It is not without reason that I have often, in poetry spaces, kept my ontological commitments and experiences to myself. The disdain for/misconstruction of ontological frameworks that do not align with eurowestern materialist/positivist mindsets can be as prevalent among artist communities as elsewhere--although I've met several co-conspirers in recent years, and am open to meeting more!
In January 2014, I went to a reading by Jerome Rothenberg at the Public School in Oakland. I had been studying Indigenous African Spiritual Technologies with Dr. Malidome Somé, diviner and Dagara elder, for about nine months then. During this time, I had experienced and participated in speech practices that enacted complex ontologies within ritual contexts. I was curious to hear Rothenberg, whose Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, Europe & Oceania assembles "primitive and archaic poetry" from indigenous cultures, intending to call "European hegemonies into question."
At one instance—I can't remember the material Rothenberg was reading—I do remember getting uncomfortable that words that were intended for ritual use were being uttered at a poetry event not structured like a ritual. I had just met Anne Lesley Selcer—my conversation with her must have revealed shared sentiments enough that I turned to her and shared with her this discomfort. I was not sure the ontological register of the poetry being read that evening was being honored. When it comes to spirit worlds, it is good practice to be clear when invoking—to know who one wishes to connect with, and why. After the ritual, it is good practice to thank and devoke the spirits and powers that came. There are good reasons one does not want the spirits to continue to hang around outside the ritual container (with exceptions).
Anne Lesley mentioned this incident at "The World Is Circular" (whose recording you can watch on Vimeo), where we read work together with Katie Schaag, Kristen Gallagher, Kayla Guthrie, and Karin Crona.
The more I see and understand the need for ontological justice, the more ready I get to share the alterities I move within, my multiple belongings.
I wrote and recorded the poem "Sarasvati" as part of a collaborative poetry performance and book, "An Exaltation of Goddesses," in tribute to archaeomythologist Marija Gimbutas. The video performance/film will premiere at the 2021 ASWM Online Symposium, Wisdom Across the Ages: Celebrating the Centennial of Archaeomythologist Marija Gimbutas (July 16-18, 2021). Here is my note about the poem, which, along with the poem itself, appears in a book collecting the thirteen poems that make up "An Exaltation of Goddesses."
A NOTE ON WRITING "SARASVATI"
What does it mean to write a poem about Sarasvati now of all times? What is she asking of us? What can we ask of her?
In South Asia, unlike in the West, the goddess did not disappear—she continues to be venerated in the living tradition, which has developed varied theologies in relation to her. The goddess has many forms, many names through the length and the breadth of the land. As a signifier, she has often been cherry-picked by caste-based patriarchy and reactionary Hindu nationalism for ends that skitter far away from spiritual meaning. This makes the discursive field around goddess-centered spirituality contentious for artists and scholars located within contemporary contexts of social change in South Asia.
Sarasvati, considered to be the presiding deity of learning and the arts, is an important goddess in the Hindu pantheon—finding a significant place even in Buddhist and Jain pantheons. While writing this poem, even as I wanted to invoke the qualities of wisdom Sarasvati embodies, I wanted to bring in my ambivalence about the ideals of femininity—specifically for women of words, a way of being cultured—portrayed in her iconography and mythology, reinforcing a Brahmanical epistemology of perfection and purity.
To trouble these representations, I turned to the imagery of her as a river. In my poem, Sarasvati is still wild. In the Rig Veda, Sarasvati is spoken of as a ‘mighty’ and ‘uncontrollable’ river; later texts describe her as a ‘disappearing’ river who becomes ‘invisible’. This is not a poem in which I chart the journey of the river’s disappearance, or that of the river goddess becoming the goddess of knowledge, even as—following the work of scholars including Catherine Ludvik—I see the mysteries of the later transformation encoded within associations, noted in the Rig Veda, of the river goddess with dhi (inspired thought) and with vac (speech).
I also wanted the poem to acknowledge that, for Hindutva, finding the lost river Sarasvati has become a svarna mriga (golden deer)—a lure through which they seek to assert the civilizational superiority of ‘Aryavarta’—the land of the Aryans. I wanted to explore if there is a different possibility that an invocation of Sarasvati could raise.
In terms of form, I was thinking of Enheduanna’s use of the first person in the hymn, “Exaltation of Inanna”— how she interweaves a cultural, political, and personal narrative with the praise of Inanna. I was attentive to the ecology of sound within the poem, especially since Sarasvati embodies the power of sound.
Abraham, Shirley, and Amit Madheshiya. “A Mythical River Flows Through Indian Politics.” The New York Times, 10 July 2018.
Danino, Michel. The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati. Penguin, 2010.
Ghosh, Niranjan. Śrī Sarasvatī in Indian Art and Literature. Sri Satguru Publications, 1984.
Kinsley, David R. Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
Ludvik, Catherine. Sarasvatī: Riverine Goddess of Knowledge. Brill, 2007.
Shaw, Miranda E. Buddhist Goddesses of India. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2006.
I sometimes feel the identity of the "self" is too tenuous to hold. Who am I? Everything and everyone is but an ant trail, leading us from here to there.
Yet, we struggle so much in the name of ego, to prop up the self and its desire to be successful, fit in, stand out.
Nonetheless--the joy and excitement of discovering parts of us that had never been seen before! That had never had the opportunity to play before! Each lifetime, each reality, overlapping and flowing and distinct—the awakening of remembering that takes place through form.
This then. The constant dance between being born-taking form/letting go.
We get trapped in just one part of the equation, when the equation moves as a spiral.
I made a vision board a few years ago--a reaching towards a kind of person, a kind of life. It draws in so much, and is still substantially true. Its associational links are embedded in me. The information is within. It functions today as a sort of lightboard, lighting up the paths and directions that move through those associational links. (Appropriately enough, both the vision board itself and its photos taken a few months ago seem to have disappeared, making it known that they are not ready to be shared.)
How do I step lightly over the ego as a pilgrim on these paths?
Here I am, still learning to sacrifice all notion of self/selves so that I can get closer to the infinitude that shimmers underneath it all.