Poetry of the heart

POETRY EDITOR ANANYA GUHA’s NOTE:

Bethamehi Joy Syiem’s poems delight for their honest, ineffable utterances. This is poetry of the heart. Ancestry, relationship, history and love are the promontories of her poetry. There is a narrative power in her poetry, story within a story. She is not overtly didactic, the moral question is in limbo, it is left to the reader to discover it. The first poem interprets ‘blood’ variously- remarkable for a person of her age. Here is a very young poet confronted by the vastness of life. Her technique has finesse, she comprehends the craft remarkably well.

 ***

 

Blood

Bethamehi Joy Syiem
Bethamehi Joy Syiem

 

Tonight I look upon a full moon, red and bathed in blood

I remember my native country

Where were-tigers come to life

In demonic trances of old medicine men.

 

My grandmother once told me

Of foreign voices and men thirsty for blood

Of a brave woman who withstood them all

My great grandmother, of course.

 

“I remember the night I escaped

From the grip of the supernatural

The curse of the father of that house”

She had said.

 

I remember the stories of wretched witches

And a vindictive man cursing through her door.

She said, it was the blood that saved her

 

Maybe that is why

I bathe myself in blood too,

 

Just as the moon does

Every six months or so

 

I think that was what the had preacher said.

 

My father talked of flying saucers

And old soul reapers

Of bottomless pits

And beautiful mirages.

 

My uncle said, “There are two kinds of angels.

The godly and the demonic.

You would not like the latter.

They pull men into sordid lakes

Tempt them with river stones,

Disguised as pieces of divine bread.”

 

He also said,

“Those angels (or devils, I am not sure)

They disguise themselves in forms of fish

They fear the broom and not garlic,

As you would expect.”

 

I was told by a friend

That the forest in my ancestral village is sacred

Someone else said it was cursed.

All I know is there have been men

Who have had their bodies

Turn backwards with their heads forward

All for love of defying what the ancestors forbade.

 

I walked into the same forest

That sacred grove.

 

I had no fear for I was marked with blood.

 

I met a man in there

Amidst the thick of the brushwood

He said he was a guide.

He showed us round stone tables

Where he said,

Girls like me, were sacrificed to spirits

Of the earth and of the wood.

 

I think it was the blood

That saved my life that day.

 

I learnt much later,

He was a spirit.

No guide was known.

That man, with us

With his unkempt beard and haunting yellow eyes

Was never once seen before (or again)

 

No one had known what the tables were for

No one dared ask. The ancestors had some purpose there.

No one knew.

With the exception of the haunting image of that man.

He knew.

 

I still remember the way his eyes

Seemed to penetrate through my spirit.

 

My friends screamed when he turned around

As we neared the waterfalls

His eyes seemed to burn with fire,

A fire that seemed cold and dark

Like no fire I had ever seen.

 

We ran till it rained.

And there he was

At the edge of that forest

Having outran us without us noticing.

 

Some cried, some panicked.

I prayed,

Remembering the blood on my forehead.

 

Maybe that is why I was not sacrificed

To those spirits of the earth and the wood.

 ***

 

Real

 

I wonder if I am real,
like the burning presence
of your scent. I wonder if I know
myself like I claim to,
or if I am just another shadow
that lingers at the back of
people’s minds.

Sometimes I feel like a
pretend paradox, uncomplicated
and only waiting for my chance
to moonwalk on a stage that
is not mine. I wonder if
the things I despise are just
me in disguise.

I don’t feel real every day.
Most days, I don’t. But sometimes,
I think I own the pain I feel
and the laughter I breathe.
In another world, I would never cry
tears of salt, but only of love.
There would never be fake smiles or
silent words. In that world,
I would write poetry only for you
and I’d always be real.

 ***

 

Selfish

 

Inspiration-

I believed

Was in the ruins of a sunken temple

Or in that dead man I saw floating

Obliviously on a filthy river

That was supposed to be holy.

 

I thought I’d talk of the markings

On the water tanks,

The graffiti on the thousand

Year old steps and stones

Or of those men in black

Who eat burning flesh

Of humans carcasses.

 

The saffron saint told me that.

 

And poetry-

I believed

Would find me as I slept

in that damp makan

With cold air running down my back

And large monkeys playing

On the roof.

 

I thought I’d write of the cages

The humans build

Or those black eyed boys

Who stared and laughed

And told me to take off my shoes

As I approached the holy waters.

 

They urinated in the same waters.

 

But despite

The river, the men and the screams

 

Despite the abandoned temples

And the terrible idols

 

I found myself crying

only for the supreme misery

In my own heart.

 

I found myself selfish again.

 

She walked like a penguin and had hair like a lion’s mane.

 

We laughed as her eyes

mocked other girls we knew.

 

She taught me cuss words

and told me she did not know their meanings.

So we danced as the sun cried.

Then, we promised

we’d never say them till we knew.

 

We cried both ways

when we were sad and betrayed, and also

because her stories were getting funnier.

She would make the whole hundred and three of us laugh

But I was the only one who would laugh until

my body bled water made of hilarious gossip.

 

She always nagged me to eat like she did.

 

She ate like an elephant

though she would never get fat.

 

She would shake her head and laugh some days

for she thought I ate too little

and yet, gained way too much.

 

She smiled and swore,

we would be friends forever and ten days

and that she’d be the hairdresser at my wedding

someday (if I ever did marry).

 

Then we would take pictures in colour

and we would turn them vintage sepia

so we looked prettier and her acne wouldn’t show.

 

She liked to hate people sometimes,

it was her noontime hobby

and for a grim fortnight or so,

I was also victim to her cruel game.

 

I forgave her soon enough.

 

Though she had other best friends,

who were down south

in that place where politicians’ children got

educated at a price of a few starving families

back home. She always loved them more.

 

She told me all this later

and that too only because she was high on some

chemical she had found in a small room behind

the chemistry lab at school.

 

It was there that she would go

to roll paper torn from a classmate notebook

and then burn it to inhale the smoke

it did not matter that there was no tobacco,

she preferred the white powder that the lab assistant had.

 

I once asked her if it was dangerous

then, she looked into my soul

and laughed through her tears.

 

That was all that was needed in the moment-

Laughter birthed from intense misery

 

She was hilariously beautiful

with all her hidden pain.

 

And one day, she made me promise

I’d write poems for her

and for our moments of secret laughter

if ever we should walk on different sides of the road.

***

 

Somewhere

 

A cobra

sips white milk slowly

while scheming plots

and plans

against his provider-

Strikes the human

on her left heel

and hisses pleasurably

While somewhere

ignorant mothers

feed their babes

murky waters, they think

are blessed.

 

Those cows swallow

up this sea

of rice or so,

I think

while somewhere

poor men’s children

cry for a handful

of that white gold.

 

 That man hugs trees

like he were to make love

with each one

Yet somewhere,

I know, there are

what would have been

pretty faces,

denied the right

to see this world,

denied the right

to be loved.

 

In this world

men in black suits

raise funds and awareness

some in white

ask billionaires to take up

useless brooms

as they parade about

in large cars

and designer clothing.

 

 “We want a clean country”

They say.

 ***

 

What do you think will happen?

 

What do you do think will happen

When life becomes a big black pick-up truck,

Yet you cannot drive by the countryside

You’re stuck in city traffic.

You’re like the hookers who make love for a penny or two

As you cuss on Monday, but pray on Sunday

When your body is not yours

For it holds too many untold stories and chronic diseases

You see through a drained tea- strainer

And all that is left are blanched tea-leaves of that thing you once called hope.

 ***

 

You are not a poet

 

Virtual showrooms are fashionable

these days,

almost too good sometimes.

 

I order pink, white and red things

that are expected to be delivered

some ten days later,

 

But he said,

 

Materialism is not for the poetic

He knows I was overjoyed

when neat brown packets came, some five days early.

 

I like pretty notebooks

that are wrapped in clear plastic.

But poets cannot be like that, he said

 

You smile too much

and your curves too showy,

you are not a poet.

 

Poets dress like they’re homeless

and have glasses as thick

as the skin I’ve developed.

 

Poets drink cheap rum

and of course,

large gray beards are always appreciated

 

I never thought you’d be smart,

girls without glasses

or stretch marks never are.

 

You’re far too thin

and your thighs, too big

you cannot be a poet.

 

If you were a poet

you’d have shadows beneath your eyes.

Poets always have miserable lives .

 

You talk too much

You talk too little

No, you cannot be a poet.

 ***

 

The Song

 

I have been singing your song for a while now

recommending it to every mouthpiece

that caught my distracted attention

I did not know I’d find myself singing about

terrible things you say I’ve done.

 

You sing of knives, fire and pens

of how I hurt you when you were already weak

of what I do when all you want is love.

 

I am hatred, envy, prejudice

I am not yours anymore.

 

So when I heard the music

I left you in your white room

with that voice of saints

while I sat and made my own saltwater

out of big brown eyes

in a lonely corner

as you run about accusing me

of not loving you like I should.

 

You did not tell me

when I took you to church.

You did not tell me when I kissed

the water in your eyes.

 

I could not make you see

that I still loved you even

though I believed you were not right.

 

Instead, you hear only the hate you got,

you see the betrayal

from lovers you chose to love,

men you chose to walk with.

 

Today, for you, I am those men.

 

You will write more songs for me,

you will win more pink ribbons

and I will not love your songs

like I used to.

 

You, however

I will always love.

 ***

 

Highway observations

 

Some days ago, an old man with black bamboo legs and thin snowy hair picked up twenty kilograms of white stone for twenty rupees. He took it down the steps to dump it near the trucks by the river. I don’t know if he had a bed to lay on that night. He did not even have slippers on his cracked feet.

 

Not far from him, sat a homeless angel with the smile of a magazine cover model and the dirty covering of an African Chief- red, yellow, blue. His hair had probably remained unwashed for a year or two. But with all his dirt, he was beautiful.

 

Today, I watched him again. He was not smiling anymore. I wonder if he was hungry as he watched the young men who sipped cabbage soup some forty metres away.

 

On the other side of the highway, in a makeshift shack, a young boy sat and sold flour dumplings that his mother had made. The money would go to his father’s drinking perhaps. He and his mother would make do with leftover flour.

 

There were slum children on the same side of the street trying to catch a bus for free. None would stop for them but they were not willing to spend seven hard earned rupees on the bus fare. They had to walk. And I watched them as I sat in a comfortable car.

 

On the same highway, ten minutes away, is the city mall where men and women of wealth go to buy works of exploited children in an oriental country. They will pay heavy sums for the company’s sake. The children will have no share.

 

 (Bethamehi Joy Syiem is a seventeen year old girl from Shillong. She is currently living and studying in Siliguri, West Bengal. She is an avid reader and lover of poetry. She has been writing poetry for a couple of years and has had poems published in The Shillong Times and Episteme. She has a poetry blog called, ‘A Poetic Journey’ with over a thousand followers. The blog can be accessed through this link: https://mypoeticconfessions.wordpress.com)