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Book Review

if only the gods were awake by Gary Girdhari, New York, 2011, 138pp.

Guyana Journal, November 2011


WE ARE LIVING at a critical moment in history when the forces of globalism and unabated capitalism with its ruthless accomplices – religion, wars, greed and environmental destruction are constantly eroding our humanity, threatening to reduce us into economic, social and religious automatons. We are willingly succumbing to a process of cultural hegemony that is silently homogenizing us into destructively, mindlessly capitalistic and hypocritically selfish creatures.

For those of us migrants who have been thrust into this system, especially those of us who are endowed with a consciousness as well as a sensitivity about our diasporic displacements – not once, but twice severed from our umbilical homes – accepting and adjusting to this process has been particularly traumatic.

Against this backdrop I wish to examine the book of poetry by Dr. Gary Girdhari.

Pablo Neruda once said, “The books that help you most are those which make you think that most;” in other words, the books that awaken our consciousness.

In his anthology, Gary Girdhari has set out on a mission – to morally, politically and intellectually awaken us and the gods, both above and below, to the awareness of this cultural hegemony – an artificial social construct or mindset imposed by western beliefs and practices – or a “civilized bondage” as he terms it, in which we are all caught up. It is an “Ill-Legacy” (p.23) deeded us by “crooks and thieves / Politicians posturing / masquerading / cheating our people / raped our land.” And they, the “1% at the top / …smiling”, while “The bottom 90% swelling” and “The in-between surely disappearing”. (p.88) Gary sees this wretchedness in “Civilized Bondage” (p.97) “asynchronously evolving in geometric progression / helped by E = mc2 and it is “warping inexorably” as we are driven by “unrestricted greed and uncontrollable lust”. Thus, with an understanding of both physical and social sciences, he poetically makes a didactic pronouncement: “We [will continue to] exploit Nature / Determined as we
are / Under no duress / Killing ourselves in the process.”

Gary's qualification as a poet derives first and foremost from his humble upbringing in a poor agrarian community. Like most poets, his close affinity to the maternal soil, as illustrated in such poems as “The Ploughman's Foot” (p.21) and “Ole Time: Getting Ready for School” (p.18) gave birth to and nurtured his strong sense of value and poetic expression. He writes with such evocative, pastoral imagery in “Life's Conundrum” (p.127) that “my life like a buoy / (and here he employs a homophonic pun), “bubbling with honeysuckle and jasmine / and lushness of memories sublime / the organic smell of just cut grass / and fresh cow dung I pass / rotting jamoons squirting between gnarled toes…/ forgetting sadhana turmoil and daily woes / these the memories like an eternal fire / is my impassioned desire / when I yield to the reincarnate destiny.” Not only are his poems, as we will later see, an autobiographical collage of his life history, his feelings, his fears and forebodings, but for now we see that he also, like Pablo Neruda, can say, “I grew up in this town, my poetry was born between the hill and the river, it took its voice from the rain, and like the timber, it steeped itself in the forests.” In several of his poems, Gary, like Neruda, employs highly poignant allusions and comparisons between life and nature, some even approximating the structure of the philosophical Japanese haiku.

Gary's primary qualification and values were further enhanced through tertiary education in biological science, to the point of professorship, which he describes allegorically in “Metamorphosis” (p.20) as, “emerging from the cocoon / of a tiny village / some say backward and savage /… silently growing…/ brimming and burning with life energy / bursting out of darkness / and soaring onwards like a butterfly in spring”. The alliterative images here are beautifully expressed in biological terms. Indeed, throughout these poems we are treated with a rich array of imagery that appeals to all our senses.

In many of the poems in this anthology we see a relationship between Science and Poetry, which often passes unnoticed. Gary, in the line of Goethe as well as several other poets and scientists, has shown that Arts and Science are not necessarily mutually exclusive disciplines since Nature as a common denominator has always awed and inspired poets and scientists alike. Even Albert Einstein, because he was such a genius in physics, his poetry is a little known facet of his creativity. When Einstein wrote: “It is my conviction / That killing under the cloak of war / Is nothing but an act of murder. / (I do not know what weapons / World War III will be fought with, / But World War IV will be fought / With sticks and stones.)”, essentially, he was poetically stating, like Gary in “Civilized Bondage”, (p.97) a scientific paradox that while E = mc2 is the universal law and source of myriad useful inventions, it is also the catalyst for our total destruction (which could even be hastened once we re-adjust this equation in recognition of other particles in the universe that travel faster than light). Gary, like most decent minded scientists, harbors a compulsive obsessive preoccupation against wars – the wanton destruction of humanity and the environment, and the loss of human dignity and consciousness.

Gary's profoundest qualification as a poet derives from the trauma and empathy of his diasporic experience during which he also produced a multitude of socio/political commentaries, editorials and articles, published mostly in the Guyana Journal. His poetry is actually an emotive complementary to his prosaic publications.

Like the children of Israel wailing by the rivers of Babylon, and most diasporic writers, Gary yearns for his homeland and begins his anthology with a set of nostalgic poems. In the very first poem “Rootlessness” (p.16) and also later in “Matri Bhumi” (p.22) he softly exhorts us to reconsider the assumptions and meanings of identity, nation, home, and place in a broad cross-cultural context, for he says, “We are Guyanese / From China, Madera, India and Africa / Amerindians and Europeans, if you please / But migrants twice departed / We are the second diaspora.” Gary not only sees the phenomenon of colonial and post-colonial diaspora as a relationship between different cultural origins, but also as a complex and ambiguous relationship of migrants who yearn for their “Matri Bhumi”, but continue to “come in hundreds of thousands / To this acclaimed land of plenty and cold / Backs to the wall with bloodshot tears / Motivated and bold / to catch up with lost years.” Here he lavishly employs the use of fragmented or fissured run-on words and phrases which produce an emphatic emotion when the run-on words are pre or post attached to other concepts. Thus, it is a land of plenty and cold, with (cold) backs to the wall, a (wall) with bloodshot tears. Gary has made prolific use of this innovative technique throughout his poetry. The price paid for living in this land of plenty is degeneration and loss of humanness as aptly described in “Lament of a Migrant I” (p.49) and “Lament of a Migrant II” (p.50) in which Gary asks rhetorically, “Was it worth it? / Is it ever worth it?” Similarly in the protest-narrative poem “Johnny” (p.101) we see the epitome of the average immigrant engaged in the dichotomous but often futile struggle to put food on the table while simultaneously trying to maintain his human dignity – which incidentally underlies the general sentiment of the Occupy Wall Street protest.

The complexity and ambiguity associated with his diasporic experience, his rebellion against the culture of unabated capitalism with its concomitant and senseless rape of our fragile environment, and his burning, nostalgic desire to return to his (once) pristine, rural village are actually central to the thematic of many of his poems throughout the other sections. Hence, his poetry generally deals with the issues of dislocation, anxiety, family deprivation, and general disenchantment generated by the problematics of adjustment to or acceptance of and by his new homeland.

We can therefore see in his poems a love/hate relationship for the country that forced him out as well as the country that accepted him. Thus, the poet, like so many of us, is caught between a duality of forces that are in many ways interdependent and interconnected, but at the same time manifestly conflicting. We cannot adjust to our adopted homeland even though we have lived here for decades. We are “Trapped” (p.82) “… like an animal or robot / No ideas, no brain, no thought /… Today, tomorrow, and so will it be / In this confounded prison / To drive this mindless economy”, yet we are content to stay here “like a well-fed bird in a cage” (“Empty Soul”, p.65) … “to sit and mope / as days wear away / with sanity saltating in dismay / is like moments of time delayed / the feelings of one betrayed”, (“Betrayed” p.31) while we yearn to return home but would not or cannot adjust there either.

“Will the yearning stop?” (p.130) Gary wonders in rhetorical soliloquy, “Memory in perpetuity / or short lived? / Will I always remember / like the salmon in spawn / or like the mayfly? / Is there only one meeting in this lifespan?” The alliterative imagery is so soft, scientific and striking, as is the paradoxical image of the migrant degenerated into an animal or a robot driving the economy – personified as mindless.

Throughout his poetry Gary rebels against this mindless degeneration of man into, what I referred earlier to as, social, religious and economic automation, and Gary, as robots driving a mindless economy. Interposed among them are several haunting poems dealing with lost opportunities of the immigrant to enjoy childhood with his children, friendship with his friends, love with loved ones, and relationship with relatives.

The poet speaks from the soul of every Guyanese living in these lands, and perhaps every migrant from every other country. Often the laconic and matter-of-fact tone of the poems serves to underline both the commonality and the trauma of the experience of every migrant.

Yes, he and I and countless others want to return so badly to the “honeysuckle and jasmine / and lushness of memories sublime / the organic smell of just cut grass / and fresh cow dung I pass / rotting jamoons squirting between gnarled toes”, that if he, and many of us also, cannot return in this life, maybe in the reincarnated one.

For Gary, death is not the end but only a “karmic or cosmic” “investiture into a revolving never-ending boundless domain,” (p.127) and, as he antithetically puts it, “life is a complex blend of concordant diversity / And to the end, the beginning shall become the end.” (p.126) Thus, for him the world is not yin and yang but in actuality, yin yang – not opposing forces or dualities, but complementary opposites that interact within a greater whole, as part of a dynamic system. In other words, he fully subscribes to the concept of dialectics of nature and the universe, (and society) – dialectics being just a scientific elucidation of the ancient philosophy of yin yang.

It is not surprising therefore that Gary cynically deprecates western religions, as in the poem, “John Paul” (p.123); and, in many of his other poems he advocates a back to the basic, spiritual connectivity of man to his primordial self, harmonized peacefully with nature and the cosmic forces, referred to as prana and chi. It is a connection that transcends all religions, for, any thinking being would see that religion, at best, is a ritualistic and quasi-political institution, which even Jesus, himself, implied was a yoke, and Marx called an opiate, and is distinct from righteousness which is the state and practice of conscientious integrity – a sort of commingling of karma and seva (p.137) – 'righteous' action and selfless service.

Throughout the book Gary reaffirms the Cartesian existentialist philosophy of “I think, therefore I am.” To live, therefore, is not just the breathing of oxygen, but rather, one is obliged in life to think and make and leave footprints, for, “footprints mark the immortality / of those who tread there / like fossils of eons gone / footprints, even if but a memory / are good and gratifying / [for] footprints never fade away / or wash away / in the temporal reality / or in the continuum beyond.” (p.121)

So while Rene Descarte would say, the man dies when he ceases to think, Gary might add, the man also dies when he ceases to creatively pursue his dreams to live a full and authentic life – rewarding and embracing of full human dignity; he would further assert that not only man, but also society dies when it surrenders to the greed of uncaring capitalism and its afore-mentioned ruthless accomplices – religion, wars, greed and environmental destruction. And God, also, is dead, according to Friedrich Nietzsche, or asleep, according to Girdhari. Not literally, of course, but when (the existence of) God is denied or rejected by humans, as evidenced by the immoral behavior of man and his inexorable efforts to destroy himself, his brother, and the world in which they both reside.

Observably, while diasporic poets have a lot in common in terms of philosophy and experience, Gary seems to dwell much in the past, he revolts against the present, and holds grim prospects for the future. Yet, indeed, there are many notable immigrants who actually celebrate(d) their diasporic experience – Vidia Naipaul, Derek Walcott, Albert Einstein and even Pablo Neruda. Gary's writings are close to those of a self-exiled soul who feels, like Einstein, he is permanently disconnected from his home.

Also, in reading the poems, one gets the impression that he, himself being a scientist, takes a too serious or fatalistic view of life; thus, the spontaneity and aesthetics of traditional poetry get stifled by the scientific and post-modernism of his expressions. As such, a core underlying logic and reason take precedence over emotionalism, rhyme and rhythm. However, these are enhanced by a number of unique elements such as his arbitrary use of chopped up prose, space breaks, line breaks and run-on phrases for special effects and emphasis.

I think if only the gods were awake is a responsible attempt to understand the world in human terms through literary composition. It is very inspiring and challenges the thinking person not to be content to live in isolated, metaphysical existentialism, but to be Socratic, to question the political and religious dogmas that yoke us. I believe it is this type of questioning that started out the Wall Street protesters and those in all the major capitals of the world. Thus, we are beginning to see a worldwide altruistic manifestation of people's consciousness, and a rebellion against the death sentence imposed by the 1% (a terminology Gary employed many years ago in “We are Not Involved” (p.88). Some results are already showing as a few Bernie Madoffs in our community are being exposed. So, maybe, some gods are waking up!

Gokarran Sukhdeo, BS (Econs), MA (Soc. Psych)
He has written on social, political and international issues.
A published poet himself, he is also the author of The Silver Lining which won the Guyana Prize for Literature, 1998.


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