Kabir: Ecstatic Poems, tr by Robert Bly (but mostly Bly)

Front cover of book. Indian painting of Kabir at a loom teaching a disciple.
Kabir: Ecstatic Poems, Translated by Robert Bly

Poetry is a bit difficult to review because it comes down to issues of personal preference and taste. To provide some background Kabir was a 16th century Indian poet in a primarily oral tradition, he’s claimed as a saint by multiple religions, including Sikhism, Islam, and Vaishnavism (worship of Vishnu and his incarnations) for poetry written in the vernacular addressing devotion.

Bly’s collection is a translation of a translation. As the additional afterward explains, Kabir was primarily an oral poet who was compiled posthumously in (at least) three different traditions. Bly modernizes a translation by Tagore, which was published in the early 20th century. Although most of the poems end with a “Kabir says” couplet, Bly doesn’t fully address how much is actually Kabir.

Historical issues aside, I thought the poems offer more ambiguity than ecstasy. I suspect the religious sides of the metaphors were translated into euphemisms. Bly’s Kabir imagines himself as a bride of something, but Ram or Krishna are usually written out of the metaphor.

The connections felt strained and lacking in immediacy. Ginsburg excessively dives headfirst into ecstasy, but Howl offers prophetic urgency:

I’m with you in Rockland where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof they’ve come to drop angelic bombs the hospital illuminates itself imaginary walls collapse O skinny legions run outside O starry spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here O victory forget your underwear we’re free

Or translated Rumi:

I am so happy, I cannot be contained in the world;
But like a spirit, I am hidden from the eyes of the world.
If the foot of the trees were not tied to earth, they would be pursuing me;
For I have blossomed so much, I am the envy of the gardens.

Kabir via Bly strikes me as almost but not quite on the same level. But unfortunately Bly and Tagore seem to be the most popular English sources of translation. Many of my objections would be relieved a bit if this volume was labeled as “poems inspired by Kabir” instead of the “poems of Kabir.” Then, I can just say that Bly doesn’t work for me and leave it at that. But I have reservations that Bly’s translation does justice to ecstatic Bhakti religion, the poetry it inspired, or poems probably written by Kabir.

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