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I was spellbound. Kabir instantly became and has remained my favorite poet. His lines stirred my heart and often broke it: “Kabir says: Listen, my friend, / there is one thing in the world that satisfies, / and that is a meeting with the Guest.” “The Guest who makes my eyes so bright / has made love to me.” “Student, tell me, what is God? / He is the breath inside the breath.”

But Kabir is not only a devotional poet, the aspect captured so surely by Bly. He is also a reformer and critic, and in Mehrotra’s new translations, it is the rebel who steps forward. Perhaps like Homer and Dante, Kabir must be remade for each age, and so he speaks in Mehrotra’s translations with a new and markedly postmodern voice. The preface by Wendy Donager sees Kabir as a kind of deconstructionist, toppling hierarchies of religion, caste, gender, and ultimately the idea of a God with form. She emphasizes what is called Kabir’s “upside-down imagery,” as in, “A mother delivered / after her son was,” and notes that Mehrotra’s “slang, neologisms, and anachronisms … are a brilliant means of conveying much of the shock effect that upside-down language would have had upon Kabir’s fifteenth century audiences.”

Mehrotra’s Kabir certainly shocks. He lectures, warns, and chastises: “My home, says Kabir, / Is where there’s no day, no night, / And no holy book in sight / To squat on our lives.” Reading these “disruptive, oppositional” poems, says Mehrotra, is like receiving a “well-directed blow to the head.” Many feature violent, if humorous, imagery, which may be Kabir’s or may be Mehrotra’s, given the improvisatory tradition. “Even death’s bludgeon / About to crush your head / won’t wake you up.” Poems warn of the approach of death and the vanity of human desires. “Bedridden with a stroke, / You make a rattling sound / And wish to make amends. / You’ll leave this world, says Kabir, / Picked clean.” And like singers through the centuries, Mehrotra wittily improvises and modernizes the language: “‘Me shogun.’ / ‘Me bigwig.’ / ‘Me the chief ’s son. / I make the rules here.’ / It’s a load of crap. / Laughing, skipping, / Tumbling, they’re all / Headed for Deathville.”

Happily, within this volley of shocks, we find some beautiful images: “Put the bit in its mouth, / The saddle on its back, / Your foot in the stirrup / And ride your wild runaway mind / All the way to heaven.”

Yet, with all the flair and energy of this new collection, I feel something is missing. We are warned of the dangers of walking the wrong path but less strongly feel the joy of the right one. Yes, Kabir sought to shake us out of complacency and dogmatism. Yes, he satirized notions of caste, gender, and sect. But how many times need we be reminded of the noose of death hanging over us? I read and wonder, where is Kabir, the lover? Perhaps the voice of selfless love and devotion feels out of place in a postmodern sensibility.

Robert Bly’s Kabir too is radical, funny, and iconoclastic, and this side of him provides much of the delight. But he’s not only an iconoclast. The greater part of him is a lover and a friend. Love is everywhere on his lips. He pines, dreams, cries out for love, thrills, leaps at the Beloved’s touch. “The Guest, who makes my eyes so bright / has made love to me!” “Kabir saw that for fifteen seconds, and it made him a servant for life.”

Mehrotra explains that he is working from a different Kabir manuscript than the one Tagore used for the translations Bly relied upon, and that this accounts for much of the difference. John Stratton Hawley, in an afterword to the most recent reissue of Bly’s Kabir: Ecstatic Poems (2004), explains how the Kabir legacy branched into two different traditions in eastern and western India: “The western Kabir is far more intimately, devotionally (bhakti) oriented than its eastern counterpart…” In the eastern we find “the salty, confrontational Kabir…. He goads, he berates, he challenges.” Perhaps, then, Bly’s Kabir is simply more western, and Mehrotra’s more eastern.

As traditions within Indian spirituality allow us to choose an image of the Divine that most appeals to us, so it seems we get to choose the Kabir we like best, too. For more than thirty years I have returned again and again to Robert Bly’s Kabir, for he is wildly, hopelessly, ecstatically in love. He topples icons, but that’s mostly because of the dancing. And perhaps Kabir, the enemy of dogmas and certainties, would enjoy nothing better than to see our trouble in pinning him down and figuring him out.

How to choose? Read both versions and see which gives you wings. Then ride that one all the way to heaven.


Michael Sowder’s The Empty Boat, which won the 2004 T.S. Eliot Prize, features Buddhist- and Daoist-inspired poems. His forthcoming collection, House Under the Moon, combines poems of fatherhood with poems inspired by the bhakti tradition of Mirabai and Kabir.


From the November 2011 issue of the Shambhala Sun. Click here to browse the entire issue online.






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