Engagement with death on a philosophical plane has always been a matter of fascination for poets. Ritual treatment of death as an ultimate exit or end of life is not that engaging intellectually. But poetic treatment of death as something different from is ritual or clinical understanding truly intrigues. If we look at the larger canvas of world poetry, ‘Thanatopsis’ by William Cullen Bryant emerges as a case in point. He considers death an opportunity to mingle with the majority without distinction, and therefore worth-welcoming. Emily Dickinson confesses, death kindly waited for her until she was done with her household chores, and took her away on a chariot. Many of Lekhanath Paudyal’s poems treat death as a compulsory liberator. Dylan Thomas, in “Go not go gentle into that good night” asks his father to rebel and shoo away death, for death is nothing but the end of light, and is not like anything the seers and philosophers eulogize, calling it a passage into yet another realm of life. In this rich poetic tradition of thanatopsis (contemplation on death), we might add the name Dr. Mohan Prasad Joshi, a Nepali Poet.
This scrutiny is based on his recent collection of English poems entitled ‘A Hundred Flowers to Awareness and Death’.
As the title itself suggests, the poet has escorted consciousness together with death, almost like an antithesis, antidote or neutralizers. Death has been personified throughout and treated not as an annihilation of life but as a liberator, whose constant consciousness makes life worth living. Awareness, both of death and life, and of the world for that matter, is what keeps the fear of death at bay and makes like a celebration. A believer of the idea that ‘everything is developing, dancing, disappearing and reappearing’, death, for poet Joshi, virtually does not exist. Death itself in ‘A letter from death’ assures the poet that he won’t be depressed seeing it, because it inspires and instructs one to be a living force with no fear at all.
If the overall theme of the poems collected in the book is to be encapsulated in a nutshell, it can safely be said, poet Joshi is a spiritualist, who sees death as a gateway to a world free of pains, anxieties and trepidations. The awareness that death cannot be averted at any cost makes him a patron of carpe diem — seize this day, for the future is uncertain — and stoicism — the philosophical idea that pain should be welcomed with patience in order to nullify its shocking impacts. To verify this claim, one might consider the poem ‘Everything’s going to be alright’, which not only foreground’s the poet’s stoic nature, but also makes him an ally of the carpe diem fraternity, as he says:
Still, amid all these feelings,
I don’t know how and why
an untouched part in me sits serenely
with the assurance
that everything’s going to be alright!
Between the dead past and the illusionary future, he discovers life in its full meaningfulness at the present. The underlying motif of his works, therefore, is not to engage the readers with a contemplation on death, but to encourage them to reap awareness, by whatever means, and be spiritually informed about the actual grammar of birth and death. A romantic thinker at his heart, the poet-turned-doctor finds the trigger to spiritual awareness not in big philosophical texts or sermons, but in small things like the chirping of a bird, coming up of a rainbow in the sky, the occurrence of rain, simple gestures of love and care from his dog ‘Everest’, the germination of legume seeds, and withering and fall of leaves, and the ceaseless flow of a river, etc. The schematic is based on the proposition that fear of death emerges from the handiwork of our mind that is always full of trivial thoughts. The poet advises the readers to open their hearts to nature, including its minutest and beautiful constituents, and free the mind from desires, wishes and craving. Almost like a Buddhist claim, the poet considers the erasure of wishes from the mind as the key to awareness, and therefore, a way towards our victory against death. Like in the poem ‘Narrative change needed’, he invites the readers to consider death not a gateway to decaying, but an opportunity to get back to the basic elements—the pancha tatvas—and renew the cycle of life.
There are poems in which poet Joshi looks at the brighter side of death. In ‘The art of dying’, he thinks of the withering and ultimate fall of the leaves to replenish life that is sprouting anew. ‘Make me a new phoenix’ is also about death, wherein the poet personifies the fact called death, and invites it to come and burn so that he would rise with renewed existence again. As revealed in ‘Perhaps the trio wants to go deeper’, he considers darkness, silence and awareness a trio, and life takes meaning from their collective and interactive existence. Likewise, he considers suffering, search and solution—a trinity again—for a shift from ignorance to awareness. This awareness, a destination of life in his understanding, happens through the body, but one needs a careful intellectual reduction of mental malice by doing away with wishes and innumerable other thoughts. This, he believes, can happen with awareness, but to his dismay awareness is only an occasional visitor. He sighs: “Please be a constant companion/and help fulfill my two goals,” — dancing with life all the way to the end, and ushering him to an altogether new life. It is awareness, he believes, that can clean what he calls ‘the billion-knotted bundle’ called the ‘mind’.
Awareness and death are, for poet Joshi, not only complimentary but also essentially contrastive. Nevertheless, he appreciates the primacy of both, and offers flowers to both as a symbolic gesture of his love for both. Like in ‘You’re my two sides’, he considers death and awareness inseparably necessary to life.
Like what Bertolt Brecht called the ‘alienation effect’, Joshi is also on look for something that frees the mind from getting overwhelmed or carried away by intense emotions. Like Bertolt’s ‘effect’, his tool for such a break is his awareness.
A resource of individual poems brings pleasing epiphanies. ‘Everest’, the poet’s dog appears in a number of poems with striking revelations. In ‘Everest gave me a lesson’, the dog through its gestures advises the poet to shun melancholia and be happy as it is. In other poems, birds appear, teach him the lessons of joy and freedom, and leave.
The poet is undoubtedly a darling of the present moment. He believes little in cherishing the lost past or the unknown future. For him, the present is the biggest reality. “Where’s the now?’ is one of such poems that brilliantly yet simply leads the readers to this conclusion. He argues that when we free ourselves from excessive attachment with the past and the future—he called them ‘burdens’—we can attain freedom.
Like death and awareness, he also personifies consciousness, the mind, winter, river, and many other natural features. This is because, such natural things and happenings are quite enlightening for him. A bird, like in ‘Bird on the camphor tree’ gives him a wake-up bell, while the river, as in ‘What the river told me’ reminds him of the inevitability of change, which launches the subject into newness and freshness. Nature to him is a resort he can escape to from the hullaballoo and mechanical nature of a city and replenishes his innocence. Seeing life too busy all the time, he admonishes it to take a bread and observe nature, assuring that nothing untoward would happen.
Suffering is another recurrent issue in Joshi’s poems. An undeniable reality of life, suffering should not be shunned; rather, it should be accepted as a ‘true guru’ who gives the mind—a perpetual complainer—no way out to further its insidious designs. Through such ideational reduction, the poet aspires to attain supreme consciousness, wherefrom one learns to operate life.
One very important aspect of Joshi’s poetry is the presence of environmental overtones. He is quite aware and deeply regretful of what mankind has done to nature. In ‘Sorry for what I’ve done to you’, he takes up the issue of constant water pollution and regrets. In ‘Earth’ he celebrates the earth as the only place in the cosmos where life is possible, but laments that the humankind never appreciates this divine cosmic reality. Even a dog, shut indoors all the time, is overjoyed when it sees and feels the raindrops falling on the deck without the barrier of a glass in between. This is the poet’s rejoinder against the compartmentalized ultramodern life that languishes in what we call a mediated environment.
These are some of the thematic domains around which poet Joshi travels with his imaginative mind. Free from political intrusions, rage, protest, frustration and melancholy, he dramatizes every dark reality of our existence, including pain and death, into something positive. This is extremely meaningful, for hope and courage have become quite sparse in the present time which, in his own words, has lost the whole and has fragmented into parts.
One suggestion, however, seems to be in order. A philosopher of awareness and consciousness, poet Joshi, in the poem ‘A river’s journey’ alleges the river to be ‘not knowing where she’s heading’, and yet quenching her search. This contradicts Joshi’s understanding of awareness. For someone who takes the river as something analogous to a living thing, it is quite unbecoming of himself to think its ignorance of a purpose as a force leading to its ultimate satisfaction. In another poem titled ‘Won’t waste time looking at a rainbow’, he contradicts his own philosophical standing about nature where he tends to see everything meaningful. Contrastively here, he writes:
I won’t waste time
looking at a rainbow
when I know well that its beauty is nothing
but an illusion in the sky
appearing from a play of sunrays
with tiny raindrops—simple physics.
This forced intrusion of simple physics and a very un-romantic and prosaic view of nature question all the previous treatments of similar phenomena in nature as sublime and revealing. Poet Joshi should be watchful of such contradictions.
Such minor limitations apart, Joshi is a pleasant respite to the lovers of poetry who are beset by a lava of political, divisive, pessimistic and contentious surge of banal feelings. He takes the readers into an inward journey, and tells them how darkness is a base of life, decaying a cycle to replenish new birth, and death a gateway to reclaim the basic elements, wherefrom the cycle begins again. It is deeply enlightening, motivating and soothing.
Well done, poet Joshi! You are therapeutic and spiritually fulfilling.