Weekend Poem: Bones by Mahadai Das

Mahadai Das, a poet from Guyana, came of age in the 1970s, just after the country got its independence from the British. She was among the first Indo-Caribbean women to be published and died an untimely illness-related death, at age 49, in 2003.

Her poems, largely in the Imagist and Gothic traditions, are metaphorical and sensuous. She wrote mostly in English, but there were some experiments with Creole. And, of course, Indic rhythms and aesthetics formed a strong scaffolding throughout, making her work rich and lyrical, a joy to be read out aloud.

Das’ oeuvre ranged from the political to the personal, with themes such as ethnic relations and identities, gender issues, working conditions and women’s lives in Guyana, love, illness and death (the latter three due to her own debilitating health conditions). Her later work did tend towards satirical and philosophical (she had come to the US for a Philosophy Doctorate that had to be given up due to health problems). Read a few of them here and here. An excellent review of her posthumously-published poem collection, ‘A Leaf in His Ear‘, by Vahni Capildeo (another Indo-Caribbean poet from Trinidad, who counts V S Naipaul, Nobel Laureate for Literature, among her extended family) is here.

This poem, though it starts with a rather negative, dark image of decaying objects hanging in a closet, hidden away and almost forgotten, does end with a more positive note of new hope rising beautifully, like music.

From the objects described in the closet (which is in an attic, we learn from later lines), we understand the speaker to be a woman of mixed ethnic heritage, much like Das herself. Jewels, petticoats and veils jostle and cry out among prom dresses, pumps and brogues. But, their appearance and their sounds are described with words such as “grotesque”, “strange”, “gauntness” and “bony”, implying that they are unnatural, anomalous and have been decaying from neglect. The line where she describes the pumps and brogues as being blind to the “squeals” of their ghoulish neighbors could well be describing the identity conflict within the speaker herself or, very possibly, the larger ethnic/racial conflict within Guyanese society.

Yet, in the next section, the poem soon turns to the importance of those ancient, decomposing objects and how they hold, within them, stories of better, flourishing times. How they haven’t quite given up the ghost yet, for “they want a say, without doubt”. While describing the macabre skeletal remains, the speaker now strikes a stronger, more positive note that the “bones could make more than music” and that they are “a fire-tried instrument”. It is interesting that she references the ancient use of bones to make musical instruments like the flute rather than the relatively more prevalent uses of bones in, say, magic/occult practices or as bone char in sugar-refining processes – both of which, she must surely have been familiar with. Perhaps, it is just because she wanted to invoke the metaphor of music and song in the later lines. Still, an interesting and singular choice.

When she gives us “They have no wish to stay in the attic / they want to be part of this world”, it is the major climactic turning point because the objects have now gone from anachronistic and almost-lifeless descriptions to having human-like wishes and wants. From here on, through the last section, as she describes their “hunger” for song, and how they take to waiting patiently through the seasons, there is a palpable sense of life breathing into them and making them whole again. The metaphor of farmers turning the earth over with ploughs signifies a new beginning. And, the “golden seedlings” that “offer love” as opposed to, say, vicious weeds that shoot out and thrive unwanted and regardless does rather imply a more peaceful, organic and welcome emergence.

The speaker ends with a description of the bones as white flutes sending out full and rising musical notes – which could be read, at a personal level, as the speaker’s ancient cultures and traditions emerging from that closet in the attic and creating a new and glorious kind of music and song, but also as the larger, collective Indian culture within Guyana doing the same. [I don’t quite know what to do with “helium balloon” in the last line, so I’m going to leave it.]

In the end, this is a romantic, even somewhat sentimental, poem. Yet, when considered in the context of Guyana’s ethno-political history and the rest of her poems, it is so much more.

Although Vahni Capildeo has stated that “It would be madness to try to imagine how, given another twenty or forty years, Das would have burgeoned and flourished”, it is impossible not to.

Bones

Grotesque jewels, they hang
in my closet beside prom dresses
and red pumps.

When petticoats are sleeping,
they continue to jangle.
They make a strange noise.
Moonlight shadows their gauntness.
Pumps and brogues are blind to their squeals

Veils thin to a fringe on their bony blades.
They could tell a tale.
They want a say, without doubt.

Long ago, they were supply fleshed.
But then, all meat fell away
from the bone. Some teeth
and hair remained.
Someone should examine their story.
After all, it’s not that they dwindled
into dust altogether. Besides,
these bones could make more than music.
They’re a fire-tried instrument.

They have no wish to stay in the attic.
They want to be part of the world.

Oh they are hungry for wind to sing
through their tissue, so hungry.
They wait for the earth at the plough.
After winter’s fallowness
and all its severity,
when earth is torn up
by the diligent farmers,
when golden seedlings
offer
love to their heavens,
they wait without praise or reprimand.

So when these white flutes
send a note out – a golden apple
from the Mexican border – it takes to air,

full shape climbing,
rising

helium balloon forever

— From A Leaf in His Ear: Selected Poems by Mahadai Das (also in They Came in Ships: An Anthology of Indo-Guyanese Prose and Poetry)

Some Notes on Indo-Caribbean and Guyanese History:

From the early-19th century-onwards, after the 1833 Slavery Act came into being in the British Empire and her colonies, over half a million Indians from British India were taken to the Caribbean as indentured labor for sugar cane plantations. Indentured servitude wasn’t new or restricted to Eastern nations – before 1840, about an equal number of Europeans had also been lured by dreams of eventually owning their own lands and striking it rich. But, the latter practice had died out to be replaced by cheaper labor from the East, particularly India. And, the British weren’t alone in this practice, as the French and the Dutch also had colonies in the Caribbean and negotiated with the British to acquire indentured Indian workers brought over.

As with any mass migration traditions from those times, there were many racial difficulties with integration and assimilation. But, the Indians did eventually thrive and grow. In present times, Indo-Caribbeans form a majority demographic in Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Suriname, and a substantial minority in Jamaica, Grenada, Barbados, and other Caribbean islands. They have also migrated to the US, UK, Canada, South America (something the Jamaican poet, Louise Bennett-Coverly, wrote about in her song-like poem, Colonization in Reverse). For more about Indo-Caribbean history, try ‘India in the Caribbean‘ by David Dabyd and Brinsley Samaroo.

Guyana is on the northern coast of South America – one of those rare Caribbean nations that is not an island. First colonized by the Dutch, then the British, it gained independence in 1966 and is now part of the British Commonwealth. With a population of less than one million, it is a small nation, though it boasts of nine active Native American tribes. Still, the Indo-Guyanese (descendants of the Indian indentured servants) and the Afro-Guyanese (descendants of the African slaves) form the largest ethnic groups. The man largely considered as the “father of the nation”, and its President in the late-90s, Cheddi Jagan, was the son of first-generation indentured Indian servants.

English and Creole are the two common languages, though Guyanese literature is predominantly English. The most well-known work of literature is the autobiographical novel, ‘To Sir, With Love‘ by E R Braithwaite (also a movie with Sidney Poitier). The most famous poet is Martin Carter, who was also a political activist and known for his poems of protest, resistance and revolution.

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