Hanky and bandage, cigarettes and perfume

The other day I stumbled across Prashant Bhilare’s recitation of a poem on YouTube. As it streamed, themes like beads were strung on a thread (sūtra, from the Sanskrit)—of imperialism, impermanence, love, possession, exposure. And I was reminded of similar work, such as Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, which I’ve mentioned here before. Her roman-à-clef received the prestigious Prix Goncourt despite its subject: an intergenerational relationship that otherwise would bestir the book burners.

Bhilare is more circumspect. Yet, I thought to myself, somehow he shares Duras’s audacity, if not her craft. And I returned to him. The poem is titled “ME.” (Unlike Duras, no subject-or-object equivocation.) Who dares title this thus?

Bhilare is a filmmaker from Mumbai whose subjects range from the domestic to the erotic: a dish of “beaten rice”; foreplay—solo. The stairwell of a local walk-up is his muse, appearing in several of his shorts. His polemical pieces are so submerged in symbolism that only his below-the-fold descriptions provide keys. (Perhaps for good reason; speech in India, as elsewhere, can come at a cost.)

“Me.” speaks for itself and can be summaraized via Steven Patrick Morrissey (whom I’ve discussed before): “It’s time the tale were told/ of how you took a child/ and you made him old.” But with Bhilare’s line, “The smell of your hanky,” I was immediately reminded of Egyptiote Greek poet C. P. Cavafy (1863–1933), who in “The Bandaged Shoulder” provides first aid for a lover who told a (tall) tale about a wound that had been poorly dressed. Upon finding a rag from the original dressing, Cavafy cherishes it. In another poem (below), Cavafy, like Bhilare, is left behind. And Bhilare, like Duras’s young girl in The Lover, is abandoned by a nonnative.

All three writers relish the time spent, however provisional. And Cavafy articulates it well. In the brothels and “In the Tavernas” Cavafy is left by one Tamides, for “the Prefect’s son to earn himself/ a villa on the Nile.” Nonetheless Cavafy savors the memory of their experience “like perfume/ that goes on clinging to my flesh.” (With Bhilare it was the smell of cigarettes, even though that was “killing me.”) For two years, Cavafy’s “Tamides, most exquisite of young men, was mine”—and not for a villa on the Nile.

But what of the lover never possessed? Of affection never expressed? My mentor Charles Cameron distilled this in a jewel of a poem titled “Thorns,” written decades ago. He likens his own “untold loves” to the few cardinals the Pope holds in pectore—in the breast—cardinals appointed but not published, when, say, to do so would risk persecution. The unnamed loves beget an unnamed pain. He compares a rosary to a thorned garden of those same loves.

(Sūtra-strung, the rosary’s beads literally are prayers—bede, from the Middle English—, supplications murmured, if not untold. Decades later we face what else the Holy Father and his church has left untold, after much murmur.)

Charles’s library contained several titles by Denise Levertov, including a slim volume, In Praise of Krishna: Songs from the Bengali (1967), which she translated with Edward C. Dimock Jr. who introduces its compilation of devotional lyrics. Dimock draws parallels with Sufis, Soloman’s Song of Songs, and Gerard Manley Hopkins—in all of which Charles surely has delighted.

I’ll close here with verse from that collection attributed to Vidyāpati (1352–1448), which circles back to Prashant Bhilare’s sensibility, imagery, and residual regret revealed. (From the book’s notes: the “Mind-stealing One” is Kāma, god of love, and the chātaka bird seeks sustenance in showers.)

With the last of my garments
shame dropped from me, fluttered
to earth and lay discarded at my feet.
My lover’s body became
the only covering I needed.
With bent head he gazed at the lamp
like a bee who desires the honey of a closed lotus.
The Mind-stealing One, like the chātaka bird,
is wanton, he misses no chance
to gratify his thirst: I was to him
a pool of raindrops.
Now shame returns
as I remember. My heart trembles,
recalling his treachery.

Levertov’s notes for this also take pains to ID the genders of those involved. How twentieth-century…

Header image: David Hughes

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