Sweet on My Lips: Love Poems of Mirabai
Sweet on My Lips: Love Poems of Mirabai
Louise Landes Levi
Cool Grove Pub Inc
Sweet on My Lips: the Love Poems of Mirabai, by Louise Landes-Levi, is as much a process as it is a book, asking us to peel back layers until we arrive at the center. In this case, the center is 25 of Mirabai’s love poems translated from the Braja bhasa dialect, the literary language of Medieval North India. Represented in this intricate assemblage is the 30-year commitment Landes-Levi has given to Mirabai’s work. It is an evolution that took her to India as a young woman, led her intuitively in the steps of Mirabai to a study of Sanskrit and a fuller understanding of the bhakti tradition in which Mirabai writes.
So, this book, like a single Mira bhajan, has a power and form all its own. But it also has a delicacy in the reader’s hands. “Some lose him/ sleeping,/ I lost him/ awake.” It needs to be approached carefully so that none of its aspects are lost in our haste or possible misunderstanding. Radiating from the center of the book, where the poems act as its heart, is a series of prefaces, introductions, and appendixes not following a linear progression.
The first set, like two parentheses around the body of poems, are two essays, both from 1977: one immediately precedes the poems, the other immediately follows. They are the most ambitious in literary and historical breadth. The second round of commentary is dated 1987, a set of essays surrounding the first like additional parentheses. In these essays, “a return to a bygone period,” there is a distancing from the initial work, but Landes-Levi is still “hoping to obtain in myself the fruit which her [Mirabai’s] poetry conceals.” She often refers to her Tibetan teacher, Namkhai Norbu, from whom she receives many insights, and she asks her readers to “excuse any errors of transcription or translation and profit, as I have, from the passionate love of Mira.”
“Preface,” 1995, opens the book, and “Appendix II,” 1992-4, followed by an undated “Appendix III, The Music of Mirabai,” and a glossary of terms, ends the book. By arranging the essays in this manner, Landes-Levi avoids the circumference, leading us straight through the center: “In the instance of texts which deal with transmission and lineage, the act of translation is a direct path into these essences and the energies they convey. ” As the reader, you must dissect. In some cases your questions won’t be answered. Each ring represents a decade of thought. As Landes-Levi says in the last paragraph of her final commentary, “If I now offer the Mira work, it is a simple gesture, a mudra of experience.”
Landes-Levi wants us to know “the precise music of the Braja poem.” She has shown us their shape (three poems are included in their untransliterated form), their sound, through a transliterated poem and a discussion of the rasa, or mode for the poems, which is “sringara,” that of erotic expression and spiritual intoxication. She has spoken extensively about the bhakti tradition, which takes Krishna as its supreme deity, and the love play in which Mirabai assumes the role of Krishna’s lover. “O Girdhara, I serve/ your/ Lotus-feet.” Isn’t this more than most translators would do for their readers?
She also expects more from us. The extensive notes that accompany the translated poems prove this. Landes-Levi prefers to leave certain place names, objects and epithets in their original. The choice magnifies that aspect of Mirabai’s poems which makes them seem both close and strange at once. Readers can either refer to the footnotes or simply bathe in the sound of the original. Either way, you manage to hear the voice of Mirabai as she sung in the Northern India of the 16th Century; you hear the voices of her teachers before her, and all of the later poets in the School of Krishna Bhakti continuing to the present day. “Yogi, I’m your slave/ don’t leave, / show me/ Love’s path.”
After giving us the poems, a description of the old house in Bombay by the sea where the translations began to take shape is particularly compelling. The last commentary goes back to the conditions that led Landes-Levi to India in 1968, then back to her childhood, where a certain predilection for India had already begun to show. In a gesture of pure generosity, Landes-Levi holds back nothing now. Earlier cryptic statements open in full disclosure. “Kind-one, hear my complaint,/ I’m floating on a cosmic sea,/ I’ve gone the whole way.”
Reader, allow yourself to be led through this poet’s life, with photographs and maps of India to aid you until you arrive at the other’s life, the ancient poet, whose body is said to have disappeared at death, leaving only a sari behind. “O Love, you live in a foreign land,/but my love for you/ is unchanging.” Because Landes-Levi adopted the tradition of Mirabai, through her we see Mirabai embodied. Landes-Levi ends up in all the places close to Mirabai, from the palace at Udaipur, where she began her life as a bride and Queen`, to the forests of Brindaban, land of Krishna, to the jungle village of Kanchipuran, where Mirabai’s lineage began. Landes-Levi’s life has become inextricably and uniquely bound to that of Mirabai. “Mira says,/ I’m yours,/ Don’t forget.”
The power of the book is in its multiple levels of expression: personal, literary, mystical, interwoven in a manner difficult to describe. Go back to the poems after you have finished the book. Are you not a better reader of Mirabai’s poetry now? “With tears I planted the vine of love,” sings Mira. “Now that vine is full with its fruit, Bliss.”
Sweet on My Lips is such a vine.