A.K. Ramanujan was a poet, translator, folklorist and philologist from Mysore, India. He wrote in both English and Kannada, his poetry known for its themes of modernist transnationalism, hybridity and transculturation. His writings contributed to a wide range of disciplines including linguistics and cultural studies. He earned his PhD from Indiana University and taught at the University of Chicago, where he developed the South Asian studies program.
Here’s one of his poems titled “Snakes”, which appeared in the July 1961 edition of Poetry magazine – a monthly devoted to verse in the English language.
“No, it does not happen
when I walk through the woods.
But, walking in museums of quartz
or the aisles of bookstacks,
looking a their geometry
and the layers of transparency
that make them opaque,
dwelling on the yellower vein
in the yellow amber
or touching a book that has gold
on its spine,
I think of snakes.
The twirls of their hisses
rise like the tiny dust-cones on slow-noon roads
winding through the farmers’ feet.
Black lorgnettes are etched on their hoods,
ridiculous, alien, like some terrible aunt,
a crest among tiles and scales
that moult with the darkening half of every moon.
A basketful of ritual cobras
comes into the tame little house,
their brown-wheat glisten winged with ripples.
They lick the room with their bodies, curves
uncurling, writing a sibilant alphabet of panic
on my floor. Mother gives them milk
in saucers. She watches them suck
and bare the black-line design
etched on the brass of the saucer.
The snakeman wreathes their writhing
round his neck
for father’s smiling
money. But I scream.
Sister ties her braids
with a knot of tassel.
But the weave of her knee-long braid has scales,
their gleaming held by a score of clean new pins.
I look till I see her hair again.
My night full of ghosts from a sadness
in a play, my left foot listens to my right footfall,
a clockwork clicking in the silence
within my walking.
The clickshod heel suddenly strikes
and slushes on a snake: I see him turn,
the green white of his belly
measured by bluish nodes, a water-bleached lotus-stalk
plucked by a landsman hand. Yet panic rushes
my body to my feet, my spasms wring
and drain his fear and mine. I leave him sealed,
a flat-head whiteness on a stain.
frogs can hop upon this sausage rope,
flies in the sun will mob the look in his eyes,
and I can walk through the woods.”