Judith Beveridge: Devadatta’s Poems

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2014, 65pp.

To someone picking the book up in a bookshop, Judith Beveridge’s Devadatta’s Poems is a set of forty-eight dramatic monologues spoken by the Buddha’s cousin, a disruptive and discordant voice in the years after the awakening when the membership and rules of the Buddha’s mendicant order, the sangha, are being worked out. Dedicated readers of Australian poetry will respond to it as what looks like part of an ongoing project by one of Australia’s great poets which begins with “The Buddha Cycle” at the end of Accidental Grace, published nearly twenty years ago, and continues in the long sequence “Between the Palace and the Bhodi Tree” in Wolf Notes, published just over ten years ago.

The relationships between these three works need a bit of teasing out and I don’t want to back myself into the familiar corner of being an outsider puzzling over literary issues that have a single, simple answer. My guess is that “The Buddha Cycle” is an early attempt to engage this material. It wants to deal with sanctity rather than, say, the idea of the Buddha as a model of poetic perception, and sanctity is a very difficult state to incarnate in poetry. The tactic Beveridge uses is to focus on its effects rather than its essence by dealing with the lives of a group of characters who are influenced by the Buddha. It works well and reminds me that Ashvaghosha’s very long poem, The Life of the Buddha, written a good six centuries after the event but an important document nevertheless, seems to flicker briefly into life in the tenth canto when the same tactic is used. The Buddha is about to enter Rajagriha:

Whoever was going by another way stood still,
whoever was standing on that road followed him,
whoever was going fast began to walk slowly,
whoever was seated sprang up, upon seeing him.

Some venerated him with folded hands,
some in honouring him bent down their heads,
some greeted him with affectionate words,
no one went by without worshipping him.

Those who were pompously dressed felt ashamed,
those chattering on the road fell silent upon seeing him.
No one had an improper thought,
as if they were in the presence of dharma in visible form.
                                 (trans. Patrick Olivelle, Clay Sanskrit Library edition)

The evidence that “The Buddha Cycle” is not to be seen as a failed, initial attempt to deal with this sort of material, sidetracked into trying to express sanctity rather than the acute awareness of a poet, is that the characters of “The Buddha Cycle” turn up briefly in one of the poems of this new book – “The Buddha at Uruvela” – where Devadatta is infuriated by the expressions on the faces of the cast from “The Buddha Cycle”:

. . . . . 
And look at Sunita, the street-sweeper, smiling
as if the Buddha has offered him a life above

the scorn of insects, a life of refinements
other than dust. Look how Suppaya, the corpse bearer,
beams, as if from now on he’ll make compassion
the stretcher for any – light or heavy – dispersal

of death. . .

The poem finishes with Devadatta’s perfectly reasonable protest that “what shackles them to suffering / is not desire . . . but the hard-set, / iron-fisted system of caste”.

And the reasonableness of this non-metaphysical (or, perhaps, non-conceptual/psychological) approach to human misery leads one to think about the issue of choosing Devadatta as the voice of these poems. He describes himself as someone continually plotting “backyard empires” and his position is, perhaps, best expressed topographically in “Vulture’s Peak” where he says that he rejects both the heights – from where you get a view of the valley – and the “small damp caves” recommended by the Buddha as a place where, alone, one can meditate on suffering “and its causes in desire”. His position, he says, is “on the level where the farm / women scythe and rick, scythe and rick, or pick // tithes of yellow samphire near the ponds”. Are his poems a kind of counter-text to “Between the Palace and the Bhodi Tree” spoken not out of incipient enlightenment but out of the profoundly human responses of love, jealousy and the desire for secular power? We are certainly more likely to relate to this as a position than we are to post-awakening sanctity, and the result is a lot of poems which crackle with the energy of frustration, disgust and envy. It’s possible, in other words, that Beveridge has chosen Devadatta because she wants to write poems which are, chronologically, a sequel to “Between the Palace and the Bhodi Tree” and she doesn’t want to be tied to the same speaker as in that sequence. This isn’t to adopt the view that the last forty-odd years of the Buddha’s life are seen in the literature as a period of bland, sanctified, otherworldly meditation: he seems to have had to spend a lot of time sorting out the rules for his mendicant order and solving disputes among members: all very this-worldly, even political activities.

At a slight tangent to the issue of Beveridge’s choice of speaker is the issue of why religious mythology felt the need to invent a figure like Devadatta anyway. We know that it invents female figures (even in Eastern versions of Buddhism) to counteract religions that tend to be stonily male-dominated but, for a less obvious reason, it often seems to invent figures who are inside the magical circle of close adherents but who are treacherous. I won’t be the only one to think of the strange role of Judas Iscariot plays in the gospels: somebody who is a betrayer though, as everybody says, it’s hard to work out why you would pay someone thirty pieces of silver to identify a well-known activist in public. Certainly such figures show the human (in its less desirable aspects) in fruitful close contact with the divine – or awakened – and give the latter a kind of traction to operate against. But there is something odd about the way such figures are not expelled: they are free to operate within the cohort of close followers as though their presence is necessary. I suspect students of cults and other social groupings know some of the answers to this but it’s really a sociological area in which I’m ignorant.

In the context of Judith Beveridge’s work, one is reminded, when thinking of the choice of Devadatta, of the importance she places on the idea of dissonance. The title of the book in which “Between the Palace and the Bhodi Tree” appears is Wolf Notes and a note in the book’s preliminary pages defines these as “a discordant or false vibration in a string due to a defect in structure or adjustment of the instrument”. The function of dissonance for Beveridge is a complicated question but it can be said, firstly, that it appears in different guises. There has always been, in her poetry, a sizeable component of what is now called the abject. Obviously the cast of “The Buddha Cycle” are a pretty abject lot but it isn’t just a matter of class or caste. In the extended sequence “Driftgrounds: Three Fisherman” from Storm and Honey, her previous book, readers and poet spend a fair amount of the time saturated in fish guts and blood (significantly the characters we meet apart from the central three, are fairly desperate outsiders). Wallowing in filth isn’t something we expect the Buddha himself to do and it may be significant that, when that is exactly what is recommended in “Between the Palace and the Bhodi Tree” – “To find the layers you must live in the litter, / live like the flea, the louse, the botfly; / don’t live by the flower, live by the fetor” – the speaker is not the Buddha but an overheard ascetic.

I think the function of this social and sensory embracing of the abject has a technical/poetic cause rather than being a matter of content. In other words it is not that Beveridge’s sensibility is especially drawn in this direction but rather that the abject sharpens the texture of the poems and gives them the tense, more vibrant structure that is such a wonderful feature of her poetry. Contemporary lyric poetry does, as one of its underlying dangers, have a slight tendency towards being bland: piercingly insightful and expressive, consciousness-expanding it may be but it does tend to be tonally uniform and elevated: the brilliant “Herons at Dusk” from Beveridge’s previous book is an example. The kind of dissonances I’ve spoken of briefly ensure that there is always a degree of tension at this level in Beveridge’s poems. Needless to say, a figure like Devadatta can embrace the expressive possibilities of the disgusting with brio, as he does in “Alms Round, Sarnath”:

. . . . . 
I want to tell Buddha to chew his rules about patience
and frugality into a sloppy cud. I want to hold my bowl out
as boldly as a symbol and clang it loudly with my spoon.

I want to tell these miserable, skinflint, pinch-fisted folk
to stop tossing us husks, rinds, cores, thorns, rats’ tails,
roosters’ claws and – oh! – so many stinking lepers’ thumbs!

A more interesting kind of dissonance is verbal. One of Beveridge’s poetic strengths is a love of tactile, expressive words and a fascination with unusual ones. One could cite endless examples but, to choose at random, the subject of the poem, “Rain”, from Storm and Honey, “drumbles” across awnings, gutters and windows in “gluteous loops”. The verbal extravagance of such words is justified because of their expressive capacity and their tactile reality. But Beveridge often wants to go beyond such justifiable poetic use of language, to be dissonant by being what one might call, linguistically inappropriate. There are always examples of a kind of linguistic excess expressed as tissues of synonyms or an obsessive tactility as in “Ground Swell”:

. . . . .
     So many mouths dressing the flax,
the scutch, quitch and barley, wheat and sesame;
                 so many mouths
                         in a chirl and chirm . . .

Les Murray in his poem, “Portrait of the Autist as a New World Driver” describes how being inside the closed world of a car encourages a poet to let language romp and produce phrases like “orotate parafundities”. This kind of punning distortion turns up in Beveridge’s work as do more conventional puns. The passage I have just quoted from “Alms Round: Sarnath” contains an unspoken homophone whereby “symbol” becomes “cymbal” and leads on to the idea of clanging and in “Riders” the word “carousel” becomes, two lines later, “carousal”; in “Rules” Devadatta dreams of getting the Buddha out of his “tidy squat” punning on a newish word for a run-down, inhabited building and the physical position of the chairless monks of the sangha. Puns and other sorts of verbal play are part of the linguistic texture of poems, of course, but when they are made deliberately groan-inducing they disrupt the niceties of tone and become part of the dissonances. Take, for example, “The Bone Artisan” from Wolf Notes:

. . . . . Wait till you see
what I can do with a humerus; how

a simple patella makes a dish (oh,
yes say it) – for paella. This store is
full of sacral talismans, knick-knacks

I nick every day from the knackery.
I love all the bijouterie you can make
from the spine. Shall I advertise?

          Backbone bric-a-brac
          for altars and shrines.

In “Rocks, Vultures Peak” from Devadatta’s Poems, this verbal indecorousness reaches (oh, yes say it) a peak when Devadatta attempts to kill the Buddha by rolling a rock down on him. I don’t know what the narrative tone of this story is wherever it appears in the Pali Canon – presumably it is a celebration of a divinely engineered escape – but to us it inevitably recalls Wily Coyote and the Roadrunner. And Beveridge’s poem reflects this by joyously abandoning any attempt at a po-faced historical dramatic monologue and having Devadatta imagine how the killing will be reported newspaper-headline style:

. . . . .
Ah, one day Siddhattha, I’ll pick the right spot,
I’ll pick the right rock and I won’t baulk the timing.
I know how the story will go: ”˜Slipping schist kills
local altruist.’ ”˜Leader of cult, brained by basalt.’
”˜Religious moderate, crushed by conglomerate.’

It’s significant – on this subject of dissonance – that, in Devadatta’s Poems, we are introduced to the idea of both protagonists playing the flute. The Buddha plays more beautifully and can use his pure tones to dispel grief but in “A Memory: Snake Charming, Kapilavatthu” Devadatta triumphantly recalls the Buddha’s puzzlement at not being able to persuade the snake to rise from its basket no matter how intensely he played. He didn’t know – as we and Devadatta (and watchers of QI) know – that the snake responds to the movement of the instrument, not the music:

. . . . .
He’d pipe until he was out of breath, baffled because
he always reached perfect notes, perfect pitch.

I swore I wouldn’t tell him it didn’t matter
if he played melodic notes, discordant notes, or no notes
at all, that just by swinging his flute-tip in the air
his snakes would rise like fluent rope . . .

This complex play with levels of accepted verbal usage which can be found throughout all of Beveridge’s books apart, perhaps, from the first, raises the issue of the extent to which the poems of this book, together with the extensive dramatic monologues of the other books, are to be seen in a dramatic context: after all, in drama it is differences in the voice which mark out characters, not a consistency of idiom wherein the tartly dissonant braces the elevated desire to capture and express individual creatures as well as the complex web of being in which they are all enmeshed. Are these poems in any sense dramatic or are the speakers merely mouthpieces whereby a poet can develop and explore a complex vision? I know this is setting the bar rather high but a great dramatic piece like the first part of Henry IV exhibits an amazing capacity for making each of the many characters speak in a distinctive personal idiom (and actually, in the case of Glendower, brings the issue of verbal excess into the themes of the play). Presumably this occurred because Shakespeare was working with and writing for an ensemble, knew who would play which role, and conceived the speeches with the actor’s existing voices in mind. Or conceivably a lot of subtle changes were made in rehearsal. I can’t detect that kind of dramatic individuation in Beveridge’s work. It’s true that Devadatta is a carefully thought-out character – Beveridge admits in her Introduction that she has taken a lot of liberties with the existing legends – and his poems could hardly appear in “Between the Palace and the Bhodi Tree” but that is because his situation as a grasping, frustrated rival is different, not because his voice is different. In Wolf Notes there is a longish sequence, “The Courtesan”, exploring a woman’s position and experiences. I’m not sure that she sounds very different to the Buddha of “Between the Palace and the Bhodi Tree” though her situation is entirely different:

. . . . . 
These ascetics with their vainglorious celibacy.
They come to my door with their alms bowls.
At first they have downcast eyes. I like to

play a game: I fill their bowls not with food - 
but with water’s mirror. When they see
my face reflected, then they thirst. And
as I turn to go, they beckon me, sated by
so much sun, begging me to stay, before
some icy penitence reseeds their ground. . .

It seems recognisably Beveridge’s voice – down to the little pun on “reseeds” which induces the word “recedes” in the context of the woman’s leaving – rather than that of an individualised character. Like the question of the function of “wolf notes”, it’s a tricky issue. If I had to guess – with the current state of my knowledge about Beveridge’s poetry – I’d lean towards the idea that all her characters are really mouthpieces, poets or potential poets which can be inhabited momentarily. They are chosen because of the potential of their situations. Devadatta is an ideal counterpart to his cousin and a way of introducing a tart and dissonant voice. Of course there may be subtle differences which make this a dramatic rather than lyrical work and the problem may merely be that, as a reader, I have a tin ear.

In worrying about these general issues, I realise that I haven’t said as much as I usually do – by way of description – about the poems themselves. It’s enough to say that they are – almost without exception – marvellous.

[As everybody knows the World Cup begins in June and I’m going to interrupt these reviews for a month. Watching six hours of football every day is inimical to reading poetry though not necessarily unrelated. True, football may lack poetry’s ability to expand our minds into unimaginable dimensions but great matches (Brazil vs Italy and West Germany vs France in 1982; Brazil vs Russia and Romania vs Argentina in 1994; etc etc) are as wonderful as great poems and I’ve always thought they should be “read” using some of the same skills. At any rate, I’ll post a new review on August 1st.]