I crawled for days across the arid Indian plains
until my knee caps bled red and old scars opened
leaving irregular patterns on the hard soil,
seeking the slow flowing Ganges
and searching for silk prayer shawls in the shallow mud.
I dipped my head under the holy waters
looking across to the mouldy green and peeling orange walls
of the eroding temples. Blue saliva stains playing patterns
on the sidewalks seemed to throb and pulse
and the breast pains that I endured pumped up my stomach
into elastic balls that floated with the tides
and currents below, carrying offal and soap suds
that burnt my eyes until I ceased noticing
blank worshippers urinating on banks not so far away.
Holy men limped by and waved with crooked sticks.
Had I transgressed their holy territory and disturbed the calm
as the trees nearby vaguely stirred? I had not seen this sector before
and peeled off my clothes pronouncing that I carried no weapons
nor bibles of the New Testament.
It was only fair that I should float naked.
A holy man with black match stick legs and purple toes
strolled across my wake—the strange strains of sitar rhythms
pierced my ears and deep subterranean tunnel noises
rose to the murky surface in yellow translucent cubes.
My tattered heart tangled in the easy river flow.
My half closed eyes just above the line sought rusty river trams
or logs of debris to help me stay afloat.
But the relentless bloated soap suds burnt my tongue
as I struggled to chant select bible songs.
Laughing filled the blue air and young chocolate coated children
tugged on their garland wreaths, flinging buds and thorns
to where I swam. I choked and coughed
and slowly wore down as the muezzin
from the nearby tower mosque search lighted for
my soul. The high screams of prayers cascaded,
pushing me further down as four black hooded men
dragged me from the flow; I hoped and hoped
they would not sacrifice me in holy flames. I tried to whisper
as they held my arms that I was only looking
for love. Why brand me in sati tradition? I told them,
I know many verses off by heart from the Hindu bible
and the Bhagavad-Gita which is a Song of God. I am untouchable.
I was married to Christ. I was born on a cross.
Does it not count in this new century?
Copyright 2005 by Martin Steele. Mr. Steele was a finalist in our 2003 War Poetry Contest for “Sarel and Samson”.
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, “New World” by Martin Steele, presents an instantly recognizable character: the naive traveler who is seduced and destroyed by a culture he does not understand. This nightmare recurs often in colonial and postcolonial literature, embodying Western fears that our political dominance is neither deserved nor secure. In depicting the alien culture as a primitive destructive force, the writer can suggest both the powerlessness of Western ideals and, paradoxically, their superiority to the natives' barbaric behavior. (This theme was central to the work of 20th-century fiction writer Paul Bowles.)
The narrator of “New World” seems to have come to India on a spiritual pilgrimage. He seeks out extreme experiences that will break down the boundaries of his old self and put him in touch with a deeper reality. To that end, he immerses himself in pain, dirt and decay, violating “civilized” taboos to reach a state where another's bodily fluids are no more alien to him than his own. In his new world, even humble saliva glows in psychedelic colors, and clean and unclean elements commingle shamelessly. A silk scarf could be found in the mud; “offal and soap suds” combine in the holy river.
Yet how real is this oneness? Using the exotic culture as a tool for his own enlightenment, the protagonist fails to comprehend it on its own terms, with fatal consequences. Despite his physical self-abandonment in the first half of the poem, he is in control of the experience. He chose these privations and could turn back if he felt like it.
The first breath of fear stirs with the line, “Had I transgressed their holy territory…?” The protagonist feels control slipping from his grasp, but still naively hopes that his gesture of good faith will placate whomever he has offended: “ peeled off my clothes pronouncing that I carried no weapons/nor bibles of the New Testament./It was only fair that I should float naked.” He expects his notions of fair play to be perfectly understood by his mysterious observers. But his gesture of contrition—I am not like those others who imposed upon you with their weapons and their Christianity—may seem to them like weakness and disloyalty to his own kind.
Before he quite understands what has happened, the narrator is fighting for survival: “My half closed eyes just above the line sought rusty river trams/or logs of debris to help me stay afloat.” In fear, he reverts to the religion he disavowed: “I struggled to chant select bible songs.”
As he endeavors not to drown, he attracts hostile attention from figures who have no comparable doubts about what their faith demands: either convert the infidel (“the muezzin/from the nearby tower mosque search lighted for/my soul”) or kill him (“four black hooded men/dragged me from the flow”). Vainly he tries to save himself by offering proof of his good intentions (“I was only looking/for love”) and his appreciation of all faiths, veering into delusional overstatement.
The protagonist's cry, “I am untouchable,” has a paradoxical double meaning in this context. On one level, it could mean “I cannot be harmed by you” or “How dare you touch me”—an assertion of high status. However, “untouchable” is also the name for the lowest caste in traditional Indian society, a pariah group. Is his choice of words merely another unfortunate misunderstanding, or is he trying to convince his hosts that he is one of them—saying, in effect, “I identify completely with your society, even its lowest members”?
I was somewhat confused by the Muslim characters' appearance on the scene, since the culture that the protagonist had been sampling up to that point seemed Hindu (temples, holy beggars, the Ganges). The confusion is increased by his plea to his (presumably) Muslim captors, “Why brand me in sati tradition,” since “sati” is a Hindu ritual in which a widow immolates herself on her husband's funeral pyre.
Perhaps the narrator's fatal mistake was not realizing that India, to him a symbol of cosmic unity, is itself torn by Hindu-Muslim animosity. Thus he unwittingly strays into Muslim territory (“I had not seen this sector before”) and is taken for an enemy. While logical, this interpretation diminishes the poem's tragic irony. If the culture that destroyed him is not even the one he idealized and misappropriated, his fate starts to seem more like simple bad luck. On the other hand, if the hooded figures are not Muslim, the muezzin seems out of place in a poem that is otherwise all about a Westerner's encounter with Hinduism.
The last line's rhetorical question was also hard to fit into the story as I understood it. Is the protagonist harking back to the colonial era, when Christians expected to be recognized as bearers of a superior civilization? “I was married to Christ. I was born on a cross,” he says, his garbled theology reminiscent of explorers who tried to subdue the natives by claiming to be gods from far-off lands. Still, I would like to know what exactly has changed in this century, and why the unlucky narrator thought it would stay the same.
Where could this poem be submitted? “New World” has more dramatic action in it than the personal lyrics that are standard fare in many literary journals. Some politically correct editors may also have trouble with its depiction of non-Western cultures as less than benign. However, the high quality of its imagery could earn it a place in a major magazine. Some markets to consider:
Sunken Garden Poetry Festival National Poetry Competition
Postmark Deadline: February 1
Prize includes reading at festival in Connecticut in July; no simultaneous submissions
Strokestown International Poetry Competitions
Postmark Deadline: February 15
Irish contest offers a prize of 4,000 euros for poems in English and another 4,000 euros for poems in Irish, Scottish Gaelic or Manx
Florida Review Editors' Awards
Postmark Deadline: March 15
Named for Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of mythology, contest seeks published or unpublished poems that “treat larger themes with lyric intensity”
Robinson Jeffers Tor House Prize for Poetry
Postmark Deadline: March 15
Past winners of this $1,000 prize have been emotionally powerful and rich in imagery (read them on website)
This poem and critique appeared in the January 2005 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter.
Categories: Poetry Critiques