from Kuruntokai

Various Tamil Poets

The bowman wears a warrior's leg band   she an armlet
also a young girl's anklet    Good people   poor things   but
who are they    in these lands    where     like
drummers for tightrope walkers   the wind reels and rattles
hanging white seedpods of the vaakai tree       And the two of them
walking with the others   on these barren bamboo-crossed paths

Kuruntokai 7 – Perumpatamanar

Stitching flowers picked by mountain ponds
chasing parrots from the fields    the innocent-eyed girl
I wonder if she knows   in the middle of the night
I'm sighing like   a slumbering elephant     My

thoughts    after parting    have not left her

Kuruntokai 142 – Kapilar

Suppose it all goes wrong
no witness to our love that afternoon
except a heron on slender green legs
hunting fish in the shallow stream.

Kurunthokai 25 – Kapilar

I want to get up
and break things   scream
split my head in two

The cool southern breeze wakens
the fire of love in me

Cruel   this village
in its blissful sleep

Kurunthokai 28 - Avaiyyar

That small hill settlement where    the rain clouds range
the cows long for their calves    that land
where the deep green is covered     by white jasmine
under a reddening sky     just thinking about it
I feel like dying

Kuruntokai 108 – Vaayilantevanar

kookoo said the cock    on that
my simple heart leaped     shook with fear
pressed to my lover    shoulder to shoulder
dawn like a sword    rending us apart

Kuruntokai 157 – Allur Nanmullayar

translated from the Tamil by Vivek Narayanan

Read the original in Tamil

Read translator’s note

Various Tamil Poets in this issue include Perumpatamanar, Kapilar, Avaiyyar, Vaayilantevanar and Allur Nanmullayar.

Vivek Narayanan was born in Ranchi, India in 1972 to Tamil-speaking parents. His books of poetry are Universal Beach (2006) and the forthcoming Mr. Subramanian; his poetry and prose can be found widely online and in print. He is Co-Editor of the journal, Almost Island.

Part of the Ettukotai (ie., the eight ancient anthologies of Tamil poetry), the Kuruntokai is an anthology of short lyrics ranging from four to eight lines in length.  There is already a fairly long chain of translations of these poems available in English, starting with A.K. Ramanujan's iconic translations of the 1960s, going through to the most recently published versions by M.L. Thangappa (Viking Penguin, 2010); so my versions, even as I work from the Tamil originals, are inevitably done in self-conscious conversation with the other English works, responding, borrowing, critiquing, inverting.

My concern has been to highlight and clarify specific and intense qualities that I perceive in the original: their incredible compression and economy, their mysterious and elliptical nature, and their ability to cut deftly between a "cool", more cerebral mode of (often visual) imagery and a startlingly direct, unadorned, spoken, performative voice.  The latter is often heard in the Tamil almost as a shout—this is difficult to get right in English—in the same kind of language that you would hear on a street today.

I have removed the colophons that Ramanujan famously rendered as "What he said...", "What she said..." etc.  These are definitely part of the anthology; however, there is a widespread agreement among scholars that they came at a later stage.  It's true that interpretation and critical thought was important to the poets of the "Sangam" and post-Sangam eras.  The pseudonymous poems, with recurring images in conversation with each other, are often slyly as much about poetry itself as anything else; and there has even been a rich folklore around Sangam literary criticism—as with the tale of Nakkeerar, a poet who stuck to his critique of the lack of precision in a line even after it was discovered to have been written by Shiva himself.  Nevertheless, there are also infamous examples where the colophons get so creative that you wonder if they were deliberately inserted as parodies by some Sangam-era Nabokov.  Kuruntokai 157, for instance, "kookoo said the cock..." carries the colophon: "What the wife said at the onset of her period".

I felt that leaving out the colophons might help the resounding ambiguity and sense of possibility that I see in the poems.  This is the spirit that informs my versions more generally as well.  Earlier translators have tended to add things in the translation, perhaps as a way of glossing or trying to explain echoes inline—Ramanujan's translation of poem 28 ("I want to get up and break things..."), for instance, contains an image of a bull that is not there in the original.  I have occasionally ended up leaving things out.