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The Many Ways of Looking at a Black Bird
On black birds and poetry.
During my undergraduate studies, I was fortunate to take a Creative Writing class. For the final assignment, we received a bunch of topics on which we had to write something, anything. Most of those writings are cringeworthy and I hardly want to revisit them. Save for one.
The topic was - Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird. In the essay I handed over, I used fictional (and sometimes not so fictional) people as stand-ins for different personality types and wrote about how a blackbird could symbolise wildly different things for each person. A symbol of flight and freedom, an alter-ego to a dove, and a super-fast aircraft among other things.
Inane objects from daily life can indeed invoke a myriad of feelings. This truth is often easily unlocked by poetry. For example, see this wonderful poem by Wendy Cope.
At lunchtime I bought a huge orange—
The size of it made us all laugh.
I peeled it and shared it with Robert and Dave—
They got quarters and I had a half.
And that orange, it made me so happy,
As ordinary things often do
Just lately. The shopping. A walk in the park.
This is peace and contentment. It’s new.
The rest of the day was quite easy.
I did all the jobs on my list
And enjoyed them and had some time over.
I love you. I’m glad I exist.
— Wendy Cope
Recently, I carried out a fun experiment very much in line with the Gedanken I had indulged in an essay from a decade ago. From time to time, I send poems to my friend, Sanjana. This time, I sent her a little something I wrote.
Today, on my way to work,
I saw a dead raven.
Its eyes lay open,
As if in shock at its own demise.
Its black lay in stark contrast
To the green around.
I went on with my day.
And when I returned,
I saw that someone,
Had closed its eyes.
In Sanjana’s own words, she is “an inadequate reader and always asks me for what poems mean.” The latter is true. But, this time she sent me an elaborate interpretation. She thought that the raven is a stand-in for our own dark inner selves, a darkness that we extinguish to move around the world. She believed that someone closes our eyes to the uncomfortable reality that we willingly kill a part of ourselves, just to be.
When I told her that I had indeed seen a dead raven on my way to playing basketball, and noticed that its eyes were closed on the way back, she was aghast. ‘The one time you were being literal, I wasn’t,” she told me. I wasn’t being entirely truthful with her, however. Truth is that when I saw the raven’s eyes shut, I was reminded of a beautiful documentary film I watched a few months ago.
The beating heart of Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes is the work of two brothers - Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud. They run a bird clinic in Delhi that tends to black kites and other birds of prey. Sen portrays the often tumultuous co-existence between humans and animals in stunning long-takes, inter-cut with the brothers going about their job, selflessly, relentlessly, Davids in the face of Goliath odds. Nadeem and Mohammad subscribe to a code that unifies all living beings under a shared umbrella of all who breathe.
As I saw their story unfolding on screen, I was struck by how it represented so many things. The force of sheer will, A mirror to our polarized times, a kaleidoscopic demonstration of the human spirit. But, as I saw the brothers heal another black bird, I saw their story as a parable of kindness. Like - closing the eyes of a raven lying dead on the street - kind.
I was then chuffed when Sanjana shared my poem and her thoughts on social media, and I followed, many saw warmth and kindness in the poem. AG said it was warm despite having a death in it and PG too read it as an act of kindness. Advait thought it was about empathy and selflessness and recounted a moment from his childhood where a man continued fighting with the cop guarding a corpse in the middle of a road. He had wanted to cover the body with a blanket until more help arrived.
VK, who is also a poetry nut said at first he thought it was a cool and real thing to see but then he thought - "…this seems more like a metaphor for something in life, in particular seeing something cruel and then later how people can be kind towards it.” As black kites drop to the ground after contesting the cruelty of Delhi air, is not Nadeem and Mohammad’s act of trying to heal it, an act of radical kindness?
Here’s a poem by Rudy Francisco, one that too uses a simple act to encapsulate a larger emotion
She asks me to kill the spider.
Instead, I get the most
peaceful weapons I can find.
I take a cup and a napkin.
I catch the spider, put it outside
and allow it to walk away.
If I am ever caught in the wrong place
at the wrong time, just being alive
and not bothering anyone,
I hope I am greeted
with the same kind
- Rudy Francisco
Some people also read the poem differently. VI was reminded of a quip from the show Billions where someone remarks that the dead are the only ones who are unaware of their death and sometimes it is up to the living to close their eyes. AS found it "‘bohot (very) dark”, whereas someone on Instagram admitted to Sanjana that in seeing the dead raven as the death of her creative passions, and the grass as all the people around her creating beauty, she was heavily projecting. She said that the ravens’ closed eyes indicate how corporate work has ripped away even the delusion of a false life because everything feels pointless.
The thing about poetry as a medium is that it allows for such a multitude of interpretations. Alluding to the act of reading poetry, Sanjana says, “The compression the medium involves makes you fill the gaps from your own self.” I couldn’t agree more. In poetry, a vase may not be a vase, the rules of algebra and geometry can be distorted, the universe can be a teacup, the teacup a universe.
When I was a lot younger, I wrote a lot of poems, penned on now yellowed pages, in the cursive handwriting of a curious teenager. For a long-time in between, I stopped. And then sometime in the last few years, I started again. I learnt that while writing or reading, there is so much to take from poetry. In trying to condense a thought or an idea into an even a semblance of a structure, I find a curious catharsis. I call this a crystallization of thoughts.
Like any art that is touching, reading poetry can be a visceral experience. For me, it’s like staring at a wall-to-wall Pollock painting, watching Brokeback Mountain or (off-late) listening to an Olafur Arnalds song or Hania Rani piano solo. Reading a poem, at times, seems to bypass the brain entirely and reach my heart. I feel it much before I can think about it.
This little experiment engineered by Sanjana got me thinking not only about different ways to read a poem but also about how these readings measure up against that of the writer. Maybe a poem is whatever you take from it. And what you take from it is of course a function of whatever you are, wherever you are and whoever you want to be.
In my college essay, the thirteenth way of looking at a blackbird was how I ‘saw’ it.
When I look at a blackbird, all I see is a bird. A cog in the wheel of living things, a simple step in a food-chain, a fibre in the web of life. When I see a blackbird, I see a blackbird.
This perspective, the literal one, is of course a valid one. As is RN’s reading of Dead Crow - “crow bro was half alive and eventually died with no one caring. Just like most people." He might be right. But I don’t think it matters.
This was a long newsletter post. If you’ve made it this far (and even if you haven’t), thanks for indulging me. Do feel free to share your thoughts about ‘Dead Crow.’ This post wouldn't have been birthed if it hadn’t been for Sanjana. She always engages with my stupid tid-bids of writing and had a creator’s foresight to do this ride with me. My friends, AS, NP, AG, PG, CD and FJ always encourage me to write, read and share poetry. Many thanks, folks! I vibe hard with Nikita Gill (a really nice poet and A1 Twitter poetry account) when she says, “The one thing I know when I deal with complicated, painful emotions is that there is a poem for it. A brilliant poet out there has written a poem for exactly how I’m feeling and that makes me feel less isolated and alone."
Reads (long or not)
Rohit Brijnath is one of my favourite writers. He has a wonderful and unique style of writing that sets him apart from other writers on the sports beat. Here is him on Federer (poetry in motion) missing out on Wimbledon - Wimbledon 2022: A missing Swiss in an English summer.
I love Helena Fitzgerald’s newsletter, Griefbacon. Check out her gorgeous essay on the movie, Before Sunrise - movie night, and her lovely essay on learning to love solitude - The Fierce Triumph of Loneliness.
I finally read Arundhati Roy’s sensational first book, The God of Small Things and was promptly blown over by it. Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease To Understand the World is best described as an acid trip of a book.
I’ve probably written about these before but it’s fitting with the theme of this edition so here are four of my favourite poems. Flights of love and fancy in Uday Prakash’s Kuch Ban Jaate Hai (Let’s Become Something). Dollops of optimism in the face of harsh realities in Maggie Smith’s Good Bones and Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Zindan Ki Ek Shaam (Aga Shahid Ali’s beautiful English translation is here -A Prison Evening). The hug of a universe colluding to be there for you in Yeh Number Maujood Nahi (English translation here - This Number Does Not Exist).
Jim Jarmusch’s mumblecore film, Paterson is about a bus driver in a small town called Paterson. He is also a fiercely talented poet. It’s a film that I truly love and highly recommend. The plot is threadbare, but there is so much to absorb here. Come for Adam Driver’s stoically brilliant performance, stay for the free-verse poetry.
James Baldwin’s novel, If Beale Street Could Talk was adopted into a beautiful film by Barry Jenkins. It also features a transcendent score by Nicholas Britell (of succession fame). Jenkin’s directional sense is almost poetic or musical at times. I love seeing whatever he makes.
Whatever little I watched of this conversation between Irrfan Khan and Naseeruddin Shah, I loved.
Hussain Haidry’s podcast episode on The Seen and The Unseen was such a great listen. In it, Haidry talks about being Muslim in India, poetry and the cost and process of writing and creating.
Olafur Arnalds is currently one of my favourite musicians. Here’s a nice sampling of his songs from a Tiny Desk concert.
Here is another poem I loved. It also reminded me of the theme of the interconnectedness of all living things as explored in All That Breathes.
by Leah Silvieus
Something terrible happened today, I say and my husband rushes to me, searching for signs of harm. I do not want to tell him the rest: how I found a tree frog in the door well of our car, gazing up with what I then imagined was hope, how I coaxed him into a paper sack that I carried to a tree with plenty of shade at the lot's far end, nudged the bag gently, and waited. How when I returned, he stared up at me, his leg now askew from where I had broken it in my hurry. His gaze was still the same, full not with hope as I had once imagined but something else. I was just trying to help, I say. I knew that did not matter.
I recently discovered Isaka Shamsud-Din’s art and was struck by his bold use of colour. Here is a portrait of his father.
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