When the children were smaller, I looked forward to spring because I always woke up to a rainbow across the white rice cooker in the kitchen. Since I started to garden, however, spring’s association with renewed life and all its extant hopes have all but died. While residents in temperate countries look forward to coming out of winter to a world filled with color, here in the Levant residents literally feel the summer heat even before the first of April. In recent years, April marks the start of a drought of garden blooms. It’s when the gardener uproots the dried stalks of zinnias and other flowers that sparked joy through the cold months of December, January and February.
Lately, the dreariness that April brings has been compounded by grief over friends who leave. Last year a dear friend flew away on April 8. This year another close friend is returning home for good at the end of the month. Who, I wonder, will leave next April?
Perhaps it was fitting then that the month of April began with rain, an anomaly considering that our section of the desert receives rain only once or twice a year and we’d already gotten several days’ worth in early March. Thus when T.S. Eliot’s words popped up on my screen on April Fools’ Day, it seemed like an ironic and tasteless if not apt joke.
April is the cruellest month, breeding (it sure is starting to feel that way)
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing (my garden will soon be a dead land)
Memory and desire, stirring (why does memory always stir desire?)
Dull roots with spring rain. (April began with rain this year)
Winter kept us warm, covering (winter blooms always warm me up)
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding (ah snow – I’ve yet to experience that)
A little life with dried tubers. (what I think of my existence: a little life)
Eliot’s The Waste Land, long considered a masterpiece of modern poetry, is a difficult poem to understand for its many allusions lost to post-modern readers and for the varying voices of its speaker (or the switch between different characters). That it is so long is also a turn-off. Its opening lines, however, grab readers – who, for example, thinks that April is the cruellest month? I sure didn’t until I lived in the desert. In my childhood, April meant lazy summer days spent reading and eating. In my adulthood, April meant continuing work.
There are poems that reveal themselves only after one has undergone an experience that enables one to comprehend, even though you know what it’s all about. Does that make sense? If it helps, I’ve harvested dried tubers from our backyard. Well, anyway, reading the first stanza two nights ago felt like a flash into one’s psyche. What serendipity! So I googled the rest even though I knew it was going to be a long read.
What are the roots that clutch, what branches growOut of this stony rubbish? Son of man,You cannot say, or guess, for you know onlyA heap of broken images, where the sun beats,And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,And the dry stone no sound of water. OnlyThere is shadow under this red rock,(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),And I will show you something different from eitherYour shadow at morning striding behind youOr your shadow at evening rising to meet you;I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
The second stanza above has three biblical references, would you believe? I have no desire to go through a line-by-line or stanza-by-stanza analysis of the poem here even though there are many, many lines that grab me. Others have done it. Yes, Eliot’s depiction of man’s growing selfishness is a hard piece to follow or swallow since his view of man’s social and spiritual decay is not declared outright but via snippets of conversation (one of which is between two women in a pub discussing the other’s abortion) and scenes of everyday life (one of which is copulation between uninterested lovers as seen through the eyes of the poet Tiresias from Greek mythology).
Suffice it to say that if you’re in a blue mood, Eliot’s pensive, insightful prose can give comfort, yes, despite its desolate tone and gloomy critique of the world he lived in. Eliot’s despair at the collapse of Western civilization as it was before the Great War makes one pause and think that we, like Eliot’s generation, will return to a handful of dust someday and that we should strive to rise above a life that is a heap of broken images.
Then spoke the thunderDADatta: what have we given?My friend, blood shaking my heartThe awful daring of a moment’s surrenderWhich an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existedWhich is not to be found in our obituariesOr in memories draped by the beneficent spiderOr under seals broken by the lean solicitorIn our empty roomsDADayadhvam: I have heard the keyTurn in the door once and turn once onlyWe think of the key, each in his prisonThinking of the key, each confirms a prisonOnly at nightfall, aethereal rumoursRevive for a moment a broken CoriolanusDADamyata: The boat respondedGaily, to the hand expert with sail and oarThe sea was calm, your heart would have respondedGaily, when invited, beating obedientTo controlling handsI sat upon the shoreFishing, with the arid plain behind meShall I at least set my lands in order?London Bridge is falling down falling down falling downPoi s’ascose nel foco che gli affinaQuando fiam uti chelidon—O swallow swallowLe Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolieThese fragments I have shored against my ruinsWhy then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.Shantih shantih shantih
Lastly, isn’t it fascinating that after showing the decline of Western culture and referencing the Bible so many times, Eliot ends with the words Datta, Dayadham, Damyata? Taken from the Upanishads of the Hindu religion, they translate to give, show compassion and exercise self-control.
Does that mean Eliot believes that these tenets are the key to achieving Shantih, another Hindu word defined as the peace that passes understanding? Most probably – his deviance from the Bible (but not biblical principles, remember!) could mean that he was disillusioned at a religion long associated with the West for failing to arrest the decay of humankind into red sullen faces (that) sneer and snarl / from doors of mudcracked houses. Because of this, I personally don’t think The Waste Land ends on a slightly positive note as some readers believe.
PS. Blogging anonymously, I vacillate between having the public read my poems and the fear that Internet anonymity could lead to copyright infringement or worse, intellectual property theft. This being the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month, I shall be unlocking the password-protected poems here for the month of April. Who knows, I might even publish one from my cache!