Poet's Pick April 26
Toru Dutt: "Our Casuarina Tree"
Selected by Shamala Gallagher
National Poetry Month 2018

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Shamala Gallagher's Poetry Month Pick, April 26, 2018

"Our Casuarina Tree"
by Toru Dutt (1856-1877)

Like a huge Python, winding round and round
    The rugged trunk, indented deep with scars
    Up to its very summit near the stars,
A creeper climbs, in whose embraces bound
    No other tree could live. But gallantly
The giant wears the scarf, and flowers are hung
In crimson clusters all the boughs among,
    Whereon all day are gathered bird and bee;
And oft at nights the garden overflows
With one sweet song that seems to have no close
Sung darkling from our tree, while men repose.

When first my casement is wide open thrown
    At dawn, my eyes delighted on it rest,
    Sometimes, and most in winter,—on its crest
A grey baboon sits statue-like alone
    Watching the sunrise; while on lower boughs
His puny offspring leap about and play;
And far and near kokilas hail the day;
    And to their pastures wend our sleepy cows;
And in that shadow, on the broad tank cast
By that hoar-tree, so beautiful and vast,
The water-lilies spring, like snow enmassed.

But not because of its magnificence
    Dear is the Casuarina to my soul;
    Beneath it we have played; though years may roll,
O sweet companions, loved with love intense,
    For your sakes, shall the tree be ever dear!
Blent with your images, it shall arise,
In memory, till the hot tears blind mine eyes!
    What is that dirge-like murmur that I hear
Like the sea breaking on a shingle-beach?
It is the tree’s lament, an eerie speech,
That haply to the unknown land may reach.

Unknown, yet well-known to the eye of faith!
    Ah, I have heard that wail far, far away
    In distant lands, by many a sheltered bay,
When slumbered in his cave the water-wraith,
    And the waves gently kissed the classic shore
Of France or Italy, beneath the moon,
When earth lay tranced in a dreamless swoon;
    And every time the music rose, before
Mine inner vision rose a form sublime,
Thy form, O Tree, as in my happy prime
I saw thee, in my own loved native clime.

Therefore I fain would consecrate a lay
    Unto thy honour, Tree, beloved of those
    Who now in blessed sleep, for aye, repose,
Dearer than life to me, alas! were they!
    Mayst thou be numbered when my days are done
With deathless trees—like those in Borrowdale,
Under whose awful branches lingered pale
   ‘Fear, trembling Hope, and Death, the skeleton,
And Time the shadow;” and though weak the verse
That would thy beauty fain, oh, fain rehearse,
May Love defend thee from Oblivion’s curse.


* Shamala Gallagher Comments:
Toru Dutt was the first South Asian woman to publish poetry in English. It’s hard to know for sure if this is true. The archive is ruthless towards women, especially brown women. But she is the first we know. She was born in 1856 to a literary Bengali family and died of tuberculosis in 1877; she spent much of her lifetime traveling abroad in England and France, and she wrote a short novel in each language, as well as a book of poems translated from French to English. “Our Casuarina Tree” appears in her posthumously published collection of poems, Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan (1882).

Here, Dutt writes in heightened English literary idiom about her longing for the trees and animals in her childhood home near Calcutta. I love the snakelike vine in the first five lines of the poem, which “winding round and round / the rugged trunk, indented deep with scars” takes us to the glittering sky. The vine wants to murder the tree, but the scarred tree stands; locked in this intimate violence, the flora achieves its nighttime heights. And we are in India, watching this scene, but the speaker is not. Still, she can hear the tree of her childhood, whose “eerie speech” echoes Arnold’s most famous poem. But the faith is stronger in Dutt’s poem, because (I like to believe this is why) more is at stake. Before she herself died, Dutt lived through the deaths of her brother Abju and sister Aru, and their presences linger in this poem among the baboons, kokilas, and water lilies.

About Shamala Gallagher:
Shamala Gallagher is a poet and essayist whose recent work has appeared in Poetry, Poetry Northwest, Black Warrior Review, The Missouri Review, The Offing, West Branch, Copper Nickel, The Rumpus, and the anthology Bettering American Poetry Vol. 2. She is a Kundiman fellow, a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers, and a PhD candidate at the University of Georgia.

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