Vol. 5 Num 9 Sat. June 05, 2004  

Dom Moraes (1938-2004): "a peculiar shiver ran down my spine..."
Last week we ran an article on Dom Moraes in our Indian Poetry in English series. Barely in time, it seems, for he died of cancer on the evening of 3rd June. The literature page mourns the passing of a unique man of letters of the subcontinent, a restless, troubled soul who for most of his life felt himself strung between England and India, and yet one who returned home to Mumbai during this last decade. In a tribute to Moraes, Ranjit Hostoke, one of India's younger poets, suggested that the poet had a streak of stubbornness in him, an inner resilience that made him refuse "to submit to the rigours of diet and treatment demanded by his affliction. Mr. Moraes decided, in the words of Dylan Thomas, a poet with whom he shared a love for the archetypal myth and the richly arcane word, that he would 'not go gentle into that good night.'" Perhaps it was that same streak of independence and inner fortitude that made Dom Moraes wait out an inordinately long period when he found himself unable to write poetry, a time, in Hoskote's words, "of exile from poetry" when following the publication of a "chapbook, Beldam & Others (1967)... (Dom Moraes) then passed into a phase of poetic silence, during which he felt the energies of mystery and lyric had deserted him; he could not shape thought and image into verse, although he remained haunted by the memorable characters he had created, the sinister gardener, the innocent prince, the wizard trapped in glass, the innocent sinner, the self-mortifying saint…"

Then, after he returned to India in 1979, near-miraculously the poetic impulse returned. Dom Moraes wrote about that return, about that long-lost tingle in the spine, in his extraordinary three-part autobiography extraordinary because nothing like it has quite been written by any other writer/poet from this part of the world. The passage is reprinted below. It is a rare look at the rebirth of a poet, of the poet and the man, both within the same body, looking at each other with a tremulous mix of wonderment and fear.

---Editor, Literature Page

I came back to Bombay from Madhya Pradesh in early 1982, not knowing exactly what I would do next. Leela had been appointed editor of a magazine, and was away most of the day. During this time I wandered around the city. I visited scantily stocked bookshops; I walked by the polluted sea. I did this one afternoon, when the tide was low; there were beached boats on the wet sand, and, across the shimmery, gauze-like water beyond, a single island lay, with a look of solitude. There was nobody about. A peculiar shiver ran down my spine, and at first I thought I must be ill. Then I recognized my own symptoms. I had not felt like this for seventeen years.

Certain words and phrases came to my mind. I went home, sat down and began to write a poem; it was about what it would be like if everyone in the world was dead. As I worked, I felt pure power coming out of me. I was concentrated to such an extent that the world around me did, in fact, seem dead: there was only me left, and my writing hand. It was a sensation that I had forgotten, slightly unpleasant, but simultaneously exceptionally exciting. After about four hours, I could not continue any more. I followed an old habit, and put what I had written aside for some days.

During these days I worried; what if, when I went back to the poem, it was no longer there, was no longer as good as I had thought while at work on it? When I returned to my notebook, the two days being up, I found it was still there, and I could see some of what needed to be done. I continued to work on it. It was protean, taking on different shapes as I worked, until at last one strong shape remained.

I typed this out, and called it 'Absences'. It was the first poetry I had written in seventeen years which I felt was poetry. It was like nothing I had previously written, but, partly because of that, I felt once more what Cecil Day Lewis called 'The Poet's inward pride. The certainty of power'... Perhaps I should quote it here. I feel a tremendous pride in it still, not because of its quality, but because it was the precursor of a great deal of new poetry in the years to come, a John the Baptist.


Smear out the last star.
No lights from the islands
Or hills. In the great square
The prolonged vowel of silence
Makes itself plainly heard
Round the ghost of a headland
Clouds, leaves, shreds of bird
Eddy, hindering the wind.

No vigils left to keep.
No enemies left to slaughter.
The rough roofs of the slopes,
Loosely thatched with splayed water,
Only shelter microliths and fossils.
Unwatched, the rainbows build
On the architraves of hills.
No wounds left to be healed.

Nobody left to be beautiful.
No polyp admiral to sip
Blood and whiskey from a skull
While fingering his warships.
Terrible relics, by tiderace
Untouched, the stromalites breathe.
Bubbles plop on the surface,
Disturbing the balance of death.

No sound would be heard if
So much silence was not heard.
Clouds scuff like sheep on the cliff.
The echoes of stones are restored.
No longer any foreshore
Or any abyss, this
World only held together
By its variety of absences.

(From A Variety Of Absences: the collected memoirs of Dom Moraes,, Omnibus edition, 2003)