Angst and hope in the Poetry from Nagaland: Prof. A.J. Sebastian sdb

Angst and hope in the  Poetry  from Nagaland : Prof. A.J. Sebastian sdb

        Poetry from Nagaland  (2005) edited by the   Department of English, Nagaland University is a unique collection of poems from 39 poets writing in English from Nagaland. While editing this volume I  came across several themes running parellel to each other, thereby rendering it difficult to label them. However broadly I have attempted to classify them into poems of social issues, religious  reflections,  anguish and pain, violence and death, women issues,    romantic  in nature,  folklore etc.

         A friend of mine, perusing through the collection,   pointed out that most of the   poets are concerned with social criticism presenting a  grim outlook. He asked me  if I could short list a few optimistic poems with  elements of hope in them.     This paper  is an   attempt to trace  the elements of angst  and hope embodied in  their  poems. They   have also  positive contribution to make towards  conflict resolution through literature.

    Angst or anguish is a Germanic word for fear or anxiety. Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit  could be  rendered  as  Anxiety, uneasiness or malaise suggesting our daily anxieties. For Kierkegaard Angst meant  dread  while for Sartre anguish. However, the word Angst does not have the  same meaning for  every existentialist   writer.                              ( Macquarrie 1972:164-5).  Kierkegaard’s   Angst  (dread)  describes  an innate    spiritual state of insecurity and despair centering  on  his conception of original sin. According to him, “anxiety is a qualification of dreaming spirit, and as such it has its place in psychology…. In anxiety  it (innocence) is related to the forbidden and to the punishment. Innocence is not guilty, yet there is anxiety as though it were lost…” ( Kierkegaard 1980:41- 5).

     The concept of anxiety  further  draws our attention to the origin and meaning of   evil and temptation to sin.  Virgilius Haufniensis’s interpretation throws further light on it. In his view the origin of sinfulness is sheer possibility as it is neither ‘absolute necessity’  or ‘arbitrary wilfulness.’ ‘Anxiety or apprehensiveness is an innocent sense of oneself as possibility rather than actuality.’  (Chamberlain  et al 2001: 178).

      The concept of dread is further analysed  by Friedman in his interpretation of Kierkegaard: as he rightly remarks, “Dread is the dizziness of freedom which occurs when the spirit would posit the synthesis, and freedom then gazes down into its own possibility, grasping at finiteness to sustain itself. In this dizziness freedom succumbs.” (Friedman 1991:369).

     Hope,  on the other hand, is at the very core of every  religion with its transforming role:  Christians hope in the second coming of Christ;  Vaishnava Hindus await in hope of  another avatar of Vishnu;  Jews hope  in the  messiah; Islam  speaks of  a hidden  imam (leader or exemplar); Buddhists refer to Maitreya as the Buddha to come.  Religious  hope  leads to   liberation or salvation. This is   expressed  in  different  ways in  various religions such as –   belief in  communion with God, resurrection of the dead, transmigration, reintegration, reincarnation, renunciation etc.  Hope is an  assurance of ultimate satisfaction. In recent times some have   spoken in terms of revolution and reconstruction.   In Christian  thought  hope  is a theological virtue along with faith and love. (Slater 1987: 459-61). 

     Hope becomes   meaningful in the context of  anxiety, dread or despair. The concept   has puzzled  philosophers as it may be differentiated as intentional or dispositional. Thomas Hobbes viewed it as an ‘appetite with an opinion of attaining’ while Rene Descartes interpreted it  in terms of ‘confidence’ or ‘assurance.’ For Immanuel  Kant ultimate hope of man is to attain ‘summum Bonum (highest good), however in his   moral philosophy,  hope and love  presuppose  faith. Ernst Bloch  subscribed to an anthropological view of hope of an ideal human kingdom.   According to Gabriel  Marcel     hope  enables one to overcome  the various  trials of life. ( Stratton-Lake  1998:507-8).  

      Since  the poems in this discourse have  been primarily analysed in the background of  the Christian understanding of hope,  it is important to keep in mind  that “the motive or formal object of hope is the real and objective foundation of one’s  hope… that one will  be able to attain what is hoped for…. The chief motive and foundation of Christian hope is  God, God alone…which is  repeated throughout the Old and New   Testaments.” (Ramirez  1967 : 136).

     The concept  of Christian hope  is best  developed in Pauline  letters.   It is through hope one is saved:  “For in this hope we were saved…But if  we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it  with patience.”  (Romans 8:24-25). And it is endurance that brings fulfilment in hope.   The object of hope is  most frequently eschatological with hope of glory in Christ  (Colossians 1:27) and it  is  made real  through faith (Hebrews 11:1)  (McKenzie   1984:  368-9).

     If we examine the best poetry of our age,  we will find   them   pessimistic and optimistic;  agnostic and theistic; absurd  and rational – with elements of angst as well as hope  found in them.  In his forward to  Anthology of Contemporary Poetry from the Northeast, Jayanta Mahapatra has observed how the poets   have  made  ‘history and time’ their strength in their creative writing making the readers “touched by the poet’s treatment of the local and the personal, that moves toward an involvement in the collective longing for renewal and the search for a better world.” (ACPN  xi). 

    While focusing on  the sensibility of a few   poets  from Nagaland,  one would  find that they have expressed  their concerns in manifold ways making   existential reference  to   society as well as to  their   personal lives. Their creativity in ‘history and time’  is  a reflection of their   longing for a better world in spite of  political and social instability.  These poets have their contribution to make towards  conflict resolution as the saying of Richelieu goes ‘the pen is mightier than the  sword.’

     Nini Lungalang has written some  powerful poems on social themes.  She  makes an ordinary event into a very effective socio-philosophical reflection. She analyses the situation of crime and  lawlessness in the region.         In “Dust” like a romantic poet, she takes note of  a  daily occurrence during the dry spell in winter. Water scarcity  in  Kohima  is presented in the poem when people have to go queuing  day and night   for a few trickles of water. The dry spell has led to the parching of the fields and withering  of plants.   Water is replaced by  ‘crevices filling with dust.’ From nature’s fury, the poet turns our attention to escalation of violence. 

               It’s my turn at the water point:

The trickle is  slower today

Each day, slower,

One day, it may stop;

And my field has withered,

Rusted-dry in the staring sun,

The crevices filling with dust.  (ACPN 224)

      From acute water scarcity, the poet moves on to  analyse the situation of crime and  lawlessness in society. Like the land that is barren, the life of the people have become barren and meaningless with gruesome murders. Reflecting on the  two situations: one natural and the other man-made; one is urged to  recollect what Wordsworth wrote ‘Have I not reason to lament / What man has made of man?’  She juxtaposes phrases  to show symbolically the two worlds: ‘Tin buckets clash’ /Two thick thuds; ‘I mustn’t spill a precious drop’ /   His blood laid the dust.’

I saw a young man gunned down

As I shopped in the market place.

Two thick thuds, and then he fell,

His blood laid the dust

In a scarlet little shower,

Scarlet little flowers. (Ibidem 225)

      As she stumbles home through arid fields the poet  weeps for the sin of Cain which  continues with  fratricide in her society.  She  contrasts  nature and man in conflict and symbolically speaks of  ‘the dust’ of sin and hatred rendering life barren. Nini is perplexed by the mystery of evil and her sense of  ‘anxiety is  is not a category of necessity but it is not a category of freedom either: it is entangled where  freedom is not free in itself but entangled – and entangled not by necessity, but by itself.’  (Chamberlain  et al 2001: 178).

 

I know your fear, your guilt, your pain –

I too have now a brother slain,

I too am sealed with the scarlet stain!

My ink has crusted in my pen,

And in my heart – the dust.  (Ibidem 225)

     From the experience of angst in “Dust,” the poet expresses her    hope in   “Going Home.” The poem has    mystical and metaphysical overtones. The poet is tired  of the city life –   representative of  life here on earth and longs to return to  the land of her dream – the pristine Eden-like  world of the mountains. She says, ‘I am going back to my mountain.’ She has left behind her beloved in the city with its cares, struggles and toils.

So I’m  going back home, I’m terrified here,

I’m  going to the sanctuary of my mountains-

So I return to where I began,

I go, because I must;

I return to the dust of which I was formed   (Ibidem 228-9)

     The status of man in society is calculated purely  on the riches he hoards. The materialistic pursuit has left man ‘a stranger among his own’ and his home is built purely by the standard of wealth. Home is defined merely as ‘a space between walls.’  The poet wants to escape from such a city life to return to her ideal world, ‘the sanctuary of her mountains.’ Mystics and sanyasis live  in  the mountains in their quest for  God  through meditation and prayer. Tired of  a  city life steeped in consumerism and materialism, the poet is in quest of   deeper spiritual values.   The final lines  give a religious significance to the poem when death engulfs life and one is turned to dust with the hope of eternal life. The  poet speaks in familiar terms   to dwell on a deeper  spiritual motif. 

     Easterine Iralu  in   “Genesis” refers to   the ideal warrior  Keviselie who speaks of the utopian past until conflict and war brought  death and destruction to his land. In the form of a folktale  she takes  the readers symbolically through the conflict and insurgency in Nagaland.  Donning the garb of  an ecocritic, the poet comments on the socio-political scenario of Nagaland. Everything was  peaceful as  people lived happily  in the  utopian world  of Kelhoukevira  (where life is good).  Her seven daughters lived ‘with the mountain air in their breaths.’ 

    They cultivated their fields and had their  ‘baskets overflowing with the yield of the land.’ Their  life was  full of songs until one day a ‘sojourner’ called ‘plague’ came. ‘Plague’ is  a symbol of  invasion  and warfare that brought death and decay. 

Till one called Plague, a sojourner

Grudged them their plenty

and, wielding her terrible scythe

reaped premature harvests of fields and men

laying waste her young, her song, her hills. (Ibidem 219)

      The warrior Keviselie knows best  the predicament of Kelhoukevira and he longs for the moon which is a metaphor for peace and prosperity in the parched land and ‘the dead earth.’

 He speaks  of another moon

When she will be made whole

Restored  to herself again

But until such a time

Yea, until winter comes

Stay, the songs of Kelhoukevira. (Ibidem 220)

      Though the  poet   bemoans  death and destruction in the utopian land, the winter,  the poet speaks of is a    future time of hope.  There is hope like in Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” : ‘If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?’This genesis story continues as a central metaphor for Easterine in her yearning for freedom from insurgency and resolution of conflict. 

     The  three poems of  Anungla Longchari  “The Road,”   “Silent Death,” and “Life”   examine intricacies of  life  ‘full of obstacles’ with many ‘turns and bends.’ Being   herself   a physically challenged person having no  formal education, she  struggled to become a  self made personality.   She has accomplished much through   hard work and determination. Life has been  very challenging   for the poet who never gives up in the face of fresh daily obstacles.  In the midst of such agonizing experiences of life,  Longchari does not suffer defeat as she is able to see hope looming large. Her anxiety is perhaps psychological as she yearns to be accepted as a wholesome person  despite her disability.  For Longchari  dread is  not a ‘womanish debility in which freedom swoons.’ (Friedman 1991:369).  Her poems turns from anguish to freedom and hope in God. In her hurdled life, trusting in God, she has hope of finding ‘the light,’ symbolizing divine grace.

            The road of life is full of obstacles,

          …

         But with every fall, you learn something new.

         …

         This road, of so many turns and bends.

         … ‘I must fight my own fight

         Trust in Him alone to be my Guide.’

          So you go on, stumbling on

          …

          He’ll be by your side,

          Till you finally find, the light. (PFN 21)

      “Silent Death” is dedicated to the unfortunate  victims of rape.   Longchari bemoans  them who have  died their silent death with the social stigma attached to it.  She symbolically contrasts the joy of life in nature when they are ‘pretty and young.’ The vibrancy of their youth and beauty is   all of a sudden   shattered  by   machinations of evil men who rob them of  their innocence.  In the case of the innocent victims  Kierkegaardian angst would mean that ‘the anxiety that is posited in innocence is in the first place no guilt, and the second place it is no troublesome burden, no suffering that cannot be brought into harmony with the  blessedness of innocence.’( Kierkegaard 1980:41-45). The poem is evocative of Eliot’s expression in The Waste Land, ‘…I was neither/ Living nor dead, and I knew nothing.’  

           …

            You are pretty and young.

           …

           And nothing ever goes wrong –

           Oh! Isn’t life a song?

           But soon a  different tune life plays.

           Hidden thorns and claws it displays.

           Robbing you of all innocence as it slays;

            …

           They never hear you cry,

            …

           The thousand deaths you die! (Ibidem 21-2)

 In “Life” Longchari pines for conflict resolution. She  compares the  joy of life experienced ‘then’ and the life ‘now’ entwined by  by the ‘echo   of gunshots.’    The poet in her existential approach asserts  that life should go on. Her sense of hope and resolution comes  from the sound of thunder that would dispel darkness which is evocative of  “What the Thunder said” section of The Waste Land where T.S. Eliot  refers to the  fable of the Thunder in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad which ends with ‘da, da, da, calling one to practice self-control, giving and compassion. (Radhakrishnan 1953:290).  The sound of Thunder brings  hope in the midst of conflict and bloodshed.

 Hopes and dreams

All but a distant dream;

Now  there is only echo of gunshots

Ringing in our ears

And the sound of approaching thunder

In the  distance that tell  us…

Darkness is falling…

It is but life

As we know now.

      In “Silent Hills I & II” Lhusi Haralu recounts  reasons for the silence in the hills due to violence and blood- letting.  Like Easterine  Iralu’s “Genesis” the poet bemoans the loss of  pristine   glory  in nature and man.     The culture of violence has besmeared Haralu’s utopian   world  with blood.   Her symbolic expressions and personification of nature  makes her an ecocritic in expression as  ‘society would be so involved in taking care of ‘it’ (environment) that it would no longer be a case of some ‘thing’ that surrounds us, that environs us, and differs from us.’ (Morton 2007: 706). From silence in nature, the poet goes on to speak of man who is silenced.  Woe to the  upright  who speak out: they are silenced for ever and only silence remains. The play on the word ‘silence’ runs through both  the poems, making the reader experience the very feelings of the poet, recollecting her own  experience of  personal pain and anguish.  However, the experience of trauma makes her cry out in hope. The poems are  excellent matter for trauma theorists as  Roger Luckhurst would opine: “Trauma theory tries to turn criticism back towards being an ethical, responsible, purposive discourse, listening to the wounds of the other.” (Luckhurst 2006:506).

            Silent now the distant tops

           Silent upon the hills

           Gone are the joys of harvest crops,

           Silent the happy reels.

           …

           On and on he chops and kills

           Them, those he could not bend;

           Then a moan rose up from the hills

           ‘Sorrow’ – he could not end. (Ibidem 21)

                                        II

             …

Your wounded hills stripped bare;

Your  slopes stained

With blood that’s drained

From sons you could ill spare.

Let there be no more pain.

Though it’s by hate they’re slain.

But ‘tis the love which with they loved

Which will with us remain; (Ibidem 22-3)

      The analysis in the poems being very personal, she seeks to resolve the trauma of her life by imploring God’s mercy and protection in the sequel poem  “The Prayer of the Meek.”   Haralu calls for a life of faith, love and hope  as a panacea of healing for her broken world seeking conflict resolution.    Her thoughts are  taken from biblical teachings on the beatitudes that call for meekness and forgiveness: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” (Matthew 5:5).  The prayer she utters  seeks mercy and reconciliation with God and man.  It is a clarion call  to  end all strife and  to live   in accordance with the precepts of God.

 Lord of Heaven and earth, look down in mercy

We ask  not for the lives of those who wronged us

But that Thou might touch their soul and shown to them

The wrong they have done…

 …

Cleanse the bloodstain from hands that killed,

Wipe the spot of hell from hearts that hate

Let no more blood be shed

Be it of friend or foe.

Teach us to forgive those who hate us

That we may be forgiven by Thee who loves us

 May Thy Kingdom be established within our hearts and homes (Ibidem 76-7)

      Athano Yhoshü  in  her poems“Awry” and  “Immortality” repeats the thoughts of the other poets who have spoken on conflict and violence in their society.   She recounts  in “Awry” how people get used to live in  a world of conflict. They   intentionally  suppress all feelings of anxiety in their love  for life.   The only hope the poet finds   is in the promise of  the Lord   with its eschatological overtones: “I will come again and will  take you to myself, that where I am you  may be also.” (John 14:3).

 How do we react

When we see what’s on air

Because the conflicts and violence

Are no news to us.

 

How do we pray

For the lost and the suffering

If not for HIS promises

And the better world ahead

If not for the Hope we have in HIM

Its cold and scary here. (Ibidem 25)

      In “Immortality” the poet sings like Emily Dickinson of life to come.  It is lyrical, romantic,  and  homiletic.   It  appears to be  very simple but  actually describes complicated moral and religious truths.   Death  accordinjg to Athano is not an awesome reality as eternity awaits. She presents the end-times in a naturalistic  manner like the change of seasons and life in nature. In familiar terms she calls on the Lord as her spouse to love her unconditionally. The poet’s  mystical thoughts resound like Tagore in Gitanjali :  “I am only  waiting for love to give myself up at last into his hands.” (Tagore 2002: 17).

….

and there’re no more songs to sing

When dust returns to dust

Will you still be there

 …

to  travel with

me eternally

and to love

unconditionally

And you alone

Even after

The end of times. (Ibidem 25-6)

 

    Anungla Imdong Phom  brings out her  frustration and hope  in   two  untitled poems. In the first  she  recounts her  sub-human existence. She is caught up in the ‘vicious circle’ of life experiencing continuous flow of the ‘feeling of worthlessness.’ Though the poet is  engrossed in her thoughts, she cannot  help but  go confessional. “…the unmediated expression  of the poet’s private feelings: it directly represents the poet’s mind and constitutes a confession, but a confession in the first place of self to self.” ( Bennett,   2006:51). Such soul searching  only   hastens her frustration and her anxiety leads to further anxiety as though ‘she who becomes guilty in dread becomes as ambiguously guilty as it is possible to be.’ (Friedman 1991:369).

 Time is a vicious cycle

a repetitive screaming clock,

Feeling of worthlessness

emerge out of too much.

 My bleeding soul

evaporates my purpose.

Hopelessly

my name melts

into oblivion. (Ibidem 15)

      In the sequel poem   pondering over her scarred life she find comfort in God’s grace transforming her ‘scars into stars.’  Her thoughts are directed  to the mystery of God who revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush saying “I AM WHO AM” (Exodus 3:14). Her hope eventually leads to  faith in God in childlike submission. 

  I stopped to count my scars

you turned my scars into stars.

 …

 At the end of my journey

I will come running toward you.

 Every part of my being is yours

for you are the great I AM.

I am yours

Always!  Always!  (Ibidem 18-19)

     Temsula Ao’s  “The Epitaph” is written on the epitaph found in the British war  cemetery at Kohima. It is a memorial to the men of the allied forces who laid down their lives  during World War II. The Japanese invasion was halted  at Kohima. The epitaph reads:

When you go home

Tell them of us

And say for your tomorrow

We gave our today   (ACPN 209)

      It is not merely to ‘blood and  tears’ that the memorial points to, but it also contains an element of future  hope. The poet speaks of the British Imperialism which stretched out far and wide extending its colonial power. The poet’s hope on the other hand is a  postcolonial dream of  true freedom. She calls the epitaph ‘maudlin  lines / To mark the end of lives,’; merely a sentimental ritual as the marble slabs remain silent on the reason for the memorial.

The neat little uniform

Marble slabs

Cannot tell you why

They lie

Stuck on an alien  hill-side

Inhabited by untamed tribes.

They cannot explain

Why their todays

Vanished in vain. (Ibidem 209)        

       The poet calls on the visitors not to be lost in the glory of the battle field. But reminds  them to ‘think of the wasted tomorrows / buried beneath the stone slabs.’ There is irony in the  words when the poet considers the epitaph purely ‘empty words’ and  wants to put an end to all epitaphs. The reflection of the poet certainly brings to the reader’s mind  the philosophy  of life and death. Life must still go on with an ultimate hope ending  all epitaph.  The sentiment is metaphysical. She is like the metaphysical poets who churn out intensity of thought and feeling.

Go home then

And write an epitaph

To end all epitaphs,

Mindless mayhem.(Ibidem 210)

            Monalisa Changkija  is very vocal in expressing her thoughts about conflict and insurgency in the region. In poem after poem she stages her protests calling for peace and brotherhood. Her frustration and anguish  in  “Child of Cain” leads the readers to the biblical story of  Cain and Abel with its  proto-fratricidal  killing  in the book of Genesis.   After  Cain killed his brother Abel out of  monstrous  jealousy and anger the Lord questioned him, “Where is  Abel your brother.” He said, “I do not know; and am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s  blood is crying to me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:9-10). The poet brings to focus the   scenario of violence and   fratricidal killings in her society. 

 … no one has this right to burn human flesh — body, mind and soul.  

If anyone believes, for whatever warped reasons, 

…he/she is a child of Cain,
and be prepared for exile in the East of Eden, forever.

Some of us consider life too precious
to live it under the shadow of fear,

Call us foolish, call us anything,
because no words can describe
our zest for of life
Or our contempt of death. (Ibidem 81-2)

      Monalisa’s  hope in life  makes her challenge   perpetrators of violence and death. Her conviction of  the preciousness of life  cannot keep her  under the ‘shadow of fear.’ When a critic  labelled  her a ‘socialist’ while commenting on  her recent collection of poems Monsoon Mourning, she showed her  displeasure and sought my comment.  I affirmed her as a ‘social critic’ which is evident in  her poems striving to bring social issues to focus.  “Stop this Nightmare” is a singular poem among all her protest poems written over the years, surrendering her frustration and angst to the Lord in prayer. The concept of angst   rooted in original sin is the focal point in the poem. Her only hope in the  resolution of conflict is  salvation in the Lord through mercy and forgiveness.

 Stop, please stop this endless nightmare

Wherein  I read of another shot dead,

 With  our dreams and humble hopes.

Stop this nightmare, Lord

For salvation is out of sight

As we have turned  our back on you,

And in shame I beg you, stop it Lord… (Changkija 2007: 34)

      Abeno Lotha’s “Hope Remains” centres on the human predicament of handling ‘angst’ in a ‘suffocating world’ where  man is literally walking on a  razor’s edge.  He lives   apparently in a wasteland devoid of spiritual values  with ‘visions blurred and razed.’  Recalling the adage of St. Ignatius of Loyola the poet muses on the futility of life when man is ‘destroyed or lost’ after having  gained   ‘the whole world.’ 

With each new day;

A journey into the dark

Of hope and faith lost!

 Ah, well but what advantage  is

To a man gaining the whole world;

But himself destroyed or lost? (Ibidem 8)

     The poet  is optimistic and reflects on the ‘awesome moment / Between day, daybreak’ which to her is the ‘sweet mysterious time / For release/ As hope remains.’ The ‘glow of white’  is indicative of the eschatological times which turns predicament into hope like  the way Pope argues in “An Essay on Man,” ‘Hope  springs eternal in the  human breast.’ 

Oh, surely I feel

Part of the awesome moment

Between day, daybreak;

Which to me is

A sweet mysterious time;

For release –

As hope remains. (Ibidem 9)

       Angst and hope are part and parcel of human existence. If  life is to be lived purposefully, it  calls for an integration of these two aspects in life.  The sensibilities of the poets presented in this paper give   the readers a peep into  their society and  its various concerns.   Some have been   very articulate in expressing their anguish, others more metaphorical; yet all of them have given realistic expression to their thoughts and feelings.  Freud  is said to have belittled  creative writer   comparing him/her  to a child at play  who creates a world of fantasy (Freud 1972:36).  However one cannot deny to art its “therapeutic effect in releasing  mental tension; it serves the cultural purpose of acting as a ‘substitute gratification’ to reconcile men to the sacrifices they have made for culture’s sake; it promotes the social sharing of highly valued emotional experiences; and it recalls men to their cultural ideals.” (Trilling 1972: 283).  Poets from Nagaland will  certainly have their due share of influence on society ushering in  societal transformation and conflict resolution.

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