One day the scholar/poet A.K. Ramanujan was sifting through stacks of uncatalogued books in University of Chicago’s library. He stumbled upon an anthology of around 400 classical Tamil poems that deal with love and separation, the Kuruntokai. The Kuruntokai itself is a part of a larger work, the Ettutokai, which consists of 2,371 poems by around 470 poets writing between 200 B.C.E. and 200 C.E.

Now, it’s not that Ramanujan rediscovered some lost literary masterpiece that day (these poems were well known, elsewhere if not in English), but it did lead him to begin translating the poems himself, publishing them in various journals around the United States in the 1960s. Eventually he collected some of the poems and published them together as The Interior Landscape: Classical Tamil Love Poetry (1967). Consequently, for many of us in English, Ramanujan is our guide, taking us on to our own discoveries of this wonderful place.

Review copy courtesy of NYRB Poets.

Review copy courtesy of NYRB Poets.

This slim book of poetry is unique and remarkable: the 76 poems included were written nearly two thousand years ago, over the course of a few centuries, by 55 poets, both male and female. More remarkably, the poems talk to each other. In other words, these various poets would take the then-familiar characters and add their own poems to the mix, further developing the characters, the story, and the themes over the generations.

The book begins with a dramatis personae, which includes six characters: He, She, Her Friend, Her Foster-Mother, Passers-by, and Concubine. Already, as simple as that list is, we see the potential for tragedy.

The series of poems begins with She talking about her love for He:

What She Said

The still drone of the time
past midnight.
All words put out,
men are sunk into the sweetness
of sleep. Even the far-flung world
has put aside its rages
for sleep.

                       Only I
am awake.

It could be a glimpse at the innocent beginnings of love. For me, it’s peaceful, though love is keeping her awake when all others have entered “the sweetness of sleep.” Of course, love can keep us up at night for various reasons, and many of them are explored in this series of poems.

One thing that keeps She awake at night in the early poems is her separation from He. Off to find his fortune, He’s absent, and She has no idea when — or even if — he will ever return.

What She Said

My lover capable of terrible lies
at night lay close to me
in a dream
that lied like truth.

I woke up, still deceived,
and caressed the bed
thinking it my lover.

It’s terrible. I grow lean
in loneliness,
like a water lily
gnawed by a beetle.

She has a friend. At first, I thought this friend was also chasing after He. The friend, after all, sometimes refers to him as “our” lover. And maybe that’s what that poet had in mind. Another poet, though, suggests this friend is experiencing deep grief for She, a wonderful kind of love that is also explored here.

What Her Girlfriend Said to Him

You say that the wasteland
you have to pass through
is absence itself:
wide spaces where sometimes
salt merchants have gathered for a while
and gone, omai trees that stand
like ghost towns once busy with living.

But tell me really,
do you think that home will be sweet
for the ones you leave behind?

There is a lot going on in these seemingly simple poems. We get the passersby, those who think She has been possessed because they do not know about her sometimes debilitating love for He. There’s jealousy and betrayal, marriage and wandering.

Another aspect that I loved was the heavy reliance on nature, that external landscape, to explore the interior landscape. Most of the poems contain some metaphor whose central feature is a tree, a fruit, a handful of grass, rain. It keeps the lofty dreams grounded in their surroundings, which can be luscious or harsh, like love.

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