Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Robert Bohm’s India: Whatever’s right in front of you


What the Bird Tattoo Hides: Selections from the Vijaynagar Notebooks (1974-2012)
by Robert Bohm

    Artfully crafted and off the chain, Robert Bohm’s What the Bird Tattoo Hides (West End Press, 2014) is an exemplary achievement in poetry. Blending poetry with short histories and vignettes, Bohm explores his 45 years of partial residence in the village of Vijaynagar, India, his wife Suman’s family home.

  Robert Bohm will be featured alongside Kito Shani and Franetta McMillian in the Dreamstreets Downtown Poetry Reading at the Chris White Gallery, 8th & Shipley Streets, October 18, 2014 at 3 p.m.

   Bohm strives to avoid “succumbing to the traditional western search for the ‘real’ India,” as “[t]here is no ‘real’ India,” he asserts. “Just India. Whatever’s right in front of you” (“Whatever’s right in front of you” 79).  What Bohm puts in front of us are villagers, family members, rivers, temples, rainstorms, bus rides, suicide wells, miserable work, indigenous dancers, bougainvillea, vomit, birth, struggle, murder, outrages of caste, and parallels with the Viet Nam war, American racism, and the 21st-century banking collapse. Throughout, Bohm struggles against the gap between the white man’s gaze and true solidarity.


    That struggle took its most significant turn in 1967 when Robert Bohm met Suman Kirloskar while she was working at the U.S. Army 225th Station Hospital in Munich, Germany where he was stationed. From the outset, she disabused him of any notions that Indians were all Hindu philosophy. She was caustic, earthy, and just impetuous enough to marry Bohm six months later and then introduce him to Vijaynagar. She was his greatest interpreter and critic in India and was his chief political collaborator when I first met the two of them in Delaware back in the 80s. They were a formidable team, quick to fault local activists for liberal and white-skin myopia. Suman went to work for GM where she was elected to high union office as a reformer. In addition to his political work, Bob often shared his sometimes abrasive and trenchant poetry at 2nd Saturday Poets readings and in Dreamstreets magazine. I followed his poetry somewhat desultorily, I must confess. Now I know that all the while, Bohm has been doing what I admire most in art.

   Not that what’s in front of him backgrounds everything in favor of politics. In “Generations,” for example, Bohm uses evocative and even erotic images to recount how the Bhil indigenous women, whose forbearers had left forest dwelling,

                                    danced rowdily at night
in their colony
on Belgaum’s outskirts
While a long-unseen uncle tended

cremation fires up north in Varanasi and the moon
its face flush with lust
groaned while spying on the earth’s naked belly. (45)

   In other poems such evocative images draw Bohm to declarations of solidarity. “Mandovi River, Panaji” posits images whose subtext is memories of empire. The river subtly conveys these memories to Bohm:

Laving its banks, the river, penetrating soil, seeps
mind-like toward roots almost, but not quite,
too slender to find.
The water’s rhythm takes me to where they are. (14)

What the river passes by are the Basilica of Bom Jesus, where St. Xaviar’s dust is resting (an artifact of Portuguese rule), a “barge loaded with ore from Marpusa”s iron mines,” “plantation laborers [who] trudge to work at dawn,” and the memory of a woman whose eyelids the Portuguese cut off to force her to watch them dismember her son. Says Bohm, accepting the challenge of solidarity, “She’s the queen of sight. / I’m her legacy” (13).

     Bohm is quite aware of the violence inherent in a struggle against violence, but, in “Concentric moments,” he seems to wonder how far he can go:

From random flailings to more focused acts, I rise, transcending redemption.
Or do I?
Did I really volunteer to go beyond the outmoded maps? (73)

    We become attached to many of the personalities over the five decades reflected in this poignant volume and, like Bohm, feel closer to their struggles. The fourth section, “Comings & Goings,” contains several tributes to the passing of a few. “Meeda Mama Dead” is a lovely memorial to a Dalit (untouchable) basket weaver, his home, his family, and to his first wife, who leapt into a well:

he wove her disappearance
into each basket he made so when
you lugged fruits or vegetables in it

you always carried an additional weight:

her body sinking in water. (129)

A bauxite rock Bohm has taken from the area suggests that dead weight and what we accumulate in life:

                        As with the rock

We all are
the matter we are made of, this
aging flesh, this body

of evidence: pitted surfaces, traces
of old chemical reactions, one
crust built upon another, nothing, no matter

how much we might try, completely

left behind. (130)


    The title poem, “What the bird tattoo hides,” refers to tattoos worn at the eye’s outer edge by Bhil women (remember the dancers and the aroused moon?). Here the eroticism is made more ambivalent and the cheeky flirtatiousness a companion to taking justice into one’s own hands and to solidarity. The aging Bhil beauty Godkari

            slices open
a stolen jackfruit, seeking
truth’s taste.

The blade she uses is just rusted enough
to cut to the chase.

Although she doesn’t know you, she’ll give you a piece.
She always shares what she takes. (148)

    These poems reflect well-tuned antennae and expert craft. But they do more. They shatter the fetishism of the physical world as innate spirit that so many New Agers and tourists of India espouse; instead, they articulate the human social relations that give that world its spirit. In “Mumbai om shanti who the fuck wants to pray anyway” Bohm pulls the legs out from under the airy-eyed: “Carrying the history / of philosophy / in a burlap bag hanging / from his neck / a legless man / maneuvers along / the sidewalk on / a wooden tray / with wheels.” He continues offering a few more disagreeable delicacies and concludes with “This isn’t / a scene / seen best from / 2 sides / or even / from all sides but rather / one seen best / without any type / of eyes at all, being / as they are / always / in the way.” Eat Pray Love this ain’t.

    “Mother River,” the farewell poem, is a wonderful prayer that sums up Bohm’s quest to breach privilege and live in solidarity (Narmada=one of India’s five holy rivers; mai=mother):

Narmada Mai
teach us to undam water so we can learn how
to free the heart and drive out
those who make our bodies labor miserably
let your high tides guide us, give us what
rising waters have: the power to breach walls, then cities. (158)

Such a quest reminds me of Martin Buber’s injunction to see the “other” as a “thou,” not as an object of use, colored by privilege, but as a co-equal “I.”  But Bohm goes further. Once we see who and what’s really in front of us, we must act.

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