“Tantra is marked by its difficulty,” Nisha Ramayya states in the opening “Notes on Tantra” section of Correspondences, a twenty-six page pamphlet of poetry, micro-essays, notes, and images. The principle structure of the book follows tantra’s ritual structure: divided into ten sections, with two additional postscripts and a bibliography, its rich combination of critical enquiry, photographs of Ramayya’s own ritual practice, and lyrical, often surreal poetry, draws the reader into an investigation of devotion, language, and uncertainty.
Knowing nothing of tantra, to write this review is to write out of ignorance. The date is January 20th, 2017. The pen is heavy; the body hard to lift. It is a day of willing myself to move and of speaking back to many voices of doubt. How can I review something I know nothing about? What arrogance, I say. But I know about difficulty, I whisper.
Following its ritual structure, the reader navigates the book as a devotee, progressing through several meditative stages. Accordingly, this review looks at each section sequentially. The book does not give up its meanings easily, and the opening “Notes on Tantra” section begins this intractability, offering a list of possible meanings for tantra but from an indefinite starting-point, stating: “Tantra may or may not comprise…” and then following with a list of possibilities covering “pre-Aryan religious traditions circa 2500-1750 B.C.E,” “multiple texts from Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain cultures circa 600-1700 C.E.” and “continuing indigenous traditions of village deities and unorthodox ritual practices, often contrasted with Aryan, Sanskrit, and Vedic cultures.” This broad knowledge base confronts the reader even before Ramayya’s dizzying etymological explorations begin.
The root word “tan” is the first to be mined, offering up ten meanings, separated by semi-colons. The first of “tan’s” meanings: “to extend, spread, be diffused (as light) over, shine, extend towards, reach to;” shows how each individual word and phrase within the definition also offers its own particular nuance. The word “tantra” is also given ten meanings and Ramayya reveals that this number is not coincidental but part of the ritual. In a correspondence with her about her process she explained to me that “if I’m working with numbers, they are always the numbers listed in the first line of ‘Correspondence as Writing System’…(Section 3 of the book)…most often 4, 10, and 40. 4—voice, speech, language, sound. The ritual structure: create and open the space, invoke and increase energy (Shakti or goddess power), energy climax (transformation), dissolution and close the space. 10 – 10 Mahavidyas (a group of Tantric goddesses); 10 directions. 40—The characteristic hymn to the goddess Kali has 40 verses.”*
There is a simultaneous beckoning towards hidden systems at play within Ramayya’s writing, such as the symbolic use of numbers, and a refusal to reduce its unknowability to anything readily comprehensible. “Any attempt to comprehend Tantra is made problematic by its resistance to definition,” Ramayya warns, before, nevertheless, offering multiple possible definitions not just for “tantra” but for the related words, “tan” and “tantri.”
Struggling, at times, to navigate through Ramayya’s ludic resistance to meaning, I am reminded of J. H. Prynne’s words in the short essay “Resistance and Difficulty,”* where “the exertions of mind and body that we make to become aware of the external world, through the facts of experienced resistance, may be seen as…the way in which we constitute the world” (Prynne 28). Ramayya creates a reality experienced through tantra and poetics which requires exertions from readers as we join in the discovery of this newly constituted world. As Prynne suggests, our first awareness of resistance may come through difficulty as we encounter the disorientation of unexpected experience. Yet, by working through such difficulty, the reader can gain entry into an unexpected world.
The second section, “Ritual Steps for a Tantric Poetics,” does not offer a direct route to this world but instead plays on the dilemma of understanding the difficulty of reaching it, while still being compelled to try. The opening line states that “this is the way to north,” while the facing line on the opposite page warns you to “come away from north.” In the first two pages of text in this section the writing is left and right aligned, respectively, so that the text seems to shuttle towards and away from itself across the page divide, enacting the kinds of false starts and mis-direction that meditative “Ritual Steps” may offer. These steps are also suggestive of walking as meditation; a practice explored by poet Anne Waldman from a Buddhist perspective in Structure of the World Compared to a Bubble.* For Waldman, the stones of the temple Borobudur are circumambulated through a process whereby the walker accrues knowledge, returning to the starting point with new awareness. Yet there is no such enlightenment here, with the closing lines of this section reading (horizontally, from left to right page): “you fear the words mean nothing / the charm has wound down.”
Following these pages, or steps, are two pages that perform their verbo-visual meanings, or “scripto-visualities”* through a charged juxtaposition. Two images face each other across a double spread of pages: on the left are scanned petals with writing on them (individual letters from Roman and Sanskrit alphabets); on the right is a photograph of skin, covered in mark-making in a medium resembling paint. Ramayya has explained to me that this paint/writ/ing on the skin is a “yantra”: a geometrical representation of the goddess; that yantras are used to aid meditation and the practice of rituals; and that the body photographed is her own.
The handwritten petals suggest the fragility of language exchange—the delicacy of its movement from source to receipt. In contrast, on the facing page, beyond the page divide, the imprinted body appears strong, its markings even suggestive of war paint. I have learned from Ramayya that yantras can also be used as weapons, re-enforcing this sense of martial strength. Through its juxtaposition with the petals, the body appears to counter their fragility, and to channel strength back towards them. In this embodied strength the image also seems to challenge essentialist readings of the body that would associate flowers with the female body through a shared connotation of their delicateness.
These petal-letters also resist legibility, needing to be positioned into a sequence in order to create words. The mix of languages used also means that at least part of these letters will remain unsequenced, and, in this sense, unread, unless the reader is bi-lingual:
This fragmentary aspect of language broken into its constituent parts is suggestive of mantra; with the individual language units echoing bīja mantra, a practice discussed by Ramayya in the seventh section of the book. There, Ramayya dispels the idea that bīja mantras are “monosyllabic…sound without meaning,” instead drawing on Arthur Avalon’s observation that “though a Mantra such as Bīja-mantra may not convey its meaning on its face, the initiate knows that its meaning is the own form (Svarūpa) or the particular Devatā [deity] whose Mantra it is, and the essence of the Bīja is that which makes letters sound, and exists in all which we say or hear. Every Mantra is thus a particular sound form (Rūpa) of the Brahman [Supreme Being].”* Such an understanding of mantra implies that these letters do not need to be configured into a particular phrase or sentence in order to convey meaning, as their communicative powers may instead be lodged within the individual sounds of specific syllables. This focus on the incremental parts of language highlights the fragmentary nature of perception and the work that the reader/devotee must undertake in order to access meanings that may be presented in unusual or seemingly incomplete ways.
Next in the book/ritual comes a series of “Correspondences”: “Correspondence as Writing System,” “Correspondence as Environment,” and “Correspondence as Make Believe.” These brief poetic essays explore the role of correspondence in devotion, particularly probing the idea of enlightenment gained through scholarship. The first is macabre in its invocation of correspondence as a “garland of skulls.” The passage of time as witnessed through language is considered not only through these deathly correspondents but also through a reference to “this geological era” that grounds the reader in the longer rhythms of the geological, rather than the shorter span of a human life. Ramayya foregrounds the archive’s role as a correspondent in the next section, once more signifying language’s durational aspect, while in the third section history becomes personified, and gendered, as “she catches honeybees in her hair and green feathers in her teeth.” This image refers to the ten Tantric goddesses who are associated with green parrots, and seen as embodiments of the source of human and animal languages. Language is thus presented as a material to be mined, traveling back through history, through the archives, to plumb its depths as part of the journey towards ritual transformation.
The last “Correspondence as Make Believe” section morphs into a new “Make Believe as Sacrifice” section, as the words “Make Believe” repeat between the titles, like the start of a mantra. In the latter section, correspondence is both illusory and sacrificial, presented as “a falling exchange” where meaning is multiple, and, for each meaning chosen other possibilities are left out of the exchange. To illustrate the loss inherent in this communication, Ramayya offers ten translations of the “same” Sanskrit phrase: mā kālas tvām aty-agāt:
may the season not surpass you [mā kālas tvām aty-agāt]
may the improper not surpass you [mā kālas tvām aty-agāt]
may the enemy not surpass you [mā kālas tvām aty-agāt]
may the dying not surpass you [mā kālas tvām aty-agāt]
may the meat not surpass you [mā kālas tvām aty-agāt]
may the waiting not surpass you [mā kālas tvām aty-agāt]
may the perceptible not surpass you [mā kālas tvām aty-agāt]
may the fixed points not surpass you [mā kālas tvām aty-agāt]
may the dark blue not surpass you [mā kālas tvām aty-agāt]
may the devouring not surpass you [mā kālas tvām aty-agāt]
For any one meaning chosen by the reader, there are nine other possibilities that may go unheard.
The next section, “Her Voice as an Instrument of Thought,” explores the roots of the word “mantra”. The word includes within its meanings the verbs: “to think, believe, imagine…to stay or endure…to wish or intend…to remember or bear in mind…to remind or instruct or teach…to mean…to protect, preserve, rescue”; once more the multiplicity of meaning deters the reader from any one, definitive understanding. Ramayya’s etymological orienteering is reminiscent of Charles Olson’s “tracking words along their line of force, back to their roots.”* Olson believed that the origins of language’s “force not as history but as living oral law…[could]…be discovered in speech as directly as it is in our mouths”;* discoverable directly through the experience of sound-making. Ramayya develops this focus on sound-making as enquiry, through her discussion of “Vāc, the goddess of voice, speech, language, and sound, or the philosophical concept thereof.” She outlines the four stages of vāc, explaining how Vedic priests “gave one quarter of Vāc to humankind for speech,” and concealed the rest, so that “the people spoke for hundreds of years, not realising how much more voice could be.”
There are resonances here, and elsewhere in the book, of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee; where women, like Cha’s exiled Korean mother, may only “speak the tongue the mandatory language like the others.”* There is a sense of the paucity of language when you are not free to use it without externally imposed restrictions, such as those imposed by the Vedic Priests, or by the Japanese occupiers of the Korean exile community of Manchuria where Cha’s mother is forced to speak Japanese. Korean, as “the tongue that is forbidden is your own mother tongue” is one that “you speak in the dark. In the secret”, reflecting tantra’s own position as a “dark and dangerous…knowledge.” Ramayya’s text has multiple parallels with Cha’s; a mixed media work, drawing on myth, diverse female speakers and ‘difficult’ poetry to explore the intricacies and resistances of speech.
In this mantra section, Ramayya also offers glimpses of the opportunities that the right sound-making can bring. There is an invitation to move past the imposed “articulate utterance” of language at its “gross level.” Such language consists of the “full and intelligible sentences” of imposed orders, “words with hard faces that you don’t want to look at.” Beyond this is an intermediate level of language, the realm of poetry (“if you want to do poetry, do it now”).
In its following two stages this potential expands, concerned not just to communicate the single impression, such as the colour “blue,” but the variegated experience, “as in a peacock’s tail.” However, even in the third stage of vāc this is still not possible, since, as Jaideva Singh suggests in The Secrets of Sanskrit Meditation, we “recall…only that particular colour which is awakened by the proper causal condition of memory”* In the final stage of vāc, all experience combines, so that the “supreme voice…contains every word, every action, every object.” Here, both the silence of listening and the sounding of self, come together in the “relentless throbbing of ‘I am’…that suddenly becomes all-quiet when you ask a question and demonstrate your willingness to listen.”
Three further “Correspondence” sections follow, largely written in couplets. The first two, “Correspondence as Missing Something” and “Correspondence as Not Agreeing With You,” highlight the ongoing difficulties in communicating the ritual path. These sections are littered with questions, with “How else do I say this?” repeating in a refrain. Despite having been shown the potential of language through a study of vāc, these sections remind us that we have not yet reached this potential. The final “Correspondence as a Compass on the Body” section features an edited photograph of a yantra engraved on a small piece of metal. This yantra depicts Bagalamukhi—one of the Mahavidyas, who she has described to me as “the goddess who rips out the tongues of demons (especially deceivers)…She can also grant the power of magic speech, according to which everything that you say becomes true and manifest.”
It is three days later. The Spanish version of the White House website has disappeared.* I look towards the fourth stage of vāc, for the “the supreme voice, She is the anti-unconscious, the anti-dark.” I linger for a while in this sense of language as infinitely possible, as containing “every word, every action, every object” imagined, rather than as a dark and secret sacrifice where it is restrained, reduced, or cut, as Ramayya puts it in “Correspondence as Writing System,” “to the point of vivisection.”
Dear Nisha, you ask in your Postscript, “Now that you are here, you are in the space; what will you do, now that you are here?”
First, I will be quiet, to consider your question (“the all-voice in the all-head…suddenly becomes all-quiet when you ask a question and demonstrate your willingness to listen”).
Then, I will be quiet because I will feel the difficulty of my resistance to answering; since to answer is to pick one out of infinite replies; since to answer is to assume an authority that does not come easily, or shouldn’t.
Then, I will begin to sound.
I will start the relentless throbbing of ‘I am’ (aham) but
I will also feel that “the capitalised pronoun is a misdirection” so that
I will offer correspondence as review, as listening, as throbbing into and away from pronouns, in an effort not to miss “the in-between faces, the in-between words.”
Since the start of this review I have been whispering back against the implanted voices that can work to curb our sense of ourselves, the external world, and the sounds that express these senses. I have been humming back against implanted voices of authority that seek to question mine; moving mind and voice against the inertia, the restricted movement, the difficulty, that accompanies the early stages of resistance. I have been using Ramayya’s text, as one might use tantra, to “pluck…and glide…your body as you bend between what you want and what you are able to do.” And perhaps that is the enduring quality of Ramayya’s Correspondences: to encounter difficulty without despair and to offer a means through which to sound back against that which would restrict us.
Nisha Ramayya, email to the author, 25 Jan. 2017.
J. H. Prynne, “Resistance and Difficulty,” Prospect 5, (Winter 1961), 26-30.
Anne Waldman, Structure of the World Compared to a Bubble (London: Penguin Poets, 2004).
See Redell Olsen, Scripto-visualities: Contemporary Women’s Writing and the Visual Arts (PhD diss., Royal Holloway, University of London, 2003).
This is excerpted from John Woodroffe, Shakti and Shakta: Essays and Addresses on the Shakta Tantrashastra (London: Luzac, 1918; repr. Charleston: BiblioBazaar, 2008).
Ramayya explains that “Woodroffe was a nineteenth- /twentieth-century judge and scholar of British Indian law who lived a double life as Arthur Avalon, a Tantric devotee.”
J.H. Prynne to Charles Olson, 4 November 1961, The Charles Olson Research Collection (CORC), Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries, Series 2, fol.207, 2/206.
Charles Olson, “The Gate and the Center,” Collected Prose, eds. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1997), 169.
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictée (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001), 45.
Jaideva Singh, ed. Bettina Bäumer, Abhinavagupta: Parā-trīśikā-Vivarana: The Secret of Sanskrit Mysticism (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1998; repr. 2011).
“The White House Website is No Longer Available in Spanish,” Los Angeles Times, 23 Jan. 2017, http://www.latimes.com/nation/politics/trailguide/la-na-trailguide-updates-white-house-website-is-no-longer-1485199463-htmlstory.html.