Book Review

On reading the great poems by Dr. Mohan Prasad Joshi

Dr Mohan Prasad Joshi, a member of the Nepali diaspora in the US, had been a new name for me until I read his poems of extraordinary power and perfection included in his anthology of English poems, A Hundred Flowers to Awareness and Death. I realized Mohan’s poems demand deep perusal, so they invited me for three readings. Still, this process is not complete, because the juice they produce will never go dry.

In the last three decades, I have studied about two dozen collections of English poems, either initially created or translated by Nepali hands, to evaluate them (which means writing introductions or forewords to them). But Dr Joshi’s par excellence is beyond comparison.

Firstly, these are the poems created by a thinker with beliefs rooted in oriental philosophy, though vocationally, he is a seasoned scholar of medical science and an observer of great wonders of science. So naturally, some of his poems touch upon his world and reveal strange facts unknown to the common people.

Secondly, his poems are based on logic and reasoning. They perceive the world quite peculiarly and produce a picture unthought-of so far. Readers may expect emotionally charged images in a poem, but his pieces are based on unique thoughts and reasoning.

Thirdly, these are crafted around a philosophical base – the philosophy of life and death, the corporal frame and beyond as perceived by a scientist from the East. At the center lies the human soul, trudging along the conglomeration of living and non-living existence, each contributing to the mystery of creation. Its perpetuation and all wonders of creation go beyond science. Some unknown existence must operate the wheel of creation—just guessing what he or she must be like.

These poems are crafted with the help of the unique perceptive power of imagination that a poet is given. The process combines intellect, long experience, and a balance of emotion.

I liked them very much because they invite serious readers or audiences at a certain intellectual level who love to interpret abstract images. Contemporary civilization, woven in mazes around the global village, is looking for a new life and new minds to internalize this.

These poems remind the readers of a home away from their native homes. The poet searches for his identity in the mega cities of the US, so he includes words like “Capital Beltway.”

The poet is a man of broad understanding who is trained to pursue a scientific outlook on life. He has a deep respect for orientalism. So, he defines or explains the elemental forces uniquely by drawing on various symbols. His sublime submission before the cosmic order is excellent. He is always optimistic; his poems bear the witness of a person gifted with the unique faculty of imagination required of a creative artist. At the core, resonates a larger image of death—man’s journey to an unknown after the game is over.

The poet’s primary concern is to reveal the deep recesses of the mind that incessantly work for a state of awareness and human existence. It works against oblivion, though time drowns everyone in the massive cauldron of unconsciousness. The poet hopes a poem will remind him of the ultimate reality as:

Poets of the past
from all over the world!
Lend me your hearts,
lend me your souls
so that I can witness the beauty
bare winter trees carry
and see agony, emptiness and death
as my gurus
(Lend me your hearts and souls)

In a great poem, the poet states, “Metamorphosis is what I fear.” The great designer is unknown and invisible, so he hears the prayer words of the Niranjan and Nirakara. But we also send this Dear life running after “freaks and fret.” And ultimately, what we feel is “metamorphosis”; death is nothing more.

The poet draws from the knowledge of the medical sciences, and words like gangrene, malignancy, cancer, clinician, and amputated have appeared; these come from the medical register. He draws from travel experiences, and one of his best poems on the illusory world came from a trip down Skyline Drive. The poem is titled Fresh and new  (I also was to interpret this better after my recent travel along the Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive in the US). The Thornton Overlook, on the way, has given him a new insight into the perspectives of fresh thoughts. It lies on the way to Luray Caverns. Similarly, he draws from the memory lane that stretches from back home, contrasting it with the day-to-day reality of surviving in a mega city. He also draws from reading and film-watching. The Color Purple, Hachi: The Dog, and Shawshank Redemption are examples.

In the poet’s mind sits the elemental question of the cosmos, creation, and the cosmic dancer hidden from the bare eyes.

Dr Joshi’s poems try to unravel this mystery from his perspective—in the light of spiritualism, forms change; however, the essence remains imperishable. Robert Frost, the great American poet, has expressed, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and thought has found its words.” This may also apply to Joshi’s works, but his creations are contemporary voices from a cosmopolitan artist. So, there is not much space for emotion; instead, his poems are well-meditated results of thought, philosophical glimpses, and feelings—but appropriately categorized as cosmopolitan voices (heard by a Nepali thinker) in the US.

Dr. Madan Prasad Joshi

As he proclaims in one of his poems, the goal of creation will be the experience of suffering, search, and solution. It is genuinely so.

The great Master, our Maker, is close by. He describes what his destination will be—

But now I try to keep you calm
like an unrippled lake,
and wait for my inner half to show up
and swim in your still waters.
(Gateway to my destination)

Life is perceived as a game, a play where one’s role keeps changing. Among the literary devices, he uses personification most frequently—that gives life to objects and abstract images, too. For instance, a River converses with the poet, revealing life’s secret.

Composing a poem is the most difficult of feats and the art gifted to only a few. Likewise, evaluating poetry is a more challenging, almost a futile task for humans. Writing poetry is not detailing an existing fact; instead, it is to create a new reality, a novel outlook, or a perspective on life, existence, and the world. It is ever a journey to novelty—all actions of recreating images, putting one’s visions and images into artwork. That is where Dr. Joshi has achieved great success.

The collection presents a recurrent theme of death. In one poem, he declares: my ambition is to understand who I am before I die. But while living, he likes to pursue simple desires such as

All I want is an easy breath
at this moment
in a healthy body with a mirror-like mind,
reflecting the universe as is.
(No more grand wishes)

But he arrogantly defies death and challenges him in one poem in these words:

Destroy the house, but the space
on which it was built lives on.
(I live on)

Every poem has something to say about life, the path of duty one is supposed to follow, and the journey to the ultimate. Some short, lyrical poems like Seeing a bird read like experimental pieces, but they are not. These are made up of two lines but do not have rhyming schemes. All of Mohan’s poems are free verses, yet usually in a personal style. The short ones have flashes of a moment fired by a moment’s feeling. A few longer ones come to tell a longer story or narrative. The short poem, Colocasia leaf, advocates the teaching of the Gita that one’s mind and heart should be without attachment, without any sense of unfulfillment.

I feel tempted to quote Dr. Joshi’s poems repeatedly, but it is with purpose. Let us see the following extract—

and above all,
like a bird, I continuously chant
pure and pacific,
to ward off evil thoughts
of jealousy, hatred, arrogance,
and the like,
so that I can stay sane
in this insane jungle.
(Chant poems)

The Rigveda has a prayer of Lord Shiva known as the Mhamrityunjaya Mantra (death defeating prayer), in which the devotee wishes to let him fall like a ripe fruit detached from the tree or creeper of worldly desires and attachment. An echo can be heard in this extract:

And on my last day,
may I have
the quality of a ripe fruit
ready to detach
from the tree
without a wound or a sigh.
(Without a sigh)

In his comedy, As You Like It, William Shakespeare has rightly said, “all the world is a stage,” and man performsin seven roles” until his deathbed. Mohan’s poem reaches that level of experience:

And here’s my life’s movie playing,
packed with acts of agitation,
with no calming scenes
of rest and peace!
(Forgive me)

The poet has gone beyond the mundane. It is the awareness that estimates and classifies unseen and imaginary. It imagines death and the plans of existence. The last creation, One flower to awareness and one to death, is a titular poem. It sings the ultimate song of life and death: it is self-explanatory.

You are my two sides also conforms with the central theme of awareness and death. The process of dying happens every moment, being exhausted, being swallowed by the ultimate, and everyone disappears from the scene. While fully detached from the mundane mirage, he says in another poem, “Ananda (bliss) in annihilation.”

In a great poem, the poet states, “Metamorphosis is what I fear.” The great designer is unknown and invisible, so he hears the prayer words of the Niranjan and Nirakara. But we also send this Dear life running after “freaks and fret.” And ultimately, what we feel is “metamorphosis”; death is nothing more.

Many of such awareness and death poems are poems of realization applicable to us humans as mundane beings. Every poem is so tremendous and so touching and piercing, like a sharp arrow. What has life done? All these are poems of awareness and realization, but these demand a higher level of understanding and interpretation. These are among the best poems composed by a Nepali scholar in English.

[Prof. Dr. Govinda Raj Bhattarai is the retired Professor of English, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu, Nepal. He has authored several remarkable books including Muglan, Sukarat ka Paila and Mero Pahilo Belayat.]