Poem of the week: from a renga by Marilyn Hacker and Karthika Naïr | poetry

wolves accompany
me, a dream I’d like to have,
lope across a steppe,

howl an ode to the half-moon,
break bread with al-Farazdaq,

hunt mice if we must.
Overarching, the night sky
blankets the city

we’re immured in, or opens
it up to ghazals of rain.

MH, 19 April 2020

A rain of ghazals,
petrichor from verse by long-
lost poets, crumble

many Saber-toothed Daymares,
if just for a rainbow while.

Ghalib, Faiz, Firaq,
Sahir (always Sahir), then
the doyen, Khusrau:

sufi, secular or plain
kafir; then ghazal, nazm, and

sher, the first to strike
my early, unlearned ears;
demand rebellion

yet earn adoration from
a resolute nastic heart.

KN, 20 April 2020

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This week’s paired poems are from A Different Distance: A Renga by the American poet Marilyn Hacker and the French-Indian poet, dance producer and curator Karthika Naïr. Renga (meaning “linked verse”) is Japanese syllabic writing in extended and collaborative form. Its composition was traditionally shared by a group of poets at a friendly and bibulous get-together, who took turns to improvise response-poems until they had completed the verse-chain. Living in Paris during the Covid-19 lockdown, Hacker and Naïr were able to meet in person only once, and built their two-poet renga by email.

Like postcards or letters sharpened by formal constraints and the desirability of swift response, the poems in A Different Distance made me think of Gerald Manley Hopkins’s sorrowful lines comparing his cries to “dead letters sent / to dearest him that lives alas! away”. These “letters” are the opposite of course – briskly alive, and listening responsively to one another. They contain the energy of their moment, and the pleasure of spontaneous verbal interaction, a reminder that, beyond the confines of renga, poems are often sparked off by other poems. The 114-page series begins in March 2020 and closes in March 2021.

Hacker’s “Wolves accompany / me” is launched by the previous poem from Naïr, which begins “Who knows anything” and concludes by juxtaposing the image of “sun-drenched” Parisian quais with herself, brooding “indoors with / Coke as cure and company ”. Naïr begins with a flourish of skepticism about the abilities of “Prefects, priests, pressmen, / physicians” to know anything for certain. Hacker’s response is the “dream I’d like to have”, in which she finds her own company of wolves, and shares their freedom of the steppe. There’s an almost out-of-body experience, a fluid combination of wolf and human, hunting mice “’if we must” and time-travelling back “to break bread with Al-Farazdaq”, the Arab poet who died in 790. ( Al-Farazdaq is also Ghalib, the poet named first in the group listed by Naïr). Although the dreamer in Hacker’s adventure returns to nocturnal Paris and imprisonment, the waking dream lingers in the sparkling, arrowing image of “ghazals of rain”.

Liberation by poetry is the theme Naïr takes up. Her response-poem by her is in a very different mood from her by her earlier piece by her. Translating Hacker’s “ghazals of rain” to “a rain of ghazals”, Naïr swiftly invokes refreshment with “petrichor” (the scent of recent rainfall).

Naïr says that “Wolves accompany / me” had galvanized her when she first read it. It arrived just as she’d begun regular sessions of chemotherapy, which she describes as “a grueling weekly rhythm”. That difficult rhythm becomes in the poem the liberating rhythms of the poets she first revered: the names themselves make insistent rhythms, and form a synecdoche for their work de ella.

The poets listed are Faiz Ahmad Faiz, a 20th-century Marxist poet writing in Urdu; Firaq Gorakhpuri (1896-1982) the Indian poet and critic; Khusrau, 12th-century Sufi poet; and poet and film-song lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi. Naïr also names some poetic structures: “ghazal, nazm, and // sher”.

The paradox for the writer is that she’s an atheist (nastic): the Sufi writers therefore “demand rebellion // yet earn adoration”. It’s so often that way with the poets of the past!

Both poems open passageways through images and sounds to an ancient poetic garden, mysteriously in bud. The syllabic “lockdown” of the tanka form is always present in the renga, but there’s a sense of larger, rougher life cutting through the walls. The poems lean inwards only to lead outwards and towards each other. In an interesting essay Renga: the Literary Embodiment of Impermanence and Nonself David Landis Barnhill argues that the form is essentially Buddhist. The renga published by Hacker and Naïr, conversely, testifies to permanence (the capture of experience) and enhanced – if sometimes lonely and suffering – selfhood. Distinctly personal moments and moods are caught by each poet “just for a rainbow while” as Naïr memorably puts it. Even though intertextuality is highlighted, their voices are enjoyably distinct.

If you’re thinking of embarking on a renga, here’s a useful guide to the craft. For deeper inspiration, listen to the poets themselves reading from their newly launched collection.

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