Editorís note: Tito Mukhopadhyay once wrote, "My school is the doubt in your eyes." Anyone familiar with his two books of nonfiction knows that he has never had a chance to go to a mainstream school, let alone to college. In India he was rejected by one institution after another; in America he has encountered self-contained environments in no way suited to his intellectual ability. As a result, he and his mother have had to develop the most impressive of "home schools," but even this has been limited by her need to earn a living and the sheer impossibility of one person knowing everything.
In the course of my interview with him, Tito expressed interest in creative writing instruction, and I offered to run an on-line version of the poetry-writing course I was teaching at Grinnell. In that course I ask students to work in strict forms such as the pantoum, the villanelle, the sestina, and the sonnet. I had always thought of the villanelle as quasi-autistic—its perseverative logic allowing for both a different kind of music and a different kind of cognition. I had even taught a villanelle-writing workshop to people with autism at a summer conference and witnessed with pleasure the excitement and skill of the workshop participants. And so, I was eager to see what Tito might come up with.
"Dear, Ralph," he wrote recently in an email. "I had never known what a villanelle was before being exposed to my poetic communication with you. And to be honest, I did not feel comfortable. Any new system gives me great discomfort—be it new shoes or a new house. I can put the blame on my autism. Then I began to tolerate villanelles and slowly adapt to them. And after practice, I feel certain that certain topics can be better worded by a villanelle. Had I written
They were birds—three and thirty five.
They sat on the wires dotting the sky.
They ignored the branches of those trees
That waved and invited them swaying in the breeze.
They could be chirping about day or night
With their words—three and thirty five!
it would not have been as satisfying as the villanelle format."
In what follows, Tito presents five poems: one free verse poem, three villanelles, and one sestina. Already a terrific writer before commencing these exercises, he shows real talent in understanding what strict forms can do—in understanding what kind of material seems most appropriate for their odd and insistent amplifications. He worked on these poems over the course of several months, revising and revising.
A Simple Cup
Nothing could make me
Its inside was white
and its outside
some patches of colors—
orange and yellow,
here and there
by some one who was perhaps
entertaining his vision
with orange and yellow creation.
It lived on the kitchen shelf
like a smile,
watching all the food preparation
from the kitchen shelf.
Who knows what the smile
No one fed it anything but tea.
Nothing could stop me
from staring at its smile,
its orange and yellow,
randomly patched smile.
It entered my heart
from the kitchen shelf
until it turned into
wanted to leave the kitchen!
Who knows what might have
happened to the cup
The cup, white on the inside,
patches of yellow and orange
on the outside,
turned into a memory.
It returned one dream
to begin this poem.
And ever since then,
at a moment called When,
I began my thoughts
of filling and emptying
that cup of memory—
in orange and yellow patches—
with my story.
Those birds, three and thirty-five,
Sat on electric cables
Beneath a cloudy sky,
Chirping day and night.
I tried to guess their words—
More than three and thirty-five!
They ignored me outright.
I stood looking up with everything else
That looked up beneath a cloudy sky.
Their little shapes and little size
Formed calligraphy on the wires—
A cursive "three and thirty-five"!
There was no rain yet—the earth was dry,
And the wind was gentle on the trees
As it blew beneath a cloudy sky.
The electric cables made checks and stripes.
The trees hung their branches
For the three and thirty-five,
Which sat on cables beneath a cloudy sky.
The Sunset Hour
The yolk of the sun was scrambled
By some clouds in the west.
The earth was turning purple.
Two birds sat on an electric cable,
Chatting perhaps about each other's nests,
As the light of the sun got scrambled.
The downtown seemed to tremble;
Its streets were now congested,
The pavement turning purple.
The earth looked like a confused bubble,
A floating pointlessness—
Its sun was getting scrambled.
The cars, too, seemed scrambled, their people
Rushing home—as restlessly
As the city veering into purple.
The street lamps lit up as usual,
Glowing through the darkness,
While the sun sank, all scrambled,
Into a tomb of velvet purple.
There was the earth, turning and turning.
The stars receded, as if
Finding no wrong with anything.
Birds flew by all morning—
The sky lit
From the earth's turning and turning.
My hands, as usual, were flapping.
The birds knew I was Autistic;
They found no wrong with anything.
Men and women stared at my nodding;
They labeled me a Misfit
(A Misfit turning and turning).
And then I was the wind, blowing.
Did anyone see my trick?
I found no wrong with anything.
Somewhere a wish was rising,
Perhaps from between my laughing lips.
Why stop turning and turning
When right can be found with everything?
Boys In a City Slum
They sat in a field of hunger.
They told their woes to the sky.
They lived in a slum of the city
That coughed its smog and dust.
Even the wild dogs knew them
From their hopeless shadows.
They lurked in the buildings' shadows
As if to shade their hunger.
They breathed in stony silence—the sky,
Which hung above the city,
Like a heaven made of dust,
Always seemed beyond them.
The boys were known as "them,"
"Them" who lurk in shadows.
How old they grew in hunger
Through sun and rain from the sky.
They lived and died in the city,
Their bones becoming dust.
Their tears were stained with dust.
The wild dogs barked at them,
Chasing their frightened shadows
Down alleys of painful hunger.
Who watched this chase from the sky?
Who watched over the city?
They scavenged food from the city,
Where dropped their tears on the dust.
Their name was always "them,"
For they mostly lived in shadows,
Consumed by aching hunger
Beneath a blameless sky.
Tears sometimes fell from the sky;
Food sometimes appeared in the city—
In begging bowls colored with dust,
Which they always carried with them.
The dogs kept chasing their shadows
As they barked aloud their hunger.
They ran through a city of hunger,
Through a life of shadows and dust,
No sky—or heaven—to protect them.