Introduction to my poetry collection, Being Born
Book details: https://www.gerakbudaya.com/being-born
My first tongue is poetry. Long before the writing of stories, my initiation into the creative cosmos of writing happened because there were tattered anthologies of Romantic poetry and a maroon-coloured hardback of John Keats’s poems lying around our home (my father was a literature teacher). Easily, suddenly, I learned about the existence of a new, enigmatic, alchemical language, one that had the capacity to elevate the most mundane drudgery like the hot, lethargic post-school afternoons that almost always came with a head stuffed full of facts and equations I had been forced to deem important. Secretly—for this is the heart of poetry, I think: it takes root in and launches from a hidden, vital space—I knew that something far more important was happening in these non-curricular books, in words that harmonised to bring up strange and accurate descriptions of feelings and perspectives ordinary language could never capture. The importance of these poetic universes seemed to me even then to be urgent, a matter of life and death, that if neglected, would lead to a limp and lifeless world, one without awe. Lucille Clifton was right when she said that “poetry began when somebody walked off of a savanna or out of a cave and looked up at the sky with wonder and said, ‘ahhh.’” And in many ways I was—indeed, still am—greedy for as many translations of ‘ahhhs’ into words that, ironically, lead to wordless places, to places of primitive sounds like ‘ahhh.’
Following the charge in the words of the Romantic poets, and not long after of Shiv K. Kumar and Pablo Neruda, I embarked as a teenager on what would be a lifelong expedition into this process of translation. The poems in this collection represent twenty years of my journey of translating astonishment into language, of attempting to give voice to this perennial greed for wanting to make tangible the secrets of not simply human life, but all of life. Poetry for me is democratic and expansive, the way it is for Walt Whitman whose rolling lines were indicative of a generosity for all since “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Many of the poems in Being Born are interested in non-human life, and how it connects with human life in what Thich Nhat Hanh refers to as “interbeing”, where myths of separation between human and non-human life are dissolved, and where associations between things of this world are inevitable. “A rose cannot be by herself alone,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh, “a rose has to inter-be with the whole cosmos.” The python and the magpie, and indeed all the other animals in the first section of this collection, “Emerging Animals”, then, are creatures that are very much a part of the daily lived realities of the human speaker, and this intertwining reveals the complexity and mysteriousness of what we call life, the world, existence. This plural perspective, that takes into account the many ways life materialises, reaches a pinnacle in the section, “This Whole Earth”. Many of the poems here were written during the pandemic lockdown when the need to bond with the raw, physical land felt like a belated emergency. That collectively we had spent too much time divorced from our environment, our “here-ness” became glaringly clear, even after decades of hearing the proclamations and warnings of environmentalists. Writer and speaker on ecological issues, Charles Eisenstein, has repeatedly said in his writings and interviews that ecological degradation stems from the mythology we perpetuate about our separation from the earth, from other creatures, from each other, from ourselves, and that the pandemic is yet another symptom of this mythology. Thus, not simply as a means to endure the lockdown that prohibited interstate travel and typical modes of socialising but to inquire into this story and sensibility of separation, I decided to observe, inquire and feel into my natural environment to find points of connection or disconnection, and to write a poem a day about anything at all that emerged during this practice. I would begin with no plans for a poem, and wait, as the poet Mark Nepo advised during an online writing workshop I attended during this period, to retrieve a poem. In the end, I retrieved close to fifty poems of which some like “Weeding, Wedding”, “This Whole Life”, “Syncing”, “Anatomies”, “Offering” and others appear in this collection.
There are also poems that speak to and from an exclusively interior human heart, that present a very human pining for freedom, insight, and life-changing moments of clarity. The section “Voyages in the Dark”, named after a novella by Jean Rhys which I read while I was studying in the UK and experiencing that special kind of loneliness brought on by homesickness, carries poems about the pain of being a human being, and of feeling trapped in a state of perpetual exile —what is it all about? What are we supposed to do on this strange planet? The poems here are sort of existential stabs in the dark, questing for epiphanies, for light that eventually comes (in some form, not in any Pollyannaish way) in the final section in this collection, “Light, Distilled.” Many of the poems here arose from the moments that appear after total exhaustion, when space, ease and understanding bubble up all by themselves, it would seem, as if by magic (or duress).
The dislocation that manifests, as mentioned above, in metaphysical tones also surface in more—if I may—terrestrial notes in poems like “The Road to Jaffna” and “Day at the Mosque” where place and belonging are blown open and inquired into. It is not on a whim that these poems are placed in a section titled “Birthing Places”. This whole collection, even as the output spans twenty years of my writing life, is about birth, rebirth, and continuous birthing, hence the title Being Born. Rather than a one-off birth, the title alludes to a process of coming into life, one that never stops, whether it refers to being born into a single moment, into a cultural identity, or into a recognition of ‘interbeing’. And, ultimately, this birthing orientation is one that brings me back to what poetry is for me, and has always been: a movement, an ongoing translation of awe into words, and of bringing life to things that have been maimed, killed, stashed away, banished, misunderstood, unseen, or seen with old, stale eyes. Poetry is the act of birthing itself, of being courageous enough to get born in the first place, and then to continue getting born.
 Lucille Clifton, speaking to Bill Moyers in The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets.
 Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45477/song-of-myself-1892-version
 Thich Nhat Hanh, How To See. London: Penguin Random House UK, 2019.