Conversations In My Head - On Eunice De Souza’s Legacy
In the late 1970s, an unusual woman happened to Indian writing in English. Although Robert Graves had helpfully reminded us three decades earlier that to be a poet is a condition and not a profession, the world wasn’t quite prepared for the condition called Eunice De Souza. To conceive De Souza’s range of work is to recognize the undaunted relationships she formed with literature – as a critic, an anthologist, a teacher for over 30 years, and of course, as a poet. Although De Souza did work in prose –Dangerlok (2001) and Dev and Simran (2003) – she is best known for her pithy, bite-sized verses across six volumes of poetry. And yet even she hesitated, at least in the early years, to call herself a poet.
In her preface to Necklace of Skulls (2009), De Souza recalls a Canadian academic commenting that her writing wasn’t poetry because it didn’t have images. “Regardless of what I told my students, only lyrical poetry seemed like ‘real’ poetry to me… It wasn’t until the second book was published that I began to feel I was a poet.” The anxiety of using the right idiom and register, of writing from the east, of being complicit in the colonization of her imagination, and of course, of her students eagerly scrutinizing every choice, is evident in Fix (1979), her first collection:
My students think it funny
that Daruwallas and de Souza’s
should write poetry.
Poetry is faery lands forlorn.
Women writers Miss Austen.
Only foreign men air their crotches.
To watch De Souza’s verses interrogate cultural memberships and negotiations is akin to witnessing a polyphonic gathering of a large, dysfunctional family. She navigates this space sometimes humourously, sometimes trenchantly, often merging the confessional with robust argument. De Souza would have known her Yeats. We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry. I find however, that her work doesn’t take this distinction too seriously. Quarrels internal, familial, communal and artistic are explored with equal intensity. Even in Women in Dutch Painting (1988) published eleven years after Fix, these cultural calculations resurface. ‘Encounter at a London Party’ from ‘Five London Pieces’ for instance, confronts colonial biases and the outmoded idea of the native. What I find most interesting in this piece however, is her clinching the argument with the sharp inclusion of ‘only’:
For a minute we stand blankly together.
You wonder in what language to speak to me,
offer a pickled onion on a stick instead.
You are young and perhaps forgetful
that the Empire lives
only in the pure vowel sounds I offer you
above the din.
For a poet with her finger on the pulse of her times, it is significant to examine the making of her work not only for its thematic influences but also in light of the literary institutions and publications that shaped its reception. For instance, although her work has often been described as caustic and critical, when the early ‘Catholic’ poems were first published in newspapers in the seventies, they were sometimes accompanied by Mario Miranda’s cartoons. The sting of her disapproving verses was softened by Miranda’s affectionate caricatures of Goan idiosyncrasies. But in her collections, stripped of this paratext, the full bite of the lines is stronger:
Feeding the Poor at Christmas
Every Christmas we feed the poor.
We arrive an hour late: Poor dears,
like children waiting for a treat.
Bring your plates. Don’t move.
Don’t try turning up for more.
No. Even if you don’t drink
you can’t take your share
for your husband. Say thank you
and a rosary for us every evening.
No. Not a towel and a shirt,
even if they’re old.
What’s that you said?
You’re a good man, Robert, yes,
beggars can’t be, exactly.
(From Fix, 1979)
De Souza’s work is also closely informed by the poets’ cooperatives, the poetry circles and the independent presses that thrived in Bombay in the second half of the 20th century. She first met Nissim Ezekiel when he interviewed her for a job, and through him connected with Kamala Das, Dom Moraes and the generation of Bombay Poets who spanned a wider geography – and influence – than the name suggests. Arun Kolatkar designed the cover of De Souza’s first collection Fix, using a striking black-and-white close up of De Souza. The cover stands out for its gaze – her eyes staring, almost daring the reader to turn the page, and the shocking X right in the middle of her forehead (a spot later reserved for De Souza’s characteristic red bindi). This Charles Manson-esque detail of carving up the face, of cutting skin foreshadows the sharpness of the poems, biting, scathing, disturbing one’s sense of oneself and of wholeness.
Regarding presses like Clearing House and Newground, De Souza remarked, “It was everything, everything. The books were beautiful, they were priced very low, and they were the only people taking risks. And they had ways of doing it, I mean Newground for example… sent out pre-publication offers on a card. The books were 12 rupees apiece, even though they were on beautiful paper and everything, and the pre-publication offers were 6 rupees. And they received, from my work, about 400 pre-publication offers.” 1
Newground Press was co-founded by Melanie Silgardo, De Souza’s student with whom De Souza later edited These My Words: The Penguin Book Of Indian Poetry (2012)). This was the era of brave collaborations, of taking a chance, of letting the words go where they will. Of Gieve Patel writing poetry and plays, exhibiting his art in India and abroad, while also managing a full-time medical practice. Of Adil Jussawala working with Debonair magazine and also running the imprint Praxis (which published De Souza’s second collection Women In Dutch Painting). Of Jeet Thayil, Ranjit Hoskote, Arundhathi Subramaniam and Jerry Pinto writing their early works. It was in this time of lyrical camaraderie and experimentation, supported by the small presses, that De Souza’s work thrived and found audiences. Significantly, Ways of Belonging (1990) published by Polygon in Edinburgh has never been available in India. Individual poems from the collection have been anthologized elsewhere, and her work has been translated into Portuguese, Finnish and Italian, but the core of her readership lay in the communities of students, poets and small press patrons of the time.
1 Anjali Nerlekar (2017) “‘Indian’ doesn’t exclude me”: An interview with Eunice de Souza, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 53:1-2, 247-254, DOI: 10.1080/17449855.2017.1287036
That her work continues not just to survive but to thrive, it is largely due to the accessible and candid nature of De Souza’s poetry. Her stripped, laconic style with its confessional themes make for poems that draw even the most reluctant reader to the page. If today her verses were accompanied by line sketches and uploaded on webpages, stripped of the gravitas of university halls, they would easily attract thousands of followers, likes and other wah-wahs that establish the contemporary ‘influencer’. De Souza’s succinct verse has something of that raw, shocking, brassy quality that is so cherished by millennials. Add to that the unabashed unveiling of biographical detail, and it is easy to see how she may have grandmothered a trend whose technology would only be born at the end of her career. Purists may find it sacrilegious to compare De Souza’s work to the illegitimate offpsring of Instagram expressions that haven’t yet been validated with the capital L of Literature, but as Aleksander Hemon’s The Lazarus Project says, “Nobody can control resemblances, any more than you can control echoes.”
Consider for instance, ‘I Want a Father’ an early, unpublished poem, later collected in Necklace of Skulls (2009):
I want a father;
God won’t do.
He’s so judgmental.
And so I found you –
Like my father, absent.
Of course, De Souza would have warned eager lit students against seeking the poet in the poem. And yet she openly invites something of the biographical approach to her work. With audacious pieces titled ‘Autobiographical’ and ‘Eunice’ and ‘de Souza Prabhu’, her work almost dares the critic to join the dots and read something of an inner landscape into the verses. ‘Autobiographical’ for instance, brings together conspiratorial worries and a confessional tone, marrying also her persona of critic and poet:
My enemies say I’m a critic because really I’m writhing with envy and anyway need to get married.
My friends say I’m not entirely without talent.
Yes, I’ve tried suicide I tidied my clothes but left no notes. I was surprised to wake up in the morning.
Even in ‘Don’t Look for my Life in These Poems’ (Women in Dutch Painting, 1988), De Souza invites exactly that kind of speculation:
Poems can have order, sanity aesthetic distance from debris. All I’ve learnt from pain I always knew, but could not do.
As with all poets with a thinking heart, De Souza’s work is aware of itself; there is an element of witnessing even the act of writing, which itself witnesses and draws from life. With this layered self-awareness, De Souza often preempts complex responses to her work:
Irony as an attitude to life
is passé, you said.
So be it, friend.
Let me be passé and survive.
Leave me the cutting edge of words
to clear a world
for my ego.
My rage is almost done.
My soul is almost my own.
(‘One Man’s Poetry’ from Fix, 1979)
For all the awe and terror she inspired in her students (calling them ‘cackling hens’, predicting that they’d succumb to the conformity of white wedding dresses, warning them not to bore her with domestic chatter), there is a poignant vulnerability in her poetry. She’s not immune to censure or anxiety. De Souza confesses that she left out her poem ‘Alibi’ from the collection Fix “… mainly because I had this vision of reviewers using one of the phrases from the poem as their title – ‘a sour old puss in verse’.”
The vulnerability however, never transgresses into self-censorship. Consider for instance, ‘Conversation Piece’ which fuelled much ire when it was first published and each time its been reprinted:
My Portuguese-bred colleague
picked up a clay shivalingam
one day and said:
Is this an ashtray?
No, said the salesman,
This is our god.
Darryl D’Monte, then editor of the Times of India, received several angry letters, including one that asked, “What if we mistook the crucifix for a fork?” De Souza responded later in an interview: “I don’t understand this, but this is dangerous.” We cannot be sure if De Souza anticipated the FIRs and warrants that poets would soon have to face, or that freedom of expression would wrestle with the freedom to get offended. Nonetheless, to write as unapologetically as De Souza did, is to leave a mark for generations to come. In fact, it is something her verses clearly aspire towards. Her plea in ‘Western Ghats’ has her spirit, her poetry seeping into everything that may touch even her ashes:
Fling my ashes in the Western Ghats
They’ve always seemed like home.
May the leopards develop
A taste for poetry
The crows and kites learn
To modulate their voices.
May there be mist and waterfalls
Grass and flowers
In the wrong season.
(from Learn from the Almond Leaf (2016))
And so it came to be. We who’ve inherited De Souza’s verses continue to be inconvenient, to sprout ‘in the wrong season’.
And yet, to squeeze the influence of over three decades of critical and creative work into a brief feature like this one, is to channel something of the spirit of De Souza herself. Eunice De Souza’s deconstructive identities and her folding into silence are best concluded in her own voice in this poem of forty-eight words:
It’s time to find a place
to be silent with each other.
I have prattled endlessly
in staff-rooms, corridors, restaurants.
When you’re not around
I carry on conversations in my head.
Even this poem
has forty-eight words too many.