Four Poems

by Jayanta Mahapatra

The Portrait

This evening, its face rigid
as though it had had a stroke.
A large owl burrows deep into its steamy air,
our souls hold the soft darkness when
each one of us becomes
an invalid turned stiffly to his bed.
We remain sitting together,
incapable of getting any farther.
Only the footfall of someone
approaching from the murdered land.
Only the infinite kingdom when
you can’t stop anyone from a simple pain.
Does a raped sixteen-year-old girl
build a hymn of the world
where living is a flamboyant metaphor?
Just this evening,
blacked like he yin half of the symbol
where death can go on proclaiming its vanity.
Walls of our world, where are you?
The evening takes whatever comes drifting in.
Aimless, I prowl through reports about justice.
All I have is a face, rigid and helpless
as though it had a stroke.

Romance of Her Hand

The little girl’s hand is made of darkness
How will I hold it?
The streetlamps hang like decapitated heads
Blood opens that terrible door between us
The wide mouth of the country is clamped in pain
where its body writhes on its bed of nails
This little girl has just her raped body
for me to reach her
The weight of my guilt is unable
to overcome my resistance to hug her.

Mask of Longing

The hospital ward
is dying of an unknown thirst.
A time when even oxygen
seems to hiss cruelly
into the still holes of Mariam’s nose.
And all words of consolation
merely graze in the land
of their own silence.

In those crumpled eyes of hers
the light of death
goes on gathering shadows.
And I feel I’m late with my life.

An agony with twenty feet throbs on.
Truth holds toward her
an invisible mask for her to wear,
as a land haunted
by the cries of women made hostages by history
into the silent vengeance of ruin.


A scream never ends. It tries
to be kind, but our hatred keeps
coming between us. The night stands
like a conqueror over it, the spear of darkness
held in her hands, the centre of everything.

Like a dark stubborn child, the scream.
Like its mother, cold, aloof.
It is inside my head all the time,
as days and shadows pass by,
till it wakens me to a different reality.
till it dislikes me for its throne’s sake.

Ashes of sobs, the baying of hounds,
the snarling jaws of ceremony, the vomit of iron.
A scream tests warm, small innocences,
divests the long moments of its manhood.

Wild as the Dance, the Winds and the Flood,
its deep streets are mortared with bone and blood.
Blindfold your scream again, sweet Mariam,
with the quick blood flowing down your seven-year thighs.

Poems excerpted with permission from Collected Poems by Jayanta Mahapatra, published by Poetrywala, Mumbai, 2018.

Jayanta Mahapatra (1928) is a bilingual poet and has published over 40 volumes of poetry in English and Odia, translations, short stories, essays, and memoirs, and has been featured in numerous anthologies. In the late seventies, he founded and edited Chandrabhaga, a literary magazine dedicated to Indian writing. The first Indian poet writing in English to be awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award for Poetry in 1982, he is also the recipient of numerous awards and honours, such as, the Jacob Glatstein Memorial Award for Poetry in 1975, the Allen Tate Poetry Prize from The Sewanee Review, the SAARC Literary Award, and the Padma Sri by the President of India in 2009, which he returned in 2015 as a mark of protest against the growing ‘moral asymmetry’ in the country. In 2017, he was awarded the Kanhaiyalal Lifetime Poetry Award at the Jaipur Literature Festival. He currently lives in Cuttack, Orissa.

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