A selection of the poems of Jibanananda Das
translated by Joe Winter

Jibanananda Das (1899-1954) is wildly popular in West Bengal and Bangladesh. His poetry is modernist in its despair and doubt and difficulty, more traditional in its affiliation to Nature. But never has Nature spoken with such a sharp sense of the actual. This selection of 50 of Das’s poems is the first in English to follow the forms of the original Bengali, the loose long line often employed, the breathless sentence, the jagged structure, the underpinning rhyme. He is indescribable, except by an example of his work. Here is the title poem to this collection. (It follows the original in its lack of rhyme and in every main particular.) Phalgun is a month, mid-February to mid-March.

Again in the Phalgun sky the darkness lowers:
as if a mysterious sister of light, this darkness.

Like that lady who has always loved me
and yet whose face I have not looked upon,
that very lady,
the darkness deepens in the Phalgun sky.
I seem to hear a tale of a lost city,
the beauty of an ash-grey palace wakes in my heart.

On the Indian Ocean shore
or else beyond the Mediterranean coast
or out beyond the Sea of Tyre
not now, but once, a certain city stood,
a certain palace,
a palace of the richest furnishings:
Persian carpets, cashmere shawls, round-sheer pearls and coral
of the Bering wave,
my lost heart, my dead eyes, my extinct dreams and desires,
and you lady –
all was once in that world.

Orange sunlight was everywhere,
cockatoos, doves were everywhere,
everywhere the deep shade of mahogany-leaves;
orange sunlight everywhere,
orange sunlight;
and you were there;
for God knows how many centuries I have not seen the beauty
of your face,
nor sought it.

Phalgun’s darkness is here with a story from over the sea,
a pain-filled outline of exquisite domes and arches,
the smell of pears, now gone,
ash-pale parchments in profusion of lion-hide and deer-skin,
glass panes rainbow-coloured,
and at curtains coloured like peacocks’ fanned-out tails
a momentary glimpse
of rooms, inner rooms, more rooms, further rooms –
a timeless stillness and wonder.

Curtains, carpets spread with the blood-red sweat of the sun!
Blood-crimson glasses of watermelon wine!
Your naked lonely hand. . .

your naked lonely hand.

The poetry of Jibanananda Das resists generalisation. It is very much an experience of its own. (The name means life-delight – jiban-ananda; das means servant.) Now it is possible to read him in English with the ease and fluidity of the original. Joe Winter’s Naked Lonely Hand is published by Meteor Books, in agreement with Anvil Press Poetry, for sale exclusively in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and in open market in all other territories outside the European Community, U.S.A., Canada and Australia.