The Death of the Goddess
Knowing my interest in Indian literature, Professor Hogan has kindly sent me a copy of his long poem entitled The Death of the Goddess. (1) The author’s Preface explains why the poem was written – it’s had a long gestation – and an Introduction by Rachell Fell McDermont provides an apt summary of the story and its themes.
Let me first say something about the style. As can be seen below, the verse is clear, exact and made more compelling by its neutral tone. It doesn’t rise to commanding heights, or exult in memorable phrases, but doesn’t have to. Here is one of the more scatological sections (Shiva is speaking about a woman encountered on the battlefield, unnamed but possibly a Kali-like incarnation of Little Mother: canto 9):
She had stripped off the outer breast-plate
and leggings of her suit, and stood knee-deep
in muck, wearing only that long coat
of mail, so I could see, through bones
of chain, her breasts and vulva, and they too,
and all her other parts, were stained with gore.
There is nothing pleasant in this, and poem makes no capital out of it. Occasionally, where necessary to the narrative, the verse is quietly lyrical:
Before this, there was no flowing water
on the earth to parallel the ocean of the gods;
There were no seas to isolate and link
the different lands, no rivers to bear commerce (Canto 6)
Now to the themes. The great Indian religions are not, I think, over-concerned with evil. Given detachment, both good and evil are eventually seen to be illusions, and the goal of life is to wean ourselves from these painful attachments to the world (simplifying enormously). But that does not make earthly suffering unfelt, and in Professor Hogan’s text the sufferings are felt very grievously indeed. Before going further, it may help to very briefly summarize the twelve cantos.
1. The Beginning of Time
Appearance of Grandfather (the source of all, whose dreaming becomes the world), Grandmother (source of knowledge), of three hundred million gods and goddesses, all mortal life and, at the outer rim, the Unmoving Goddess united with the God of Dance (a ‘single encompassing perfected form’).
2. Origins of Grief
The churning of the sea (of milk) that produced many qualities but also increased appetites in the gods, and a poison (the Sandara Manthan theme). The gods beg the God of Tears (Shiva, but here appearing as a mere boy) to drink up the poison, which he does, though a little escapes to spread pain throughout the world.
3. Paradise Lost
Chaos follows: gods no longer care for their wives and though the Saviour (or Dear Son, here Vishnu: the gods assume multiple identities) takes on enticing womanly form, that form turns out to be ordinary after all. The gods are in despair.
4. An Act of Compassion
War engulfs the world. Gods, demons, monkey and snakes attack each other and destroy social norms. Only the Slave of Time (a demon) retains some compassion, and seeks out Grandfather and Grandmother. But for this ‘insubordination’ the demon is condemned to live for near eternity with men, though from his pain is born poetry.
5. Illusion Regained
Grandfather revisits the world and delivers the gods from pain, decreeing that, all the same, this perfect era will be followed by eras of ignorance, of brutal desires and of man, the most depraved of all. In the end the gods would be given their nectar again, though they may opt for pain instead, since the greatest misery is to know they cannot die.
6. The Birth of the Goddess
Now appears Little Mother, the goddess of the story, a savage creature, the destroyer of illusions but also here the bringer of spring and the natural world. The gods are drawn to this beautiful creature, but she will have none of them or the horrors they have created. She seeks out the God of Tears, which stupefies and silences the gods.
7. A Dialogue on Love and Duty
Little Mother (the goddess) tries, unsuccessfully, to seduce the God of Tears (Shiva). Then follows a dialogue on love and duty. Little Mother leaves the God of Tears to his own thoughts.
8. The Theophany of the Untouchable
The God of Tears acquires new friends, including the Slave of Time, who tell him of the miseries of the world, when he now regrets Little Mother’s departure.
9. Memories of Forgotten Wars
Little Mother and the Lord of Tears discuss the world with poets, philosophers, demons and others, and a terrible world it is, with harrowing descriptions of battlefields, enslavements and punitive exactions.
10. Cruelties of the Ruling Classes
Little Mother descends to the earth and suffers all the cruelties possible, repeatedly.
11. The Death of the Goddess
The gods, fearful that their cruelties will be visited on them in turn, beg Grandfather for his nectar, which is delivered by devils. The gods drink themselves senseless, try to rape Little Mother, and, shamed by her resistance, incinerate her instead.
12. The End of Time
The God’ of Tears weeps at her funeral pyre, and reverently dances with her remains. Grandfather castigates the gods for their treatment, is himself consumed by fire, and disappears into darkness. ‘Grandfather then dreamt.’
So a bald summary, one that omits the vivid parades of events, the dialogues and the evolving forms of the protagonists. As Professor McDermont remarks, it is topsy-turvy world where the gods do execrable things and the world fades out into nothingness (though she also sees a final peace and redemption, which I’m not so sure about.) The concluding lines, which will give readers a further idea of the verse – it’s five-beat stress verse generally – are:
No being or unbeing, truth or illusion,/
no thought / or withering of experience into memory /
no duty or sin, attachment or letting go /
no things the gods revile or protect /
not even the unsheltering void, immense , / unbodied
What is, was darkness concealed in darkness / only.
Then Grandfather slept. /
What to make of the poem? Clearly it’s a reworking of Indian myths and legends, but here compressed, heightened and rendered particularly harrowing, like some medieval depiction of judgement day lit by occasional flashes of hell fire. Is it convincing? To someone conversant with Indian literature, most certainly so, although the images are twisted into repellent shapes. As he notes in his Preface, what particularly engages Professor Hogan are the ways in which the stories and ideas speak to his own experiences, feelings, quandaries and conflicts, particularly those traditions that fill in something that was missing. Not being exclusive or dogmatic, Indic material can be the most liberating. Myths indeed present us with models that we can use as structures for comparison, and The Death of the Goddess brings in allusions to American slavery, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, the Soviet show trails, and contemporary slavery -all matters that darken Professor Hogan’s view of the world, as surely they should any thoughtful person’s. It was a view I also had to face in my own long poem Still Abiding Fire 2, (2) which I developed as contemporary vignettes. How does one cope with such terrors? By renouncing this world of errors?
All worlds regress
continually to vain and empty things
although we hold them through to less and less.
My own, barely clung to, position was simply to say that, despite everything, the world is still one of marvels, deserving our praise:
Some were slow-garrotted, strung up nude,
or tortured, electrocuted, driven mad,
or perished miserably, denied their food.
How many of them, in uncounted thousands clad
in God’s ebullient but passing days,
were touched with sentient goodness, glad
to be alive, to think, inhale and gaze
on this, His bounty of the breathing earth
whose least conception of assumes our praise
No one contemplates these horrors willingly, and for two years after completing the poem I was unable to write anything of consequence. Professor Hogan’s poem has apparently taken a couple of decades to write. But should poets contemplate such things at all? I think it’s our duty to do so, to bear witness, but not to dwell on them for too long. Writers have to make their own accommodations, of course, but the mythic narrative of The Death of the Goddess is one admirable way of doing so.
1. The Death of the Goddess by Patrick Colm Hogan. 2LeafPress, 2014
2. Still Abiding Fire 2 by Colin John Holcombe. Free ebook on Ocaso Press. http://ocasopress.com/still_abiding_fire2.html