March 2011 Discussion Guide

Who do you think you are?

Identity crises in the March issue of Poetry.

Who do you think you are?

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“I was you—you will be me,” writes Anna Kamienska in the March 2011 Poetry. This issue captures its contributors in moments of identity crisis—none more persistently than the North Indian devotional poet Kabir, who arrives in our pages chaperoned by the translator Arvind Krishna Mehrotra.

“Brother, I’ve seen some” begins: “Brother, I’ve seen some / astonishing sights.” It ends: “This verse, says Kabir, / Is your key to the universe. / If you can figure it out.” He starts out in the first person and ultimately switches to third. What’s the effect of this adjustment? Does the transformation from “I” to “Kabir” distance you—or bring you closer, since Kabir has identified himself? (The answer to that question might come down to who Kabir is, a matter we’ll address later on.)

In “How do you,” Kabir plays a similar game, but complicates the rules:

How do you,
Asks the chief of police,
Patrol a city
Where the butcher shops
Are guarded by vultures;
Where bulls get pregnant,
Cows are barren,
And calves give milk
Three times a day . . .
..........................
Does anyone know
What I’m talking about?
Says Kabir.

The chief of police asks how you can do something—but since he’s describing his own patrolling duties, “you” refers to him. At the end, as in “Brother, I’ve seen some,” Kabir appears, and claims to have been speaking the whole time. He thus unites himself with “you” and the police chief. How does this conflation of identity complement the content of the poem? Note how the lines describe the impossible: hungry birds guard rather than ravage butcher shops; calves, not cows, give milk. If, in the world of the poem, anything can happen, does it make a strange kind of sense for the poet to be many people other than himself?

Kabir describes this flexible identity in still another poem:

I’m fish
And I’m net
I’m fisherman
And I’m time
I’m nothing
Says Kabir
I’m not among the living
Or the dead

In a way, Kabir has described himself perfectly. His translator indicates in his essay for this issue that Kabir—who lived sometime in the fifteenth century—is not only a recorder but also a subject of legends. His readers dispute his religion and his year of birth. More fascinatingly, many “Kabir” poems were composed after the poet’s death. Mehrotra notes:

An authentic Kabir poem, in the thousands attributed to him, may never be found, nor does it matter. If you catch the spirit, anyone can write an authentic Kabir poem. Innumerable anonymous poets have done so in the past and continue to do so even today, adding their voices to his. A researcher in Rajasthan in the nineties looking for Kabir songs in the oral tradition came across one that used a railway metaphor and English words like “engine,” “ticket,” and “line.” Asked how Kabir could have known these words, the singer replied that Kabir, being a seer, knew everything.

* * *

Kabir’s situation, while extreme, dramatizes an issue you might already think about as you read contemporary poetry: the distinction between poet and speaker, and the problems and benefits of blending the two. In “Torment,” Daisy Fried both enacts and describes that fusion. The narrator—a poet and teacher who sounds rather like Fried herself—writes in the margins of a student’s poem, also called “Torment”: “You may want to find a way to suggest / ironic distance between the poet and speaker.”

Like Kabir, Fried’s speaker can seem totally indistinct: “I didn’t realize that was you with your hair up,” notes a student. Later, Fried writes: “I’m turning / into my Favorite Teachers — so kind, / so industrious, so interested and interesting.” At several instances in the poem, she seems to be turning into her students, too. They high-five each other, and then her. One cries; she fears she will. One reports sleeping with a slew of boys; Fried compares herself to a prostitute. And most obviously, Fried and her student have both produced poems called “Torment.”

Fried and Kabir’s situations couldn’t be more different—for one, we can figure out what Fried’s situation is, plus feel reasonably confident that she writes her own poems. When she inserts herself into her poems, does it feel different than when Kabir inserts himself into his? How do our relationships with poets—our knowledge or ignorance of their lives and times—change our experiences of their materializations in their work? Does our uncertainty about Kabir make his appearances more powerful—since, like God, “Kabir” could include everything and everyone, “fish” and “net” and “fisherman” alike? Does our knowledge about Daisy Fried give her a personable, relatable quality that renders her appearances more comprehensible and intimate? Can you think of other poems whose authors cast themselves as part of the action, and do you appreciate them for it?

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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