The River

 by Ma Jaya Sali Bhagavali
Ganga Press, Roseland, Fla., 1994; hardcover, xiii +85 pages.

It is tempting to call epic a poem that fills 85 pages and takes about 75 minutes to read a loud, especially one that addresses the panorama of life and death. But The River is intimate by nature, and is not intended to impress with the immensity of what it describes but to reveal in fleeting moments the ineffable stillness of the spirit.

The first seven lines announce what is to become the recurring motif: 

Children play by my River
Sadhus stay by my River
Cities old by my River
Temples made of gold by my River
Cows stray all the day by my River
Young men and women now die
by my River
We are all the widows who cry
by my River

 Those ideas recur no fewer than thirty-two times in whole or more often in part as a leitmotif, always recognizable but never quite the same. The poem flows rhapsodically, unfettered either by metrical regularity, strict rhyming scheme, or end-of-line punctuation. The seemingly naive sense of rhyme is one of several characteristics that give The River its flavor. The rhyme may shift suddenly to midline and signal a change of direction. Free association suggests the river's course and creates palpable, sensuous impressions of flowing, cresting, and subsiding. Whether mighty and sonorous or hushed and whispered, the expression is both unpretentious and mystical, calling to mind another poet of divine vision, William Blake.

The author's introduction declares her purpose "to bring to the many the beauty of my River, the Ganga-the sacredness of her abundance, the joy of her waters, and the fact that her holiness can and does heal ... sorrow in this time of the AIDS plague." As founder and spiritual head of the transdenominational Kashi Ashram in Roseland, Florida, Ma Jay Sari Bhagnavati directs her ministry of service for the most part toward society's marginalized, including many HIV-positive people and AIDS patients.

Much of the poem presents imagery of death that might appear horrific to the Western sensibility-corpses burning in the cremation ground, the smell of charred flesh mingling with the scents of jasmine and musk, ashes set afloat upon the river's breast, the black goddess Kali's fearsome dance. The pictorial realism evokes heat and sunlight, the mystery of night, the teeming life along the river's banks at play and at prayer, in joy, ill sorrow, and in release. The river becomes a metaphor for the totality of being, which enfolds life and death together. It presents the naked facts of temporal existence-of birth, growth, maturation, decay, and death, and all their attendant pleasure and pain-in the context of that larger reality, call it God or Brahman. The poem conveys the joy of embracing all of life's aspects and living passionately with fearlessness. The Ganges is also personified as the mother goddess, and finally it is revealed as transcendental reality itself.

Descriptive passages, dialogue, storytelling, allusions to myth, exhortation, and praise present the richness of Shaivite and Tantric Hinduism with an admixture of Zenlike immediacy. The poet speaks through various voices as an observer on the river's bank, a child, an ascetic, and soon, culminating in ecstatic identification with the divinity that the river represents.

Purists may object to four instances of split infinitives, to a pronoun in the wrong case, to two misuses of the word "lay" for "lie," and one occurrence of "piers" where "pyres" is meant. In addition there is a reference to Brahma, the god of creation, where Brahman, the formless reality, is meant. These, however, are minor details that can be corrected in a future printing. More troubling is the unexplained alternation of the Sanskrit "Ganga" (nominative) and "Gange" (vocative) throughout the poem without regard to grammatical sense. The allusions to Hindu myths do not always make themselves sufficiently clear and seem to assume the reader's previous knowledge of the stories. Also, a glossary would have been helpful to those who may not be familiar with the Sanskrit and other Indian terms employed.

Much care has been lavished on the book's design: it is clothbound in black and stamped with gold, with deep red endpapers and rich ivory stock. A Shiva trident symbol head s each page of text, and headbands and a bound-in red ribbon bookmark add to the impression of quality. The glossy 'black dust jacket bears a glowing, full-color reproduction of a painting by the author, who has won critical acclaim for the power of her naturalistic, primitive canvases. The River is a book to be cherished and read again and again.


Summer 1995