Speech Acts

Eunice de Souza, a post-Independence Indian poet, explores the glitches in poetic voicing

Vidyan Ravinthiran
Abstract geometric image.
Horatio C. Forjohn, Idle Governor, ca. 1940. Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum.

For many English-­language poets of the mid-­ to late twentieth century, speech surpassed a mere fascination and became instead their sine qua non, guaranteeing their writing worldly relevance. The history of modern American poetry is the history of countless attempts at a democratic vernacular: Robert Frost, for one, foregrounded speech-­sound, or “the sound of sense,” wishing to play the rough-­hewn tones of homespun voices off the grid of meter. But this idea of national authenticity can get ugly—Elizabeth Bishop spoke critically of something “unturned” to Frost’s poetry.

When the “sound of sense” coarsens into the sound of common sense, it shuts down other options; if the voice is what matters, then which voices, exactly, do we praise as authentic? It’s one thing to rediscover—as in, say, the work of the Romantic peasant-­poet John Clare—dialects and accents previously scorned and marginalized. But not all of us speak in voices tied unequivocally to one milieu. Some of us have, for lack of a better word, denatured voices, talk-­behaviors shaped by power struggles and global transit.

Eunice de Souza was born a Goan Catholic in Poona (or Pune) in 1940. She studied in Wisconsin, taught in Bombay (today’s Mumbai), and before her death in 2017 published five collections of poetry, two novels, children’s books, and anthologies of Indian women’s writing. She’s one of a generation of neglected post-­Independence poets. In the United States and the United Kingdom, we’re beginning to pay more and more attention to poets of color; this is a wonderful thing, but it customarily means poets of color living where we do. The suspicion may arise that in praising these authors, we’re in part praising ourselves (for our enlightened diversity, our halo-­affixing sponsorship of the cultural melting pot) while overlooking what is cordoned off as “world poetry.” This neglect isn’t helped by postcolonial studies, which tends to focus not on poems but on novels, whose representations allow for a leap out of the literary toward real-­world pain. (The work of Jahan Ramazani, Laetitia Zecchini, and Charles Pollard on poetry bucks this trend—but do these interventions reach outside the academy?) When we do speak of poets from the global South, we rarely discuss them aesthetically.

But Indian poets of this generation were obsessed by aesthetics. They grafted their voices onto poetic structures they admired in Anglo-­American poets, exploring the metamorphoses that occurred when they modified those structures. They redirected feelings of linguistic otherness to avoid the impasse evoked by A. K. Ramanujan (a poet, translator of ancient Tamil poetry, scholar of Indian folklore, and professor at the University of Chicago, who described himself as the hyphen in “Indian-­American”): “A great deal of Indian writing is upstairs English, platform English, idiom-­book English, newspaper English…a formality, a learned posture.” Adil Jussawalla (also a poet, and a magisterial stylist in journalistic prose) elaborates:

The voices of those of us who speak English in India aren’t the voices which are heard in the poems we write. I put it as bluntly as that.

Every poet has at least two voices: a literary voice, and the one in which he normally speaks.

…Many of us try to write poetry which is colloquial in its thrust, which tries to follow the patterns and nuances of everyday speech. This is a strand in modern British and American (particularly American) poetry.… The legitimacy for this colloquial direction in poetry came from abroad, from poets like Whitman, Eliot and Pound who lived in societies which were fully English-­speaking, unlike ours.… We only have our own colloquial middle-­class uses of English as currency and sometimes not even those.

…What’s at work here is an overcoming of disjuncture—the kind of disjuncture between the spoken word and the written word that Whitman and Sandburg never had to contend with and never foresaw since it happened and is happening in the colonies.

(“Readings with Parrots and Angels,” Sunday Observer, 15 August 1999)

With their brilliantly idiomatic verve, de Souza’s poems grapple with these very issues by exploring disjunctures of literary voicing.

Discussing voice, I should define my terms. De Souza isn’t, for instance, a performance poet. While that kind of poetry often gives political meaning to the presence of a poet’s voice in the room, it’s a different kind of voice, stylistically evoked in print, that we get from de Souza (as with Frost). I speak of what the British critic Eric Griffiths called the “printed voice,” represented through lineation, punctuation, rhythm, and sound. Consider de Souza’s parenthesis, in “For S. Who Wonders If I Get Much Joy out of Life”:

Sometimes I down a Coke
implacably at the Taj.
This morning I terrorized
the bank manager.
I look striking in red and black
and a necklace of skulls.

“Successfully” is the great word—the great line—here. That brief aside turns writing back into acerbic, pluckily labile speech. The reference to the goddess Kali in the title of de Souza’s 2009 collected poems, A Necklace of Skulls, sets this poem’s final lines in dialogue with the end of Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”: “I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.”

De Souza’s prose is keyed to speech rhythms and attentive to the power games played out in speech situations; she analyzes the patterns of egotism reducing literary “conversation” to self-­marketing.

De Souza also uses parentheses for this purpose—to infuse writing with the momentum of speech—in her prose; for instance, in her 2001 short novel Dangerlok. Her protagonist Rina resembles her: a poet and teacher battling with both conservatives who refuse, for instance, to teach Arundhati Roy, preferring dead white Western men, and radical pseuds on anti-­literary hobby horses. Here, too, a snippet in parentheses rumples the rhythm and reorients the tone:

She thinks, this is too easy to parody, and tunes in for a minute while a gay poet who is certainly gay but not a poet talks about (oh dear) subversion. She just wishes he could write. She just wishes he didn’t feel he had to be subversive every second of the day. Every conversation she overhears runs like this: We must piss on their ideas, we must shit on their ideas, her ideas come from her vagina, etc. He is miffed too because she does not respond to his performance. After she makes a few brief points in an In Conversation session, he says loudly to the audience, Is that a Goan accent? She ignores him. The alternative would be to kick him. How’s that, she thinks, for subversion.

“Oh dear”—that ironized version of a prissy, gendered, exclamation—points to stereotyped behaviors and hollow, overused language. (“Subversion” is much discussed, though rarely enacted, at literary gatherings: de Souza’s recognition that participants are often, for personal reasons, “miffed”—an untechnical word they’d never use, for it minimizes their feelings—suggests that these debates lack gravity.) And while I wince at Rina’s scorn for the gay poet who’s “certainly gay but not a poet,” seeing the false, self-­interested pieties of progressive litterateurs punctured has a tonic effect. Snobbery is ridiculed, sexism skewered. De Souza’s prose is keyed to speech rhythms and attentive to the power games played out in speech situations; she analyzes the patterns of egotism reducing literary “conversation” to self-­marketing. She dramatizes the connection between writing on the page and the will-­to-­power of people talking less with than at, or across, each other, jostling to be heard. But she still summons the idea of the “poet” as someone capable of creating works deeper and more resonant than an entirely personal response.

De Souza wrote of Indian voices speaking English in a literary context where poets were attacked for using what nationalist critics claimed was a colonially imposed language. Amit Chaudhuri (who also observes that memoiristic autofiction may not be a Western invention) contradicts that nativist position: for Indian authors, “the English language was already theirs, linked not so much to the colonizer as to their sense of self and history.” De Souza: “No matter that / my name is Greek / my surname Portuguese / my language alien. // There are ways / of belonging.” Today, when blood-­and-­soil rootedness has become tyrannical in India, her objections sound more than frazzled; they sound heroic:

Really, all this chatter about who is true-­blue Indian.… Rina’s very first memories are of riding on an elephant (her father was posted in the tribal areas of Chhattisgarh at the time), and she hopes that is Indian enough! Anyway, she knows who she is. She is a lapsed Catholic who prays in moments of panic, a vague lefty who likes the occasional good meal in a restaurant and does not feel too much guilt about it, a teacher who likes her students and her work but likes the occasional day at home alone. Anyway, it’s the writers they are really after, those who write in English. Apparently, one cannot capture the soul of a nation in English. Well, she is not a writer but if she were she would not want to capture the soul of a nation. She would just natter, maybe about parrots or people or a stray pup she had taken to. Does anyone know anything with any clarity about souls or nations?

The prose strains with that double “anyway”; the division between de Souza herself and Rina breaks down. Free indirect speech grows forced, as when Robert Browning transforms blank verse into a synthetic vernacular. But the theme remains. A writer, Rina thinks, should trade grand, Nehruvian aims concerning the “soul” and the “nation” for “nattering.” Talking, that is, about matters of the heart.

I’m thinking—talking of hearts—of one of my favorite de Souza poems, “Bequest.” De Souza’s lyrics resist both excerpting and paraphrase: they have a plenary cohesion. This poem takes the form of a speech-­act that dwells on what others have said. Talking and listening are affirmed as humane realities, even when laced with spite or counteraggression:

In every Catholic home there’s a picture
of Christ holding his bleeding heart
in his hand.
I used to think, ugh.

The only person with whom
I have not exchanged confidences
is my hairdresser.

Some recommend stern standards,
others say float along.
He says, take it as it comes,
meaning, of course, as he hands it out.

I wish I could be a
Wise Woman
smiling endlessly, vacuously
like a plastic flower,
saying Child, learn from me.

It’s time to perform an act of charity
to myself,
bequeath the heart, like a
spare kidney—
preferably to an enemy.

Each stanza continues the impulse, but from an unexpected angle, fusing reactive aliveness (“ugh”!) with goffered hauteur (“whom,” “preferably”). The poem is avulsive, not linear; it doesn’t babble onward but materializes in so many separate, chary squirts.

To claim de Souza as a poet of speech (Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, too, praises her “microphoned ear”) is not to say she talks too much: quite the opposite. Minimalism borders on mysticism. Creatively sardonic, ever-­twitchy, de Souza remains, however faintly, a religious poet, for it is possible to take the ending of “Bequest” at face value, even though the heart to be donated would be a weaponized gift should it ooze poison. (And is “he” a lover, a bully, or Christ as both?) She leaves questions unanswered and feelings suggestively glimpsed: “Even this poem / has forty-­eight words too many,” she writes in “It’s Time to Find a Place,” and “Conversation Piece” has only, including the title, twenty-­six:

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.

He said—he said: perspectives collide. The “salesman” claims the shivalingam (a phallic symbol of Shiva, although it can be nonrepresentational, a gesture toward verticality drawing the eyes upward) is sacred, even though he has put a price on it. The internal rhyme of “clay” and “day,” culminating in the long a of “salesman,” puts that last word up in lights, stressing that in India the sacred and the economic are interwoven. The shivalingam, purchased, could become a “conversation piece” for one’s coffee table, but the poem is itself a “conversation piece,” depicting a conversation or failed conversation. It’s like a joke, with a punchline (“a Portuguese-­bred Indian walks into a bar…”), and reveals, like de Souza’s fiction, her willingness to write from her own life because “colleague,” I suspect, doesn’t roll off the tongue unless you’re an academic like her (or me).

The oppressive Hindu nationalism orchestrated by Narendra Modi, which has made India dangerous for all minorities and especially Muslims, has turned teaching my course “South Asian Poetry in English” at Harvard into an exercise in the surreal, even before the coronavirus outbreak. Two hours a week studying the intricacies of de Souza and others might seem obtuse in this world: fiddling while Rome burns. De Souza mentions the harassment of Muslims in Dangerlok. That made-­up word, which Rina learns from her “bai,” or maid, begins as a catch-­all term for ruffians of all stripes, then broadens in meaning:

This must have been the day after Babri and before the bombs. Before the bombs probably. Like so many others, she must have stayed at home, uneasy.

…A friend in another part of Bombay rang her. Her in-­laws, she said, had heard the Muslims were coming by sea. They and other worthies would be ready for them on the terrace, rocks in hands. She did not ask the friend where the in-­laws would find the rocks. Her friend did not like her in-­laws. Feed them to the Muslims, she said to her friend.

Again, there are so many speech-­acts, though you have to look for them in the prose, as you might sift beach sand through your fingers, hunting for a rare, unbroken shell. A friend rings the narrator, Rina; this friend reports what her in-­laws said, embedding one utterance within another, a matryoshka effect. “Worthies” is a dead-­alive English word pursuing a second, zombie existence in a former colony; it is here as satire. It’s a rock in de Souza’s hand, pitched at the heads of the intolerant.

For she isn’t afraid to go on the attack. Her first book of poems, Fix, published in 1979, targets the sexism of her religious education, with its distortion, amounting to erasure, of women’s bodies and voices—systematic obfuscation of half the population’s creaturely, thinking, feeling existence:

Pillar of the Church
says the parish priest
Lovely Catholic family
says Mother Superior

the pillar’s wife
says nothing.
(“Catholic Mother”)

Well, you can’t say
they didn’t try.
Mamas never mentioned menses.
A nun screamed: You vulgar girl
don’t say brassières
say bracelets.
(“Sweet Sixteen”)

These poems frame silenced, contradicted speech acts: “the pillar’s wife / says nothing”; “Mamas never mentioned menses,” “A nun screamed,” “don’t say brassières.” Some people say nothing because others say crushing things to them. Or they react like a rubber band, snapping into utterance without knowing what they’re talking about, simply because the opposite, not to hit back at once, would be submission. From the same poem:

At sixteen, Phoebe asked me:
Can it happen when you’re in a dance hall
I mean, you know what,
getting preggers and all that, when
you’re dancing?
I, sixteen, assured her
you could.

The lack of quotation marks makes for a giddy slide in, through, and out of the voices this poem records. “When,” at the end of the line, has its querulous vim underscored, avoiding the neat rhyme of “what” and “that.” Poetic form is tailored to display one type of Indian (young, female, Goan, midcentury) voice. De Souza isn’t (as Frost sneered about free verse) playing tennis with the net down. It’s more like squash: she hits each ball of sound, each round molecule of speech, against the wall, and when it hurtles back she knows just what to do.

In both prose and verse, de Souza loves slangy abbreviations because they represent Indians taking charge of English, doing their own thing with it. From Dev and Simran, published just two years after Dangerlok (these are short novels, matching her short poems) in 2003: “Off we go to a gynaec and I swear, Maya, his prodding and poking wasn’t just medical”; “Ye gods! Then Ved got senty and said, ‘We really miss Dev,’ and I found myself with tears in my eyes”; “there was this guy, some lecturer in philosophy who didn’t like to take off his undoos, and when he finally did, he ran away, just about stopping to put on his trousers.” These examples concern the sexual war between men and women: Dev and Simran is about bereavement (how Simran and her friends cope with her husband Dev’s death), and in Dangerlok, Rina shares letters and calls with a lover who may have discarded her for other women. Yet speech remains central: Rina’s calls and letters highlight the intensifications and diminutions of actual and printed voices, and Dev and Simran flips, like Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, among the voices of different characters as they grieve for their friend.

Simran recounts her marriage tenderly, without idealizing it, in passages so finely microadjusted, exploratory, and pliant that they can be analyzed like poetry:

Love. Had my marriage to Dev been a Grand Passion? Hardly. I didn’t really have a checklist for his qualities. He was familiar, comfy to be with most of the time. No, it wasn’t a Grand Passion. It hardly ever was. Something more subtle perhaps, more insidious. The way he held his cigarette, a shade of blue against his skin, the talc all over the shower-­room floor, the unemphatic voice.

I once saw a painting called “Silence.” It was painted white all over and had just one yellow spot in a corner. Taped music had filled the gallery, some inept woman moaning out a raga. I didn’t know what to make of it. Now I know, and it’s nothing to do with blank whiteness.

Weird to recall the way I would stand at the window and look at the birds Dev called me to see. He never got tired of them, especially golden orioles, but I would be impatient because I was in the middle of whisking an egg for an omelette or some such. Seems ridiculous now, to exchange an omelette for an oriole. But perhaps I’m just getting sentimental in retrospect. Omelettes had to be made, after all. No one lives life as if death is around the corner.

The unemphatic voice is real; the moaned raga isn’t. Relationship counselors talk of bids for attention, the moments when one party asks the other to come see, to share an experience, and how damaging it can be not to pay heed. Simran realizes she rejected Dev, ever so mildly, each time he called her to the window and she said she was busy, turning back to her omelet. “The melodrama of grief,” she says elsewhere, “is almost more upsetting than the event itself.” In de Souza’s poem “Travelling,” “a golden oriole chases a crow // Mine host waxeth sentimental. / Not a lover in sight.” It’s no good to get “senty,” because over-­strong feeling robs even bereavement of that sting of reality keeping contact with the dead loved one. One has to be realistic: “no one lives life as if death is around the corner.” In even the best relationship—I sense this commonplace hovering behind the scenes, but never activated, by this writer who is so alert to idiom, and surgical regarding clichés—you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.

De Souza, attuned to the countless tiny hemorrhages of spirit and feeling that can desiccate a life, writes personally, but her poems resist the reductions of confessionalism. The verbal torsion of their closing flourishes remains mysterious: something has been said, and snappily, but the essence is hard to grasp. “The Hills Heal” begins, “The hills heal as no hand does”: Does this mean the hills recover as the human being can’t or that the sight of hills cures us, beyond the power of anyone else’s “hand” to do so? She continues, “The heart is stilled by the blue flash / of a lone jay’s wing.” Monosyllables sing with internal rhyme and alliteration, but the poem’s end suggests closure is an illusion:

Yet the world will maul again, I know,
and I’ll go gladly for the usual price,

Emerge to flay myself in poems,

The sluiced vein just a formal close.

“There is a charge,” writes Plath, “For a word or a touch / Or a bit of blood / Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.” De Souza’s transaction is less clear. Her speaker can’t remain in her serene pastoral, for the “world” barges in, and she wishes for connection. But while the poem announces its own “formal close,” the meaning of that final line evades us. The vein is “sluiced,” rinsed of debris, rather than, as we might expect, “sliced.” Intertwining threads of sound (know-­go-­poems-­close, again-­flay-­vein, and the slant-­rhyme of price and close) enkindle a music irreducible—despite the self-­sabotaging word just—to a simple statement.

This acoustic sensitivity grounds a postcolonial self-­consciousness about how Indians talk. “Most of my friends annoy me,” thinks Maya in Dev and Simran: “Deblina, brought up in Standard, affects a kind of Indian English, coming down hard on her consonants like a hammer on hard wood.” But Maya is herself the product of an educational system struggling to articulate ideas of identity in a global multiculture, just like de Souza’s own students:

My students think it funny
that Daruwallas and de Souzas
should write poetry.
Poetry is faery lands forlorn.
omen writers Miss Austen.
Only foreign men air their crotches.
(“My Students”)

Compression is vital to each of those last three lines, laying out an assumption that canonical British literature is all an Indian student knows or needs to know. “Rina’s neighbour on the ground floor was from what a BBC newscaster called Utter Pradesh. It was pretty utter, if you discounted Bihar, which was about as utter as you could get.” How can Indians get out from under British texts and British voices? “Poetry is faery lands forlorn”: I read that single line, and think of Macaulay’s notorious pronouncement that “a single shelf of a good European library” is “worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” But the poem also works by appropriating the weakest line of Keats’s nightingale ode (in which he takes his eye off his subject and appears, if you trust his critics, to be thinking about a painting) and forcing its archaism toward a revelatory speech-­moment.

I don’t think de Souza ever quite solves the problem of how personal, or distanced, she’d like poetry to be: “Poems can have order, sanity / aesthetic distance from debris. / All I’ve learnt from pain / I always knew, / but could not do.” If one wanted to place her transnationally within a gendered tradition, there’s the caustic humor of Wendy Cope, Stevie Smith, and Selima Hill: women mocking the hubris of the Major Male Poet. But the restive vexatiousness of her poems is unique: their refusal to commit to a solacing narrative or coordinating rhythm, or to become one-­directional and (in the fashion of a more nakedly activist poetry) predictably devastating.

We find an example of this in “Women in Dutch Painting,” a poem that is easy, I think, to misread, without the illumination of Dangerlok. For Rina, everyday life provides an antidote to national horrors, if only because the unpredictable offers hope. Watching the news, she

looks for the people in the background. The woman entering a shop, a young couple holding hands. She likes to know what people are doing when they are not bobbing endlessly in front of the wall, or dying of hunger, or just dying, as they seem to do so insistently and predictably. It seems important that the woman keeps entering that shop; that the vegetable man put up a new board saying LEAKS PARCELY AVACADO when a politician is shown kicking a picture of Rushdie in the face while his followers laugh and applaud.

The woman and avocado both reappear—a sisterhood, domestic yet unreconciled—in de Souza’s poem:

The afternoon sun is on their faces.
They are calm, not stupid,
pregnant, not bovine.
I know women like that
and not just in paintings—
an aunt who did not answer her husband back
not because she was plain
and Anna who writes poems
and hopes her avocado stones
will sprout in the kitchen.
Her voice is oatmeal and honey.

Were it not for the passage from Dangerlok, we could mistake for defeatism the apolitical happiness this poem sponsors. The private self-­renewals of these women may seem paltry, but Maya in Dev and Simran dismisses her previously “bookish” injunctions to those she works with—the assumption they have concrete, life-­changing options: “I would tell vacillating women to take a stand. But they couldn’t, otherwise they wouldn’t have been vacillating in the first place. I would tell women who were being beaten to leave home. What they did was leave the Women’s Studies Unit. Where could they go given the price of flats in Bombay?” “Women in Dutch Painting” doesn’t assume the society it depicts can be changed. It’s realist, not utopian, in its smart-­casual syntax, which like silk combines delicacy with tensile strength through careful placement of individual words within each sentence.

The strength of these women is expressed in the negative, but a negative (those five instances of the word not) gradually moving the idea of resistance toward spontaneous self-­expression. The poem’s oscillation between art and life respects even quiet and superficially unrebellious existences. It responds to the overemphasis on “subversion” parodied in Dangerlok, inquiring into what a genuinely political poetry might look like if we discarded our mythmaking and idealist fantasies, our tendency to drastically overstate the immediate revolutionary power of literature. Doing so, we ignore what poems tell us from line to line about both worldly and personal possibilities. Reading de Souza, we realize that the power of speech depends on the existence of those with ears to hear; but if, as John Stuart Mill believed, “eloquence is heard; poetry overheard,” the speech for which the world is not yet ready may find refuge in poems.

Vidyan Ravinthiran is the author of Grun-tu-molani and The Million-Petalled Flower of Being Here, as well as a prize-winning study of Elizabeth Bishop.
Originally published:
June 1, 2020


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