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Review of A Leaf In His Ear.

A Leaf In His Ear is a comprehensive collection of poetry by the Indo-Guyanese poet Mahadais Das. The collection is divided into four sections: "I Want to Be a Poetess of My People" (1976, 1977), "My Finer Steel Will Grow" (1976, 1977), "Bones" (1988), and "Uncollected Poems" (1973-1994). The sections, except the fourth, contain poems from individual books of poetry published by Peeple Tree.

Das writes that she wants to be "a poetess of my people." This title is something she both strives after and disowns in her writing. The breadth of her work reveals that she is more than what the title signifies. In addition, she is acutely aware that the cultural heritage of Guyana is as diverse as its geography. This realization is seen in the call for revolution in the poem "Does Anyone Hear The Song Of The River Wending Its Way Through The Jungle?"
      I saw my children dancing in the beams of moonlight,
      Weaving patterns they spun with the threads of their yesterdays
      Of black shadows hanging over the river,
      Coppers winging the air from cane-sugar's palaces,
      And, on the loom of tomorrow,
      I saw them weave benab cities in the forest,
      Molten factories drinking deep from waterfalls feeding
      visions sailing downriver,
   My children, in universities, born and grown in the jungle
   Like a symbolic womb, cradling and nurturing the generations
      of yesterday's visions (34)

The poet's voice in the first section is one of hope in the midst of political flux. Guyana was defining its postcolonial identity from the British Empire. Das calls for the people to unite under the banner of progress. In "On Events That Occurred At Kimbia," she writes,
   But what if folk would set superstition aside?
      Cast it away, like a deadly snake, from them.
      Where would then be their masters' power of invocation?
      What if a revolution thundered along this path
      And trampled their disintegrating psychic forms of domination?

The poem draws from Das's stint as a voluntary member of Forbes Burnham's Guyana National Service (GNS), a paramilitary corps whose agenda included defense of the country and communal farming in the Upper Demerara-Berbice region of Guyana. GNS was plagued by racial tension and accusation of misogynistic practices, including rape, against female cadets.

Das's vision for the liberated country and people is mark by inclusivity of race and gender. It is contrary to politics as practiced at the time (and continues in some circles) that tended to divide political parties along racial lines and relegate women to the role of second-class citizens.

This vision proved far from reality under the regime of Forbes Burnham. Das expresses disappointment with Burnham's government in "My Finer Steel Will Grow," and other poems in the second section of the collection. She bemoans, "It is a dog's life. / Today there are no bones. / Yesterday there were too many" (49).

"For Walter Rodney & Other Victims" is one of the stronger pieces of the section.
   Weep not for your child.
   Others are dying yet.
   Saints are struck down.
   Murderers are raised to ugly statutes
   whose wicked square
   razes the grass to stony ground,
   vilifying the air,
   and birds escape to greener spaces (54)

Das considered Rodney a comrade. Painting the scene at his funeral, Das writes, "There is another beside you. She is weeping yet" (54). She was a member of Rodney's Working People Alliance (WPA), an integrated (race, gender) political third party that was critical of Burnham's government--a predicament that resulted in the assassination of Rodney.

Das takes the reader to the land of despair but does not leave him there. In "The Day of Revolution," she asks, "Who can hold back the climbing sun in the sky?" (61). She sees progress as natural and the people of Guyana are not immune to it. She fully develops this maneuvering in the third section, Bones (1988). In the title poem, Das writes,
   Oh they are hungry for wind to sing
   through their tissue, so hungry.
   They wait for the earth at the plough.
   After winter's fallowness
   and all its severity,
   when earth is torn up
   by the diligent farmer (66)

She had moved to New York, and then Chicago where she pursued, but did not complete, a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Chicago due to health problems. It is worthwhile to view the move to America with diasporic lens. Like her ancestors who arrived from India to Guyana as indentured servants, America was a land of the unfamiliar to Das. The aptly titled Departing hints at her restlessness.
   So between arriving and always leaving,
   my spirit swings like a pendulum in the clock
   of the universe, and were it to unhinge
   I would be a bird flying backwards forever (93)

Das is familiar with the fragility of the human condition, from a historical and personal perspective. "If I Come To India" is a series of questions that concludes with, "If I come. Will I find myself?" (105).

The themes discussed above run throughout the uncollected poems. This section contains the title poem of the book, "The Leaf In His Ear," that reads like a dirge and could have possibly be written with her brother Patrick in mind (even though Das dedicates it to someone named Charlie) who disappeared "into the forest of Guiana" (176). He was mentally ill.
   Left, the golden leaf bears from his ear.
   At eighteen, Bushman fighting to control diamonds
   in his glass head. The waters of the river
   swirl by (176)

Das met an early death at the age of 48. She died in Barbados in 2003 while there for medical treatment. She leaves behind a cache of poems, collected here, that is a mixture of the personal and communal. They not only showcase her rich talent but speak to the human condition with a voice that is honest and bold.

One wonders how Das coped with all that life threw her way, from disillusionment with a revolutionary movement to the onslaught of health problems that forced her to abandon her studies. Her work points in the direction of an answer, even though it does not necessarily provide one. She believed in the power of words. One of the many gems of the collection is a poem without title and here quoted in its entirety.

Look at me:
   when you speak,
   mountain ranges
   rise inside me (162).

Das wrote words which were meant to be spoken, and in so being the case, bring forth actions that play out in the lives of people. Thus, her dream of progress was not relegated to the people of Guyana but had a universal bent to it. A Leaf In His Ear captures this legacy, proof that Das is a poet of all people.

Work Cited

Das, Mahadai. A Leaf in His Ear. Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2010. Print.

Elvis Alves

Goldsmiths College, University of London
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Author:Alves, Elvis
Publication:Journal of Caribbean Literatures
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2013
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