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Monday, 28 December 2015

Devadatta's Poems - Judith Beveridge - Prime Minister's Literary Award 2015 (Poetry)

My third venture into the 2015 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards Shortlist (Poetry) sees me explore a raft of Buddhist themes in Judith Beveridge’s “Devadatta’s Poems”.

Judith Beveridge’s collection, in her own words, is a highly fictionalized and dramatized” sequence imagining the voice of Devadatta, Siddhattha’s (the Buddha, note that here I’ve used the spelling in the collection not the more common spelling ‘Siddhartha’) cousin. Devadatta attempted to murder the Buddha on three separate occasions in order to usurp control of the Order (Sangha) of monks. He was in love with Siddhattha’s wife Yasodhara, and befriended Prince Ajatasattu, also a Buddhist, who wanted control of the Kingdom of Magadha.

For those without any Buddhist knowledge this collection includes an introduction, explaining the relationship between Devadatta and Siddhattha, their caste, the fact that Siddhattha left the town of Kapilavatthu to lead a mendicant life in search of enlightenment, and other historical learnings. The detail around the Buddhist Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path are explained in the notes at the conclusion of the collection.

Alms Round, Sarnath

I smell ripe figs, dates, pomegranates; cumin and onions
sizzling in hot ghee. There are pies of sesame and honey cakes,
teas scented with cinnamon and cloves, but we must wait
Along the town’s outskirts, keep our eyes downcast,
try to be grateful for whatever’s given. Mostly all I’m given
are scrawny parings of stalks, maggoty wheat crawling
In the centre of my hands. Don’t these other monks
want to look these folk squarely in the eyes and demand
mangos, melons and handpicked beans? Don’t they want
To stuff their mouths full of rice and roasted coconut,
with almonds, cashes and pickled beets? Aren’t they tired
of seeing their bowls as bare as their shaved heads?
I want to tell Buddha to chew his rules about patience
and frugality into a sloppy cud. I want to hold my bowl out
as boldly as a symbol and clang it loudly with my spoon.
I want to tell these miserable, skinflint, pinch-fisted folk
to stop tossing us husks, rinds, cores, thorns, rats’ tails,
roosters’ claws and – oh! – so many stinking lepers’ thumbs!

Devadatta’s love an obsession with Buddha’s wife Yasodhara, is explored through a number of poems, musings on this unrequited love:

Her Hair

At night I think of her hair like a free hoard
of honey in my hands. Sometimes I imagine she is letting
me thread jasmine, or strips of perfumed bark through her hair;
that I’m rolling her hair into a thick bun at her nape,
dressing it with oil, or adorning it with feathers.
Sometimes I dream she lets me colour her parting
with the same vermillion stick she’ll later apply to her lips.
I think of her hair and I smell musk, myrrh,
then the peregrine rain. When insects fizz and snap
at the lamplight, I dream they are the sound of the teeth
of one of her ivory combs, breaking as I draw them
down hose heavy strands, the light stroking,
then filling her hair with shadow. When the days
and nights pass with unremitting rain, I dream I hear the sighs
of her bracelets slipping into my secrets whisperings
of her name. But some nights, all I can hear is her
cracking in half all of her gem-studded combs; then the rasp
and harrow of the stone-handled knife: Yasodhara
hacking her hair back to her scalp – the flump of it falling –
and Yasodhara sobbing out Siddhatta’s name.

This is a collection that through exploring a jealous man’s obsessions and musings, as well as the day-to-day activities of being a Buddhist monk, also explores the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism:

  1. All existence is suffering
  2. Suffering is caused by selfish craving
  3. Selfish craving can be destroyed
  4. It can be destroyed by following the Eightfold Path

The Eightfold Path consists of:

  1. Right view;
  2. Right resolve;
  3. Right speech;
  4. Right action;
  5. Right livelihood;
  6. Right effort;
  7. Right mindfulness;
  8. Right concentration.

Throughout this collection of forty-eight poems our narrator, Devadatta, moves through the various human rejections of the Eightfold Path, this is a collection rooted in Buddhist learnings and references (Even the fact that is collection is forty-eight poems is probably a reference - Siddhattha sat under a Bodhi tree for 48 days to understand the nature of reality and the universe, leading to enlightenment and Buddhism, a less likely reference are the forty-eight vows of Amida Buddha, Hōzō Bosatsu Hōzō).

The human mental struggle to meditate whilst the mind wanders, in Devadatta’s case wandering to thoughts of Yasodhara and the aches in his body, is a Buddhist musing on “distraction”. The poem itself repetitive signifying the human mind’s propensity to wander to the most pressing issue at hand. There is also a poem on “karma” and Devadatta’s jealousy and spite of the Buddha so out of control that he doesn’t care if his next birth is from “the egg of a louse, a worm, a flea…”.

Another very readable collection from the Prime Minister’s Literary Award Shortlist, one that is rooted in Buddhist thought and teachings, but at the same time explores the human frailties of jealousy, desire, rage, indignation and ignorance. Judith Beveridge a lecturer on poetry writing at the University of Sydney, shows she has a deft hand at presenting a large range of themes in even small collections.

 Source - personal copy. This work can be purchased directly from the publisher here.

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