Translating “To a Formless Void” by G. M. Muktibodh

Author’s note: Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh (13 November 1917 – 11 September 1964) was a Hindi poet, a literary critic and theorist, a short story writer, and a journalist who wrote extensively on the geopolitics of the period. A concerted Marxist throughout his life, he aspired both to comprehend the capitalist structure of social relations in its absolute totality and to militate against it in ways which were accorded to him by his intellectual praxes. This aspiration was accompanied by Muktibodh’s inevitable failure to fulfill it, which itself was accompanied by his militant recommencement of this aspiration. Where the poetic form failed him, Muktibodh recommenced his praxis at the level of short story; where the form of short story failed him, he recommenced his praxis at the level of literary criticism and theorization; and where literary criticism and theorization failed him, he recommenced his praxis at the level of analyzing the geopolitics of the period.

Muktibodh was a writer of long, very long poems. But his long poems did not simply constitute a formal choice on his part. The interminability of his poems was not owing to the poet-subject’s desire for self-expression. If he was unable to bring his poems to an end, it was only because, as he put it, history was itself a welter of ongoingness, constituted most fundamentally by the contradiction between buyers and sellers of labor-power. For him, the end of the poem was not simply a problematic of poetics or philosophy. It could not have been resolved either by developing a “Marxist” poetics or by innovating an “experimental” poetics. Instead, schematically put, the problematic of how to bring the poem to an end was, for him, a transcoding of how to bring history to a revolutionary standstill.

Thus understood, to bring the poem to an end would imply the end of the poem, quite literally. It would imply the abolition of the poem, or better still, an abolition of the historical division of labor along the lines of class, caste, and gender, to which his poetry, a “poet’s” vocation, owed its own existence. Muktibodh cognized that his poetry emerged from particular social struggles, and that while his poetry must clarify and hone the limits of these struggles in ways its formal resources allowed it to, its own redemption lay in—and only in—the absolute abolition of social exploitation and oppression.

Muktibodh’s poetics yields a phantasmic, surreal continuum of an affective experience of history, at once terrorizing and human, at once primordial and modern. His poetic language constitutes a vertiginous commingling of Sanskritized philosophies of body and spirit with subaltern vernaculars of Hindi and Marathi; he uses words from Arabic and Persian, while often plying words from English in ways that accentuate the jargon-like scientific, technological, and commercial overtones of the language. Marked by heavy enjambment and interplay of sounds, Muktibodh’s prosody is at once heraldic and lyrical. And throughout his oeuvre Muktibodh assigns these remarkable formal innovations the gargantuan task of disclosing the political, economic, and cultural unevennesses of a rapidly integrating capitalism in a newly independent India.

While he was little known in his own time, many have now come to consider Muktibodh to be one of the greatest Hindi poets. Over the past two to three decades his poetry has gained much in reputation and has come to be widely affirmed in Hindi literary circles. This is a testament to both the intensification of those social, political, and economic injustices which Muktibodh revolted against and the conjunctural relevance of his poetic praxis. The following fragment comes from a book-length experimental translation of one of Muktibodh’s short poems (121 lines), titled “To a Formless Void.”

[lines 48-56]

beyond but behold
the surplus that you are—
Spirit is
a clockwork whir be
speaking your name
Not ceasing to drain
the void she pants for
the Spirit pants
for she toils
to sublate
what is private—
what is yours—
what is yours
makes you go out
of yourself—
Is slope slope
or hill?— your will
to metaphor breaks
more lines into
two wanting to
know the count
from the more I know
can’t count as a break
in production
Not in this century—

mukti: in Lower Parel, the chimney of
the Phoneix mills, gone cold
in the substance of its make
now makes for an ornament
in the compounds of
the Palladium mall retail

mukti-bodh: no one can even
promise you one
day you will buy
back what is yours
what you produce
for you don’t
produce

that the Spirit
prefers error to
delay bodes a bad
glissando—a muse
god destined to
suffer—the determination
of what it can
not other—a brick
factory made of
bricks—being
—so
—so
vereign—means
—in
transitivity is itself
the fist but my vision is
weaker than my comrade’s
line-breaks—this negative
grammar of my
reason—not mine
alone—means
song is afoot—carrying
my comrade
a foot off the real!

mukti: repeat the failure
to remember the lost
sensation of timelessness
until time becomes
space the space becomes
the presence of the space

mukti-bodh: in the disintegrating composite
compounds of the Lal Imli mill
the Queen’s clocktower is still
tolling the hours
Republic no longer buys

a lonely quarry
in Bhiwani
puts in fogged relief
two yellow
helmets forgotten
on a lowly leafless
kikar bough
creaking cold with suggestion—

all’s left to let
the mood set
the mode—rue
the tone of the cold
massing in the street—

—obsolete
ornament to production’s
heat

a distant creature’s bare
groan but bars any saying

is Spirit this stray
dog being
rounded for straying?

a world called total
dispossession gathered
into a wound drool
dresses dumb—meat
among a lot of dogs
in heat Spirit is
the sound Spirit makes
when Spirit discovers
itself—bone!

beyond but behold
the surplus that you are—
melting all that is solid
to fill a hole in the commons

The author wishes to thank Martand Pragalbha, Pothik Ghosh, and Pratyush Chandra, whose critical to-and-fro on Muktibodh’s poetics came to occasion this project.

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Aditya Bahl

Aditya Bahl is a member of Radical Notes, a Delhi-based Marxist collective. Name-Amen, a chapbook of his visual poetry, was recently published by Timglaset (Malmö). Aditya is currently enrolled in the PhD program at Johns Hopkins.