Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr’s collection Series | India follows a group of westerners and others as they journey through India in search of enlightenment, and of an invisible river. Although the pilgrims are searching for meaning amidst worldly distractions, this is no instruction manual for decoding spiritual wisdom. Rather, the travelers here often find themselves questioning their place in India, and in samsara, our “chain of lives” (32). Despite India’s holy attributes–multi-armed gods, brilliant ashrams, and Banyan trees—there is a chaos all its own. Gray paints for us an image of India that is fruitful with wisdom, yet lush with an undeniable, and often perplexing, chaos and disorder.
Even during the first evening in this foreign land, the speaker sees firsthand how serenity and disorder collide:
He picked up the tray with both hands and cast the dye and flowers out
onto the zinc surface of the river. The boy rang the bell again,
stepped down the crumbled stairs and broke apart
into a conspiracy of monkeys that snattered loudly,
pinned the old man up against the water, and stole from his stained hands
leftover crumbs from his long words… (11)
From the beginning, India is portrayed as a land brimming with spiritual wisdom, of devout followers, of chanting and chimes. So different is this place from the hymnal calm of western faith and devotion. There is a sense of culture shock woven through the collection, as the reader follows the journey through “dark thickets of limbs and torsos toward taxis,” (10) through a land gilded with dust (51). The travelers have purposefully set out on a spiritual trek, and the questions and doubt they uncover as they go along are every bit as enlightening as the spiritual insight that is woven through this collection of poems.
The wisdom here is accessible even for readers unfamiliar with the Bhagavad Gita and other spiritual texts and the speaker is relatable in her willingness to share the questions, reasoning, and doubts that she experiences while in India and in the time following. Already by “14 Reasons I,” the reader learns that the justification for traveling through India is not clear-cut or abundantly obvious, even to those who’ve made the journey:
These imagined the ones who were coming,
who were destined to come, who
at the moment of their setting out had tried their best
to imagine what was waiting for them, what,
afterwards, in that life, they would say they found. (19)
Even the pilgrims are unsure of exactly what they are searching for. The end is unclear, but they know they are tired “…from wandering / aimlessly across the earth” (32). The travelers are physically tired from their journey, but they are tired, too, of their recurring cycle of life and death that keeps them from reaching the enlightenment they are so eager for.
The poem “35 Going East” begins, “At some point isn’t it just going / west? Follow that Bodhisattva / far enough east and you’re back / in some Berkeley, dense with dope / and earnest adherents” (45). The question is begged, is a pilgrimage to India necessary for obtaining spiritual wisdom? In “12 Banyan,” a traveler from Minsk offers some wisdom, and the speaker questions it:
“Everywhere can see forest but not tree.”
But hadn’t that single pure core,
unspooled in the Upanishads,
been available before, at home… (16)
Again and again spiritual texts, the Upanishads and Gita, are mentioned for the wisdom and insight they share. Yet, these books are widely available in America and around the world, and their messages are available to anyone with the ability to read them. So, why the journey through a landscape of pregnant cows and “clots of garbage” (51)? The journey is not sugarcoated, and the frustration and self-doubt of the speaker is portrayed openly and honestly. After the death of a fellow traveler, the speaker in “45 Sunday Morning,” proclaims, “My friend was not clay and glitter not an image of some orange god / not a version or bizarre incarnation of smudged attributes not something / you people bow to and chant at and throw your food and savings and shirts…” (60). In an outpouring of sentiments, the speaker begins to abuse the life she has traveled far to experience. The journey is neither easy nor pleasant, yet India has an undeniable allure.
In the collection’s final poem, the speaker admits that even after leaving India, the experience is lasting:
Later I remembered looking up at our window
that could never have opened out
onto mornings thick with frangipani and dung-fire,
nor offered, in the middle distance, a view
of the old banyan by the well… (81)
The images, the smells, and relics of India have found a place for themselves in the speaker’s memory. Without doubt, the journey has allowed for the imagery and wisdom of ancient texts and stories to come alive.
India is portrayed here in equal parts mystique and chaos. A land spiritually rich with its holy rivers, colorful goddesses, and elaborate festivals has, too, “…trampled pilgrims and an ash-smeared / leper dancing his feet off” (70) portrayed in photos of Kumbh Mela. In this collection Gray approaches her India with an openness to accept the wisdom offered, but not without asking questions of the chaotic setting, and her place within it. In “23 The Guru,” the speaker observes,
…While it had been okay
for sweepers and pyre-makers
to be aloof yet rich
with meaning, blonde Louise
cleaning ashram latrines, green eyes
overflowing with devotion–was this
horrifying or proof? (30-1)
In many ways, it seems, the question alone is wisdom enough for now, for this life.