to go in and come out of the water. Then, I find this book of essays and poems is in my lap.
What I have been exercised about for a long time is how to contain experience and feeling in my writing that is maybe neither current nor the experience of many people. In the face of impotence politically and world-wide, what is there that I have known, seen, felt that might relate something to other people. Would it ‘make good poetry’? Clear and bright are the scenes, the people and the places that I am concerned about. The context has always been political/social but the manifestation has been intimate and experiential. Long words – what does it all mean. Back to Ralph MctTell’s parrot and ‘What’s it all about Ralphie?’ his parrot’s favourite saying.
So let me try and make a picture. I wake on a morning when snow has fallen on almond blossom. The sky is a hard blue and the white and pink are striking against the brightness.
I wake in a glass doored room, part of a ‘summer’ complex of rooms for teacher courses, visitors and so on. It’s cold. By the time the fried egg arrives it is congealed on the plate. I pack my bag and am ready to move.
The Land Rover arrives and we pile in – me, three youngish men who work for Aga Khan Education in this remote area of the Himalayas and a couple of young women teachers who are being taken back to their villages. We drive over the river on a recently constructed suspension bridge into ‘green lanes’, the tree lined green road into the Iskoman valley. We stop at the first village where there is a centre that is used by the officers and have a proper breakfast. The night before I had mentioned how much I liked fish and so someone had been up early and fished some trout from the river which were now served, crisp and brown, on a large plate into which we all dipped and ate. Sweet Himalayan tea was served too – and all this time we are sitting on the carpeted sunk floor, cushions against our backs. The tin stove is roaring away giving a circle of heat.
Our first stop is at the ‘opening’ of a newly constructed primary school. The children march in a long double crocodile from the old building to the new where we are greeted with marigold garlands, clapping, singing and dancing. This is Aga Kahn traditional celebration although only the men dance, but it is an exciting, twirling dervish kind of dance and the drums keep up the rhythm and the gradual increase in sound. The playground is full of parents and villagers – I am an object of curiosity to them in my salwar kameez, sandals and dupatta still looking very European and pale, although in this area of the mountains many of the girls, before the sun has tanned their skin to a dark, wrinkled brown, have rosy cheeks in pale faces – some of them with green or blue eyes. Traces of Alexander’s progress maybe, or just the mountain environment.
After this we cross the river on a swinging bridge that rattles alarmingly under the wheels of the Land Rover and wend a rocky way up between high stone walls into a small village. Here there is a school that has recently been set up for very young children. Their shoes, battered and dusty, are in a long row by the door and they sit on the durrih carpet crosslegged, their blue toes poking out from under them. They wear a rag tag of uniform – green jumpers and grey trousers or green skirts – the Aga Kahn uniform – but here passed through many classes of learners before arriving with these small children who are shrugged into tattered and oversized clothes. Some mothers are there holding small babies and the teacher is holding their attention with story and pictures. On the wall there are some drawings done by the children. They sing to us and clap hands and then perform a little play. It is lovely and charming, but it is also very, very cold and the mud floor is slimed with moisture and the tin roof rattles in the wind. Afterwards the elders, well bearded and pyjama-ed take us to see the classroom they are building for the next year when the little children will be ready to move up.
These children and these efforts are funded by the European Union which supported Aga Kahn Education for ten years. When I am in the offices of the faceless EU headquarters in Brussels, trying to explain to a smartly dressed and well made-up Italian woman, who has never known any kind of life like these children and village men and women experience daily, I find it hard to find the words. I want to persuade them that this is worthwhile, that the money is well spent, that the people are honest and honourable, that the men I travelled with live for a month at a time, at the end of the impassable valley in the winter, their water supply frozen and their family far away.
This maybe seems a long way from where I started; the dilemma of the poet who tries to encompass the world within the words and metaphors that show how it felt, where it does and doesn’t make sense. My privilege as a poet and a human being has been to travel to these remote places. It took us two hours to reach the tiny bungalow at the end of the Iskoman Valley where we stayed the night. The circle of mountains, snowy and lowering from their huge height, diminished everything. I knew what it was to be a human in an inhuman, remote landscape. During the day I had learned what it was to be a privileged human in a cold and inhospitable environment where shivering children were desperate to learn, where tiny pieces of paper and stumps of lead pencil were treasures, where adults looked on with wide eyes from their exhausting survival routines.
So now how to make sense of it all? I want to show those faces, share those warm smiles and grasped hands, to break the warm bread from the tin oven with those who don’t know these places – to show, like Adrienne Rich, how divided our societies are, how powerful are the rich, how destitute are the poor. To show that Muslims and Ishmaelis, Hindus and Buddhists, Christians and Animist tribals, are all the same under the skin. That it is within the meeting and heart offerings that we begin to understand – and perhaps that is where the imperative to write and make it clear, starts.