It is the cow-dust hour
And smoke lies heavy over my head
As I walk across these earthen paths
And smells of burnt milk from inside
Mingle with those from the fields outside.
I turn a corner
And surprise a pair
Besides the haystacks
Whispering sweet everythings.
She smiles and flies
Like a bird, her anklets
Ringing, her mirror-work skirt in a flutter
While he plucks a strand of hay
Foolishly from a corner of his teeth.
It is Godhuli time
And darkness is but a few minutes away
Man and bird and beast
Turn towards the flickering lights
That beckon them home
And in the distance I can see
The lighted windows of a fleeting train
That has brought me here
While my thoughts travel towards
The home that I have never had.
The recent UK publication of Srinivas Rayaprol’s Angular Desire will introduce many readers to a new name and a new body of work. I found it very cheering to come across this millennial-fresh but strongly tradition-conscious voice.
Rayaprol (1925–98) was born in Secunderabad into a Brahmin heritage. After completing his studies at Banaras Hindu University, he emigrated to the US, where his postgraduate degree in civil engineering at Stanford seems to have absorbed him less than the literary scene. He returned to an earlier passion, writing poetry.
Various poetic stars entered his orbit at Stanford - Yvor Winters, for example, whose austerities he resisted, and William Carlos Williams, with whom he struck up a friendship that became an unobtrusive mentoring. One particularly enjoyable essay among Angular Desire’s selections of prose and poetry describes his first visit to the Williams household in 1950s New York: it’s a warmly remembered account of the hearty welcome the venerable older poet gave him. Rayaprol and Williams were in touch until the latter’s death,, and a selection of their correspondence, Why Should I Write a Poem Now?, was published in 2018.
Godhuli Time comes from Rayaprol’s 1995 Selected Poems. By then, he was back in India. He had returned to the newly independent democracy in the early 50s, and went on to establish a long, successful government career, without abandoning his literary interests. He established a literary journal East and West and published the first of several collections, Bones and Distances, in 1968.
Vidyan Ravinthiran says in his illuminating introduction to Angular Desire that Rayaprol “engages unconventionally with Anglo-American modernism but his reading goes back still further: words and sounds … migrate – I can think of no better word, for doctors also use it to describe the transference of pain from one limb to another – out of Tennyson’s verse and into his”. Rayaprol is not the kind of poet who deferentially writes traditional verse to honour a semi-mythical western canon. But you can see in Godhuli Time how, within the clarity and focus of modernism, Rayaprol’s imagination touches English pastoral – the dusk and the homing cattle might briefly evoke Gray’s Elegy, the faintly comical but tenderly drawn lovers have a hint of Shakespearean comic burlesque about them. At the same time, they and the setting are entirely Indian, while the diction and rhythms are American modernist. The dry humour is what most reminds me of Williams, though.
Godhuli Time is unusually sensuous for Rayaprol, but there’s no impression of a west-directed exotic sales pitch. Almost-plain language – “cow-dust”, “smoke” and “burnt milk” – immediately sets us down with tingling noses into the new landscape. Though place is so intensely evoked, time dominates place – or place is indicated only via movement and disappearance. The lovers fly away, the train is fleeting. We and the speaker are never comfortably set down at a destination. Rayaprol’s train and even his land are forms of passing time.
There are moments in Rayaprol’s work when the grammatical angle is unfamiliar. “Besides” (stanza two, line three) turns out to be more effective than the expected “beside”: it implies that the two lovers are not only physically next to the haystacks but that they are present as well as the haystacks. This nudges them gently into their place. It also means that the hay stacks are as surprised as the couple by the speaker’s intrusion. That effect is amusing and forlorn at the same time. Then there’s the coinage “sweet everythings”, a beautifully judged redemption of the old cliche (sweet nothings) that only faintly mockingly allows the lovers their radiant possession of the entire universe.
The Hindupedia translates “Godhuli” as “the auspicious time when the dust is raised by cows”. So it signifies dusk, when the cows trundle home from the fields. I don’t know if compound words are typical of Sanskrit or Hindi, but it occurred to me that Rayaprol’s fondness for compounds (never overdone, in my view) may originate from his bilingualism. At any rate, the inventiveness has nothing to do with Dylan Thomas, about whose poetry Williams declared a trenchant warning to the young Rayaprol: Thomas was Welsh and an American poet must avoid the influence.
The advice was good, of course, but not to be taken too generally. Rayaprol, an Indian anglophone, learned from Williams, an American. Speech styles need not be stuck in national boundary fences; provided the writer has a good “ear”, he can let the voices mingle and procreate. I feel sorry about the life-melancholy inherent in Rayaprol’s concluding lines, in which the impossible “home” seems to allude to so much that can be lost in space and time, but the implications for the artist are more promising. In this and many other poems, Rayaprol shapes the voices and traditions in his head into a new nest of words – smooth, nourishing, timelessly spring-like.
See the poet Dom Moraes for some interesting additional comments.