Majestic Nights (New Year’s Resolution, Book Nine)

I bought Majestic Nights: Love Poems of Bengali Women at the Rubin Museum in New York City.

The Rubin has a wonderful collection of Himalayan art. At least, that’s how they describe themselves, but really, it’s a Tibetan art. The whole thing is an unsubtle argument against China’s argument that Tibet is historically part of greater China. The Rubin implicitly argues that parts of China and India and pretty much all of Nepal and Bhutan are historical parts of greater Tibet. My own opinion is, well, free Tibet, but let’s be careful about how history is used, particularly when historical boundaries (much more fluid) are used to pick the borders of modern nation-states.

It is a relaxing museum with moderately priced admission. I will say that notes on the objets d’art were entirely too large and imposing, as if trying to compensate that the pieces themselves, mainly paintings and small statues, were by and large not physically imposing. Let the art speak for itself a bit more. A medieval triptych by Fra Angelico is not going to blow you away based on its size, but on its delicate artwork and driving faith the inspired it. I would have liked to have seen the Rubin’s collection in a setting that would give me a better opportunity to understand these religious works in the same way.

Also, after my experience at the Cloisters, I had to re-think my opinion about a large collection of religious artifacts accumulated and displayed in a secular institution. This is different, I feel, just because of the great need to protect uniquely Tibetan works from being misused or destroyed by the Chinese government, but it’s good that we stop to think about these issues more carefully.

But on to this book.

I’ve got to say, I’m wondering if Kenneth Rexroth hasn’t had a pernicious effect on translation, because it seems that any translation of eastern love poetry always seems to carry some memory of his translations of Chinese and Japanese love poetry.

So far as I can tell (and, I’m sorry, the fact that I don’t for certain is a failure by the editor and publisher to be clear), these are all poems by more or less contemporary women poets from Bangladesh (though at least one lives in relative exile in France).

There is an ebb and flow to the order of things. Rather than arrange things chronologically, it is arranged more in order of the early stages, maturity, and ending of a romantic relationship. Except that the editor didn’t include many poems in the middle section, so it goes too quickly from a lot of hot, sexy poems about skin and lips and desire to a lot of poems about women being left distraught and alone by men. It’s whiplash.

I love erotic poems, so I loved the first 40% of the book, but those poems also had a certain sameness to them. In truth, a lot of the poems had a certain sameness… a certain Rexroth-ishness.

Honestly, I can’t properly say how I feel about this book. I’ll never sit down and re-read it through again, but I might occasionally re-read a poem or two from it at random; something to keep near the bed or the desk for a quick, mental health poetry break. But, I guess, I’m disappointed. I had low expectations, but then I started liking the poems and then I started getting bored by the similarities.

Lest I end this on too mediocre a note, the next to last poem, Rice Sheaves This Alluvial Night by Khaleda Edib Chowdhury, is the collection’s only prose poem and what a prose poem it is. Six paragraphs desperately piling sex, desire, and despair:

But still this night must be understood once more. A man must know the object of his longing.

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