I don’t mind a book that makes me work a little. If I did, I wouldn’t read Canadian poetry.
To set my biases out front: I took a writing class from Ven Begamudré many years ago. I didn’t get to know him well – he’s not the kind of guy you play caps with in the bar, if you know what I mean – but he impressed me as a quiet and intelligent man. His keen sense of humor kept us all laughing in class, too.
This slim volume is his first poetry book, and it was nominated for Regina Book of the Year at the 2006 Saskatchewan Book Awards. Yet I have to confess that, as I began reading it, I was puzzled.
The book’s title poem includes 38 pages of short poems, each one subtitled in a foreign language. “Beligge,” “Pakshigalu,” “Prema,” “Ondu,” “Eradu,” “Muru,” “Nalku,” “Aidu.” Using non-English words in English language poems is certainly not uncommon. Most books that use foreign phrases also include a translation key in a footnote or endnote. Not this one.
Poems are supposed to be puzzles — but there’s nothing worse than trying to put together a puzzle with half the pieces missing. Since Begamudré mentions Kannada (a language of southern India) in the poems, I tried Kannada-English translation sites. It’s obviously not an easy language to learn.
I finally emailed the publisher to ask about the titles, and got a reply from Begamudré the following day. He says he deliberately left out the translation key because he wanted readers “to enjoy the music of the words themselves.” He also pointed out the glossary and notes in his short story collection: A Planet of Eccentrics as a potential key.
Since I didn’t have that book handy, I began again, and tried to just “enjoy the music.” Then Begamudré‘s sideways sense of humour caught me by surprise, as if often did in class. In “The Road to Kandahar,” for instance, the poem’s narrator talks about his father: “He grew up speaking Kannada. He settled in Canada.” (53) Poetry is not necessarily autobiographical, of course, but it’s interesting to note Begamudré (Ven, not his Dad) was born in south India, according to his publisher’s biography, and he moved to Canada when he was six.
Then again, it could all be part of Begamudré‘s wit. He’s smart enough to have taught financial management to writers (apparently he majored in budgetary theory at university). He’s had seven books published, edited three anthologies, and won several awards – including the City of Regina Writing award a couple of times, and the F.G. Bressani Literary Prize for Prose. It’s not difficult to believe he’s deliberately poking the reader’s funny bone in these pages.
I’m certainly willing to believe the poem’s narrator when he says the Canadian railway is responsible for naming Saskatchewan towns in alphabetical order: Archive, Buttress, Crestwynd… (54). After all, there has to be some reason for what people might call the most interesting place names in North America.
Let me read on. The next poem is titled, “Mumbai, Jumbai.” (Say it out loud.) This narrator riffs about the way we name things, for a bunch of tourists who just want to get on the bus. A couple of poems along, Begamudré quips about a teacher switching (what has to be) his first and last names in the poem “Tampering.”
Maybe I’m starting to see a pattern, after all. And maybe Begamudré has helped instill a sense of fun into the serious business of Kannadian – sorry, Canadian – letters.