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This report is taken from PN Review 258, Volume 47 Number 4, March - April 2021.

Fire and Tears: A Meditation Vahni Capildeo
The world is on fire. News of fires comes flying from poet and non-poet friends alike: not fires of scandal, but a tornado of fire in the US, the estimated death or displacement of perhaps three billion animals in Australia’s bush fires, and a landmark tree standing on Lady Chancellor Hill in Trinidad where my friend and I used to walk, still the shape of itself, but largely charcoal. John Kinsella, at an online event at the University of Warwick (November 2020), spoke of his hands-on work creating and maintaining firebreaks, and planting trees. Introducing the poetry readings and symposium for Plumwood Mountain journal’s ‘Writing in the Pause’ issue, Jonathan Skinner noted it could be called ‘Writing in the Fire’. Skinner’s introduction takes up this theme, pointing to the sameness as well as difference of the fires of ecological and sociopolitical violence. He quotes James Baldwin: ‘Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?’

According to people with a good internet connection, amiable faces, and eyesight that tolerates Zoom, we are integrated, or bricked up into, our houses as never before, while the pandemic flares around us. The office-house is a place of relative safety and comfort. It burns only as a hearth, a comfortable gathering-place… unless fire is hurled at it, unfairly. I shall return to this notion, which is acquiring the status of truth by virtue of repetition. First, a little more on fire.

Fire was integrated into my childhood house in the Americas as the Hindu god, Agni. When blue gas flared under the iron griddle, sometimes my mother or father would speak a Sanskrit formula, or at least Agni’s name. A miniature roti, if roti was on the menu (it wasn’t every day), was offered to him. Years later I saw a woman priest similarly invoke the Orisha god Shango when lighting incense. Fire was a sharp friend you learnt to handle. As I was small enough, sometimes I was tasked with crawling into the oven and lighting the gas. My earliest memories involve soaking earthenware lamps in water, preparing cotton wicks, and lighting rows of them, one from another, flame to flame, sometimes 300, for the Hindu New Year. When my father was cremated in an open-air pyre, a piece of white camphor was placed under his tongue. My brother lit it with a long bamboo torch: the final filial act of care. This disposal may seem cruel, but in Hinduism the body after death is like a soiled garment no longer needed. One of the presiding priests cited other Sanskrit names for fire, differentiating between the purifier and the destroyer.

I see fire, even destruction by fire, through the eyes of a child of a culture of fire. Burning can be integrated into the house, part of our domestic and spiritual ecology. The supreme yogi, Lord Shiva, famously turned distractions to ash with the concentrated heat of his third eye.

One week this winter, a close-reading group in Edinburgh looked at the Gospel of Matthew and the parable of the ten wise and foolish bridesmaids, or virgins. All ten took lamps, but only five took oil. They all fell asleep, and the bridegroom arrived at midnight. The foolish ones failed to borrow oil from the wise ones; they had to go shopping, making them late for the feast. When they arrived, the bridegroom would not let them in. He told them solemnly, ‘I do not know you’. There was much discussion of how being off guard is not the same as being wilfully underprepared; of the rights and wrongs of sharing in different situations, and what things we cannot share, but must seek and do for ourselves.

Naturally, it was the fire that caught my imagination. It reminded me of helping with preparations for a Vedic Hindu wedding. We needed many days, and were wildly excited when the groom’s party arrived, as is traditional, at the bride’s house for the final ceremony, which includes the couple walking around a fire, tied to each other by the wrist, facing the sun and becoming inhabited by the divine masculine and feminine. How far was the New Testament groom’s party travelling, perhaps in the dark or through wilderness? Without enough lamplight, perhaps they would lose their way. Even if they were bringing their own lamps, would they feel welcomed if they were not met with lamps? How else would illumination be mutual? For when you hurry out carrying a lamp, looking for the bright face of the bridegroom, your own face and path will be lit up. Perhaps having enough oil means having lived in a way that recognisably places you on the side of love. Perhaps it means making sure others don’t get lost while you and your friends are disputing resources.

When I think of fire, I also think of tears. Sitting masked and distanced on a Cambridge riverbank, two non-white women friends and I asked the usual catch-up questions. How is your family? Have you seen any nice cats? Has anyone cried at you lately? If you do not know what I mean, perhaps you have been insufficiently cried at. Here are two examples of weaponised tears, one from literature and one from life. In Henry VIII Act II Scene IV, Katherine of Aragon is on trial. She warns Wolsey: ‘My drops of tears / I’ll turn to sparks of fire’. He counsels patience. She calls this out as tone-policing. ‘You are mine enemy’, she declares, denying that he can be her judge. However, Katherine’s sense of her rights derives from her sense that she is royalty, not that people seeking justice commonly deserve to speak and be heard. The second example occurred at dinner after an event where I was an invited speaker. The organiser, a friend, caught my eye. She passed on a question from a translator guest: where had I learnt English? I spoke it very well. I looked at the questioner and gently challenged the grounds of the question. She stood up at table, like a golden lily, weeping with indignation while saying she was perfectly right to ask. She kept standing, insisting, and weeping. Her words hurt me. Her performance as vulnerable flesh made me wrong in my very body, like stone, for keeping my cool and wanting my dinner. Those crystalline tears blistered me. Being in company who could laugh at those tears would have performed a third-eye function: evaporating them. Otherwise, the tears stick and burn like pitch.

The phrase ‘white-women tears’ sounds tasteless and divisive. Yet how many readers share this experience of not infrequently being cried at? What interests me is the rupture in a dialogue that changes, in a professional or public context, from an equal exchange of words to the forced, shared witness of personal discomfort elevated to spectacular pain; and which bodies are turned by grief into a thing for a pedestal, not a thing to be tidied away. Paradoxically, in these cases, the apparently suffering body is the one that spoke hurtful words. The person at whom hurtful words were launched now is required, for the sake of amiability, to find comforting words to staunch the tears that have been launched. Crying is a form of setting what makes you uncomfortable on fire. It obliterates. It shows an individual sense of entitlement, a willingness to burn the house of conversation down.

My good internet connection found me and my faulty eyesight at a Zoom meeting listening to a speaker on the gaze. According to her, we are accustomed to looking out and to looking at. Now our houses are our shadow-play caves as we try to be present via the internet; and being masked if we do meet is a new deprivation. Almost everyone who had chosen to share their video showed rapt and amiable faces. This was in the eleventh month of the pandemic; for me, the eighth month of hearing paid professionals discourse on the office-house as a retreat, and enclosure as a rupture with the normal. Yet I was conscious that at least one listener not sharing their video was housebound by disability, not lockdown.

Suddenly I had a swooping vision of many years’ and two hemispheres’ worth of incarcerated people: migrants trapped on small islands in Scandinavia, the Mediterranean, the Pacific; detention centres in the neighbourhood of business-and-holiday British airports; crippled poor relations languishing in small rooms in the Caribbean and Latin America, where the state assumes ‘the family’ looks after its own. I ‘saw’ East Asian urbanites donning medical masks against pollution and winter flu. Sweaty bandanas were pulled up over dusty, filmic American desert faces. In memory, the roadside tea vendor in old Calcutta who communicated by flashing his eyes over the geometric scarf sheltering nose and mouth from the cold wind flashed his eyes at me again, urging me to speak.

My heart forcefully told me: visibility is a privilege. The expectation of being seen and known has hardened into scales that do not fall from ‘our’ eyes. Why not catch fire? Why not rush to find ‘our’ identity with the hidden ones instead… with the long-time masked? I put an ultra-condensed version of this in the Zoom chat box. The answer? What I had said was ‘brilliant … we in the west need to learn … We in the west have a lot to learn’. How did ‘west’ vs ‘east’ even enter the discussion? Katherine of Aragon’s tears transmute into flame so far as her queenly quality is perceived. My foreign quality whited out the re-visioning I proposed. The adjective ‘brilliant’, detached from any engagement, translates as ‘extra; optional, esoteric, distant and sometime-perhaps-never-to-come’. To be seen was to be mis-known, placed as oppositional, as being of the ‘east’. I stayed quiet. From experience of similar situations, I was afraid one of the good faces would cry or otherwise perform discomfort as pain. Tears are not mine to shed; my spirit returned a NO OIL TO SPARE error.

Will Harris, in Rendang (Granta, 2020), shows himself to be a poet of love and vision, who knows the world is on fire. His astonishing poem ‘Break’ opens with the speaker’s attempt to revive a dead tree by feeding it with coffee grounds. This gesture of emptying out as part of a cycle of nourishment, a work of faith more than hope, leads into a reflection on what it might mean to be ‘fine’ while being ‘on a break’ from one’s beloved. The stanza seems to carry out the digestion, or diffusion, of the steam and bitterness of yesterday’s coffee, along with unreported conversations. Primarily it records an openness to processes of transformation. The second stanza cites the Book of Job, Sharon Olds, and jazz ‘breaks’. This compound music of breakage accompanies the speaker saying ‘I’m aware of / something in me broken. That doesn’t mean unhappy’. The third and final stanza explores the break as in-betweenness:

You slip into the break and look around, see past and future,
love and sickness rearranged. Reordered. You feel yourself
both whole and breached. As me you. As you do.

Pronouns disturb each other’s territory in this syntax, so that being and doing, self and other, are in an unwonted state of intimacy and change. The poem concludes with trans-human tenderness, wondering about the consciousness of dying dogs, and whether it’s ‘like daylight breaking through an open door’. Not seeking likeness, Harris neither enforces nor condemns integration. By embracing absence, he embraces presence and loss. Without figuring internal adjustment as imposed, or external change as disastrous, his tearless yet vulnerable poetics of patience moves from heat to light, coming around to dawn.

This report is taken from PN Review 258, Volume 47 Number 4, March - April 2021.

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