Emily Bitto Reviews Judith Beveridge

By | 19 August 2014

In such lines, again playing on the opposition between poverty and privilege, asceticism and excess, Beveridge cultivates multiple shades of meaning through juxtaposition and enjambment. Consider the following lines from ‘In Rajagaha’:

[…] In the square, someone plays a veena,
someone else a sitar. The monks talk well 
into the night.

Here, subtle emphasis is placed on the discourse of the monks, hinting not only at their eloquence but perhaps also at a certain disjunction between speech and action. Likewise, Devadatta’s internal conflict is conveyed through line-breaks that function almost as Freudian slips. In the poem ‘Little’, for example, the enjambment of the lines, ‘Siddhattha is just/a streak, a strip of willow bark, a robe and loincloth,’ reveals both Devadatta’s subconscious awareness of his cousin’s beneficence and his refusal to acknowledge it.

What is most striking about this collection is Beveridge’s meticulous attentiveness to every element of poetic language and meaning, including form, rhythm, sound patterning, enjambment, line length and arrangement, imagery, and symbolism. Not only has each of these elements been paid careful attention in every poem, but each works together in intricately complex ways to convey what Beveridge, in Wolf Notes, has called ‘a vast space in which everything/connects.’

Beveridge’s poetry has always revelled in the pure pleasure of language. It is often heavily alliterative, full of lists and strings of proper nouns. Those familiar with Beveridge’s work will recognise in Devadatta’s Poems her enduring love of immersing herself in unfamiliar worlds, filling her poems with the associated sounds, images, objects and terminology. In her 2009 collection, Storm and Honey, it was the world of fishing boats; here, it is once again the world of India in the fifth century BCE. This tendency in Beveridge’s work can occasionally pall on the reader due to the fact that, regardless of the vast differences between these worlds, they manifest themselves in the work in similar ways: through listing, proliferation and repetitive sound patterning. In Devadatta’s Poems, this tendency is pushed to its extreme. In ‘Flower Stall’, the reader reaches the end of the final stanza with a feeling of over-satiety that results from both the imagery and the sound play:

                                                                 […] or curd, or ghee;
not with fruit, or grease, or drips of whey; not with daubs
of honey, or splotches of spice, but with the smears and smutches
from each garland maker’s daughter’s fecund fingers.

Yet, although it feels that Beveridge has taken her love of sound patterning too far in Devadatta’s Poems, her excess is always in the service of an idea. In ‘Flower Stall’ it represents the combined effects of Devadatta’s lasciviousness, the heightening of his desire by hunger and attempted denial, and his malaise and self-loathing. Throughout Devadatta’s Poems, the excess of euphony also functions on a thematic level as part of the collection’s consideration of the beauty and abundance of the physical world and the difficulty of relinquishing its bounty for a life of asceticism.

Devadatta offers a fascinating perspective from which to approach such themes. He is a compromised, unreliable narrator, yet as our perspective is yolked to his over the course of these poems, we find ourselves in an uncomfortable position, inevitably implicated to some degree in his plots against the Buddha. At the collection’s close, we leave Devadatta in a state of characteristic ambivalence. In the penultimate poem, ‘Kapilavatthu: Zoo’, he recalls Siddhattha’s kindness in childhood, when Devadatta was mocked by other boys:

                                                                 […] Only Siddhattha
tried to turn my sobs into giggles by tickling me with flicks

                            from his yak-hair flywhisk.
I thought of it this morning staring at the pond as a breeze
brought the cry of a gibbon from the forrest, when a few leaves
blowing from the sala trees touched me so very tenderly.

Reading these words, the reader hopes that Devadatta may relinquish his envy of the Buddha and find some peace. Yet, in the final poem, ‘Penance’, Devadatta is still plotting and still full of self-loathing:

Some nights, when all I do is scheme
to give Siddhattha schism, infighting, dissonance;
when I think of what a pleasure it will be
to give him ‘dissentry’ – then I plan some days
of penance: to lie among wood ticks, crickets,
the breaching heads of worms and leeches

And so we leave him. The question of why Beveridge has chosen Devadatta as the focus of her attention in this latest collection is a compelling one, and not easily answered. At his lowest moments, plotting to kill his cousin by dropping a boulder on him or loosing a mad elephant in his vicinity, Devadatta is a detestable figure. However, looking back across Beveridge’s Buddhist poems over the past 18 years, it becomes clear that they are all written ‘in the voice of’ specific individuals, and thus carry out a sustained exercise in perspective, and indeed in empathy. While the Buddha himself remains a beguiling absence at the heart of Devadatta’s Poems, Devadatta is laid bare in his all-too-human weakness. In this novelistic, as well as deeply lyrical, collection, perhaps Beveridge is nodding to a piece of wisdom long acknowledged in fiction: that a flawed character is more interesting than a perfect one.

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