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 Teesta Review: A Journal of Poetry, Volume 5, Number 2. November 2022. ISSN: 2581-7094

The pilgrimage: A cross cultural discourse between Bishnupada Ray and Dominic Symes

-- Bishnupada Ray and Dominic Symes

Editorial Note:

For this collaboration, each poet initially sent three poems to the other, after which they wrote new poems responding to those received. This article presents the initial poems, followed by the responses, followed by reflective commentaries in which each poet discusses their experiences of and learning through this creative and dialogic process.


The work presented here redevelops materials previously published in TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses special issue number 60 ( The previously-published work has been reconsidered and reframed in the light of more recent social, political, and historical developments, particularly those related to the ongoing impact of COVID-19 and the global climate crisis.



Poem by Bisnhupada Ray, number one: ‘Rite of Passage’


Note: This poem was written after visiting Ahalyasthan and Gautam Kund, 25 kms North of Darbhanga Town in North Bihar, during the religious festival of Dusshera 2012. Ahalyasthan is a place that has significance in Hinduism, because of the story of the sage Rishi Gautam and his wife Ahalya. The story states that while Gautam was away, Indrathe god of rain and the heavensseduced Ahalya and had intercourse with her. Gautam later caught them in the act, which led him to curse both of them. As a result Indra’s penis fell off and Ahalya was turned to stone, until the seventh avatar of the supreme deity Vishnu -Ram- released her from her curse. Ahalya was then redeemed and reunited with her husband.


this stony mythological passage

to the violation of the earth

is surrounded by extreme hardships

the earth has stopped yielding

the crops of our survival

life is at a precarious edge

hanging loose in a seeming balance

possibly waiting for the footstep

that may bring redemption

to the wretched of the earth


but the earth bears with equanimity

our lustful sins

and the ascetic denials

there is no lifestyle edition here

no structure of brick and glass

no communal architecture

but pensive eyes

and the philosophy of the ephemeral

the visitor does not feel at home

his masked feeling betrays all

there is no motorable road in sight

to lead him straight to his pilgrimage

but a silhouette of the road

that might have existed some time

like a wife-beaten broken man


my car groans under the burden

creaking growling but just holding

the line of sanity

through the violent push-ups

breaking down with premature orgasm

to go limp and flaccid

the hope that the passage will get better

after this endless extremity

keeps us going.



Poem by Bisnhupada Ray, number two: ‘Pret Shila’ (The Stone for the Spirits yet to Attain Liberation), Gaya, Bihar, Dusshera 2012


the steep flight of steps on this ancient hill

forbade us to climb

yet the name was powerful enough

to draw us to the top


we started climbing

the countless steps


on the way up we took frequent rests

exhausted and bitter

with beggars and priests

for not giving us any chance to think

by their constant nagging demands

and pestering


yet they kept the hill alive

and made the stones dramatic

showing the way how to persuade

people to believe

without them it would have been

just a stone and a hill

and no story to be told

from the past to the present


but beware!

all the legends’ spirits, beggars, lepers

may vanish unceremoniously

because overlooking the hill

in the distance

there comes Loyola.



Poem by Bisnhupada Ray, number three: Festival of Light, Siliguri, West Bengal, Kalipuja 2012


when the town wore light

and towered over the night

over the darkened water of Mahananda

the illusion of light

appeared to me like unending waves

of eternity towards the skyline

then we plunged into the darkness

of villages and canal road and forests

and drove to the banks of river Teesta

where an idol of goddess Kali was awaiting

the late-night awakening and blood sacrifice

the poorest of the poor kept a lighted vigil

the sky also kept a vigil with starry lamps

and the darkness appeared defeated


when we drove back to the town,

a dark cat crossed my path

then jumped into darkness


each wave of light started to break

on the even level of darkness.








Poem by Dominic Symes, number one: ‘Arriving in Gaeta’


“The Mediterranean, at least—the Atlantic is brown—is always just white, white, white.” — Cy Twombly


Shifting landscape blurs days,

Still jet lagged Wednesday eyes half

Closed the doors I can’t stamp the date

The way we have our tickets

Tracks tapping out an exact rhythm

Low in the sky the sun you are

Asleep on my shoulder your late afternoon

Thoughts wound down &

Sync ourselves to the slow circularity

Like a surging wave of language that

Book spine down on your lap,

You duck beneath your head

Bobbing with each contour

of the coastline & feeling

The words speeding through me,

Half asleep to the sound of the waves

Last night re-reading his quote,

Re: the Mediterranean considered

As white (all white) a white out of

White washing the field of vision,

Peeling words off the page my eyes

Lift up to the window in that moment

Waiting to adjust to the dazzling

Horizon without marking features

Blinding how a life might look in a flash

A brief pause between acts

Tranquillity followed by a sense of

Action—I must do something do I

Wake you reach across you for the camera

inside the lens inside this carriage this

Memory I am having again (his)

Moving through it unable to capture the absence,

I let you keep sleeping let your thoughts

Alone but my phone I sneak from my pocket

A photograph,

A memory trailing like a cloud of smoke

I have it now inherited this memory

To share with you upon waking




Poem by Dominic Symes, number two: ‘Hymn to Possibility (Shelley)’


On the balcony,

Looking out onto a life not lived

Both ancient & immediate

The sea breeze rolls through

Up here the air

Thins out like greying hair

Whispers of it

Whipping into his face

Sun bronzed but

Nonetheless delicate

Young  and bookish

His life book-

Ending   here,

On the promontory

Of a premonition,

Children swept

Away by the ocean,

Swelling with constant


Tossing them

Upon the rocky cove

As he is sitting in silence

Isolated on this balcony

The last of the amber light

Washing back out to the horizon

His wish is to say again

The name of this place

So that it might not vanish

Like his appetite

Like the light

Shifting in his seat

Exile is as vast as the view

That stretches out before him

Remaining as intimate as a child

Not yet named

Places      people

Are words only

Rolling over in his mouth

Each untied to the last

What is it that holds the world

Together in its innermost folds?

Of course there is writing

& there is dying too

But if there is writing & not dying

Perhaps there is

Writing & living forever




Poem by Dominic Symes, number three: ‘Hymn to Possibility (Twombly)’


On the balcony,

Struck by the quiet

Of this almost ageless

Moment    up here

With the sea birds,

Holding their pitch

Against the breeze


Flags of surrender,

Tilt to fill the

Empty pockets of time,

From the zig zag

Of a switchback road,

I see myself    tracing

These same streets,

Hadrian might have

& might again

A broad brush,

Capturing the town’s

Coarse delicacy

It’s not photography,

Or aerial views,

But a gauge of

that vague electrical

Hum that once

Fired off,

Filament after filament

Like a switchboard

Lighting up

Inspiration washes in

Like waves of sudden light

At the instruction

Of the moon

Perhaps there is painting

& living forever




Responding poem by Bishnupada Ray, number one: ‘Prick:  Visiting Sitamarhi, the Point where Sita Entered the Earth’


Note: Sita is an incarnate of Vishnu’s wife Lakshimi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, who is the wife of Ram; the incarnate of her husband.


in that enchanted grotto temple

of wish making

I wished to see a fairy queen

who was the true child of mother earth

and who dared to face the quicksand of life

and entered the earth


creation needs a prick

a point where one can see the abyss

and know the mysteries of being


the prime attraction of evil

also deflects evil from the path

to be traversed not without pain


I do not want to see more

seeing more may fill me with anger

all the advantage is lost

in the tortuous path of morality

limited vision spoils the good intention

true vision needs self-wisdom

people just increase the confusion

the source of vanity is destroyed

as a curse of the evil eye


with the loss of a thing

the forward path suddenly ends

life on earth

becomes an eternity of regret

of acts done

and the wish they were not done


that whoring attitude pained me

pricked me into the act of creation

in public eye she remained impeccable

but I secretly knew what she was


she deflected evil from my path

but effaced me from the public eye

and put me under erasure.



Responding poem by Bishnupada Ray, number two:Purpose’ (after visting Lord Shiva Jyotirlingas in Madhya Pradesh, especially Omkareshwar and Mahakaleshwar)



the offseason swarms of bees

sting with anarchist philosophy

so that I may lose

appetite and desire

or even fear

to jump over the precipice


let’s hear the ringing bells

the desperate attempts

to harness spiritual energy

that may stretch the soul

beyond hunger and disease

and multitudes of earthly challenges

and evaporate the shame of the body


I can see the solitary mad

making pilgrimage

through dark nights

and thronging with others

at the narrow temple doors

to have a glimpse

of the self-created ancient light

through the barricade

of the conceited priests

the bloated maggots

of god’s strange playground


but some priests

play lord Shiva’s eternal music

with the gusto of prophecy

their flowing hair

and the sweaty muscles

are like the divine rhythm

of lord Shiva’s insight

into time and being


this music is a cry

from the depths

a moan from the churning

a purpose

the divine art and passion

for creation

in a crescendo of orgasm.



Responding poem by Bishnupada Ray, number three:Mystic River’ (after visiting Vrindavan and Mathura)


that melody of the flute

churns the soul with the sadness

of meditation

seems someone is crying


the cry echoes through

every nook and corner

of Vrindavan and Mathura

and reverberates through

the distant city of Dwarka


the cry still persists

through all the places

where he keeps a temple


for it is lord Krishna who is crying


in spite of the love of many women

his heart still cries for Radha


the dream of a bud about to blossom

amidst the mortal imperfection

the yearning of a mystic river

he felt flowing in his blood

and the Rubicon he crossed

for a heaven he knew

as one and the only one.




Responding poem by Dominic Symes, number one: ‘Black Mirror (invasion)’


When I put it all together

In my poem,

It preaches accuracy,

Not consistency

What is that anachronism,

Lost in the temper of the times

Tazzy-devilling around the room,

Eyes darting across

The effaced surface,

Where bigger pricks

Lack the requisite compensation

Show them

What they’re playing for tonight,

What has been here before

Shows through,

Like a cyclone tracing

Winds, feeding into memories

Looking and not seeing,

You remember hiding

In the bathroom

For it to pass over,

These are screen memories

Words and images given to you,

Suggesting the potential for

More accurate narratives

Site of the exhibition shifting,

Like opinions in a kangaroo court

They pivot and perform,

Topsoil removed is here arranged,

Sand parses hands for a photograph

Forsaking what is left

Monies exchanged,

Everything arranged

Legacies erased,

You are my

Black mirror




Responding poem by Dominic Symes, number two: ‘Black Mirror (aversion)’


Black mirror,

I am yours

As a final thought,

Before switching from

Do not disturb

To flight mode

Trying to focus,

To run the clock down

I will catch you up later,

Half-awake I poke around

the garden we share

Moon-baking we see

A rip in the black

Skin of the dream,

Half-obscured by rumour

& rhetoric

Shifting across it,

To be outside of myself

Outside & by myself

Each word I utter comes back,

Arching its spine to memory’s

Empty palace

Beginning in a gallery,

Dampening the sound

This mute black canvas

Its pin-prick stars

Retracing steps,

Trying to unthread myself

From my complicity

I arrive at the dead centre,

When I put it all together





Responding poem by Dominic Symes, number three: ‘Love in a Warm Climate’


I’ve exhausted every natural resource


All my coal for burning

excoriated     & extolled


Out of breath,

from being shipped offshore


Exporting          it & me & you & us


What is left?

Our empty apartment

its exquisite taps     & kitsch appliances


How small in the grand scheme

of asthmatic capitalistic growth

seem our two minute showers?


Or rinsing out our jars before recycling them?

Your little post-it notes?


All those generous second helpings?



How you let me gorge myself

On your passive income

& your generosity


Never emptying the carton of milk,


In case I needed even more time

To torture myself

Dreaming up a remedy for

the supply chains that bind us all


I am consciously      uncoupling myself

From these severe demands


Like a lever longing to be released,

Or a ladybug     crushed

By a too-eager thumb


It’s bits of coastline,

Crumbling into skyline


How the lights stay on all day,

In the houses we can’t afford to own


Where do we go?




This world is no longer a safe place to live.




Reflection by Dominic Symes:


When I was asked to be part of this collaboration, I began by writing a list of all of the links that I could draw between my experience and those of a poet living and working in India. I was excited to read Bishnu’s work, because my list of potential overlaps was quite small. Reading the first three poems that appear in this paper, I felt a shared appreciation for landscape and the mythological implications of a given place, having completed my own aesthetic ‘pilgrimage’ to the place where painter Cy Twombly lived and worked in Italy, as part of my recently completed thesis. Given how much my own writing owes to the tradition of O’Hara’s “I-do-this-I-do-that” poems, I admired the intimacy in Bishnu’s poetic pilgrimages; as I felt this was an effective way to cope with the baggage of the potentially mythological (Perloff 22). Goethe talks about the “literary soil” that he experienced by the Mediterranean, rich with ancient history; seeing the worlds that he had only read about in books come to life in front of him during his pilgrimage, as captured in his travel journal Italian Journey (1786) (Jacobus 136).


Certainly, I was influenced by Twombly’s ability to combine textual and geographical lineage in his paintings. His own work traced the Ancient Greeks and Romans, through the Romantic authors on Grand Tours, along with contemporary poets and artists who had all shared the same stretch of coastline. Considering location and perspective as a concern shared by poets and painters, the two Hymns to Possibility imagine PB Shelley and Twombly looking out from the same balcony centuries apart. This approach treats both painting and poetry as the “product of the creative act that produced it” (Ashbery ix), placing emphasis on the location the work was made and how the artists were responding to the world around them in a particular moment. By being in the place where Twombly lived, I was hoping to summon some of these influences in my own work to create poetry that was ekphrastic, but which responded to the act of production as the critical feature in the poem, rather than the surface of the painting.


Another ekphrastic-based approach that I used was to write in response to an exhibition, rather than directly in response to one work of art. The two Black Mirror poems are influenced by the palate and technique of Kudjla/Gangalu artist Daniel Boyd in Untitled (CM) (2016). However, they primarily treat this work as an entry point for engagement with the themes of the exhibition “Defying Empire” where the work was hung. Like Bishnu’s poems in Section Two, these Black Mirror poems trace a surface and narrate the experience of this examination in time. Boyd’s painting is a large black canvas with a lacquered surface, punctured by holes, as if demonstrating a struggle and its lasting impact. The title offers two different lenses through which to interrogate culture in this moment: at the zenith of digital technology, the “black mirrors” that are our smartphones and the post-colonial legacy of white invasion, using the “black mirror” as a device to critique the foundations of a white Australia.


As Bishnu’s poetry suggests, the poet is called upon to offer resistance and to stand in defiance of pervading cultural narratives. Love in a Warm Climate addresses the climate emergency and the shared blame that falls upon Indians and Australians for their complicity. In Australia, we physically cut into the earth, leaving scars kilometres long and hundreds of metres deep, in order to extract material that can be shipped to India to generate electricity. Like Bishnu, I am trying to contrast the actions of individuals in the intimate sphere against the enormity of the crisis, reaching the conclusion that perhaps what binds us both is the Earth itself, which is increasingly becoming uninhabitable.


Corresponding with Bishnu via email and reading his work, I came to appreciate the vast differences between our experiences, both in the poetic influences that we drew upon and the legacy that colonialism has left upon us. I found that whilst his pilgrimage was about recovery of his own heritage on his own land, my pilgrimage was to Europe; where my family came from only a generation ago to recover some of what I thought might have been my own cultural and aesthetic inheritance. However, while the poems I initially sent Bishnu about pilgrimage and inheritance were written about a period in 2016, his influence certainly drew me back to Australia. As a result, these more recent response poems are centred around this land and the issues that affect its citizens in this moment. The dispossession of Indigenous land by European invaders is a pressing concern and one that artists in this country have been addressing for many years. My experience at the “Defying Empire” exhibition provided inroads to this subject whilst still allowing me to work with the ekphrastic poem as a mode of engagement.


Love in a Warm Climate was a response to the confidence Bishnu’s poetry has in confronting universal, metaphysical concepts; “divine peace” and “self-wisdom”, trekking “the torturous path of morality”. It returns me to the list that I wrote at the beginning of our collaboration of things we might have in common. I had written “universal things: love, money, books, climate emergency” and then “specific things: we send them our coal.” 




Reflection by Bishnupada Ray


In spite of its shrinking domain, the enduring appeal of poetry to the sensitive perhaps lies in its spirit of quest, a sense of pilgrimage that crosses the boundary of the finite. It does so by means of engaging with existential angst and then transcending it by way of a movement from evil to goodness. In this sense poetry of place is poetry of post-contamination, for in the Indian context, a place comes with a sense of always already contaminated; its value and meaning compromised and rediscovered by an irreversible postcolonial experience. Geographical imagination provides an important insight into the nature of human domination and oppression. The influence of the place on the artistic imagination is hardly romantic. A place, like an insulted creature, evokes and invokes self-criticism. The response of the poet, when he makes a pilgrimage through an invisibly-marked bruised landscape, is to discover the sense of displacement, the subtle alteration of the very being that gives us identity, to discover the residue of whatever there was originally, however wrong or bad. A place becomes a locus of domination and marginalization. It becomes a battleground, in the way the soul becomes a battleground between good and evil. The warring forces are felt as the poet, persona or observer becomes fused with the landscape. One thematic aspect of Indianness is the internalisation of colonialism and resistance to it, rather than the external; the cultural markers are always found in the form of our attitude towards the womankind, the subaltern, and our sense of hopelessness and guilt.


It is a privilege of the poet to stand at the equinoctial point between culture and nature, the centre and the margin, and to reassess the wholeness that forms lifeworld of a particular space and time, to give expression to the moments when humanity might have gone wrong. Perhaps it is the duty of the poet to preserve the humanity that preserves the bond between culture and nature, which man cannot sustain in the face of progress and history.


It is in this sphere of love for humanity and the earth, and to gather insights into their sustenance in face of our precarious history, that pilgrimage assumes a special significance. Pilgrimage takes us from the centre to the margin of existence, from the mainstream of the present time to an almost vanishing past, a vanishing world only preserved by the places of the past, some of the places are mentioned in the poems of both the poets, and these places are the occasions of the poems selected in this project of cultural exchange. The mythic heritage and fame of the places mentioned in my poems are culturally invaluable, for sustaining modernity through tradition. For a nation with a history of subjugation, pilgrimage is a mode of recovery and rediscovery of one’s own sense of belonging and displacement, to be at home and also the sense of homelessness. This insight may offer a direction not only towards preservation of smaller and marginal cultures, but also towards mitigating the effects of climate change and other global issues arising out of human short-sightedness and mercenary motives, endangering humanity and the earth equally.


In my initial poems, humanity and place share the bond of incompleteness and uncertainty, and evoke a sense of vague yearning of something missing, or which should have been there. The poems express an unsettling sense of ironic discord, some lack, or some poverty that motivates pilgrimage, in order to complete the arc of existence. Life is inseparably conditioned by the intertwining of physical and the spiritual. In his initial poems, Dom outlines a pilgrimage of an aesthetic sort; visiting the place where the artist Cy Twombly lived to discover ‘Twombly’s ability to combine textual and geographical lineage in his paintings’, and his poems encounter the tension between what is visible on the surface of the canvas and the actual reality. In his responding poems, Dom recreates the original pilgrimage to ‘recover some of what I thought might have been my own cultural and aesthetic inheritance’ and aptly takes up the progress of technology that provides him the metaphor of “black mirror” ‘as a device to critique the foundations of a white Australia’. In my responding poems, the topography is slightly tipped towards resolving the spiritual questionings of the soul. An effort is made to describe such a situation in these poems, by juxtaposing the abstract with the concrete.


Thus from the perspective of cross-cultural exchange and response, this poetic exchange between Dominic Symes and me at once solidifies and makes fluid the geographical conditions in which different cultures thrive and accommodate one another. For me the influence of a place ranges from postcolonial to psychological — to a state of existential post-contamination, in which the sense of belonging is inescapably mired in trauma and evil expressed in the way of pilgrimage and mythology; for Dominic Symes the influence of a place is captured as a pilgrimage of a more artistic sort. The canvas’ rendering of a place is both matched and mitigated, going back in time and place to distil its essence from the moments of present reality. The ekphrastic quality of Dom’s poems enables us to see the intertextual nature of our perception of reality, how the abstract impinges upon the perception of the concrete and vice versa. For both me and Symes, the privilege of the artist lies in standing at the equinoctial point between culture and nature (as represented by a place) in order to transcend the evil or a scar or an inexplicable lack, to something holistic and healing, like the sense of homecoming and being at home, in the midst of the pain of homelessness.


List of works cited:


Ashbery, John(1971). ‘Introduction’ The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara, edited by Donald Allen, Alfred A. Knopf.


Boyd, Daniel(2016).Untitled (CM)‘Defying Empire’: 3rd National Indigenous Arts Triennial, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.


Jacobus, Mary (2016).Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint. Princeton UP.


Perloff, Marjorie (1977).Frank O'Hara: Poet Amongst Painters. George Braziller.


General Reading:


Chaturvedi, V. (Ed). (2015). Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial. Rawat Publications.

Desai, G. and Nair, S. (Eds). (2005). Postcolonialisms: An Anthology of Cultural Theory and Criticism. Berg.

Sharp, J.P. (2009).Geographies of Postcolonialism: Spaces of Power and Representation. Sage Publications.


Interliminal Encounters: Indian and Australian writers in po(i)etic dialogue, eds Amelia Walker and Aden Burg