Wild Words Four Tamil Poets published by Harper Perennial is a collection of select poetry of four contemporary Tamil poets, Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani translated from Tamil into English by Lakshmi Holmstrom.
Lakshmi Holmstrom is particularly known for her translation of Bama’s Karukku and Ambai’s short stories, In a forest, a Deer. In the translator’s note Holmstrom informs the reader that the four poets in the collection came into sharp focus with the publication of Kutti Revathi’s Mulaigal (Breasts, 2002) which faced harsh criticism for taking on the taboo subject of women’s bodies, so much so that they were even subject to death threats from the so-called ‘custodians of Tamil culture’.
Perhaps what this collection best highlights even without going into the troubled history of their publication is the nuanced diversity of women’s experiences according to class, caste, place and religion which gives a fresh perspective to feminism. Therefore just as it is foolish to homogenise feminism similarly it is extremely naive to label the poems immediately as ‘obscene’ or the poets as ‘bad girls’ without taking the artistic point of view. While what binds the poems in this collection together is the effort of all the poets to raise some form of awareness to mitigate the oppression of women yet the feminist and artistic journey that each embarks on is unique and universal which perhaps gives this collection an immediacy and freshness of approach.
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The poems of poet and activist Malathi Maithri who was born and raised in a fishing community set the tone for the collection of ‘Wild Words’. There is in fact a juxtaposition or movement between two distinct strains of thought in her poetry: the familiar states of oppression and experience and the imaginary states of emancipation. The former relates to her depiction of the plight of women of the fishing community subject to crushing hard work and hunger who can only fill their empty stomachs with a bit of rice water (Camels, horses and a fish Basket), or the familiar natural surroundings of the river-bed (Observe the crane). The common experience of child birth metamorphoses to a ‘snow storm‘ and ‘raging wave‘ and finally to a ‘great exploding volcano’ (in Bhumadevi) and swaying on the swing transforms into a supernatural experience where ‘stars bloom‘ and ‘lightning charge‘ (Swing). Her imaginary states of emancipation further relate to her alliance with the female poets of the past Sappho, Sylvia Plath and Velliviidhi to create a world where ‘we will read our poems/full of dreams and desires, Sovereign Queens of words; we will weave with our bodies‘ (Empress of Words). Even this is not enough for in the end women, poet and demon become one to stand outside time as ‘nilli wicked woman‘ (Demon Language).
The poet Salma who had a middle class Muslim upbringing was deprived of education at an early age and is entirely self-educated. Her poetry explores the alienation in a traditional marriage, the power balance in favour of the husband, the hostility and lack of support to the women from even her parental family. These harrowing experiences are narrated in A midnight tale, New bride, New Night, The contract and An Evening Another Evening. She explores a world where ‘enclosed within four walls/ there is no shade for me to sit’ and ‘in this universe/there may be many creatures/alone with their prey/ living amicably together/ leading pleasant lives‘ (An Evening Another Evening). The husband even after childbirth continues to want an unblemished body of his wife. While the birth marks can’t be erased from a woman’s body the man has the advantage of maintaining relations with other women without ever being caught. The woman is forever chastened for all that goes wrong, for the bride’s sister angrily and her mother subtly blames her ‘for all that goes wrong/ in the bedroom‘ (The Contract), while the man is always at an advantageous position for his, ‘body is not like mine it proclaims itself/ it stands manifest’ (A midnight tale).
The poet Sukirtharani who belongs to the Dalit caste gives a fresh perspective to women’s experiences incorporating the caste point of view in her poetry. Like Maithri, in her poems too are the distinct strands of commonplace states of experience and the imaginary states of emancipation. The former relates to the introspection of the life of the Dalits in the villages who carry, dispose or skin the carcasses of animals of the upper caste, beat the drums in the funeral processions and are ultimately humiliated by the constant segregation and denial from mainstream village life (I speak bluntly and A faint smell of meat). In these poems her imagery is always rooted in the Dalit experience be it the imagery of the village, or the land, or people. In Portrait of my village the ‘pain of caste‘ is forever present and so is the ‘tormenting hunger‘ as the Dalits are paid such meagre compensation for their hard labour. In the imaginary realm she seeks a new language that ‘will put an end to sorrow‘ (Infant Language). In the The only woman in the world she imagines a woman for whom ‘men turned to stone wait, aeon upon aeon to be released form their curse by the touch of her feet.’
Kutti Revathi expresses her feminist concerns as she imbibes women’s experiences, be it the act of love, ‘The force of our love’s union/ is like the read earth and pouring rain‘ (Rain river), childbirth (in the poem Childbirth), through the metaphor of nature and the woman’s body. But the silencing and the capitulation of the women through the metaphor of the body is also highlighted in poems such as Stone Goddesses where ‘at the merest hint of a man’s scent they decline into lifeless corpses‘.
In conclusion it is worth going back to the turbulent history of the publication of the poetry in this collection. The translator notes that since the 90s women’s poetry came to be highlighted because it was different from mainstream poetry. This brings to an important point relating to the review of this book. Kutti Revathi in ‘Tamil Women’s poetry: A Current of Contemporary Voices’ has noted, “Just as the body belongs to man, so do the words that denote the parts thereof… So, too, is the exclusion of women from poetry. And where her entry is permitted, such permission is granted only on condition that her poetry must subject itself to self-censorship.” Thus just like in society a women has to conform to certain diktats so too to enter the finest literary genre of poetry a woman has to seek conformity to the established male tradition. It is expected that even though she speaks about her own body her own experiences it has to be attuned to the male view of the women’s self. Without getting into it sociologically it is pertinent to also say that obscenity is frequently an allegation concocted by the dominant sections in the literary world to dismiss non-standard modes of expression of the weaker sections as not being good enough.
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It is common knowledge that frequently each of the women in this collection seeks to uproot this tradition Maithri seeks ‘a demon language‘ (Demon Language), Sukirtharani a language that is ‘open and honourable’ (Infant Language), Kutti Revathi wants to reject it all ‘the mistakes of history/ the slashes that outline the body/ destruction of imagination‘ (Face to Face), and Salma ‘wants to imagine an entirely new dream‘ (Green Angel).