The Accidental Tagore

Essentialtagore-300Amit Chaudhuri in Guernica:

Whatever the unborn and the dead may know, they cannot know the beauty, the marvel of being alive in the flesh.
—D.H. Lawrence, Apocalypse

I began to feel put off by Tagore in my late teens, around the time I discovered Indian classical music, the devotional songs of Meerabai, Tulsidas, and Kabir, not to speak of the work of the modernists. I was also—to place the moment further in context—reading contemporary European poetry in translation, in the tremendous series edited by Al Alvarez, the Penguin Modern European Poets. My father knew of my promiscuous adventurousness when it came to poetry, and, in tender deference to this, he (a corporate man) would buy these books from bookshops in the five-star hotels he frequented, such as the mythic Nalanda at the Taj. Among the poets I discovered through this route of privilege was the Israeli Dan Pagis, of whom the blurb stated: “A survivor of a concentration camp, Dan Pagis possesses a vision which is essentially tragic.” I don’t recall how my seventeen-year-old self responded to Pagis, but I do remember the poem he is most famous for, “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car.” Here it is in its entirety:

here in this carload
i am eve
with abel my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him i

The resonance of the poem escaped me at the time: This history was not mine.