'Woodense': A close twinning

Aryanil Mukherjee with a detail of a “thought-schema” sketch of his poem “Woodense.”

A caged tiger who is regularly fed is probably not too keen to escape the quadrangle. Look at him — he’s mostly in the midst of a lazy yawn. A child who has never seen a tiger would find it hard to discover his ferocity behind the metal nets, and might instead be moved by his deep eyes, incisive canines and checkered fur. “Here is my new pet!” he might exclaim.

Aryanil Mukherjee’s “Woodense” is not a poem that takes such a juvenile jab at the tiger (one might be erroneously lured to think of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Panther”). Rather, it is more about the “woods,” and about the “mouli,” or the “wives”; it is about the “bees,” the “honey,” and the “forest-department.” A whole network of closely connected themes. The “wood” seems to read as an extended metaphor at times, and at other times not. The specificity of transaction traditionally associated with metaphor is mostly missing from the “wood” and all its related concepts.

The poem is based on a newspaper feature (Appendix I) on the problems confronting a marginal community of honey collectors in the Sundarban area of West Bengal, India. During a discussion Mukherjee disclosed that he had graphed a thought-schema as a pre-text, much like a scenario, to use the language of films. The thought-schema, borrowing from graph theory, is an “object-oriented” diagram in the sense that the key themes mentioned in the report are objectified. Each “object” is represented by certain well-defined characteristics (usually descriptors), has a figuration in the theme hierarchy, and is interrelated with other objects.

The poem seems to intertwine two texts, a regular poetic text and a part-poetic-part-informative text, so as to guide the reader through the poem’s desired flow of logic. The thought-schema, in a nutshell, suggests structure that arranges the poem’s thoughts. It also tempts the reader to consider the objects in the poem as metaphors.

Parallel to the traditional metaphor there could be another kind that is indefinitely indiscrete, one that is not used to convey meanings or feelings. A whole commune of metaphors or “A-phors,” as we choose to call them, each with its clouded orbits uniting to initiate a collective thought-stream. The poem, as a result, dissipates ideas rather than controlling them. Because this A-phor-assembly is huskless and granular it seems to fit a wide range of thought-patterns.

The thought-schema of “Woodense” as sketched by the poet.

It might be possible to compare the concept of Six-Sigma to the thought-schema of the poem. Six-Sigma is a technological philosophy, a vision; initiative- and goal-oriented, it can also be seen as a tool. In a nutshell, Six-Sigma can be used as a means to stretch out the thinking process. Essentially a business and technological production management strategy, the term “Six-Sigma” is borrowed from the statistical representation of certain phenomena in process capability study. It is defined by a 5-step process — Define, Measure, Analyze, Design, Verify — expressed as a pentagon with the desired product (in our case, the poem “Woodense”) at the center.

Step I: What would be the first step of the process — “Define”? We feel it would probably be the newspaper feature from which the poem’s thought content originates.

Step II: In the “Measure” step, the poet selects certain facts from the report and/or other related sources, conceives and germinates ideas, develops an understanding of the relationship model that connects the “subjects” (expressed as “objects”) of the story.

Step III: For the poet, the “Analyze” phase is perhaps most important. The acquired data is digested in this step, which helped Mukherjee construct his thought-schema. This object-oriented relational model helped him discover a complex nexus of interrelations and dependencies that are not in the newspaper report and are apparently unseen. For example, he discovers the hidden connections between the tiger as state-machine and the worshipped wood-goddess Banbibi; how the poor, struggling mouli and his family become the proletariat, secretly opposed to the powerful (yet endangered) tiger and its protector, the forest department.

There is so much content in a wood! Trees, the strangely branched assemblies of their limbs, the bird collective, dread and curiosity. One imagination leads us to another — of human society and its demographics, its members as one monolithic block of life. Imagine their brain-wires as a single assembly — that makes a forest:

the hunter comes full circle and gets hunted
circles overlap                as in a Venn diagram

Each singular feeling, every sensuous drive of every human adds up to mimic a forest’s density. Each individual is trying to live his own life according to a personal strategy. No one is ready to yield a bit. This leads to a social balance where every member is self-centered, making another kind of forest.

Step IV: The “Design” step is mostly about presentation; it involves the actual writing of the poem. In the case of a technological production procedure, the design and manufacturing phases are the most laborious, painstaking and practical. For a writer, this step might include the selection and structuring of language and the writing of the poem (the presentation). It is possible that for “Woodense” this step involved a forked activity where two texts were written separately and then plaited into one.

Step V: Art is usually not made to “Verify” anything, thus this last step might mean something very different for the writer. This could be seen as a reconsideration phase, where the writer either abandons his freshly composed work to gel or rot for a while and then re-examines it, or discusses it with fellow writers and friends before finalizing the work. This step marks the time when some of us would go back to Step I to revise the entire poem and the process that led to its creation.

Six-Sigma often uses a diagram popularly known as the Ishikawa/Fish-Bone diagram that highlights cause-effect relationships. It is often assumed that creativity is a spontaneous activity. The truth is that creative people use proven tools and techniques to forward their thinking. An augmentative schematic for the poem, different from Mukherjee’s thought-schema can be expressed in the form of a fish-bone diagram:

A fish-bone diagram represents the theme-data.

A fish-bone diagram helps in analyzing collected data. It should not be seen anything more than a tool for constructing thought structures and relating themes, ideas and concepts; by no means can it substitute or enhance poetic ability or imagination.

Now, in this wood, the tiger arrives. With its structure of social power, of political preference and economic disequilibrium, “a quarter on the left pan / a nickel on the right,” the poem seems to simulate the phenomenon of modern money mechanics via the complex tale of a rural society from the coastal forests of southern Bengal. Traditional narrative is avoided; instead, a mixed-media prose language derived from news, cut-up and embroidered with poetry, is interspersed among the poetic stanzas. In the end, it does become a poem of the self-devouring tiger — the common man of everywhere.

There is also an impending politics of religion. The common man begins to think — so much is still hazy, indistinct and obscure. That defines the birthplace of dread, of realization and submission. This is made clear through the figure of the mouli-wife, who submits to the ritual of augur and practices widowhood when the mouli enters the forest. She worships the forest deity and obfuscates truth by complying with superstition. However, positions of social power shift, quacks and clairvoyants assume immediate importance. Scales tip, reversing these binary gradients. The pure spiritual devotion of the mouli-wife is also present; she faces resistance from social consensus passed around as law:

forest department knows it all
observes            measures
we accept the proprietor’s law as just

But she survives it. So does poetry, as it defeats and escapes the tiger’s prowl —

culture of workplace is above all
where bees swarm over the tiger



Appendix: Honey collection expedition begins in the Sundarbans
Anandabazar Patrika, April 15, 2010
Gosaba correspondent

The official honey collection season began in the Sunderbans last Monday. It’s likely that the intruders might encounter tiger attacks in the process of collecting honey from the deep forests. In the past, several collectors have lost their lives. The professional lives of the people of the Sunderbans have an intimate involvement with the tiger. Because most people live either as lumberjacks, honey-collectors or crab-hunters in the rivulets of the forest region, encounters with tigers are a regular affair for them, very often leading to the loss of human life. Since the Royal Bengal Tiger has been identified as an endangered species, guns or weapons are not allowed in these woods. The forest department occasionally uses shotguns with tranquilizer bullets. Faced with lives of extreme economic hardship, the local people choose to ignore the tiger. Tiger attacks are accepted as destiny. When the man goes into the forest, the wife knows that his return is uncertain. She has learned to accept it. When a family head has to venture into the woods, the wife practices a “mental widowhood.”

With the official start of the honey collection season last Monday, the mouli-wives have begun offering prayers to Banbibi, the wood-goddess. Temporary widowhood is being practiced in more than a thousand families. Until the husbands return, the wives and their families turn vegetarian. They refrain from using soap, oil, and vermillion; they take off their wedding bangles; and they stay barefoot and milk-clad, wearing white saris only.

Karunabala Sarkar, Laxmi Roy of Satjelia, Parul and Minoti Mandal of Lahiripur, Debaki Naskar, Sita Mistri of Sonagaon said, “This is an ancestral ritual for us. Until our husbands will return we will mourn their absence this way. Twice a day during this season we would offer water and honey to the sacred Banbibi and pray to her for the safekeeping of our men.” Tarubala Mondal, a sexagenarian from Jamespur, said, “We have had more tiger attacks this year. Quite often the tiger has entered the village. Now our folks have invaded its den. Mother Banbibi will protect them.”

The forest department has stated that the moulis are allowed up to two weeks for collection. All honey and wax collected will be purchased from the moulis by the State Department at government-stipulated rates. Anjan Guha, director of the Sunderbans Tiger Project and his team of observers are stationed on the river. Mr. Guha told us, “Some believe in superstitions, voodoos, some in the Banbibi, some in clairvoyants and jungle magicians. They all have their own ways to beat the dread. But most importantly we’ve given masks to the moulis. Masks that’ll scare away the tiger. They have been asked it use it at all times.”

Translated from Bengali by the authors.

A short response to Alan Dershowitz

In his Huffington Post piece, “Suppressing Ugly Truth for Beautiful Art” (May 1, 2012), Alan Dershowitz writes: 

Stein, a “racial” Jew according to Nazi ideology, managed to survive the Holocaust, while the vast majority of her co-religionists were deported and slaughtered. The [Metropolitan Museum of Art] exhibit says “remarkably, the two women [Stein and her companion Alice Toklas] survived the war with their possessions intact.” It adds that “Bernard Fay, a close friend … and influential Vichy collaborator is thought to have protected them.” That is an incomplete and distorted account of what actually happened. Stein and Toklas survived the Holocaust for one simple reason: Gertrude Stein was herself a major collaborator with the Vichy regime and a supporter of its pro-Nazi leadership.

Dershowitz seems to have forgotten that, unlike her “co-religionists [who] were deported or slaughtered,” Stein was an American citizen and the US was not yet at war with Germany. Indeed, when the war broke out in September 1939, the United States immediately recognized the Vichy Government and sent an Ambassador — William D. Leahy — to Vichy: the idea, originally, was to pry the Maréchal away from the Germans. At the time that Stein and Toklas settled in the small village of Belley, near Bilignin, where Stein first bought a house in the early twenties, they were not yet in physical danger.  The US declared war on Germany on December 11, 1941 — two years and three months later. After that point, of course — think 1942 — American citizens were the enemy and were rounded up and imprisoned, and Stein makes clear that she and Alice were deeply afraid. Nothing happened, not because Stein was a “major collaborator with the Vichy regime” — an assertion that is simply absurd —  but because, as two old American ladies more or less hiding in the village where they were on good terms with their neighbors, they were left alone.  

Myself an Austrian Jewish refugee from Hitler in 1938 and knowing how complex the situation was in wartime France, I find Dershowitz’s blanket accusations appalling. Maybe he now wants to pronounce Roosevelt a “collaborator” because he sent an ambassador to Vichy; our embassy there, incidentally, was open until the spring of 1942.

Gertrude Stein: September 1942–September 1944

from 'The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder'

Edward Burns and Ulla E. Dydo included this detailed accounting of Stein’s wartime experience as “Appendix IX — Gertrude Stein: September 1942–September 1944” in their landmark volume, The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder (Yale University Press, 1996).  You can read the complete text here in PDF format.

A letter to the editor

'The Nation,' 1987

Published under the title “Three Lives,” this letter by Edward Burns and Ulla Dydo — written in response to Natalie Robin’s article, “The Defiling of Writers,” appeared in the December 5, 1987 issue of The Nation.  You can read the complete text here in PDF format.

Joan Retallack on Stein's war years

From her introduction to 'Gertrude Stein: Selections'

Stein and History

(The “Stein and History” section of Retallack’s introduction is available here in PDF format.  She wrote this headnote for the Stein dossier.)

In writing “Stein and History” — the penultimate section of my introduction to Gertrude Stein: Selections (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), I was trying to understand both Stein’s attitude toward history, something she frequently wrote about from both an American and European point of view, and her sense of what was going on during the Vichy years. As with so many other things concerning Stein, what seems to be the truth of the life, the poetics, the politics, the performance of sometimes capricious opinions, the ethics (all of which I think of as the poethics) was intertwined, complicated, and not always entirely admirable. Stein — as I hope I make clear in the pages included here — was a republican of the sort whose priorities were national security (government dedicated to protection of its citizens) and individualism. She was no fascist. That her clearly ironic (sardonic is probably more accurate) statement about Hitler and the Nobel Peace Prize has been excised from its considerable context — which can leave no doubt of its irony, judicious or not — is a testament to the motives and intentions of certain readers, not to her own.

The most egregious accusation currently circulating about Gertrude Stein is that she seriously thought Hitler deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. The often quoted or paraphrased remark about Hitler appears in a 1934 New York Times interview where she says that by “driving out the Jews and the democratic and Left elements, [Hitler] is driving out everything that conduces to activity. That means peace.” What is not noted, in Barbara Will’s or others’ accounts, is that for Stein “driving out activity” is deplorable because, among other things, it drives out the multiple points of view brought by immigrants (like her Jewish family, one might add) which is precisely what gives a society its interest and vitality.  

In the extensive interview from which the sardonic (and sole) remark about Hitler is excised Stein goes on to say these things: “What matters is competition, struggle, interest, activity that keeps a people alive and excited. … Protection, paternalism and suppression of natural activity and competition lead to dullness and stagnation. It is true in politics, in literature, in art. Everything in life needs constant stimulation. It needs activity, new blood. … That is the reason why I do not approve of the stringent immigration laws in America today.” See, the full interview in which the statement occurs, provided here by Charles Bernstein. See also Edward Burns and Ulla Dydo’s “Gertrude Stein: September 1942 to September 1944”  (Appendix IX to the Yale edition of the Stein-Wilder letters) and Burns’s updated, annotated chronology of Stein’s interactions with both right and left-wing figures during the German Occupation of France. 

 Sometimes coupled with a report of the Hitler remark is a contention that Stein actually nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. Everything in this vein that I’ve read is persuasive only if one believes at the outset that Stein’s remark about Hitler and the Peace Prize was serious. That comment (though not its interpretation) is the sole piece of actual data anyone has offered. Here are some facts from the Nobel Peace Prize nomination website & database which I suggest you visit if this particular accusation has been nagging at you. 

The Nobel Peace Prize nomination database.

Facts you’ll discover:

1. Nominators must be invited by the Norwegian Nobel Committee to submit nominations. It’s not a freelance affair.
2. In searching the database where names of all nominators and nominees from 1901 to 1956 have been archived, there is no match with either Gertrude Stein or Adolph HItler.

 In addition, I’m providing a link to a 2009 New York Review of Books review-essay by Ian Buruma — “Occupied Paris: The Sweet and the Cruel” — not because it includes Stein (it doesn’t) but because it is such a striking model of a balanced and compassionate treatment of similar Vichy matters. Buruma’s analysis acknowledges social, historical, and psychological complexity without ethical equivocation. More of this is sorely needed with respect to Gertrude Stein.

The “Stein and History” section of Retallack’s  introduction is available as a PDF here. 

updated May 20, 2012