Essay: At Home or Nowhere

Vidyan Ravinthiran on A.K. Ramanujan

   What we seek, we must find at home or nowhere. – William Hazlitt

Attipat Krishnaswami Ramanujan was born ninety years ago in Mysore – 1929 – and moved to the US three decades on, in 1959. He was, in Jahan Ramazani’s parlance, a transnational scholar-poet, whose verse and criticism (on the folklore of India, and classical literature in Kannada, Tamil and Sanskrit) was plurally informed and enriched; and so both of these anniversaries deserve to be celebrated. (I wrote this essay’s first draft out of impatience, at the failure of any such commemorative publication to appear, but I should now mention that Journeys: A Poet’s Diary, one of whose editors is the poet’s son Krishna Ramanujan, is recently out from Hamish Hamilton, and includes in its previously unpublished work verse, fiction and correspondence.) Ramanujan joked of being the hyphen in ‘Indo-American’ – belonging, then, to two countries, and also to neither. Wendy Doniger, his colleague at the University of Chicago, explains:

His sadness was that while he was in India, he missed America, and in America, he missed India. He was never really complete in any one place, but that also is why he was so wonderful.

He always was on the side of the angels when it came to human values, never ‘politically correct’ but he had a feeling for the underdog, for people of color, for women, for the poor, and he didn’t have to work at it. There was always a lot of heart in it – he was sharp as a tack and very critical, an interesting combination – he didn’t just love everything but he loved the right things.

We find this “sadness” in Ramanujan’s most-anthologised poem, ‘Self-Portrait’, a brief masterpiece:

I resemble everyone
but myself, and sometimes see
in shop-windows
                    despite the well-known laws
                    of optics,
the portrait of a stranger,
date unknown,
often signed in a corner
by my father.

It’s one of the best first lines, and line-breaks, in twentieth-century verse. Keats praised the “camelion poet”, who “has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body”; this poem’s speaker isn’t so transparently empowered. Trying to fit in, the immigrant may forget who he really is. Subject to other “laws” than those of optics, and commerce-surrounded (those “shop-windows” slant-rhyme with “laws”, to spotlight both line-endings), where he should contemplate his reflection, he discovers only “the portrait of a stranger”.

Another Indian poet, Dom Moraes, performs an equivalent trick, calling his autobiography My Son’s Father; probing the Oedipus myth, Ramanujan explains that in Indian lore, the son rarely kills the father, and the pressure is to deny one’s instinct towards independence from one’s family (where, in the West, or some of it, we might, contrarily, seek to deny our dependence on others). He published a sequence of ‘Images’, which aren’t strictly ‘imagist’; they’ve family in them, and, rather than iconic instantaneousness, the leavings (pun intended) of a muddled inheritance:

Farewell
 
Mother’s farewell had no words,
no tears, only a long look
that moved on your body
from top to toe
 
with the advice that you should
not forget your oil bath
every tuesday
when you go to America

 

Tooth
 
The large tooth in my left jaw
aches: it’s mother again
complaining of the large tooth
in her left jaw
the week before she died

The second poem sullies the idea of reincarnation: “mother” returns as a physical sensation only, though Ramanujan’s line-breaks pressurise the sound running through “ache”, “again” and “complaining”, as if trying to extract from pain an actual presence. (As Simone Weil says of grief, “the presence of the dead person is imaginary, but his absence is very real: henceforward it is his way of appearing.”) Memory, as we’ll see, is central to Ramanujan’s poetics (“amnesia is a curse”, he says, “a form of alienation from one’s self, for one’s self is largely constituted by memory”) and vital to the first poem too, which relates not a farewell but – look closely – the lack of one. “Mother” says nothing, concerning the departure for “America” (which gets a capital letter, unlike “tuesday”, or, indeed, “mother”); her “look” silently tattoos her child with obligations.

If the speaker, or speakers, of Ramanujan’s poems feel they’re the creation of their parents – who transmit a pre-existing milieu, a politics, literature, and a broader history impermissive of newness – we must grasp the nuances. In ‘Self-Portrait’, the ingenious, poem-defining words are “sometimes” and “often”. When we qualify ourselves, it may be through lack of confidence, but since the poem is so laser-exact, this can’t be the case for its speaker – he details an experience which (rather than defining him) comes and goes. So there’s time, and space, for him to be someone else, to explore other possibilities: a view of the immigrant, and by extension anyone, is advanced in which instability, and ability, are one and the same thing. “Identify yourself”, says the lawman, and we’re encouraged, by the spirit of the age, to market ourselves through categorisation (consider those “shop-windows” again), as cleaving to a particular community; to have opinions, and become identical with them. It isn’t only on the internet that we praise or damn people based on their claims about the world, and themselves; what would it mean to think otherwise? For “opinions”, says Ramanujan – in another interview – are

only a small expression of one’s attitudes. They are an uncertain, often rigid expression. One is more, and often less, than one’s opinions. And they don’t often match other things in oneself. So please read them as gestures.

As this suggests, Ramanujan – though we may wish to praise him for being the poet of race, nationhood, identity, gender, for whom we have been waiting – prefers to topple, quietly, our beloved presumptions. The “sadness” Doniger cites, and which eventuates in ‘Self-Portrait’, could be construed – unfixed in time and place, the immigrant goes on their nerve – as a style of real, if comfortless, freedom. Ramanujan disdained the notional “exile” that is often imposed, as a guarantee of pathos, and significance, and a critical template, on the writers we call (at risk of walling readers out) postcolonial. “I have come to this country voluntarily”, he explained – in a 1989 interview with A.L. Becker and Keith Taylor –

I don’t even call myself an expatriate, because I’ve done a lot of work on India […] more comfortably here than I could even have done it in India. For instance, in the Chicago Regenstein Library, there are books on Kannada and Tamil which probably only I will read.

It was at Chicago that Ramanujan rediscovered – that may be too large a word – the classical literatures of India; he recognised that “the English language, English-educated Indians […] and English people are important forces in the rediscovery of the Indian past.” Attentive, as Doniger explains, to injustice, he refused a Manichean view – Empire bad, pure indigenousness good – favouring, alternatively, the impure hybridity of (it’s Wordsworth) “the very world, which is the world / Of all of us, – the place where, in the end, / we find our happiness, or not at all!”

Ramanujan’s unearthing of seemingly lost literatures is enlivened by his quirk of relating the close-at-hand to the far-off, in often nonplussing ways, as when, mooting the blend in classical Tamil verse of “the vivid particulars of bird, beast, insect, drum-beat and falling water” with a “highly formal scheme of idealised landscapes”, he says these works “seem to anticipate Marianne Moore who suggested that poets ought to be “literalists of the imagination” and that poems ought to be ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them’”. This isn’t a naive flattening of dissimilarities – the comparison is truly, bidirectionally, illuminating. It arises out of his own creativeness, for as Arvind Krishna Mehrotra notes,

if the ancient Tamils are among Miss Moore’s Borgesian precursors, Ramanujan is among those who learnt from her example: his five-toed lizards, salamanders, quartz clocks, and poem titles that double also as first lines can be traced to her.

Ramanujan was forthright about his Anglo-American influencers: “that’s part of my expressive means. I’ve read Pound, and I’ve read Indian things. I think with them. Why shouldn’t I use what I have?” The Ezra Pound reference appears in ‘The Striders’, the title-poem of Ramanujan’s 1966 debut, named for the New England water insect:

No, not only prophets
walk on water. This bug sits
on a landslide of lights
and drowns eye-
deep
into its tiny strip
of sky.

The bug – Ramanujan enjoys that US word, its monosyllabic grunt – walks on water like Jesus, yet is fragilely self-enclosed in its own “tiny” region. The poem’s rhymes mime its conscientiousness of movement, evoking both Coleridge, who compares “the mind’s self-experience in the act of thinking” to a water-insect working “by alternative pulses of active and passive motion”, and Yeats, glorying in the thoughts of the great acting “upon silence” as does “a long-legged fly upon the stream” (these l sounds pass into Ramanujan’s “landslide of lights”).

It’s with Pound’s arrival in the poem – ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’ evokes the soldiers of World War I walking “eye-deep in hell / believing in old men’s lies” – that Ramanujan shifts to seeing the insect as, it would appear, drowning. Like the speaker, or addressee, of ‘Chicago Zen’:

Watch your step. Sight may strike you
blind in unexpected places.

The traffic light turns orange
on 57th and Dorchester, and you stumble,

you fall into a vision of forest fires,
enter a frothing Himalayan river,

rapid, silent.

                         On the 14th floor,
Lake Michigan crawls and crawls

in the window. Your thumbnail
cracks a lobster louse on the windowpane

from your daughter’s hair
and you drown, eyes open,

towards the Indies, the antipodes.
And you, always so perfectly sane.

Published in Second Sight, in 1986, this poem deepens the vision-trope (in both senses, seeing and imagining) of ‘The Striders’; movement, or its defeat (the “stumble”) returns; the ripples of Lake Michigan morph eerily into another insect. Its squashing is one of those tiny, eddying actions which neuroscientists explain may activate prior to our deciding, consciously, to enact them. The daughter shouldn’t be ignored (family plunges Ramanujan once again into the past), nor the pronoun-stratagem, where the speaker reprimands himself, but in doing so brings in the reader (as in, I see now, ‘Farewell’). Poets of counter-publics may be drawn to the “indeterminate potential”, in Jonathan Culler’s phrase, of boat-rockingly porous pronouns – one thinks of Claudia Rankine’s use of the second-person in her prose poems, or lyrical essays, on the aggressions faced by African Americans; or another gifted Indian poet, Arun Kolatkar, toying with that pronoun in Jejuri.

‘Middle Age’ also depicts an alarmingly at-once transit between nations: “Vietnam eyes my children in the sandbox / […] while Biafra gives me // potbellied babies with copper-red / hungry hair”. But while that poem objects to the denial by the US bourgeois of suffering overseas, the associativeness of ‘Chicago Zen’ – despite the title – appears rampant. Its speaker bounces like a trauma-survivor between past and present; like, in fact, a veteran of Vietnam, shell-shocked and given to flashbacks. Yet the flip is also between continents, a compelled and compulsive migration of the mind. Ramanujan would have sympathised with Elizabeth Bishop, transplanted from Canada, to the US, to South America: “It is funny to come to Brazil to experience total recall about Nova Scotia – geography must be more mysterious than we realize, even.” He resembles a chaos theorist, concerned that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil may provoke a tornado in Texas:

Mother brings me tea again at 6 a.m.
before she dies in another time zone
and the calendar
 
whirls me out into snow flurries
and fears of market crash
in another hemisphere

If Ramanujan’s concatenations suggest emotional chaos – a chilli-spiced confessionalism – this may be due to our unfamiliarity with the classics he studied and translated, and which shaped him. In Tamil verse, “a kind of syntactic suspense”, he explains, can be crucial (“lines are not end-stopped”) and, in puṟam poems, “images rush and tumble over one another”. These are “poems about good and evil, action, community, kingdom; it is the ‘public’ poetry of the ancient Tamils”, contrasted with akam, or “love poems […] about experience, not action”, and featuring “idealised types, such as chieftains representing clans and classes, rather than historical persons”. It is for his translations, collected in Speaking of Śiva, The Interior Landscape, and Hymns for the Drowning, that Ramanujan remains best known:

Will he not really think of us
when he passes the clumps of milk-hedge
with their fragrant trunks
and hears the redlegged lizard call
to his mate
in cluckings that sound like
the highway robber’s fingernail
testing the point of his iron arrow,
will he not really think of us, friend?

This poem from Kuṟuntokai, an anthology “from the first three centuries AD”, is erotically suggestive throughout. The syntax, bookended by near-identical lines, is fizzy with the speaker’s excitement (which she ascribes to her beau) but there is, too, a virtuosity, an originality coextensive with tradition, and a fulfilment of archetypes, to the succession of details which are actually metaphors. There’s a stylishly unflummoxed haste, a savouring of each desire-displacement. Ramanujan translates classical Tamil unfloridly: he admires these poems for being anti-Romantic, spare, controlled, and conventional (in the best, art-deepening sense). We see, hear, the touches of the translator – heedful of what’s possible in English, which quiddities can be translinguistically retained – in the unlovely word-choices, “clumps”, and “clucking”, which make for a guttural soundscape.

Ramanujan translated many lyrics in a woman’s voice, and his thinking about gender emerges in both his verse and scholarship. In ‘Men, Women and Saints’, he considers, anthropologically, the post-Freudian notion that “each sex envies the other”:

The conversion and other experiences of the saints often parallel initiatory and other rituals – transvestism, role-reversals, humiliation, nakedness (in both male and female saints), assimilation to ghosts, being made or called crazy till one’s normal intelligence and everyday orientation is transmuted […]. Not only do saints like St John of the Cross, Vidyāpati and Nammālvār go transvestite in poetry, as the paṇḍās of the Puri temple do actually, and write passionate poems from the vantage point of gopīs in love with Kṛṣṇa, suffering and enjoying ‘symbolic wounds’ like the African initiates – in classical Tamil, three-fourths of the dramatic love poems by male poets are put in the mouths of women.

This taking on of a woman’s persona by male poets and saints has, thus, multiple meanings: to become bisexual, whole and androgynous like the gods themselves (Puruṣa, Śiva and Viṣṇu); in a male-dominated society, it serves also to abase and reverse oneself, rid oneself of machismo, to enter a liminal confusion, become open and receptive as a woman to god; and it is possibly also a poetic expression of the male envy and admiration of women.

We may quibble – trans people in mind – with the psychoanalytic language of “envy”, and of a male annexing of the female, but we glimpse through the screen of Ramanujan’s formidable erudition his own concerns. He revisits the idea, adding in ‘Who Needs Folklore’ that “oral and written forms in a culture often wish to be like each other, like the two sexes, male and female […]. Yet each defines and marries the other”. ‘Love Poem for a Wife and Her Trees’ is vivid in its ambivalence, a lyric of devotion that gets embattled, complains, almost whines, before recovering its goodwill towards a “foreign body / with a mind // that knows what I’ll never know”, and its recognition of the role-playing common to marriage:

Yet I know you’ll play at Jewish mama,
sob-sister, daughter who needs help
with arithmetic,

even the sexpot nextdoor, topless
tree spirit on a temple frieze,
or plain Indian wife

at the village well, so I can play son,
father, brother, macho lover, gaping
tourist, and clumsy husband.

This bravely grants the intrusion of culture into even our sexual lives, and their power-dynamics; deep within our desire to see, and touch, the very essence of the person we love most (in this most basic, cardinal, rendezvous of self and other) there may lurk a contrary longing to dress them up as ghosts from the past, and have them talk or act according to scripts our desires can’t do without. These facts configure even one half of an intimate conversation with one’s wife, where the startling line-break pinpointing that “gaping / tourist” – a divided self, both Indian and not, lusting, absurdly, after sculpture – cuts deep.

The desire in Ramanujan, to cross over to the woman’s side, and play her role or roles, unfolds more wholly, shockingly even, in ‘Highway Stripper’. It’s a US road poem, in which the speaker “on a highway / to Mexico” sees the driver in front (“a woman’s hand”) chuck out of the window items of clothing: a “white shoe fit / to be a fetish”, a skirt, slip, blouse, bra and underwear. He speeds up, wanting a better view, and I wonder if the poem develops out of Nabokov’s Lolita, which has in it a road-trip, as Humbert hauls his victim from state to state, and also a prose-diorama of grisly self-pleasure, and post-orgasmic self-loathing, after he loses her:

I would be misled by a jewel-bright window opposite wherein my lurking eye […] would make out from afar a half-naked nymphet stilled in the act of combing her Alice-in-Wonderland hair. There was in the fiery phantasm a perfection which made my wild delight also perfect, just because the vision was out of reach, with no possibility of attainment to spoil it […]. I would crowd all the demons of my desire against the railing of a throbbing balcony: it would be ready to take off in the apricot and black humid evening; did take off – whereupon the lighted image would move and Eve would revert to a rib, and there would be nothing in the window but an obese partly clad man reading the newspaper.

Humbert’s solipsistic fantasy (inspired, no doubt, by Leopold Bloom’s in Ulysses) reveals a man primally allured by his own imaginative intrigues, who flees reality into the unreal embrace of a woman (or, gallingly, a child) he less perceives than creates. As the illusion ends, and Eve reverts “to a rib” – how marvellously this evokes the ectoplasmic fabrication of a sex-partner out of nothing, of an objectified woman out of the fevered male brain! – the man in the window may as well be his own reflection. Ramanujan’s speaker, in “that glimpse and after- / image in this hell / of voyeurs”, finds at the wheel of the car in front, a Mustang, only “a man, / about forty, // a spectacled profile”, listening to sports on the radio; he overtakes, stares back, but still there remains “only a man”:

had he stripped
not only hat
and blouse, shoes
and panties
and bra,
had he shed maybe
even the woman
he was wearing,

or was it me
moulting, shedding
vestiges,
old investments,
rushing forever
towards a perfect
coupling
with naked nothing
in a world
without places?

The short, enjambed lines become horribly one-way: the speaker hurtles down the road, unsure who he is and what he’s doing. Nabokov harks back to the Bible, and the production of Eve out of Adam’s rib; neither appear directly in Ramanujan’s poem, but his “perfect / coupling / with naked nothing” could read as a death-wish; the desire, akin to that of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, to fly by the nets of nationality, language, religion; or an Edenic longing. Certainly, a snake slithers through the poem – not Satan but the speaker himself – shedding its skin.

Ramanujan raises the stakes: we move from sex-fantasy into metaphysics, a poetics of world-crossing which melts down, finally, all solids into a fluxional plasm. Playing on words, he compares composing (a poem) to decomposing, worrying the idea in several poems – “I lose, decompose / into my elements, // into other names and forms” – including ‘Oranges’:

Oranges on the refrigerator
are covered with the ash of living
mould that would look like a sci-fi
undersea forest through a microscope.

[…]
 
Bacteria thrive in the kissing mouth,
the dying brain. Just wait,
 
you too will live again.

The break which simultaneously, or after the delicatest pause, both severs and sutures “living” and “mould” – linked with ash, a holy substance for Hindus, as well as incinerated corpse-residue – makes Ramanujan’s point succinctly. At the close of the poem there reappears that plaintive assonance from ‘Tooth’ – “brain”, “wait”, “again” – ending it with, for a punchline, another bathetic reincarnation.

Introducing Ramanujan’s poems, Vinay Dharwadker observes that “when composition cannot be separated from decomposition, the self can possess a stable ‘centre’ or a principle of self-determined identity only in an ironic sense”. I’ve mentioned the syntax Ramanujan takes from classical verse; he also mentions stories in Indian folklore that are “performative”, meaning that to recite one can be a drama-producing action within an epic, an act of healing or self-healing – summarising, with habitual wordplay, the legend of an old woman who “tells her stories, her family secrets, only to lighten herself, not to enlighten anyone”. In ‘Chicago Zen’, and poems like it, we might see a trope-swollen cascade as catharsis; an homage to classical poetics; or – combining these ideas – poetic form placed in the service of memory, and therefore salvific. The strength of irony wavers, and with it the balance between onrushing feeling and an effort towards self-possession. “Anxiety”, writes Ramanujan – the name of a poem, and its presiding anti-metaphor – has “loose ends / with a knot at the top / that’s me”; it’s an especially deft and brilliant, because device-undoing, list-lyric:

Flames have only lungs. Water is all eyes.
The earth has bone for muscle. And the air
is a flock of invisible pigeons.
                                                                                     But anxiety
can find no metaphor to end it.

“Anxiety” is a medicalised condition; a philosophical concept; and – I’m tempted to say, affixing the postcolonial template – it may express in this poem, and others like it, a corrosive rootlessness: the world-traveller’s unforgettable recognition that all values are relative, that any structure of feeling or belief can only be provisional, and liable to contradiction at whatever moment.

It could be those unfastened to any one locale simply can’t live an unexamined, doubt-free life; yet Ramanujan doesn’t construe this as purely a grievance. My wife and I are moving to the US, and I was struck by how, though the news saddened all our parents, mine – Sri Lankan Tamils, who came to England over forty years ago – were more sanguine. “It’s different for us,” my mother said, “because we are immigrants”; a remark that cuts both ways, for she didn’t mean only that immigrants suffer, that home’s indistinct to them, but also that (we’re talking about a middle-class here, not refugees) the nation-crossing gambits of global modernity may suit them better. I’ve realised, that is, that people like me, and my family (and, I’m arguing, Ramanujan) may be – despite their travails – luckily free of stenoses afflicting those who feel locked in place. His magisterial genius reminds those of us who, of whatever background, sense in some ingrained way that we don’t belong, that to feel uprooted, precarious, a skater over the world’s deep surfaces, is also to be vouchsafed a glorious doorway to the resources, the unwitherable dream, of world-culture.

Vidyan Ravinthiran’s most recent book, The Million-petalled Flower of Being Here (Bloodaxe, 2019), is shortlisted for the Forward Prize. This essay was first published in The Poetry Review, 109:2, Summer 2019. © The Poetry Review and the author.