In halls and moods of violent possession, we speak of languages as things we “have.” This mood comes easy when the books are small and green—a Loeb’s fits in the palm like a secret jewel, a perfect bun. Its loose-woven ribbon reminds us the gift is inside, our reading an unwrapping—happy birthday to our most serious, our highest mind. In the early aughts, I was often high haha.
In those days, when I was still a teenager, I went over and over the lines in the Timaeus that told me what we might be about. Our atoms and waves, our tides and our matter. I didn’t know then how much of this is in Lucretius, too, from the Atomists, and also in a lot of hokey theory that comes out now about mycology and the end times. I worry that if these idiot dialogues are the kind of philosophy that covers up its poetry—lets people forget about, well, people and their errors, language and its habit of always running away and wild, which also means forgetting about justice—then maybe the Timaeus is also bad, since it telegraphs messages about ideal forms and eternal essences, whether it wants to or not. I mostly think philosophy is bad when we forget it’s poetry. Don’t talk to me about Plato on this subject.
And the Timaeus does have a certain kinship with antimaterialist mystification. As if trash is wrong on its own, and not because of the way it poisons clouds, fish, then people. The way it demands the labor of being made and then hauled away. It’s so hard to be ethical: that’s what I thought then, and that’s what I think now. What I most wanted to know was what Plato meant by kindred and by kind:
…the processes of filling and evacuating take place just as the motion of everything in the Universe takes place, namely, according to the law that every kindred substance moves towards its kind.
The ribbon is still on this page; I have not and cannot learn it enough. I glance to the left, like the Greek will suddenly begin to make itself known to me, but I never had Greek and I doubt I ever will. It’s not because I can’t—I was given every chance and squandered most of them. When my good luck stills, when I’m at my most empty, I can usually remember at least this much: that every kindred substance moves toward its kind. And then I try to think what is the opposite of me. And if it is my intimate opposite, then isn’t that the highest and best kind of kinship. My lungs are my opposite. The A train my opposite. A sick bird my opposite. Wild blackberries my opposite, war my opposite. And don’t I move toward them all, filling and evacuating as they evacuate and fill.
What Timaeus is talking about is more cellular than this, which makes intuitive sense to a person who was lazy in chemistry:
For the bodies which surround us without are always dissolving us and sending off and distributing to each species of substance what is akin thereto; while the blood-particles, again, being minced up within us and surrounded by the structure of each creature as by a Heaven, are compelled to copy the motion of the whole…
Quite right, I nodded sagely and repeatedly, as I sipped tea and imagined the future, this is definitely completely right. My blood particles are nothing if not minced.
…hence when each of the particles that are divided up inside move towards its kin, it fills up again the emptied place.
I think you can imagine the depths of comfort this provided for a late-stage teenager. Obviously my minced blood-particles would seep out in a perfumed cloud to find their kin. There, minced-blood kindred would fill up the emptied place, probably with love. I think I meant this in a 90s emo way, but then, I also might have meant it in a language way. The Twin Towers had just fallen. There was a lot of particulate in the air, even in upper Manhattan. War was in the air too, my opposite, my kindred, my kin. I didn’t have American English, and English would not have me.
A few years after my time with the Loebs, we were at war, and I was no longer too much in their thrall, but the cut and polished book, the perfect bun, that was still something I moved towards. On the top floor of the library I found another monochrome series. The Clay Sanskrit Library’s dust jackets were just as creamy, their color palette just as soothing: the same turquoise as the one unchanged stone in the three-stone ring my mother wore for most of my childhood. Thick, opaque, solid, old, full.
Like everyone else, I thought of little apart from who is the “us” in “if you’re not with us you’re against us.” At some point during these years, I had ridden in an armored car up and down the Khyber Pass. We ate crazily spiced chicken wings and had tea with a Pakistan airman and some local politicians near Peshawar. I had covered my head, as one does in the Northern areas.
After the Shakuntala, which leaves little space for the reader’s mind, I had no taste for Kalidasa or Sanskrit drama, for God or gods. I didn’t have Sanskrit either, though by this time I had begun the process of learning the grammar of Urdu, a language I understood, I realized, the way you “understand” the shallow tessellation of a chain link fence or a creeping wall of fog before you resolve it in three dimensions. What killed me dead was the Meghdoot, “The Cloud Messenger,” one of the stunning messenger poems in which a concept or creature is conscripted into delivering a message to a distant beloved.
The poem is long. The parts I loved most were the parts with no people and no gods. I thought it was about a lover left at home who seeds a cloud with the message of her longing, and sends it off over the mountains and the rivers, the temples and the forest fires, to find her beloved, to rain down nothing less than the enormity of her missing.
I was so dazzled by the idea of a woman impregnating a cloud, which she calls all kinds of affectionate names—o, elephant; o, fat man; o ponderous lump. I read the poem again and again for the parts where the cloud goes on his own journey, takes every particulate feeling and minced up blood up into the ether, and holds it there in celestial oathspace. Damn!
This isn’t actually how the poem goes, but my dumb memory formed around it this way for more than a couple of years, its message partly delivered but not entirely understood. It turns out it’s just the man, sent away for work, who sends the cloud to his wife. It’s a desperate act. He knows the cloud has better things to do, but he asks anyway, because
those consumed by love
petition the sentient and the dumb
Every time I visited the book, which I left on the shelf with its aquamarine companions, I turned back to this passage and wondered if we do this petitioning out of desperation, or whether it’s something more sinister—an incapacity or disinclination to speak directly. A distrust in what “direct speech” might yield, a terror of what we wager when we give it. Whether love, kindred, kind, and kin require separation, and subsequent mediation by the sentient and the dumb. Our idiotic hope in the talents of the not-us to deliver us to others.
I peeped at the book over the table’s edge like a frightened fool. Like an idiot, I looked to the left-hand page, understood nothing, petitioned book and sky to tell me more, and refused to learn it. I think I thought I was proving you can’t have a language, it’s as silly and as perfect a wish as having a cloud. Making grammar do your bidding is like trying to herd vapor.
I didn’t even really try. I didn’t want to be locked in a tower with books, even though that’s all I ever did and do. And there is nothing lonelier than the first two years in a language, except, obviously, wandering as a cloud. It was lonely, too, not to know if I was with us or against us.
Most of “The Cloud Messenger” is predictive movement, sketching out the journey the cloud will have to take if he accepts his mission. As such, it is also a love letter to the earth, to what can be seen and absorbed from above. The lover gives detailed directions to the cloud: you will see flamingos here, a part of a rainbow here, a river there, whose waters you will draw on to fatten yourself up, refill your vaporous stores,
her dark-blue robe, the water,
has slipped from her hips, the banks,
and reached the reeds
as if barely held up in her hands.
On removing it, my friend,
you will be weighed down
and struggle to journey on:
who can leave naked thighs
after tasting their delight
Another river will show her navel “in whirlpools,” and the cloud is instructed to “take her water on board/ affection to heart,” a gloriously ribald and tender pun—this at least I got—opened up in double phrases in the English translation. In its journeys, the cloud absorbs the energy of the beating waves, the thrumming insects, the power of the crowd and its movements, the infinite divine, secreted as it is in the leaves and storms of the world. These augment and shape the dispatch of love.
When it arrives, the cloud is to deliver a brief and devastating message—meant to console—to the weeping wife left at home. She is anxious and tearful, broken apart feature by feature and limb by limb in the eye of the distant one. She is supposed to feel no less loved for being minced:
I divine your limbs in priyángu creepers,
your glance in the look of a startled deer,
the beauty of your cheek in the moon,
your hair in the bunched tail feathers of peacocks,
your flirtatious eyebrows in the slender ripples of a river…
Oh alas, my darling!
Your likeness is nowhere to be found
all in one place.
But then, it is easy to love in pieces, and if the Timaeus is right, as right as my bad chemistry, don’t we always render our lovers nowhere to be found, all in one place.
In Gustav Holst’s choral fantasia, The Cloud Messenger (1913), there’s all this collective triumph and joy, appeals to the cloud are literally made in chorus. At first I thought this was a massive misreading Kalidasa’s poem, which the composer discovered by way of the 1895 Orientalist Robert Watson Frazer’s collection of stories and loose translations, Silent Gods and Sun-steeped Lands. But when I think back to it, on the day the Towers fell, we did make a collective appeal to the sky, and loved anew what had been destroyed, atomized, vaporized, dare I think it—minced. I still can’t say what the message was in that cloud, or what we wanted it to be.
At the end of “The Cloud Messenger,” the speaker of the poem, a yaksha, who serves the god of wealth, releases the cloud to his own fancies and wishes him constant companionship with his own wife, who is lightning:
wander where you wish, o cloud,
your beauty enhanced by the monsoon.
And may you never for an instant,
be separated like this from lightning!
That day there were flames, of course, but no lightning, only liquid glidings of precious metal reaching across the sky, the river. It wasn’t true that a low rumble accompanied the cloud of smoke and building and sidewalk dust as it traveled north, aloft. I think it was the illusion of night falling, and the fact that there was no cell service—it made us temporarily sensitive, exquisitely so, and so of course we imagined thunder.
Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb grew up in Albany, New York and Cambridge, Massachusetts, and studied Comparative Literature at Columbia, where she also earned a PhD. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in 3 Quarks Daily, Discourse, the Los Angeles Review of Books, BookForum, Boston Review, Triple Canopy, the Bennington Review,...