Details of Critical study
Article on Stephen Gill’s the Flame
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Stephen Gill’s The Flame: An Epic on Anti-terrorism
Stephen Gill, the multiple award-winning poet, who can neither be purely called an Indian English poet nor a Canadian poet, lies somewhere between the two extremes as he has imbued the ethos of two cultures–Indian and Canadian–in him. Poet Laureate of Ansted University, Gill strongly believes in a democratically elected world government. Global peace and social concerns are the main areas of his interest. Born in Pakistan and brought up in India, Stephen Gill now belongs to the world. He is a world citizen, a world poet and an asset of the world. Author of more than twenty books, his latest work and masterpiece The Flame was published by Vesta Publications, Canada in 2008.
Several critics and poets have lauded him with well-deserving epithets while evaluating his poetry. R. K. Singh, the Indian English poet states: “Stephen Gill is a poet of values—universal peace and love, oneness and wholeness of human race, respect for human right, and a social structure designed to produce and promote justice. The poet, who considers his poems part of his spiritual self, urges abolition of racial, religious, political and economic prejudices and seeks equal opportunities and privileges for men and women, adoption of a world code of human rights and responsibilities, and creation of a world federal government to heal the dissensions that divide people. He knows religious fanaticism and hatred are a world-devouring fire whose violence none can quench. God alone can deliver humanity from this desolating affliction” (Glimpses 179).
Lino Leitao evaluates Gill saying: “A classic simplicity and skilfully used meaningful images are the adorable aspects of Stephen Gill’s poetry. Due to his graceful individual expression and his vastness of thoughts that abound in the land of Gautama and Gandhi, he is distinctively recognizable in the gallery of Canadian and Indian poetry. He weaves those thoughts artistically with the fabrics of Canada for a crop of richness that is needed urgently to nourish the citizens of the global village” (Glimpses 287-288).
The Flame consists of eight parts—sixty two long cantos covering 152 pages. The whole poem is in free verse composed of lines of varied length—monosyllable to more than ten syllables. The rhythm is exceptional as the reader never stumbles on any syllable while reading. Alliteration and assonance, which are in plenty, add to the sonority of the lines. The use of imagery decorates the noble theme of the poem.
The poet has written a long preface which runs to twenty one pages. It is a preamble or proclamation of Gill’s vision, philosophy, poetic birth and development, as well as his opinions on the art of verse making. The poet has attempted to explain the relevance of the title and the different connotations and symbolic meanings of the term ‘flame’. The Preface is also a treatise on anti-terrorism.
Author’s Preface contains an excellent imagery in which the poet uses the metaphor of ‘robins’ for his poetic imagination: “The Flame is the result of the eight years of my anxious care of these robins of my art. During these years, I changed my dealings with these birds in different capacities to nourish them more artistically. In the last two years, I became more diligent with more focus. At my writing table, I kept them close to me. Whenever I had time, as well as the first thing in the morning and the last before going to bed, I fed the robins with the berries of my passion. In their enlivening warbles, I drowned the chill of my presence and the ghosts of the past. Several times, I took their cage to my bed room to continue hearing their notes of freedom along the shores of my sleep. They remained closed to my heart as they are now and shall ever remain” (The Flame 7-8). Several of the poems in The Flame had appeared in more than seventy publications. Gill is of opinion that, before poems appear in book form they should appear in periodicals, because their appearances encourage a poet.
The poet then shares in the Preface the circumstances which led him to compose poems. He was from a family that was socially isolated in India after migrating from Pakistan. They were surrounded with a new environment in New Delhi. It was very difficult for his parents to make ends meet. It was not an easy adjustment from the good days in Sialkot to the bad days in New Delhi. Stephen was a shy boy and he began to show interest in reading. He also began to move in the company of poets, frequenting the tea shops where they congregated. They were mostly mature. He heard each and every word they discussed (The Flame 10). He heard from them that a writer should write every day on any experience or idea before going to bed. He was told that practice helped to develop a style. “I began to write about my friends, our games, chats, you name it. It proved a useful exercise” (The Flame 11).
When the poet grew up, his father wanted him to get married and settle in life and do his writing at leisure. But Stephen knew that he would not be happy in making money and looking after children though he wanted a family. He avoided the path of marriage and when he was settled, he began to explore ways for being an established writer. “It was a long battle, but I was not discouraged” (The Flame 12).
Since Stephen was not taught English well in school, he had to face much difficulty in handling it in college. He wanted to improve his proficiency in English language but there was no scope for it in his home or neighbourhood. “I used to burn within with the fire to have a good knowledge of English because I wanted to be a writer in English, knowing that to be the way to reach the world audience” (The Flame 13).
Apart from the inadequate education, Gill’s religion stood in his way. “Discriminations and religious riots produced fears. They demolished whatever walls of security we had. These factors led me to the caves of isolation, thinking, browsing, and imagining that prepared a good recipe to be a poet” (The Flame 14). The killing in the name of religion always puzzled him. “When I came out of India and had time to think from a distance, I discovered that physicians are needed where sickness prevails. The subcontinent of India has produced a number of spiritual physicians, because the area needed to be healed” (The Flame 14).
Insecurity of his native land led Gill to isolation in his early days that revealed to him the path of his poetic destination. He began to find ways to establish himself as a writer and poet. “My struggle was based more on perspiration than inspiration. One can say it was my inspiration that led me to perspiration. . . . Poetry may also be revelation and flash, but it is largely perspiration. When poetry becomes a passion, it becomes more demanding. Poetry was and is still my passion. Peace is the womb where the baby of my passion grew” (The Flame 14-15).
The Preface then speaks about Gill’s exposition of poetry. Like any art or trade, poetry is seventy-five percent perspiration. By perspiration the poet means also “editing again and again, reading and reading, writing and keep writing and keep sending manuscripts to publications to be an acceptable poet. . . . For those who want to improve their art, rejection slips are the stepping stones to success” (The Flame 17). A poet should never be tired of revisions. A time will come when a poem would tell when to stop.
Gill believes that there is beauty everywhere. “There is beauty in every object and so is poetry. Beauty is poetry and poetry is beauty. But everyone does not have the abilities to bring out gracefully the god within. It is a poet who gives that god a shape with the beauty of the language” (The Flame 17-18).
The Flame is about peace and peace is the main area of Gill’s exploration. Peace has been his main interest in prose, poetry and also in his talks. Lack of security in his native land was responsible for his search. He did not give up that hunt even in the countries where he was comfortably secure. He believes that the life after death will be blissful if an individual does not destroy the legitimate peace of others. “Those who promote peace on earth shall enjoy peace after death. It does not make any sense to expect peace after death by destroying the peace of others” (The Flame 19).
Since terrorists are the arch enemies of peace, Gill exposes their fake philosophy and false claims. Terrorists also talk of peace. “They believe that they achieve or will achieve peace by terrorizing citizens. A breed of these terrorists, fed on religious fanaticism, is most dangerously intolerant of the views of others. This breed is spreading fast and widely all over the world” (The Flame 20). Terrorism is an extreme form of ambition for power to rule others. They carry out the bloodshed of innocent citizens to gain political, national or religious power. They have no respect for human life and values. “Often they call themselves liberators, separatists and jehadis. They shun democratic means to achieve their objectives. The values that are shared by law-abiding citizens are their targets and they come from every community and background” (The Flame 20-21).
Stephen Gill sums up the long Preface bringing out all the symbolic, connotative and religious meanings of the title ‘Flame’. Flame stands for eternal flame, a universal phenomenon, symbolic of hope. It also symbolizes sharing, compassion, sacrifice, courage and witness. “Flame is the visible form of fire. Flame has been and it still is the main symbol in the Vedic scriptures. In Hindu religion, the Almighty symbolizes five elements. One of those elements is fire” (The Flame 23). Jews and Christians light candles on Hanukkah and Christmas. The Hindus use it also on Diwali. Fire is used as eternal flame at monuments and tombs. Candles flicker in churches, temples and mosques. Holy Spirit is in the form of flame. Gill, then, portrays the symbolic meaning of fire in Greek mythology and narrates the story of how Prometheus stole fire from the god Zeus to give to humans. He concludes the Preface telling, “The maniac messiahs open Pandora’s box with the fingers of science and technology, using the muscles of fanaticism to spread the dust of the untold brutalities for the sake of their macabre pleasure. These openers of this Pandora’s Box roam in the world in every shape to cause as much destruction as possible” (The Flame 24).
Part One consists of nine cantos. It is a devotional song. God is conceived by the poet in all possible, abstract terms of qualities, beauties and might. God brings this disharmonious world in harmony. He is the absolute harmony, absolute peace, and absolute radiance luxuriating richness of blossoms. God is the supreme melody and nirvana restraining brutalities. He is manna for those who need equity; supreme fountain for sages; respiration of the musical notes; monarch of the ray; ruptures of illumined waves; mother of all musical strings; sickle that uproots bushes; boon from justice and lotus that buds in the waters of uncommon patience. Gill calls Him the wave of warmth; undying glory of peace; glances of lovers; the poet’s deep restive longing and quietness over the meadows. His beauty is out of reach and the poet wants to recline under His canopy. There are several scintillating and pictorial images that enchant the readers’ mind. God’s mighty radiance is portrayed as:
the softness of the radiant might
that melts the mist,
stirs the soul of clouds
pushes down the rain showers
which kiss the dry lips of earth
and the wordless sonata
that moves the sharp white beams
of the moon. (The Flame 32)
The poet finds a haven under God’s canopy as in the lines:
to recline under that canopy
the rough diamonds of your eyes
and the loitering clouds of your hair
dispel the ghost of despair
from the chamber of mind. (The Flame 45)
Part Two narrates in detail the destruction caused by the terrorists or, in the poet’s phrase, maniac messiahs. There are six cantos in this part. The terrorists are considered by the poet as avatars of savagery who mow down defenseless innocents. Gill presents before the readers a terrorist-hit city as original as it can be fancied. The destruction is portrayed in such a manner that the poet himself is an aerial witness to the cataclysm. The blasted area is portrayed, not leaving any living or non-living object which bore its aftereffect. Gill, with his characteristic use of imagery, draws picture after picture of the horrible sights.
The temple of the flame has grown treacherous in the thickening fog. The steel door with red drops of blood crumbled. The day opened its dance with a frightening boom.
The birds that reposed
on secure boughs
flew in fear.
sparrows, roses and dawns
forgot their songs. (The Flame 50)
Time stopped. The devotees took the bang as earthquake.
It sparked a vast red-orange fireball
the rushing gust
sounded as if a giant jumbo jet
or a missile
had struck. (The Flame 51)
Thick black smoke from the canons poisoned the palate of peace. Atrocities of the blast on human bodies are pictured. One can not read the lines unmoved or horror-struck. Headless, naked, limbless dead bodies, amputees, wounded and bleeding men and women, mothers crying for their lost children, and many such breathtaking terrible sights are presented to the readers’ eyes and minds. The poet’s dexterity in the use of photographic description makes the scenes subjective and emotive. A man is found hanging out of a window with bleeding head. Another man had a filing cabinet imbedded into his skull. A body was found as if it came out of a meat grinder. Another body was slumped in a sitting position. A man was split into halves. Sample the two horrible scenes:
There was an arm and a head
and a woman’s leg
from the knee down
the rest was buried under the rubble. (The Flame 53)
A woman on the street
rested charred and dead
naked from the waist down. (The Flame 54)
The portrayal of destruction of buildings and vehicles demonstrate the quantum of ruin done out of mania. Part Two ends with the truth that none could assess the depth of the wounds:
shall not catch
the magnitude of the wounds
nor the agitated reporters
the intense sight
of the repulsive rave.
Distressed by the locusts from the hell
leaves a wrenching hole
in the fate of the future. (The Flame 60)
Part Three, consisting of three cantos, focuses on the rescue operation on the terrorist-hit areas. Volunteers risk their lives and search every part of the debris for any life trapped there. It is hard to move there and breathe. Doctors and fire-fighters rush on to the place. Remote-sensing specialists and squads of tail-wagging searchers also come soon. Ropes, optic cameras with lights and other devices to detect breathing are deployed. Within an hour, ambulance, excavators, fork lifts and trucks arrive everywhere. Helicopters buzz over heads. Police provide security sealing off the downtown. Ponchos, wet weather gear, steel-toed boots, field shower flashlights, batteries, hard hats, toilet supplies, knee pack, work gloves, dusk masks are used for rescue operation. Tons of snacks are supplied along with the overflow of faith in goodness.
Some positioned their ears
close to the debris.
The leader often shouted
as loud as he could:
“We are here to help.
All would wait, praying
to hear a whisper or sob. (The Flame 65)
The part ends with a sad note of despair:
With the mounting mass of courage
they moved forward
with crowbars and axes.
If someone recovered an adult
or a child
he was rushed
to the stress center
because the exhaustive search
mentally and physically was exhausting.
The perfidious conditions
stressed even dogs
who felt dispirited
for not finding anyone alive. (The Flame 68)
Part Four is dedicated to the eternal Flame. There are four cantos in this part. It also deals with bomb blast by the terrorists, this time a day-care centre. It is morning. After breakfast the kids are ready to paste cotton balls onto paper cut outs. Suddenly windows come rushing in and the ceiling begins to drop. Some kids become soundless; others stare or cry. They do not know how to run, where to hide and how to crawl under desks. The day-care centre disappears as a wax toy in the raging fire of the wrath. The rescue team removes obstacles with jack hammers and chain saws to dig out the nursery buried under a pile of rubble. Many are dead and wounded. The horrible scenes of the innocent kids’ dead bodies with open eyes, some with toys in their hands, and a teacher’s body holding a dead child, wet the eyes of the police and fire-fighters. The fire-fighters collect hands and legs of the kids in separate bags. The terrible sights cause nurses sick and doctors cry. Mark the excerpt for the indifference and numbness of the public to the atrocities:
There was no wailing
over the earthshattering slaughter
that pulverized the leaves
of the young season
untouched by the outburst of cyclones. (The Flame 79)
Time, being helpless watches “the ethical poverty of the zealots / who frenzied on the wildness of malice / struck random blows / to the beauty of my flame” (The Flame 79)
Part Five has three cantos. It tells in detail about the aftermath of the nursery school blast. A medical camp was opened for the wounded kids in a parking area. Nurses soaked in blood rushed after improvised surgeries. Investigators and relatives of the kids filled the hotels. Press reporters, television transmission trucks and photographers woke up the sleepy town into the capital of media. They competed for emotional and fabricated stories. A trucker from another city arrived with soft drinks, tooth paste, aspirin and first-aid kits. Another good man offered free meals to the rescue workers. The residents of the town collected bed sheets and plastic tarpaulins. Counseling centres opened and psychologists and psychiatrists offered their services. The citizens of the country were glued to their televisions but “Lava flew / from the Mount Etna of their anger / because the media focused / on speculating about culprits / rather than the emotional bruises / of the sufferers” (The Flame 84).
Days were filled with funerals. Some people searched for their dear ones in the crowd who assembled for funeral. It was very difficult to identify the dead bodies. Parents were asked to provide foot prints and specify the jewellery or the clothes their children wore. “Forensic experts staggered / when they matched up hands, / jawbones / and flesh with names” (The Flame 86). Victims went to hospitals with bruised and mutilated bodies.
Part Six contains six cantos. The poet asked the blood spillers if they heard the silence of the infants in the cradles of terror or the woes of mothers in the winter of their lives. He was certain that the maniac messiahs had felt uneasiness or tightness of heart before they did the diabolical act. Fourteen times the poet opened lines with the sentence “Who can tell” to mean positively that all can tell or all will agree that the terrorists, as human beings, had experienced stress and conflict of minds. This question “Who can tell” is asked in highly poetical style, using spectacular imageries. Due to paucity of space, it is not mandatory to analyse the lines which are worth-quoting and cherishing. The terrorists’ fiendish act might have made Nature weep.
Who can tell
if they glanced at the dawn
unfolding her apparel
to cover their perversions.
The heavenly bodies
must have wept in disgrace
for their impotent rage to burst
the blisters of shocking atrocities
wrapped in a shroud of secrecy. (The Flame 90)
Mark the excerpt for the beautiful imagery:
Who can tell
if they realized
with the dagger of Cain
they could ground a Taj Mahal
unlocking a bottle to unleash a genie. (The Flame 93)
The grass and flowers which appeared on the mounds remind the observers of the terrible tragedy:
Consecrated with blood
the grass and flowers
from the lips of the child
even now cries.
The branches of the trees
shall be the limbs of the infant
whose light was put off
by the wildest winds. (The Flame 96)
The poet, then, tells dead kids that it is better to be in heaven with the eternal bliss than struggling here on earth. He consoles the mothers and requests them to pray for the conversion of the terrorists’ minds. They should pray for their kids’ rebirth in heaven.
Part Seven is the longest one with nineteen cantos. The terrorists have polluted the air with dust, smoke, fog and clouds so much that the poet can not view the eternal flame, the sun. The poet complains that none can engage in his routine work under the warmth of the flame. The orphaned children have no fathers or mothers to bless them. We need the softness of the sun’s light to weed out spite, darkness, evil, war and misery.
We need the grace of your presence
to weed out the bigotry
the fanatic howls
and for mosaic to refine its gem
for equality to shine. (The Flame 110)
The poet tells the flame that though the terrorists have hidden his radiance, he has painted it with unspoken thoughts on the inner wall of his fancy.
Frilled with the reddest rubies
of my passion
here I shall devise a basilica for you
where daffodils shall never die
and the effervescent laces of my lyrics
stretch their endless wings through a
new universe of the brain cells
of imagery. (The Flame 123)
The poet wishes to be with the Flame. Mark the lines for Gill’s devotion for the flame:
Receive me eagerly
I am a battle unending
I need support.
Caress me carefully
I am a rose tethered
I need tenderness.
Tend me delightedly
I am a wound unattended
I need wine.
Hold me ardently
I am a root unprotected
I need the breeze.
Play me wisely
I am a note untried
I need hands.
Accept me readily
I am a lamb unclaimed
I need a good shepherd. (The Flame 129)
Part Eight, the concluding one, has ten cantos. The poet seems to be optimistic and full of hope. If the pangs of the separation—parting of the sun—ever prick him, he will clasp the soul of the night or dissolve the dawn’s freshness in his veins.
If I fail to see you there
I shall look
within the petals of the rose
the wind that whispers
with the restless clouds
above the heights of the hills.
I shall mark your shadow
also in waterfalls. (The Flame 131-132)
Sample another fantastic imagery where the poet’s optimism is evident:
I shall catch
glimpses of your elegance
in the glow of the candles
within the temple that I build
for you. (The Flame 132)
The flame is the binding force for families, planets, atoms, and every part of the individual. Life disintegrates where the rays of the flame do not reach. He concludes his marathon poem with the proclamation that the maniac messiahs can do nothing to dissuade him from his yearning for the flame:
I shall pursue my odyssey
through the barren regions of the moor
where the scamps of ego
erect deceitful caves
and reptiles of debasing bargain ramble.
The radiation of their enticements
shall fail to lead me
into the blindness of their hopeless