Passage to more than India

Monkey: Selected India Poems, John Gimblett (64 pp. £7.99. Cinnamon).


I first met John Gimblett in the early 1980s, at a creative writing workshop in Newport, Gwent. Back then, he was already engaged in seriously experimental writing, and in editing and producing a magazine, Frames. His commitment to writing has continued since then, through various life changes. I mention this to account for the skilful and confident 'voice' behind the poems in Monkey - the sort of voice that only grows from long practice, and dedication to getting one's vision and experience down on paper.
   
Monkey contains 39 poems in all, some a single page in length, others two or three pages. The longest pieces are usually divided into sections. The form of the work is what I would call 'open field', exhibiting three characteristic stylistic tendencies. First, the poet favours such techniques as assonance, rhythm, emphatic line breaks, and repetition in an appropriately various way, to implement the unfolding of the poem. Thus a certain spontaneity is achieved, in contrast to a pre-ordained and regular pattern of metre and rhyme. Gimblett does, however, introduce a formal note on occasion in his use of stanzas. Second, and as a consequence of his 'open field' poetics, Gimblett remains aware and alert throughout the composing of the poem, moment to moment. This is where the practice and skill come in; paradoxically, it seems to be through long effort that we achieve a simple-seeming and natural flow. Third, at a whole-poem level, Gimblett remains open to holding different levels of reality in balance and motion. It is this awareness, alertness and openness - in short, consciousness - which is one of the unifying elements of Monkey.
   
Another cohesive aspect is the setting of the book, the mountains and cities of north-east India. This is a travel book, but of a special kind. It's not essentially a narrative in time, or even a log of one particular journey. As one might expect from a Westerner in these geographical parts, it is focussed on spirituality, but not exclusively on one set of beliefs or another; the author is alive to all manifestations of religion he encounters, whether Buddhist, Jain, Moslem or Hindu. In fact, the formula 'journey + religion' leads us to describe
Monkey as the record of a pilgrimage. And, as is usual and probably even desirable on a pilgrimage, the attempt of the self to remain calm and detached - or aware and alert - is threatened and eroded from all quarters.
   
The first line of the book, the opening of a poem called 'Picture', is tremendous. Its challenge beckons us in so many potential directions:

       
Nothing will change.

This bald, sudden statement is followed by two contrasting physical scenes, possibly from a photograph:

        The black, horned yak
        in the cornfield.

        Snow on the mountain,
        gold crown.

A 'timeless' vision, reminiscent of Thomas Hardy's 'In Time of “The Breaking of Nations” ', in which a ploughman behind an old horse, both of them half-asleep 'will go onward the same / Though Dynasties pass'. But wait a moment. That initial statement - do the italics infer a speaker? Or a thinker? The implied mood, about the coming journey as well as the immediate picture, could be fearful and pessimistic: that the pilgrimage will not shift a prevailing stasis, a  personal sense of isolation and futility. Or a positive, motivating sense that the purpose of journeying isn't the goal to be achieved, but the present moment to be deepened by the challenges ahead. Or even evidence of a mind already infected with the supposed fatalism of the East. Or all these things. And more.
   
This ambiguous mood follows through into the next few poems, set against a sketched background of mountain landscapes:

                    I wait
        with bated, still-dieseled breath
        for Lamaist profundities...

                        .

        We took a dirt track
        to nowhere.

        Knowing it would go
        nowhere.

And then, in a temple called Rizgong Gompa there is the first hint of that disintegration of the burdensome self so feared and sought for by travellers to the 'East':

        Pausing for breath
        at the wall...

        Absolute infinite silence
 
        Three hearts beating the
        jullay.

A silence and a sharing, as later in the kitchen a cup of tea is shared from a single chipped cup.
   
Now the journey begins, through a shifting geography of city and country, Hindu and Moslem, on foot and in trains. The train-travel poems are very vivid. There is also some direct reportage of scenes along the way, such as 'Train Inciodent, Tamil Nadu', in which the train stops unexpectedly, 'in the heart of nowhere', because of the accidental and horrifying death of a child. Here another, more harrowing theme commences: the attempt to look purposefully at the extremes of everyday suffering and death, especially on the streets of Calcutta, and at 'our' reactions to it.
   
The attempt at sustained awareness continues, communicated by some dazzling poetics. The skilled use of 'open field' techniques, as already mentioned, is illustrated by a section from a poem called 'A Religious Asian Equation'. The complex sequence of realities in this piece are held in a powerful flow, starting with smoke rising skyward, then moving to a landscape vision of temple spires seen from a train. Then:

                I go to the selfless
        self for refuge,
                encompassing, now, the
                three.
                I go to the sun

        for sustenance and
        creation sinks
        from the stars
                in comfort.

Note the skilful, subtle use of repetition ('I go...I go...'), and that comma placed before 'now', foregrounding the moment, plus the assonance and dissonance, and the gradual winding down of the rhythm of going, to a point of still 'comfort'.
   
We then have a dream, then some physical sensations ('knee denting straw rug/forehead sweated wrinkles/in oil anoint the floor'). The poem ends with a flower dropping a petal on the floor, which a cat 'sniffs, licks and discards/before leaving' - a perfect moment of heightened awareness of the ordinary, which the poem has so masterfully brought us to.
   
Can we see any particular influences on this poetry, any obvious antecedents? There is the general one of an 'open field' approach, which has of course been employed by many writers since the 1940s, and is probably the most widespread and consistently successful verse technique in current use. One might mention Gary Snyder: in terms of subject matter (Asian travels and a 'spiritual' matrix), the balancing of multiple realities within a single poem, and a tendency to a telegrammatic style and metonymic use of detail, there are some resemblances. The only references in the text of Monkey to other writing are to Whitman, who it's true did write a poem called 'A Passage to India'; and, by implication of the title, to the Chinese Buddhist classic Monkey, as translated into English in the last century by Arthur Waley, another writer who bridged East and West. But I can't see any stylistic traces from either Whitman or Waley. No, Gimblett is his own man, and as I said previously, the solidity of his kind of writing at its most successful can only flow from long dedication and practice, rather than direct influence.
   
Following the disturbing series of poems witnessing suffering on the Calcutta streets, we go back to the mountains of Ladakh, followed by some reflections on Jainism. There's also the development of the theme of photography - the separateness and 'objectivity' of the photographer, the voyeuristic element of any form of 'looking', and the usually unexamined implications and assumptions behind the relation of photographer and subject, in terms of 'self' and 'other'. This refers us back to the first poem in the book, 'Picture'.
   
The powerful title poem, 'Monkey', occurs about two-thirds of the way into the manuscript, and seems to encapsulate much of what has gone before. It deals with the temptation of suicide - or the temptation of death, to take a broader perspective: whether 'stepping into the tree tops' from a temple roof might be negative (falling) or positive (flying). Would one be 'supported' by the warm air and the tamarind leaves? This poem seems to me as much about dying to oneself, and the issue of trust involved in 'letting go', as about physically jumping. This moment is a crucial one in the pilgrimage. What's also interesting is that no monkey appears in the poem. Parakeets, yes; monkeys, no. Is the monkey, symbolically, the poet himself? This takes us back to the Chinese classic
Monkey, concerning the 7th century pilgrimage of Tripitaka to India from China. Various animals with all-too-human qualities accompany Tripitaka; Arthur Waley describes Monkey as standing for 'the restless instability of genius'.
   
The manuscript is now moving towards closure, an ending, although an aspect of that ending must be to suggest the continuing resonance of the journey after the words have ceased. There's no neat story line, no consistent narrative to fall back on here. There is some prolonged, nightmarish discomfort, as in the poem 'Maya'. The return is signalled by the voice of a loved one on the phone from 'home', 'creaking through a larched wire'; and also by a hard-won glimpse of the breaking of opposites - self and other, east and west - and a tentative placing of the poet in some sort of universal continuity larger than himself. Thus, at the head of the poem 'Repetition Repetition', Whitman's epigraph effuses 'For every atom belonging/to me as good belongs to you'. An unnamed 'you' and 'I' become 'molecules within the buzzing whole, giving this place substance'. 'Shadows of all pasts pull/us in, pull us in.' An anti-climactic final poem, 'Exuent', reminds us, however, that the journey also had a unique existence in time, and that separation from the experience, the return to 'normality', is as inevitable as it is unpleasant:

        a haggard I dragged
        a padlocked bag of
        rubbish to a plane.

        With a slightly
        less than fond farewell
        to Dum Dum
        I was gone.

There are occasional slack moments in the manuscript, a loss of focus. Also, in the Calcutta scenes, there is a sense of repetition that perhaps diminishes the awful sights by over-emphasis. However, these mild deficits are far outweighed by the veracity of the realities put before us, and the skill and confidence with which the whole is realised. A true pilgrimage!

            © Phil Maillard 2009