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Lions Roar : November 2011
SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2011 80 one can absolutely be identified as his. No original manuscripts exist, as his poems were transmitted orally. And to compli- cate matters further, singers in this impro- visatory tradition, like jazz musicians, would riff on his lines, altering or expanding them. As Arvind Krishna Mehrotra says in his introduction, Kabir’s “is a collective voice that is so individual that it cannot be mistaken for anyone else’s.” I was introduced to Kabir in college in the late 1970s, when I was beginning my own journey on the bhakti path. A professor gave me a copy of Robert Bly’s The Kabir Book. Bly called his renderings “versions,” because rather than translating from the Hindi, he took the earlier translations of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore and ren- dered them into contempo- rary American English. I was spellbound. Kabir instantly became and has remained my favorite poet. His lines stirred my heart and often broke it: “Kabir says: Listen, my friend, / there is one thing in the world that satisfies, / and that is a meeting with the Guest.” “The Guest who makes my eyes so bright / has made love to me.” “Student, tell me, what is God? / He is the breath inside the breath.” But Kabir is not only a devotional poet, the aspect captured so surely by Bly. He is also a reformer and critic, and in Mehrotra’s new translations, it is the rebel who steps forward. Perhaps like Homer and Dante, Kabir must be remade for each age, and so he speaks in Mehrotra’s translations with a new and markedly postmodern voice. The preface by Wendy Donager sees Kabir as a kind of decon- structionist, toppling hierarchies of reli- gion, caste, gender, and ultimately the idea of a God with form. She emphasizes what is called Kabir’s “upside-down imagery,” as in, “A mother delivered / after her son was,” and notes that Mehrotra’s “slang, neologisms, and anachronisms ... are a brilliant means of conveying much of the shock effect that upside-down language would have had upon Kabir’s fifteenth- century audiences.” Mehrotra’s Kabir certainly shocks. He lectures, warns, and chastises: “My home, says Kabir, / Is where there’s no day, no night, / And no holy book in sight / To squat on our lives.” Reading these “disrup- tive, oppositional” poems, says Mehrotra, is like receiv- ing a “well-directed blow to the head.” Many feature violent, if humorous, imag- ery, which may be Kabir’s or may be Mehrotra’s, given the improvisatory tradition. “Even death’s bludgeon / About to crush your head / won’t wake you up.” Poems warn of the approach of death and the van- ity of human desires. “Bedridden with a stroke, / You make a rattling sound / And wish to make amends. / You’ll leave this world, says Kabir, / Picked clean.” And like singers through the centuries, Mehrotra wittily improvises and mod- ernizes the language: “‘Me shogun.’ / ‘Me bigwig.’ / ‘Me the chief ’s son. / I make the rules here.’ / It’s a load of crap. / Laughing, skipping, / Tumbling, they’re all / Headed for Deathville.” Happily, within this volley of shocks, we find some beautiful images: “Put the bit in its mouth, / The saddle on its back, / Your foot in the stirrup / And ride your wild runaway mind / All the way to heaven.” Yet, with all the flair and energy of this new collection, I feel something is missing. We are warned of the dan- gers of walking the wrong path but less strongly feel the joy of the right one. Yes, Kabir sought to shake us out of compla- cency and dogmatism. Yes, he satirized Student, tell me, what is God? He is the breath inside the breath. — KABIR