What he said to his friend

in the style of the classical Tamil

Like a knot
of yellownecked caterpillars
on the underside of a witch hazel leaf
responding to the approach of danger
by arching their soft bodies
& freezing into a clump
of sudden thorns,
hoping to ward off the caress
of a wasp’s antennae:
that’s what happens
to me whenever
she smiles.

[Poetry Thursday – dead link]

For background on Tamil love poetry of the Sangam period, see the Wikipedia. Unfortunately, none of the late, great A. K. Ramanujan‘s translations seem to be online, but some earlier, public-domain translations are available at the Humanistic Texts site.

UPDATE: I’m wrong. Nancy at under the fire star – a Tamil Nadu-based blog – has shared a few of Ramanujan’s translations, and was kind enough to include the links in a comment below. See especially the poems at her last link.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

24 Comments


  1. This is an interesting correlate to C. K. Williams’ “Wood”, wherein the girl friend’s soft stomach turned wooden at the young man’s unwelcome touch, ‘cept that poem was rather romantically ardent and here you are entering into a territory of the unromantic perhaps even new to you!

    What, again, is the name of this terrible wasp that Darwin felt proved the absence of a caring god? An ichneumon?

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  2. Chinese and Japanese poem forms are wonderful to work with. Nice job! I love the breathless way it builds to the conclusion.

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  3. Your poem is fitting to the PT post today. I really liked this poem and your use of the style.

    Keep up the good work.

    Mj

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  4. Very interesting style and topic. I like the physical reaction you get from your poem.

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  5. as i am myself a poet of emotion,, and rarely structured.. i would like to know more about this form in which you wrote this.. i have never heard of it,, and the link takes me to a book ,, i am also unfamiliar with,,, i guess ill have to do a little research….

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  6. Bill – I’m not familiar with that C.K. Williams poem, though I do like the one book of his I’ve read. I’ll keep an eye out for it.

    Ichneumon, yes. There a bewildering number of species of these parasitic wasps, which usually specialize in just one species of caterpillar. Which is to say, almost every caterpillar has its own parasite, which lays its eggs on it so its larvae can burrow into the caterpillar and eat it alive, leaving the vital organs for last.

    Personally, I’m not sure that human values of caring or cruelty really pertain to insects, which, though far from automatons, can hardly possess more than a fraction of the sensitivities of longer-lived, less prolific animals.

    Constance – Thanks! Please note, though, that the Tamil language is actually spoken in south India.

    Michelle, Brian, rr, CGP, gautami – Glad you liked.

    paisley – I just added a few more links at the end of the post; I hope that helps. Ramanujan’s translations should be available in most large public and university libraries. The thing I like about classical Tamil poetry is the very detailed use of natural imagery and the intense emotion, both of which translate very well – as opposed to, say, the elaborate word-play of classical Sanskrit poetry, which doesn’t translate at all.

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  7. First of all great! But you knew that already.
    Second, the shape of the poem almost mimics the caterpillar’s movement.
    Third, I was trying to think where I last saw that basilisk (sp?)smile. Most recently on actress Glen Close who specializes in gonad freezing roles, and in my distant past, sadly my mother.

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  9. Nice work! I like the depth, the thought and the sensory words of this piece. Thanks for the links.

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  10. The thing I like about classical Tamil poetry is the very detailed use of natural imagery and the intense emotion, both of which translate very well – as opposed to, say, the elaborate word-play of classical Sanskrit poetry, which doesn’t translate at all.

    That’s very interesting. And I think you succeeded here.

    I like the ambiguity that comes across with the emotion.

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  11. Joan – “Basilisk” is a good word. I wasn’t especially thinking along those lines when I wrote the piece (I was picturing a guy who’s chickenshit rather than a woman who’s cold) but it’s certainly a valid reading.

    wendy – Sure, why not?

    Nancy – Thanks for the links! I updated the addendum to include a link to your comment; sorry it got held up in moderation.

    I have that Nammalvar translation – great stuff. Unfortunately, I lost my copies of his translations of secular Tamil poetry some years ago. Their loss fills my heart with restless longing…

    sylph – Good point (yikes).

    Etain, Tumblewords – Thanks for stopping by.

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  12. Peter, how’d you slip that comment in there?! Thanks. I’m especially glad to hear that the ambiguity worked for you.

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  13. Dave – My bad! :) I was taken by the poem and immediately linked it to the oriental forms I love. Thanks for correcting my assumption. So many poem forms, so little time!

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  14. Very nice poem! I’m just catching up here and the last several posts have been gems.

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  15. Thanks, leslee. I’m actually kind of surprised how well some of these things have turned out, considering how little deliberation went into them.

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  16. What a colourful, bizarre, complex yet oddly precise description that is. I chuckled in wonder.

    Endlessly

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