Fireflies in the Rubble
Dr Pravat Kumar Padhy reviews ‘Fireflies in the Rubble’ a collection of Haiku verse by Arvinder Kaur. This collection uses varied images to express the poet’s sense of melancholy and grief at the loss of her parents. Her poetry also dwells philosophically on the ephemeral nature of life.
Arvinder Kaur is an academician, poet and translator of repute. The collection ‘Fireflies in the Rubble’ reflects a sense of deep melancholy. The collection is essentially a haiku one with a few tanka and cherita. The poet expresses her loneliness and sketches a touching portrait of life and nature (shasei). She reminisces about her childhood and life experience and portrays them through poetic images. The feeling is largely centered on inner awareness associated with nature. The interlaced elegant monochromatic paintings by Kamisaka Sekka, the iconic Japanese artist, add a riveting visual facet to the collection. She refers to a mother as ‘creation’s most unique and precious pearls’ and dedicates the collection to her mother:
my thoughts to her …
The title of the collection embodies her journey through childhood memories, motherhood, loss of parents, and life with pangs of loneliness. The poet’s journey records the events of her life with their admixture of joy and grief. She relishes the memories of her childhood days:
the music of rain
with her lullaby
of stolen raw mangoes
She remembers every bit of her childhood: skipping rope, fading height marks, playing with siblings. She recalls the wonderful moments with her mother in the kitchen, playing with the smoke ring (kitchen tales/ passing my finger/ through a smoke ring). This becomes a manifestation and presentation of the of the innocence and naivety of childhood. Her haiku reflect the psychological intensity as she bridges the transition: ‘origami skiff/ a bit of my childhood/ sails away’, and moves ahead with dreams of her bridal lehnga, ‘as if the unknown is all mine …’ and the ‘love note turning pink’ in her pocket.
She paints her motherhood in an aesthetic way:
the joy of my new-born’s
the toddler’s grip
tightens on my breast
and with the rhythm of silence: knitting needles/ a rhythm of silence/ in the night.
The darkness of emotion eclipses her life with the loss of her parents. She feels the agony of darkness through the faint light of fireflies. This brings to mind the analogy of Kyoshi Takahama (1874-1959), a great haiku poet who laments: ‘I hurl a firefly into the darkness/ and sense the enormity of night’ (Tr. Michael R. Burch).
She remembers with love and affection her Mama’s bedtime stories, quilt, prayer book, kitchen, money plant, lime tree, pickled mangoes and the shade of the tree her grandmother had planted. In her poetry, there are images that resound with her love and respect for her dear ones, her grandma, her mother and her daughter.
She recollects the time spent with her father. Her poetry breathes life into the objects she associated with her father, his spectacles, the dusty side of the table, an unsolved crossword. In a touching verse, she says:
which star is he
which shape in the clouds
She feels the roses are now dry but the agony whirls around as ‘ache remains so fresh’.
Arvinder ’s haiku poetics speak about her awareness through nature-centric expression. Her poetic scale exhibits varied shades of nuanced feelings rather than an emotional outburst. It reminds me of Robert Spiess’s quote: ‘Generally, the depth that genuine haiku have is not a depth created by force (as by emotion) but a depth created by suggestion, nuance, intuition, which are those of feeling.’
sand grains slide
from mother’s hand
after the funeral
the quiet embrace
She recalls her mother ‘the last/ of her pickled mangoes…/oil stains’ and wonders ‘how random/ the shape of things to come …/ dandelions’. She surrenders lamenting ‘what we are/ to a raging sea…/ sand grains’. She tries to mingle and be a part of the response of boundless nature. Nature offers solace and teaches acceptance, when man is confronted with the ephemeral quality of life. This sense of acceptance woven together and braided with human feelings of joy and grief. The surrealistic philosophy is rediscovered with a new orbital spirit of haikai and its poetic spell. Arvinder is at her best with poetic elegance (miyabi) having her choice of characteristic imageries to express human feeling. Her poetry, as Lorraine Ellis Harr says is “an intuitive response to experience… It is NATURE poetry-- in its purest sense…haiku requires us to sense (with a kind of 6th sense) what is only indicated by the poet.”
Arvinder’s attachment to her parents and their love and affection are blended with a sense of divinity. One can compare her art of grief-ridden expression with haiku Master, Busan: 父母のことのみおもふ秋のくれ chichi haha no koto nomi omou aki no kure:
Father and mother —
My thoughts keep turning to them,
At the end of autumn.
-Buson (Source: Leon M. Zolbrod, Modern Haiku 28:3,1997)
The poetic spell in the collection is primarily characterized by the aesthetic sense of simplicity (wabi) and loneliness (sabi). She is inconsolable at the loss of her parents: ‘unable to bear/ the weight of rain …/cherry petals’. The shade of loneliness has been portrayed in a unique way with agony and ache:
the loneliness of each leaf
I was no one’s daughter
silence of the doorbell
She feels deserted and embraces the moon: ‘empty nest/ something of me/ in the waning moon’. The feeling resonates with Buson’s lines: 中々にひとりあればぞ月を友 nakanaka ni hitori areba zo tsuki o tomo (Even more/ because of being alone/ the moon is a friend).
She writes with a pen dipped in agony, using metaphors to articulate her grief and loss.
at childhood home
fireflies in the rubble
The word phrases like ‘taste of someone’s kiss’, ‘canopy of stars’, ‘hydrangea clouds’, ‘rain-tipped leaf’, ‘grains of memories’, ‘river of heaven’ etc. give her collection a literary richness. In the end, attaining the circle she discovers her mother in her daughter: ‘covid restrictions/ the way my daughter /mothers me’.
The usage of imagery, symbolism and art of juxtaposition embodies her writing with haiku spirit The structural framework, language and rhythms are crafted with aesthetic sensibility. She infuses the sense of quietude and profundity and transcends her life sketch in an autobiographical style through the pages of haikai literature. The mélange of images portray a unique blend of personal experience and solitude with a subtle underlying philosophical tone as she wonders:
into my shell …
this world of humans
About the Author
Arvinder Kaur specialises in English literature and Media Studies which she taught in Post Graduate Colleges of Punjab and Chandigarh. Later she retired as Principal from Govt College Dera Bassi. Punjab.She has a passion for Japanese short form poetry. “ I can never get tired of exploring the depths and the mysteries of this genre “ , she says.She is fascinated by the sunsets and by the jacaranda blossoms. She lives in Chandigarh with her family.