I was introduced to the poetry of Eunice de Souza on a hot summer day inside a college classroom. Our teacher read to us girls the De Souza poem prescribed for English Major students. It was called “Advice to Women”. The text of the poem is as follows:
if you want to learn to cope with
the otherness of lovers.
Otherness is not always neglect—
Cats return to their litter trays
when they need to.
Don’t cuss out of the window
at their enemies.
That stare of perpetual surprise
in those great green eyes
will teach you
to die alone”
As an aspiring Lit student with my newfound love for poetry, I realized that De Souza’a poetry struck a chord. Later, as a student pursuing Master’s degree and specializing in Indian English Literature, I became more familiar with De Souza’s poetry and gradually I started taking keen interest in her works.
Eunice de Souza, together with Santan Rodrigues and Melanie Silgardo, form one of the trio coming from a Goan Roman Catholic background and writing modern Indian poetry in English. Like most of the Indian English poets, de Souza too has adopted the personal voice. Through her poetry she brings into focus issues like social injustice and the condition of women, by using her Goan Catholic community, where she was born, as the backdrop.
De Souza’s poetry stands out because she speaks of the various aspects of Goan life and culture, an otherwise unexplored locale on the map of Indian English poetry. De Souza primarily deals with two types of memory in her poetry – her memories of her youth in Goa and her experience of the restricting conventions of the Goan society. The speaking voice that De Souza employs in her poetry is simple, direct and curt.
A certain anger and bitterness characterizes De Souza’s poetry. This anger is expressed through the use of satire and irony in a witty manner. And instead of being theatrical, she prefers to employ understatement. But De Souza’s use of words is absolutely minimal. Her economical use of words makes her poetry stand apart. Like A. K. Mehrotrasaid, De Souza’s poems have “the brevity, unexpectedness, and urgency of telegrams.” There is nothing superfluous in her poetry – not a single word is wasted.The quoted poem at the beginning is a very good example.
Look below at another extract taken from her poem “Catholic Mother”. This poem is a criticism of the church and its ways.
“By the grace of God he says
We’ve had seven children
(in seven years)”
These lines speak volumes. The words within parenthesis also serve as a very useful poetic device in driving home her point. De Souza makes use of clichés, which are characteristic of Christian life and these clichés are made to stand in sharp contrast to the reality represented by the Catholic Mother of the poem.
De Souza seems to believe that the church is to blame for some defects of the Goan community and like many other Indian English poets she too seems to be against religion. But her perspective is different. And instead of anger and contempt, she makes use of satire, irony and wit to ridicule the hypocrisy of her community. That makes her poems a delight to read. They are humorous, subtle and quite enjoyable.
“Sweet Sixteen”, another poem rooted in traditional Goan Catholic society gives us a glimpse of the prudishness of the society where certain facts cannot be mentioned which leads to misinformation about menstruation and impregnation.
“Mamas never mentioned menses”
The young girls of such a society are not conversant and have grown up in an atmosphere where sex is seen as a taboo. De Souza realizes that the innocence of these girls can be quite dangerous. De Souza’s poetry can be compared to that of Sylvia Plath in its expression of deep fears and resentments through self-ironic wit.
Indian English poetry is not very ambitious and this is one of its few defects. But poets like De Souza, who use the personal voice in hervery compact poems, have brilliantly turned this weakness into strength.
So lovers of poetry, if you want to acquaint yourself with Indian English poetry but don’t know where to begin, let me tell you, De Souza would be the perfect starting point for you. Her short poems, full of irony, wit and humour, are bound to fascinate you, like they fascinated me when I was a beginner in the realm of modern Indian English poetry. This would be my advice to both women and men willing to understand and appreciate Indian English poetry.
(All poems have been quoted from Eunice de Souza’s A Necklace of Skulls: Collected Poems published byPenguin India, 2009)
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