A Tender and Lonely Consoling

Bengal the Beautiful, Jibanananda Das
translated by Joe Winter
[80pp, 8.95, $15.95, paperback, Anvil Press]

It is a cliche that a poem in translation is always another poem. Another is that something is lost in translation: the music of the original; the poem's removal from a cultural background; shared fields of reference. Further, it is held that direct translation is not possible because of the mechanics of syntax or stress, as well as the possible cultural forms used. Good translations keep these deficits to a minimal. However, this notion of a 'good' translation is loaded. It is possible to agree to these criticisms, but refuse the definition of what counts as 'good'. More rewarding is to look for other gauges of excellence than linguistic competence.

A translated poem is a new work, the question is, is it good? Joe Winter's translation exudes quality. For all that may be lost, something new addresses the deficit. A vivid, beautiful poetry refreshes English letters.  

Beautiful? No apology for valorising this virtue. If you want the latest slick, street rant or 'wannabe' rapper, this book is not for you. For those interested in form, in carefully constructed  poems that marry technique to expression, look no further.

The collection comprises sixty-two sonnets, Petrachian rather than Shakespearian in their form; the octave being 'abbaabba' with elaborate variation to be found in the sestet. What is novel is that each sonnet is contained within a sentence. Liberal use of semi-colons, dashes and leader dots carries the semantic enjambment. A consequence is that the volta rarely marks a different direction or strong contrast between parts, begging the question, why is the volta so clearly set on the page; a line-space breaking lines that are syntactically and thematically tied?

Yet, the spacing works. It pauses and slows the internal movement of the poem, giving emphasis by disruption to the poet's vision. And these are very much visions of an invoked place: rural and specific to the poet that is doubly the beloved. The hiatus allows the scene to linger, to form, before a final movement of mood and emotion.

The one sentence, one vision, one summation of love, of place, of time could unravel to impressionistic rambling in less skilful hands. What safeguards integrity is not only well-chosen end rhyme schemes, but the robust use of other poetic techniques, in particular lines heavy with alliteration. The first poem is worth repeating in full; it prepares the reader for the variety of poetical devices in play throughout the collection: -


     You all go where you like - I shall stay here beside
     this Bengal bank - I'll see jackfruit-leaves losing hold
     at dawn, and at dusk a shalik's
brown wings turning cold -
     yellow-legged beneath some fair fluff its performs its bird-stride
     in dark in the grass - once - twice - all at once a hijal
has cried
     from the forest for it to fly to its heart's stronghold;
     the tender arms of a woman I'll see ... like a conch-note that's rolled
     on grey air her white bangles cry out - she stands there, at the pond's side

     at dusk - as it to take a duck, khoi
-coloured, to some fabled place -
     about her soft body the aura of old tales seems to fall -
     in the nest of this pond she was born, from its kalmi
-weed shawl -
     in quiet she washes her feet - to leave in mist's pall
     for a land unknown - yet I know I will not lose trace
     of her in Earth's crowd ... she is on the bank of this my Bengal.

The use of alliteration, initial or parallel as in, 'at dawn', 'at dusk', embodies the sonnet with great intricacy and strength. Elsewhere, consonance provides subtle and hidden tightness lines, as here in line 2, sonnet 5, 'and see a vivid kamranga
-red cloud, like a dead maniya-bird sailing.' Each poem brims with stylistic accomplishment and facility. Rarely do end-rhymes seem forced or the language over-stepping the divide between heightened expression and 'ham'. Admittedly, the rapture is decidedly over done in the end couplet of sonnet 22, 'still she's not here - today will she come to roast up some rice-grain? ...\\ O kite, golden kite, will the lovely princess not come back to life again?' Who let the doggerel out?

Such slippage into saccharine artifice is rare. That the whole is an alembicated response to place, to person under the inspiration of love has to be accepted as a precursor to enjoying this work. Artifice is hardly an unwanted feature of poetry, when the reader stumbles upon an occasional over ornate phrase or unduly baroque line or blunt rhyme, it is possible to forgive the error, given the overall high technical merit of the series.

Other minor annoyances come to mind, but this is more to do with the layout and design of the book rather than the work itself. Slightly narrower margins would lead to fewer lines that are broken across  two; particularly annoying when savouring the end-line structure of a piece. Also, rather than tediously searching endnotes again and again for the meaning of words in italics, footnotes, for which there are ample room, would have served the translation better. Again, but minor faults when considering this finely wrought collection that brims with quality.

Winter has produced a quality translation, but what of the substance? Das chose a traditional form for a traditional theme: unrequited love. This clearly sets Das in a sonnet tradition leading back to Italy; his preference for the Petrachian model no accident. Das does not merely copy, he brings something new by his Bengal. His idyll is more than a backdrop, being very much the beloved. His sonnets are detailed expositions and invocations of place: sound, smells, flora and fauna under the influence of season or coloured by association with his love.

Das also explores another traditional theme common to poetry that of what is fleeting and what endures. He attempts to give permanence through poetry to the transient. His visions acquire solidity through the form of the poem as much as the poem's heartfelt declaration.  Sonnet 4's tension lies in the acknowledgement that all fades and passes, even as the poet attempts to continually bear witness to this slow disintegration, 'I shall lie on and on, ...' Love and transience, love and permanence, all excised, examined and proclaimed in an hypnotic series of sonnets set in a strongly realised landscape. Das has not imitated the past, he has enriched the present by his unashamed declaration.


     In this field of Bengal, by the Jalshiri river, one day
     I shall lie on and on, below a ragged banyan - red fruits like fur
     will drop on the lonely grass - the curved moon stay awake - the river-stream murmur
     past Vishalakshi's temple, to knock alarmedly on the grey
     door-panels, like a Bengali girl - on and on the jute will decay
     on this broken-up ghat
- the lovely girls are no longer astir -
     with a tangle of kalmi
-weed imprisoning her
     the ghostess river will weep nightlong ... once some came this way

     to build a mango-wood pyre: a Bengal sky-of-Srabon
will level
     its dark gaze in surprise; in the kadam
-grove a damp owl, serene and round-eyed,
     will tell Lakshmi's tale - the deserted river tell Manasa's - on every side
saris of Bengal - white bracelets - as Bengal's grass, akanda, basak-creeper dishevel
     a blue monastery that all self-preoccupied
     is slowly crumbling away ... all wells up, marvel on marvel.

Anvil press has done a great service to Das by publishing Winter's translations of his unpublished sonnets. For all that is lost, an appreciator of well-wrought, traditional poetry would gain greatly from a reading of 'Bengal the Beautiful'. The collection is a balm from brutal, inarticulate street-rants, which is ironical given that these poems inspired Bengalis to fight for their country's independence: beloved country indeed.

     Daithidh MacEochaidh 2006