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‘Sureness of the Thing’

Updated: Sep 13, 2023


We are delighted to publish de Kooning’s Smile, Deepankar Khiwani’s collected poems, with an in-depth introduction by Anand Thakore. This is Copper Coin’s second collected, since John Berger’s in 2015. We are so taken with the introduction that we feel compelled to share it in its entirety, but not before sharing a cherished memento:

Here, in his own handwriting, Deepankar reveals his fondness for formalism besides the Kabir-like relief on finding ‘his mirror cracked’. The woman in Kabir was relieved to find her earthen pot shattered ‘one day’:

भला हुआ मेरी मटकी फूटी रे

मैं तो पनिया भरन से छूटी रे

However, Deepankar’s poem takes an intriguing turn and we partake of the ensuing epiphany, not without wonder.


The poet-publisher Sam Hamill had his own tender way of remembering dead poets:


All the quiet afternoon splitting wood, thinking about books, I remembered Snyder making a handle for an ax as he remembered Ezra Pound thirty years before, thinking about Lu Chi. Using the ax, I forget the ax.

Closing my eyes, I see.


—‘Old Bones’, Almost Paradise (Shambala, 2005), p. 113


Anand Thakore’s manner of recall is his own:

INTRODUCTION

Anand Thakore



i. O Half-Written Mis-Spelt Life


If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart

Absent thee from felicity a while

And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain

To tell my story.

—Hamlet, act v scene ii


I first met the author of these poems in Cathedral and John Connon School, Mumbai. We were both fourteen at the time, and fate, for its own strange reasons, had chosen to place us in the same ninth-standard division of a school that Salman Rushdie had recently described in Midnight’s Children[i]; a school moreover, curiously enough, that Adil Jussawalla, who was soon to play a supportive role in our lives as poets, had attended three decades earlier. On a sultry July afternoon at the beginning of term, the author of these poems approached me to inquire why I spent my lunch breaks reading instead of playing football or ‘quad’[ii] downstairs like everyone else. This ironic concealment of true intent was typical of his multi-layered personality, and intricately bound up with those masks he continued to wear for the rest of his life, with his strange determination to appear ‘normal’, ‘mainstream’ and ‘socially adapted’ at all costs, while secretly sustaining a rich, if deeply perturbed, intellectual life that was always cautiously curtained from those immediately around him. His love of poetry and his pursuit of the art as a practising poet was to remain for him a highly private matter for most of his life, and it is my belief that towards the end he had come to feel the pinch of his own invisibility, regretting the fact that he had only rarely, if ever, attempted to project himself as a poet in society. The true subject of his curiosity when he came up to me that afternoon was not why I was reading instead of doing what most of our classmates were doing during lunch break but what it was specifically that I was reading at the time and why. I happened at the time to be poring over the pages of a metrical translation of the Iliad by Sir William Morris,[iii] which I’d picked up for ten rupees from the street-side booksellers just outside the Junior School building. I was soon to discover that his knowledge of Greek mythology so far exceeded mine that it made me feel like a novice. He had recently put together a vast chart tracing the genealogies of the Olympians and the Titans and all their half-human, half-divine descendants. It ran into reams of foolscap sheets and accounted for discrepancies between various mythological traditions. Even more remarkably, he had just penned a highly incisive critique of ‘To a Skylark’ (prescribed on the ICSE syllabus) which condemned Shelley’s ‘arbitrary’ use of the simile and attempted to drive home the notion that ‘fine music’ and ‘the aesthetics of variety’ were no satisfactory substitute in poetry for visual accuracy. Here was someone whose mother had brought him up on a rich diet of Victorian, Romantic and Elizabethan verse (she had introduced him to the basic principles of scansion in his early teens); someone who had already begun to come up with neatly chiselled units of stanzaic verse at a time when I hadn’t really got beyond the rough prose ekphrasis, though elementary musical composition in raga and tala, by contrast, was a process that had already begun in my life. My early initiation (also parental) into Hindustani music, mirrored his initiation into the art of poetry and that most serendipitous of lunch-break encounters was to be the beginning of a literary rapport that lasted unbroken for thirty-five years. It was also the opening act of one of the most intense and sustained friendships I have ever known: we were brothers, rivals, friends, fellow-poets and much more; and it was not for nothing that Dom Moraes referred to us a decade later, in partly malicious jest, as ‘the incestuous twins of the Bombay poetry world; our very own Rimbaud and Verlaine . . .!’ My friendship with Deepankar Khiwani would rightfully make for the subject of an extended memoir, and the very thought of capturing some of its intensity here, in this introduction, so soon after his recent and wholly unexpected demise, fills me with dread. I have chosen, instead, to glide over such personal matters for now and concentrate on his sporadic but significant poetic oeuvre, restricting myself to biographical details that are directly connected with it. In his late thirties, the poet was to revisit the scene of our first meeting, to ask once again in verse those lethal questions of identity that so disturbingly pervade most of his work:


now thirty-seven I sometimes still sit at Mocambo

and write on my napkins the usual questions;

what growing up meant, what the city is,

what I means . . .


Then I walk past my old school

and hear them practising the anthem:

School first, House Next, Self Last.

And comfort myself with that order of things

Beyond the high stone wall


‘Cathedral’


__________



Deepankar Kishan Gopal Khiwani was born in Delhi in 1971 (the same year as the author of this essay, who was born in Mumbai, a few months earlier). His paternal ancestors were wealthy Hindi-speaking landowners originally from Punjab, who had settled near Multan, where they owned large agricultural estates. During the partition of Punjab, they were forced to abandon everything they owned and fled into exile, migrating to various parts of North India. Exile, rootlessness and concomitant histories of loss, a sense of being cut off from the past and of belonging nowhere, are fundamental themes in Deepankar’s encapsulations of personal crises; though political and cultural contexts are often suggested only peripherally, if at all. This chronic sense of belonging nowhere is curiously countered by a deliberate attempt to belong everywhere at once, as it were, by means of a meticulously cultivated anglophone internationalism, whose limitations too he is forced at times to acknowledge:


My sleepless eyes

rest on that single sign that makes it seem

I still am in this city; then realise

how it could well be any other name

on this departure screen . . . for these bright halls

in every airport begin to look the same

Delhi Airport’


Deepankar’s mother, Swapna Dutta, was possibly the most potent influence on his creative processes, the force that first ‘shaped’ him in childhood—to quote a famous line by Dom Moraes, a poet whom Deepankar revered—‘for the craft of verse’.[iv] A rare connoisseur of literature, and of poetry in particular, she too, like his father, grew up in an atmosphere of dislocation and unforeseen deprivation. Born in an affluent Bengali family, and raised in Calcutta, she lost both her parents in her teens and was cheated of her inheritance. She brought her children up on Victorian novels and poetry—Tennyson, Browning and the Romantics in particular—and she introduced Deepankar to the rudiments of metrical writing long before most of us knew anything about such matters. The dedication to ‘Ispahan’ (a poem written shortly before the author’s death, which deals with the surgical removal of a malignant growth) reads: ‘for my Mother, who taught me the poem by Browning,[v] but was terrified I’d learn too much.

On moving to Bombay, the Khiwanis settled first in Worli and then in Versova, a ‘distant suburb’ which, in those days, would have been considered the back of beyond by most kids at Cathedral School. The economic circumstances of Deepankar’s childhood were unstable to say the least, but the cultural environment he grew up in was, by contrast, rich. His parents saved whatever they could to send him to one of the oldest and best reputed English schools in the city; and I feel the emphasis on Western and anglophone traditions in his parents’ choice of school and in his upbringing in general is crucial in context. The ICSE syllabus which was taught at Cathedral was designed for first-language English speakers, and was in many ways more advanced than the one taught at government schools (we had to study Shakespeare, for instance, and Deepankar stunned us by committing whole plays to memory.) Coming from Versova, he would have had to get up at six in the morning to be in school by eight-thirty; most of us got to school in less than half an hour by car or bus. Deepankar, though he concealed this admirably, and excelled in academics and generally outsmarted his peers, could not but have been aware that he was a not-so-affluent boy amongst the children of cinema tycoons and leading industrialists; and the financial insecurities of his childhood years were to determine much of the course of his later life—his repeated abandonment of art for the sake of more tangible concerns (only to return to poetry each time in greater desperation). For all his erudition and natural genius, poetry remained for him at best a serious avocation and seeking to make a profession out of writing of any sort involved a risk, at once emotional and financial, which he was simply not willing to take. Indeed, he seems to have turned his back upon poetry completely for large sections of his adult life, fearing the self-destructiveness it seemed necessarily to involve, vowing ‘not to return’. Ambivalence with regard to poetry as a way of life was a salient feature of his fractured personality and after coming to adulthood, he seems to have written only when he could no longer restrain himself; when life, in other words, compelled him to compose verse:


But these bright halls, although as dirty-white,

these basins, mirrors ageing just the same,

were different that adolescent night

I vowed not to return though still I came . . .


‘Delhi Airport’


Shakespeare was probably Deepankar’s greatest obsession in school; but his allegiances, when it came to lyric verse per se, were to the Victorians (Tennyson, Browning and Arnold) and the Romantics (Keats and Coleridge in particular). He introduced me to The Ballad of Reading Gaol[vi] and could recite most of The Rhyme of The Ancient Mariner[vii] by heart. His memory for English verse was enormous, accurate and enviable, as also his capacity to reproduce the lyrics of black-and-white Hindi film songs (which were to influence his later poetics considerably, if surreptitiously). His reading on subjects like the history of European art and the kings and queens of England was extensive. He also developed a habit in school of sketching human figures in his notebooks and demonstrated considerable natural skill as a draughtsman; but what was truly interesting about these sketches was that almost all of them were characterised by a sense of gender-neutrality—one simply couldn’t tell if they were men or women. One afternoon he shared with me his dark, burdensome secret, hitherto unrevealed to anyone except, possibly, his mother: He told me that he wrote poetry.

I didn’t get to see any of his early attempts at verse until just after that hugely liberating moment in our mid-adolescent lives when we graduated from school. We met regularly throughout our college years, sometimes to show each other poems or short prose pieces we had been working upon. The internet had not yet appeared on the scene, so one had to meet physically to do this. Like many precocious, overly intellectual adolescents, we flirted with philosophy, almost as if to mask our deeper concern with poetry. We had begun to ask, along with authors like Kenneth Clarke, Will Durant, Jean-Paul Sartre, Arthur Schopenhauer and Herbert Read, general questions concerning the nature of art; questions that were to work themselves into the fabric of his poetry in the years to come. However he may have sought to answer these questions, both in theory and practice, at different times in his life, craft, as such, was fundamental to his way of perceiving art; and he was never really to abandon his formalist moorings, though he attempted consciously, at times, to break free from them. The precariously balanced and mellifluously cadenced lines quoted below from ‘Study of a Vase’ (Entr’acte, 2005), with their adept handling of iambic rhythms, enjambement and rhyme, come together to form what Cleanth Brooks might have called a ‘well-wrought urn’.[viii] And they do this while discussing those very questions with regard to the nature of art that we met as teenagers to so passionately discuss. While the poem is, at one level, about the attempt to sketch an object, language itself, in order to become poetry for Deepankar, needed to acquire the characteristics of the well-made object. Technique, as such—the means by which the poem or ‘linguistic object’, so to speak, acquired its unique shape—remained always of paramount importance to him; though never at the cost of the intense, personal significance that specific objects, persons, places and situations held for him:


Art destroys

the sureness of the thing. Perhaps this small

chip off the rim will stay unseen; if drawn, a choice

addition or faithful flawism—and yet all

create a symbol that forgets the symbol that this

has been, found in my grand-aunt’s wooden chest,

holding her letter to a child born dead. It is

a sign of the dying that seek the dead’s long rest.


‘Study of a Vase’


In his collegiate years, he laboured to hone his command over rhymed, metered and stanzaic composition, attempting an almost Tennysonian smoothness of cadence and control of line while simultaneously exploring the potential of more open forms. The boy who had said to me in school that he didn’t read modern verse because it meant very little to him, was now turning into the young man who introduced me to Eliot’s Preludes[ix] and scores of poems from The Penguin Book of Modern Verse, edited by Kenneth Allott.[x] He had begun to question his Romantic-Victorian and pre-modernist definitions of art, though the formalist position was to remain of deep value to him throughout his journey as a poet. Most of what he wrote in this period remains unpublished and unavailable, but I have a personal file of hand-copied pieces from which I quote this tiny, untitled and deceptively simple fragment. Minimalism was to play an important role in his subsequent view of poetry, as also a gentle, almost invisible, delight in paronomasia, in this case, clearly suggesting biblical symbolism:


Break bread with me

Distil

Amnesty in your eyes

Press

Your fingers

To

My wrists

And I will bear the nails


His orientation in visual art, music, literature and cultural history in general was predominantly Eurocentric (with the notable exception of Urdu ghazals and black-and-white Hindi film songs); and his early poetic influences were more British than American; though one crucial evening in our lives, when he was in his final year as a student of Economics at St. Xavier’s College and I was about to earn a BA in English literature at Elphinstone College, he introduced me to the poetry of Hart Crane, whom he had been reading about in considerable depth. Professor Leibowitz’s[xi] linguistic analysis of Crane’s verse and Unterecker’s[xii] detailed biography made a profound impact upon him; and the life and work of Hart Crane came to represent for him an aesthetic and a possibility which he was at once allured by and felt compelled, for his own safety, to consciously reject. I quote some of his favourite lines from ‘Voyages III’:[xiii]


And where death, if shed,

presumes no carnage but this single change,—

upon the step floor flung from dawn to dawn

the silken skilled transmemberment of song


And these lines from ‘Repose of Rivers’, which he was later to quote in a poem with all the bitter cynicism of his mid-thirties:


How much I would have bartered! the black gorge

And all the singular nestings in the hills

Where beavers learn stich and tooth.

The pond I entered once and quickly fled—

I remember now its singing willow rim.

What Crane taught both of us, in a somewhat extreme fashion, was that poetry, amongst its varied semantic concerns, was necessarily, even perhaps primarily, about the search for a higher musical order in speech; but the life of the romantic voyager who had surrendered himself to that search, with its concomitant themes of insanity, alcoholism, bisexuality and ultimate suicide, was one that Deepankar was, understandably, to view with increasing scepticism as he grew into his twenties. His consumption of alcohol, in those years, like his behaviour in general, was admirably restrained; the mask of serenity had to be worn tight at all costs. But it was in the sheer polyamorousness and inevitable emotional chaos of his career as young bisexual satyr that his life was to acquire something of a ‘Cranesque’ glow. In ‘Shiroshi Sequence’, written well after he had entered a life of monogamy and matrimony, a mode of life that he remained essentially loyal to, he looks back upon his late adolescent love of Crane, and his own early visions of ‘love’, from a sullenly disillusioned and de-romanticised perspective:

The Cranesque pool ‘I entered once

And quickly fled’, I found within plot Seventy-Seven A.

Ten acres, fourteen lakhs. But it was sold as well.


‘Shiroshi Sequence’


The life of Hart Crane became emblematic for Deepankar of a set of attitudes that threatened mainstream perceptions in the most unpragmatic of ways; one indeed, that was most unlike the kind he was to base his own life upon; but more importantly, Crane came to be representative for him, of an immeasurably expansive possibility in language, the ‘transmemberment’, to borrow Crane’s own phrase, of a plethora of senses and sensations, and the liberty to subjugate sense to sound. And yet, strangely enough, almost no traces of Crane’s impassioned romanticism and inexhaustible sensuality remain visible in Deepankar’s own published poetry. His own poetics were to found themselves on completely different principles that are more clearly visible in the work of poets like Hardy, Larkin and Frost. The undeniable allure of the romantic voyager came to be viewed, throughout his work, with what he believed to be ‘necessary scepticism’.

It is not for nothing that most of Deepankar’s erotic (or possibly erotic) poems, except those with clear dedications, sustain, like his early sketches in school, a sense of ambiguity with regard to the gender of the addressee. This is partly to allow for a certain open-endedness in his poems; one that grants the reader the freedom to imbue the text with his or her own personal brand of sexuality. It could be argued, of course, that similar stances have been adopted by a wide range of strictly heterosexual poets. But in Deepankar’s case, I believe there are also social and personal reasons for this sort of stance; back in those days, the maintenance of a mainstream heterosexual posture was, for most people who swung both ways, still a necessary part of social integration and acceptability; and gender-neutrality might well have been his way of suggesting his sense of marginalisation, without overstating it. ‘The Vampire of The Underground’, for instance, demonstrates this sort of open-endedness; it leaves the gender of the sexual partner unstated, but lurking in its lines is a longing that the addressee ‘could never hope to unlearn’:


Ah, it takes long learning, skill and knowledge of love

to be cruel quite precisely. Your tongue

snared, your eyes shut, your arms pinned down

by the longing you could never hope to unlearn.


When I bit into your neck at the sort-of end, and saw,

disentangling my trapped arms, you heavy on the bed,

no weight on me at all, I laughed at our helplessness.