Our Poetry editor, Usha Akella, recalls her time studying for an MSt. in Creative Writing at Cambridge and considers how the flora and fauna of the city inspired her writing and helped her navigate and connect with a new place.
The avenue of lime trees on the backs left an indelible impression on me in Cambridge, where college after college rises impossibly high; of these roaring edifices of stone, St John’s dominates them all. King’s College is the monster looming on King’s Parade, emblematic of Cambridge, but here on the backs, it is St John’s. Yogesh Patel’s event of South Asian poets reading at the House of Lords yanked me and my family across the Atlantic to London in June 2016. We stretched the visit on to Cambridge, as I was enrolled for the MSt in Creative Writing beginning later in the year. We strolled about town with no map, stumbled upon the artisan’s market, gawked at the mighty spires of King’s College, ambled about in cobbled alleyways and enjoyed a vintage tea service at Harriet’s. Rose Tisane was to forever earmark the flavor I associate with Cambridge, erroneously perhaps, but nevertheless, delightful. The faint aroma of rose scented with a hint of unexpected chocolate made for a delirious combination. Cambridge was to offer more such unlikely couplings in my peregrinations. Seated at Pret a Manger, once with a warm chai latte cup in my palms, my ears prickled like a dog’s nose to a familiar scent. It took me a few seconds to recognize the hypnotic violin-riff ‘Yeh ishq hai’ in Jab we met because it was so unexpected. I grabbed my phone to record it.I’ve still saved that odd memoir on my iPhone.
But back to the Limes. They rise like a hymn beyond the wrought iron gates of Trinity College on Queen’s Road. For me, not the mighty stone; for inexpressible reasons, it was the lime trees beyond that wrought iron gate, I was fixated on; that sublime walk under a row of green fountains sprouting their finery into a deep blue sky. I was ignorant of the name of those trees and enquired from a passing gardener. ‘Lime Trees,’ he said, nodding and walked off, leaving me a bit puzzled. For me, lime trees were the ones in South Indian homes, a dark-green bushier foliage, not this linear feathery green sigh flung to the heavens. I mused Coleridge’s opening lament of confinement in ‘The Lime-tree bower my prison’: ‘Well, they are gone, and here must I remain, / This lime-tree bower my prison!’ could not possibly allude to the transcendental certitude I was witnessing. One’s eye moved straight up as it would in a gothic church. These trees spoke of possible freedom from the earth in a cerulean heaven beyond; perhaps he too spoke of the other lime tree, the one of my childhood, laden with a dark covering, closer to the ground, green orbs ripening on its boughs.
Trinity College brings other literary associations to mind. Ramanujam, the celebrated autodidact mathematician collaborated here with Harvey, his young life cut short tragically – a daunting role essayed earnestly by Dev Patel in The Man Who Knew Infinity. Dev forever immortalized the taboo of stepping on the grass of the Great Court, in the scene of a hopping Ramanujam to Harvey’s cautionary forbidding. In 1805, the notorious poet Byron kept a bear in lieu of a dog to mock stringent college rules. For writers like me, each of the colleges is a page associated with names from Literature syllabi in India. I looked eagerly for St John’s as Wordsworth studied there. The Romantic poets have been prescribed reading from school to college. We were untroubled by post-modern readings in school, we did not question the validity of daffodils to the Indian experience. We innocently traveled with Wordsworth’s gleaming eye imagining the dancing yellow flowers in a field of green. I viewed Christ’s College in awe recalling Milton’s charismatic Satan, a portrayal unwittingly seeping through with more compassion than he perhaps intended.
Like the lime trees, the weeping willows were poised with an invitation into a specific narrative gifted from Nature.
It is also here the triple-arched Trinity bridge casts as a reflection three perfect ovals into the River Cam; these shadowy portals in the water disturbed only by gliding ducks and punts. Cambridge’s architectural grandeur is punctuated by its simpler but profound outdoor surprises. Between Trinity and St John’s, a cluster of weeping willows made me pause more than once marveling how trees can signify character, have personalities, cast shadow of emotions on the heart. The willows are elegiac, they tugged within recalling an unnamed poignancy of grief for lost things in life. Like the lime trees, the weeping willows were poised with an invitation into a specific narrative gifted from Nature.
When I began my coursework in October, there was a gamut of emotions: from a jolt of anxiety to utter excitement. In 2017, I was going to turn fifty, and wanted to go back to college to earmark the threshold. Cambridge and Oxford had floated low-residency MSts in Creative Writing. I was admitted after the final screening – a phone interview, the acceptance email waking me up at 4 am in the morning. The excitement lasted no more than thirty-two seconds. To begin with, I had applied unwillingly, certain of not being admitted. I began to be assailed by other thoughts in the next couple of weeks. I thought of incoming young things dewy faced with fresher neural networks. I fretted I had been admitted by mistake and I would actually have to prove my worth if I enrolled. I offered every excuse, mostly my litany of health challenges: diabetes, vertigo, about-to-be-arthritic fingers, fibromyalgia, allergies and asthma. I’d forgotten how to read with sustained attention. I could not get through a book without it being punctuated by thoughts of chores and grocery lists: lactaid free milk from Heb, Anand masala peanuts, ras malai and bhindi from Gandhi Bazar, Chinese dumplings and gnocchi from Trader Joes, and such. I was a dinosaur practically moving toward extinction. My teenage daughter, tired of my whining reluctance, shut me up one day with a peremptory ‘You are doing it and that’s that.’ I booked my ticket, bought my Henschel backpack on UT Austin’s drag, packed as little as I could in my carry-on. I ordered a hew of books on the reading list feeling supremely illiterate. I began to dig into the seventy-five books: it was herculean, Sisyphusean, impossiblean.
My arrival for my academic sojourn was not sublime though it had been air-bound. I landed in Heathrow and dashed to the bathroom, my stomach completely unsettled by an insalubrious landing. Determined to live modestly as a student, I had taken the cheapest flight I could find, meandering across a few countries and arriving exhausted in London, with the last chunk of my journey still looming. I made the remainder on the ‘coach’ the English’s English for the word ‘bus’. It took four hours of further nausea, the sun digging in my eyes, sleep slaying me without mercy. At some point, the bus driver was polite enough to stop and let me get off for more barfing. After four hours of torture, I was deposited in the city center. I begged a passerby for his cell to call for a taxi, noted Panther Taxis in my notebook, and hurtled on to Madingley Hall where I would study for the next two years.
Outside the window, in a slit of blue, I saw two black birds fly, and the first poem in the collection was released in me.
Through wrought iron gates, past the porter’s lodge and St. Magdalene church, the first sight of the 16th century manor is startling. Imposing, it sits on eight-acres of cultivated gardens. Many of Cambridge’s ICE courses and the low-residency MSts are hosted here. I didn’t know it then, but it would become a name touched with nostalgia and gratitude. Later on, I also began to feel like a consummate traveler, knowing the train from Kings Cross halved the travel time door to door. My first session at Cambridge got earmarked for another unexpected event. I began to write my book The Waiting (published last year by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, India) upon waking, after I fell on the bed exhausted on that first arrival in Madingley Hall. Outside the window, in a slit of blue, I saw two black birds fly, and the first poem in the collection was released in me; the rest of the poems written in the next few weeks were printed almost as they first came, loose and light, scattered and unhinged on the page with the dizziness of flight – or jetlag.
The first few mornings in module, I began with Jem Poster’s daunting poetry class and he went on to be my guide in the second year for my Poetry dissertation. It was a privilege to learn from his vast scholarship, sharp critical eye and kindly guidance.
I am now seated in my study in Austin, in Wordsworthian-mode recollecting emotions in tranquility. I see the weeping willow, I see the limes, and want to say dear Madingley like one of those heroines from one of those English novels I can’t remember (I have also never solved the contradictory poetics in the Lyrical Ballads; the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings is NOT emotions recollected in tranquility. Did Wordsworth mean the spontaneous overflow of recollected feelings in tranquility? Or did he mean them as two wholly opposite means of creating – spill it all out, a victim to a merciless muse – and if they were spontaneous, what did you write with and on, in case you were in an unwriterly environment? Muses can be insensitive and rude as we know, not quite allowing for the most ideal moment. Mostly, you are in your pajamas red-eyed and sleep-deprived. And the second poetics means, seat yourself in an English garden in a rosy lace gown, sipping Rose Tisane, your rosy cheeks blooming with the blooming magnolias, notebook on lap recollecting the wonders of Cumbria. And what would you do if your memory was as flimsy as the frilly lace on your hem, as mine is? What do you recollect? What if Nature did not move you? What if you did not know the names of flowers, fruits and trees because you have migrated from another country, its summer so hot it could evaporate you, notebook and all? And its chai possessed not delicate scent, but was liquid biryani in a cup. What if you were not feeling so tranquil because you share the house with a teenage daughter whose metabolism of hormones is deliberately calibrated to mismatch your menopausal ones as a joke from the universe…but…I am digressing.)
Back to the limes.
I mean Black walnut.
I came to, in my room after being obliterated by exhaustion and sleep. After recording the black birds, I realized I did not know the names of those birds. The next morning after breakfast I walked in the grounds. I did not know the names of the trees, and a loneliness rose in me. Not knowing names leave us as outsiders. A tree flickered in a golden hue past the topiaries. When I talked to an amiable gardener who told me the names of trees patiently, we looked at the tree bathed in light and he told me its name. I won’t forget it: Black walnut. I wrote the names in my notebook: Hazel coppice, Thuja, Lebanon cedar, Mistletoe, a sense of literacy and belonging slowly coursing with the knowledge of names. I carved my steps of belonging in Cambridge with the names of those trees in Madingley. I learnt the word ‘topiary’ to describe the sculpted yews. I entered the arched hazel walkway when it was bereft of leaves in the Winter, and when it was a resplendent green on my last visit. Lucy Cavendish, my college in Cambridge, boasts its own modest and beautiful grounds. The defining moment for me – that moment when we stake the external in our memory – was its herb garden on April 18, 2018. Cinquefoil, Columbine, Corncockle…the names filled my mouth with an alliterative ecstasy.
The first poem I wrote for class the next day was a Ghazal with some poetic license; it was about Madingley, it was about the meeting of cultures, it was about the new and old – a repeating motif in life. I derived a vague satisfaction at rendering my experience of Cambridge with an Eastern poetic form – like serving scones on banana leaves. The trees flared in the poem:
Plop! The road is corked open at the threshold to Madingley,
Goblets of graves raise a manifold toast to the entering at Madingley.
Clouds punting in parks of somber green, somnolent season,
Node, lode, burnished lobe, open the pores of Madingley.
Coral tongues of brick incant green chants in the cold embrace of air,
Aren’t we sold to the ancient currency of leaves in Madingley.
In the ashen cerulean black birds boldly arch their script,
Corridors slough their skin inside the old mind of Madingley.
Weeping willows graciously bow to the black gown of night,
Larvae of accents transit in the moldy air of Madingley.
Coppiced hazel, purple leaf plum, liquid amber, thuya retell stories,
The black walnut is flickers of gold in the setting sun of Madingley.
Inside the harlequin passport of windows, newly stamped visas of faces,
Nascent poets dare cross the old quadrant maddeningly in Madingley.
With the power of names, we claim, we belong, we tie ourselves to the external world. The possession of the mesh of names and forms by naming has anciently been perceived to empower man in the Western world. Naming was the first act Adam executed. I mused Eve’s destiny may have been different if she too had joined him in the act. God was sly when he exempted her from this first act of empowerment. Reversely, in the Vedantic world-view we are perceived as imprisoned by the name-form matrix; it is a bewildering projection of multiplicity shielding the underlying one reality. Our ultimate destiny is to penetrate the rendering of one into many. With the act of naming, we think we are sovereigns, says one world-view; the other says to be free of it, is to gain true sovereignty. Gain a kingdom and then lose it willingly.
When I visited Madingley Hall for the last time in May 2019, upon graduating at Lucy Cavendish, the moment was marked by the irises in the garden. Of a bruised purple, haunting and velvety, they spoke to me of the nostalgia I felt. When I traveled on to Cumbria with my friend Samidha, miles of mustard yellow lit up our drives in the country, between cities. Ever etched in my mind will be the first sight of Rydal Mount’s gardens. I stood agape, stunned by the tiered garden emblazoned with azaleas and pink rhododendrons against the burnished Japanese walnut. Far down, the lake was a line of undulating blue. Dora’s Field was bereft of daffodils at this time of year. Her father, Wordsworth, had chosen flowers to enshrine her memory. In Ullswater, we traced the inferred line of daffodils that Wordsworth historically sighted, now replaced by tiny bluebells. Sonorous clouds, miles of emerald vales, shaded woods, waterfalls and lakes! How could Wordsworth not have created the paeans to nature that he did, nurtured daily by the landscape.
Know your national anthem, you are a patriot I suppose; know your foliage, shrub and trees, you are a citizen, I say.
A love for flowers seeped into my being gradually over my visits to the UK, perhaps the greatest gift from my academic years there. Flowers enter my writing now sometimes as object correlatives, sometimes as metaphors or symbols or as a Chekovian technique – he used ostranenie a literary device that takes a familiar object and elevates it to a different plane of reality causing the reader to see it in a fresh light. The familiar becomes strange, resonating with a suggestive meaning and contributing to the mood of the narrative. I returned to Austin, eager to know the name of every flower in my neighborhood. When I walk the curvature between Cliffview and Cliffsage, my eye alights on flowers and I say: basket flower, Coreopsis, Mountain laurel, Albizia…I thumb pages of the Texas wild flower-guide books now. (I had eagerly acquired a few spotter guides on the Cumbria visit when my interest in flora began to bloom). I now know Yucca and red Yucca are different, one cactus marked by a yawning presence and the other shooting red-hued, sprightly flowers in arched coquetry. Mountain laurel sprouts minuscule lavender flowers and the bluebonnets stand upright like mikes in the wind. I feel again and again a triumph in naming the flora, grasses and evergreens.
Know your national anthem, you are a patriot I suppose; know your foliage, shrub and trees, you are a citizen, I say. When the vermillion Gul Mohar flames in Hyderabad torching the streets, you know the air is soaked with moisture, the monsoon is at hand. Trees and flowers seep into the consciousness and cultural sensibility – in the 90s, a school textbook series published by Orient Longman, in Hyderabad, was named ‘Gul Mohar.’ Wordsworth’s daffodils may have been foreign, but not the sentiment; replace them if you must with the golden marigold or flames of the Gul Mohar; transact the idea with your own particularities, and you will know poets speak the same language in different dialects.
Here, by my window on Yucca drive in Austin, it is green outside. I see American flags in soldierly lines by mail boxes on the slate tarmac opposite, a befuddling patriotic flourish I’ve never been crazy about. Other summer emblems like the dragonflies and wasps are dizzy above the grass in my front yard and the oak here will always be an ancient alligator climbing to the sky for me. My co-traveler and friend Samidha had remarked on our journey in the UK, that nature is the same everywhere; the grandeur of the Lake District brought back Himachal Pradesh to her mind. I don’t know if this green here in Austin is the same as in the Lake district, it just might be, or might not, and when Austin rolls out its sunsets, Nature is handing out an equal fare. I suddenly think about our hysterical outbursts cursing the innumerable roundabouts between Oxford and Cambridge. We had thought we would spend a lifetime in a dizzy dance never reaching home. But we did reach Cambridge, deposited the car at enterprise, after I took a picture of my triumphant friend beaming by the it. She had aced close to seven hundred miles with me as her fairly useless navigator. She was the undisputed driver due to the road and car orientation akin to India where she lives. We were dropped off at Cambridge station and on the train a half-naked man rolling joints sat opposite Samidha. I furtively photographed her with her unlikely companion, evilly enjoying her discomfort, and we laughed and laughed. When we alighted at Kings Cross, I looked up at its stunning ceiling of gigantic white mesh, photographed the 9 ¾ tourist spot and wondered if I could find an almond croissant – another gustatory enticement in UK’s coffeeshop chains.
The summer days are long and muggy, the heat is unrelenting here in Austin, with showers lambasting us on some days; Indian blanket, coreopsis and sunflowers dot the highway more than blue bonnets this year, it appears. My study years at Cambridge were not without questions: for instance, why did the syllabi exclude non-white writers except for a cursory Maya Angelou while aiming to attract a global studentship? Overall, a warm hospitality abounded at university and during my travels. The English are kind, friendly – damn good cooks says my friend Samidha, buying cookbooks to prove her admiration. Why, we asked a hundred times, did these garden-loving, disarming-accented natives, bred on scones, shepherd’s pie and dainty cucumber sandwiches set off to conquer the world? We came up with ridiculous answers to pass time that are better not printed here. But Samidha is not so militant about getting the Kohinoor back now; she’s more forgiving. She’s tried baking scones in her Hyderabad heat with kismis (not currants) while recently, to celebrate my graduation, my daughter baked scones and made strawberry jam, served with rose tisane, post a south Indian meal of rasam and beans curry. We have found a recipe for clotted cream that we will try next time. My life will forever be a rasam-rose tisane kind of existence, I suppose, juxtapositions in harmony – and sometimes, not. I did not know which direction this essay would go when I began. I meandered with the trees, flowers, the flora and fauna of different lands, and returned home.
About our Poetry Editor & Writer, Usha Akella
Usha Akella is the Poetry editor of the Lucy Writers’ Platform. She earned an MSt. in Creative Writing from Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge, in 2018. She has authored four books of poetry, one chapbook and scripted/ produced one musical drama. Her most recent poetry collection is due for publication from Sahitya Akademi, India’s highest literary authority. Usha’s work has been included in the Harper Collins Anthology of Indian English Poets; she was selected as a Cultural Ambassador for the City of Austin in 2015, and has read with a group of eminent South Asian Diaspora poets at the House of Lords in 2016. Usha’s work is published widely and she is often invited to international poetry festivals in Trois Riviere, Slovakia, Nicaragua, Macedonia, Colombia, Slovenia, India etc. She is the founder of ‘Matwaala’, the first South Asian Diaspora Poets Festival in the US. She has won literary prizes and enjoys writing quixotic prose articles and interviewing poets and artists. She is the founder of the Poetry Caravan in New York and Austin which has offered several hundreds of poetry readings to those in women’s shelters, senior homes and hospitals. In response the City of Austin proclaimed January 7th as Poetry Caravan Day. To contact Usha and find out about the Matwaala Festival, contact her via this address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Read more about Matwaala here and here. See Matwaala’s wall of poetry (24 poems by 24 South Asian Diaspora poets) created in collaboration with ThinkIndia Foundation for the Smithsonian’s Beyond Bollywood project here.
‘This is Lime…’ was written for the series Flora & Fauna of Foreign Places, which was conceived and edited by Usha Akella for Lucy Writers.
Flora and fauna define our cultural sensibility; what trees and flowers we grew up with signifies ‘home.’ Transplant an individual to a foreign environment with strange trees and flowers, he or she is likely to feel ‘foreign’. Flowers are culturally specific in symbolism expressed in social events like weddings and funerals.
As a recent graduate of a Creative Writing MSt living in America, Usha noticed that in addition to the gift of knowledge and friendships, her journeys to the UK sparked an interest in flora. For the first time, she noticed a passion to want to know the names of flowers and trees. Somewhere along the way between the limes of Trinity College and the walnut maple of Madingley Hall; between the splendid gardens of Rydal Mount and rolling vales of Cumbria, she had been infected with a green-eye. When she walks in her Austin neighbourhood, she is now incited to know the names of the wildflowers and trees that she took for granted visually. And she notices, how this new world seeps into her writing gradually.
Right now, the bloom of summer is upon most countries. So, it seems perfect to celebrate flowers as a theme for the poetry issue. In the next few weeks, Usha will be publishing poems by writers from around the world that explore, reflect on and appreciate the flora and fauna of foreign places, and what they mean to them.