A TIME TO CHANGE (1952)
Ezekiel's first collection of poetry, A Time To Change, is largely concerned with the writing process, poetry, religion, and spirituality. Ezekiel's earlier works, as exemplified by this collection, are characterized by lofty language and an acute focus on rhyme, meter, and poetic form. The lines of each of the poems are similar in length, and if the poem has stanzas, every stanza has a similar number of lines. Thus, the poems in A Time to Change are overwhelmingly symmetric, which further emphasizes Ezekiel's early reliance upon a strict poetic form. Unlike Ezekiel's later collections, which focus on the specifics of daily Indian life, A Time to Change tackles larger concerns, such as the power and accuracy of communication, the limits of language, the natural world, sexuality, human nature, and religion. A common characteristic of Ezekiel's early work is that the titles of the poem are directly related to and even describe the content of the poem itself. In comparison to Ezekiel's later works, the poems in A Time to Change feel much more formal and less conversational. Additionally, these early poems display an interest in global issues instead of addressing the specifics of life in India. As a whole, this work employs methods of thinking and of using language that call back to a classical Western tradition.
One of the most pervasive themes throughout A Time to Change is the power (and limits) of language to portray the human condition. For example, the titular poem, "A Time to Change," is concerned with authenticity and the duty of the poet to employ "precise communication" (5). The speaker imagines the poet as a "stubborn workman" who labors over language in the hopes that the "secret faults" of the world are "concealed no more" (5). "On Meeting a Pedant," a later poem, touches on the limits of language as compared to lived experience. The speaker compares language to "a Chinese Wall" which "rots the impulse" of the lived world (9). As a result of this observation, the speaker demands the pleasures of the world while revoking language: "Give me touch of men and give me smell of / Fornication, pregnancy and spices. / But spare me words as cold as print, insidious / Words, dressed in evening clothes for drawing rooms" (9). In "A Word for the Wind," towards the middle of the collection, the speaker laments being unable to find a specific word that describes the wind: "I cannot find a word for the wind" (21). This poem uses irony, however, to show that the speaker does, in fact, know how to describe the wind through his imagery and rhythm. His words wind through the poem with a movement that evokes wind.
The theme of the power (and limits) of language arises again in "Advice." In the poem, the speaker relays advice he gave to an acquaintance, including telling him to "be tolerant" and "creative" (22). However, by the end of the poem, the speaker reveals that the person he is giving advice to is actually dying: "And then I watched him die and turned away, / Could not save him, merely had my say" (23). As a whole, the poem communicates Ezekiel's anxiety about the futility of language in the face of real-world consequences. The poet uses the interaction between the speaker and the dying man as a meditation on the efficacy of language when life and death are at stake. In a certain way, Ezekiel questions the power of poetry in this poem, and in turn, questions himself: do his poems hold any real weight in the real world?
SIXTY POEMS (1953)
Ezekiel's second collection of poetry, Sixty Poems, contains a similar tone to Ezekiel's first collection of poems, A Time to Change. Like the first collection, the poems in this collection use lofty language and tend to focus on broad subjects, such as the power of language, nature, and love. Additionally, Ezekiel employs strict forms and rhyme schemes, something that he does less and less later in his career. Aesthetically, Sixty Poems resembles A Time to Change in that each of the poem titles is succinct and directly relates to the content of the poem, the poems use language that is both straightforward and elevated, and the poems are symmetrical both in their line lengths and in the number of lines per stanza. However, Sixty Poems also demonstrates Ezekiel's growth as a poet over the course of the year that separates his first publication and his second. In Sixty Poems, Ezekiel begins to play with voice and perspective. For example, in the opening poem of the collection, "A Poem of Dedication," Ezekiel relates a perspective that is not situated as coming from an "I." Unlike any of the poems in his first collection, this poem uses the passive voice to remove the speaker from the poem completely. For example, in these few lines, "the mind" is represented as a disembodied creature rather than an actual person: "suddenly the mind is loosed of chains / And purifies itself before the warm / Mediterranean" (39).
As the poems progress in Sixty Poems, Ezekiel plays more and more with form. For example, the poem “Lamentation” is simply a run-on sentence, which is given rhythm and life through its line breaks. It is the first of Ezekiel’s poems that contains no punctuation until the final period at the end of the last line. As a result, the poem is much more colloquial than previous works, especially since it avoids a stuffy rhyme scheme and meter. “Lamentation” also places much more trust in the reader to put in the work in understanding the poem, since it doesn’t have grammatically correct punctuation or even a specific narrative to guide the way. In turn, the poem itself is much more musical and emotionally stirring than Ezekiel’s previous work, as each line flows into the next without stopping, like water: “But I am bare beside the abounding sea / Rivers feed my roots yet I do not prosper / Day unto day no speech is spoken” (72). The lack of punctuation throughout the poem also endows the final line, which includes a period, with a staggering power despite the fact that it begins with the conjunction “and”: “Give me vision and I shall be clean / Slack and slow no more to hear instruction / And let my leaf be green with love / And let me live” (72).
A theme from A Time to Change that arises again in Sixty Poems is the power and limits of language. The first poem of the collection is an ars poetica, which means it is a poem about the writing process itself. The speaker and the poet become one in this poem as Ezekiel dedicates the entire work to an Elizabeth that he knows from his personal life: "This, Elizabeth, is my creation, / Stated in the terms of poetry, / I offer it to you in dedication" (40). This poem introduces Sixty Poems in a way in which Ezekiel is acutely aware of the artifice of the writing process as well as the fact that language, once it is written "in the terms of poetry," becomes an entity in of itself. These final lines are a clear demonstration as to how Sixty Poems is different from A Time to Change—Ezekiel's poetic voice emerges and becomes more vibrant. As Ezekiel's poetic voice becomes more powerful, his language becomes simpler and more direct. By comparing A Time to Change and Sixty Poems, we see the beginnings of Ezekiel's realistic and sardonic voice emerge, a voice that we will come to know so well from his later poems.
Two major themes throughout Sixty Poems are love and religion. These themes collide in the poem "Two Nights of Love," which meditates on love, sexuality, and the Christian God. The speaker demonstrates a separation between physical love (or sexuality) and emotional love, which he is able to attain once he is asleep: "After a night of love I dreamt of love / Unconfined to threshing thighs and breasts / That bear the weight of me with spirit / Light and free" (47). The speaker is able to access the emotional plane of love once he has left his body. This love is "unconfined" and "free." He compares this feeling of emotional love to religious feelings: "I wanted to be bound / Within a freedom fresh as God's name / Through all the centuries of Godlessness" (47).
Ezekiel also uses Sixty Poems as a way to play with perspective in new and interesting ways. He often utilizes shifts in perspective to communicate certain themes and give them depth. For example, the back-to-back poems “Nakedness I” and “Nakedness II” relate the same scene but from different points of view. Each poem centers on a man sitting naked on a bed, examining his body and how he feels about it. The first poem is in the voice of the man, while the second poem is in the second person and seems to be coming from an observer. In the first poem, the speaker looks at his body and wonders why it does not match his spirit: “Why, then, are limbs so sad, so thin, / So shapeless, white and lost to earth, / As though no maleness lived in them?” (60). In “Nakedness II,” the reader watches the man think these things from an outside perspective. Interestingly, this second poem does not shy away from diving into the man’s psyche and instead gives us another vantage point into what he is thinking: “Meager was the flow of muscle / And the bone not bountiful / But all was soft and small and spare / And nothing quite his own but separate” (60). When read together, these poems communicate a theme that Ezekiel spends a lot of time working through in his Collected Poems: that of self-knowledge. In each poem, the man does not recognize himself, and this failure is known both by him and by the outsider that is watching him. Thus, even when you are looking at your own body, it is not an accurate indicator of who you are as a person.
THE THIRD (1958)
Ezekiel’s third collection of poems, The Third, published 5 years after Sixty Poems, marks a tangible change in his poetic style and register. Scholars mark this work as a change in Ezekiel’s tone, as he strives for a change, for future progress, and finds himself frustrated with the results. As Surjit S. Dulai notes in “Nissim Ezekiel: The Father of Contemporary Indian English Poetry,” “the dominant note [in The Third] is one of feeling at a dead end, of a sense of failure to continue to create.” Other scholars have noted that all of the poems in this collection fit more cohesively together than in Ezekiel’s previous two collections. Dulai emphasizes: “Despite the disappointment at not being able to move forward, the mood and tone are not somber or, excepting one or two poems, filled with frustration and anger. There is a feeling of lightheartedness verging on the flippant. The poet can distance himself from experience to take an ironic look at it.” The lofty registers of the previous two collections come down to earth as a more experienced poet meditates on existence, subjectivity, religion, and self-knowledge.
Formally, The Third is very similar to A Time to Change, as Ezekiel returns again to stricter rhyme schemes and meters. While these at-times-restrictive forms felt stuffy in Ezekiel’s first collection, he effortlessly manipulates them in The Third to bring levity and musicality to a much more serious subject matter than before. The poems in this collection all adhere to a two-beat rhythm that creates a hypnotizing effect when you are reading them to yourself. They march along the page with ease and fluidity—which is not an easy feat when adhering to such strict form.
The largest theme throughout The Third is self-knowledge. This is immediately evident from the very first poem of the collection, “Portrait,” in which the speaker notes a separation between someone’s ‘true self’ and the person they seem to be through their daily actions: “Beneath his daily strategy, / Reflected in his suffering face, / I see his dim identity, / A small, deserted, holy place” (87). That true identity, which is hidden from the public eye and must be nurtured, is “holy” to the speaker, who searches for it incessantly in the coming pages. Similarly, in “Paean,” the speaker focuses on the body, and personifies it to describe how it must feel during the day-to-day. This focus on the body has a poignant result, however, as it emphasizes for the speaker how separate each and every one of us really is: “The limbs are shaped to lock / And love, the eyes—they say—show a strange light, / And lives are welded which exist apart” (92). This passage suggests that a person’s “true” life is isolated from others because the body is in the way, with its demands and discomforts. Ezekiel constructs a prevailing mood of loneliness and isolation as he considers the ‘true self.’ This mood turns into one of panic and fear later in the collection, as the speaker considers all of the choices he has made and wonders if they were conducted by the ‘true self’ or by the mask that he shows the world. In “What Frightens Me,” the speaker relates that he is unsure about his entire life: “I have long watched myself / Remotely doing what I had to do, / At times ashamed but always / Rationalizing all I do. / … / I have seen the mask / And the secret behind the mask” (106). This fear, which is borne from the speaker feeling like he has simply been on auto-pilot, is connected to his daily actions and responsibilities. In every example outlined above, it is the speaker’s daily responsibilities and the demands from society that cause a rupture between the mask that the world sees and the naked inner self. At this point in his career, Ezekiel sees the inner self as crying out for help, lost in a world where it is invisible and rarely seen.
Another marked change in The Third from Ezekiel’s earlier works is his approach to love. As a younger poet, Ezekiel delights in the love poem and writes often about the joy in love. In The Third, however, his perspective on love shifts, and instead he suggests that love is merely an illusion. In “For Her,” he separates the idea of love from actual love and suggests that the feeling that lasts the longest is merely the illusion: “It is the analogy that burns, / But staying bright, makes the eyes glow. / Our lives are centered there. We cannot love / Without the idea of love” (88). Thus, love, like the daily processes that stifle the individual’s identity, is more of an idea than a reality, and it may get in the way of true knowledge. Similarly, in “Admission,” the speaker warns the reader against succumbing to despair, even if seeing the world through his eyes would have precisely that effect: “Do not admit the monstrous truth, the touch / Of cold and cowardice in stubborn dreams, / Seasonal despair, love and other such / Illusions cast into the mindless streams” (89). This poem sets love up as merely an “illusion”—an illusion that is necessary for avoiding utter despair.
THE UNFINISHED MAN (196)
Ezekiel’s fourth collection of poetry, The Unfinished Man, is his shortest collection, with only ten poems. In 1959, Ezekiel joined a Writers Workshop in Calcutta of Indian poets that became one of the main publishers of contemporary Indian literature. The Unfinished Man was one of the first books published by the collective. Scholars see The Unfinished Man as a turning point in Ezekiel’s poetry, as Ezekiel begins to accept that the desperate quest for self-knowledge might be impossible to achieve. Like The Third, the poems in The Unfinished Man contain very strict rhyme and meter schemes and a cuttingly satirical tone. As the epigraph to The Unfinished Man, written by Yeats, shows us, this collection is concerned with the condition of living in the modern world and transitioning from “boyhood” into adulthood.
A major theme in this short collection is that of the difference between the city and nature—particularly the poisonous danger of the city as compared to the idyllic beauty of nature. In “Urban,” the speaker is drowning among the cityscape and yearns for a chance to see nature. However, once in the city there is no escape, as the speaker always forgets his wishes in the face of familial obligation. Similarly, in “Morning Walk,” the speaker compares a city view to Dante’s inferno: “Barbaric city sick with slums / Deprived of seasons, blessed with rains / Its hawkers, beggars, iron-lunged, / Processions led by frantic drums, / A million purgatorial lanes, / And child-like masses, many-tongued, / Whose wages are in words and crumbs” (119).
Another theme that arises in this collection is that of love, particularly when it comes to the extent to which a relationship, particularly a marriage, can fail. In “Event,” the speaker’s wife attempts to chat with him in ways that leave him unsatisfied. He sees his wife as “naïve” and “like a child,” which allows him to enter this marriage from a “remote” position and “live in day-dreams” (123). The speaker believes that neither his wife’s love nor wit is real, and she is merely performing for him because of convention. This poem shows a cynicism towards male-female partnerships as well as the function of marriage as an institution. Similarly, “Marriage” begins hopeful but ends up dry and repetitive: “However many times we came / Apart, we came together. The same / Thing over and over again” (124). Ezekiel sums up his opinion of marriage in “Case Study,” the second-to-last poem of the collection: “A man is damned in that domestic game” (125).
THE EXACT NAME (1965)
In The Exact Name, Ezekiel tries to describe the world through the process of nomenclature. His opening wish, expressed by Juan Ramon Jimenez in the epigraph of the collection, warns the reader of his project: “Intelligence, give me / The exact name of things! / Let my word be / The thing itself, / Newly created by my soul” (127). In this way, the poems in The Exact Name are characterized by newness—the speaker of these poems is seeing his subject as if through a new light. Surjit Dulai writes: “In The Exact Name Ezekiel seeks an Adamic view of the world. He wants to see the world as if it were new and just created” (Dulai, 156). From the first poem of the collection, “Philosophy,” Ezekiel sets up his new project as a push against “nakedness”: “The mundane language of the senses sings / Its own interpretations. Common things / Become, by virtue of their commonness, / An argument against the nakedness / That dies of cold to find the truth it brings” (129). Critics praised The Exact Name when it was first released, lauding it as a new step in Ezekiel’s poetic career. Christopher Wiseman wrote in 1967 of the impact of the work: “In this collection we can see a poet in transition; a new voice slowly making itself heard as an important poet tries to cast off derivative techniques and break away from forms which are beginning to stifle and constrict him in a damaging way” (Wiseman, 241).
In this collection of poems, Ezekiel begins to truly dive into his Indian identity, a theme that propels a lot of his writing for the rest of his career. Unlike the collections that came before The Exact Name, the poems in this collection rarely adhere to a strict poetic form or rhyme scheme. Instead, they embrace a more colloquial tone as Ezekiel embraces the everyday as a subject of inquiry and artfulness. “Night of the Scorpion,” perhaps Ezekiel’s most famous poem, opens the theme of Indian identity as the speaker recalls a moment from his childhood when his mother was bitten by a scorpion. The poem not only relays the memory but also deals with questions of cultural competency, class dynamics, collective support through community, and local folklore. (A longer analysis of “Night of the Scorpion” follows in the Summary and Analysis section of this guide.)
Due to the nature of the project in The Exact Name, many of the poems have to do with poetry and the writing process. For example, “Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher” (also analyzed in detail in the Summary and Analysis section) posits that the project of writing poetry should be like bird watching, in which a poet patiently waits for the words to come. This kind of writing requires alone time, relaxation, and immersion in nature. It is explicitly separate from the urban landscape that distressed Ezekiel in earlier works. “Poetry Reading,” which follows “Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher,” describes a scene from the audience of a poetry reading in which the poet’s words turn into tangible “silver coins” and he fills the room with his poetry (136). An example of a poem from this collection that is very focused on language is “A Conjugation,” in which Ezekiel conjugates the verb “to pretend” in English and creates a linguistic poem that is equally as rhythmic and filled with meaning as his other pieces: “Pretense, to pretend. I will not pretend, / You will not pretend, we will not pretend, / They will not pretend. / No more pretense, An end / To pretension” (146).
An interesting theme that arises in The Exact Name is that of gender dynamics. Though Ezekiel writes about women in every single one of his collections, the poems in this collection are markedly more interesting in terms of their content. In the first poem about a woman, “Virginal,” the speaker declares that he knows that a woman he is addressing is sad because she does not have a husband. “A Woman Observed,” a few poems later, expresses the speaker’s discomfort at seeing a woman in an art gallery while pregnant. He lustily and sadly watches her body as she walks away. In “A Warning,” the speaker warns a friend of his to face the path when sitting near the sea, lest a male stranger comes up and pushes her in the water. He tells her that it would be best if she were to hang onto the wall, because he doesn’t “want to hear [her] scream” (141).
POEMS (1965-1974) and POEMS WRITTEN IN 1974
In the late 60s, Ezekiel left the Writers Workshop in Calcutta, and his next collection was not published until 1976, with Oxford University Press. However, the poems that Ezekiel wrote in between The Exact Name and Hymns in Darkness (1976) are anthologized in the Collected Works. In these poems, Ezekiel continues his focus on the specificity of language, poetry, gender, and Indian identity. Stylistically, these poems no longer use the rhyme scheme or strict meter of the earlier collections. Compared to Ezekiel’s earlier poetry, the stanzas are longer and the lines are shorter—only about three words long. This adds to the colloquial tone, which Ezekiel perfects and homes in on in these years.
Overall, these poems are more colloquial in tone than anything else Ezekiel has written; yet they remain true to his poetic voice and register. For example, in “Three Women,” the speaker uses direct language to describe the “directness” of these three women’s spirits: “They spoke the language / of food and love / naturally / as a mother-tongue; / no problem here / of accent or of intonation” (151). Similarly, the speaker’s language uses no frills or fancy tricks when addressing his subject in “Motives”: “My motives are sexual, / aesthetic and friendly, / in that order, adding up / to bed with you” (154). These poems are a great indicator of Ezekiel’s mature voice as a poet, which is characterized by directness, simplicity of language, and honesty. The lofty language and metered rhymes of A Time for Change are over.
A new theme that arises in these poems is personal autonomy despite consequences. In “Transparently,” the speaker laments: “How many times / have I felt free? / How many times / Spontaneous? / It’s fantastic / what a slave / a man can be / who has nobody / to oppress him / except himself” (149). In Ezekiel’s poetry, the speaker has moved on from wanting to know himself to wanting to be free from himself. Similarly, he asks himself, in “Drawing Room,” “And what am I doing here / pretending to be nice?” (172). The speaker yearns to do away with social norms and allow himself to be truly free.
HYMNS IN DARKNESS (1976)
Hymns in Darkness, published after an eleven-year publishing hiatus, is Ezekiel’s longest collection of poetry. Since Ezekiel had eleven years to work on the manuscript, it contains a lot of variety. As Surjit Dulai notes, “Held from publishing a collection for more than a decade, Ezekiel included in Hymns in Darkness poems on diverse themes. The book does not have the same kind of unity as the previous three volumes” (160). Like The Unfinished Man and The Exact Name, the beginning of Hymns in Darkness focuses on the everyday. As Ezekiel ages and stays in India, he writes more and more poems of social criticism. His poems include many more details about daily Indian life, as evidenced by Ezekiel’s implementation of footnotes that tell you the details you need to know within each section.
There is a shift in tone from the earlier collections of poems to Hymns in Darkness. As the title suggests, the poems situate themselves within some version of darkness, including an evil beachscape, as in the first poem of the collection, “Subject of Change.” In “Subject of Change,” the speaker shares his emotions through powerful imagistic descriptions of his environment: “The people walk, and eat. The waves / Rise and fall like nightmare graves / That cannot hold their dead. The sky / Is smaller than this open eye” (177). Previously, the natural world was portrayed lovingly and realistically in Ezekiel’s work. This is the first time that the natural world is a threat itself and it causes an uncanny tension on the page.
In “Background, Casually,” Ezekiel tells the reader about his life, relating that he “went to Roman Catholic school, / A mugging Jew among the wolves” (179). He tells the reader that when he was 22, he decided to go abroad to London once he found a friend to pay the fare: “Philosophy, / Poverty, and Poetry, three / Companions shared my basement room” (179). He also meditates on himself now that he has entered middle age: “I look at me now, and try / To formulate a plainer view: / The wise survive and serve—to play / The fool, to cash in on / The inner and the outer storms” (181). Finally, he turns to talk about India and his own identity. He expands upon his time abroad in “London,” in which he muses that he still feels like he’s there: “Sometimes I think I’m still / in that basement room, / a permanent and proud / metaphor of struggle / for and against the same / creative, self-destructive self” (199).
In this collection, Ezekiel pushes beyond the boundaries of his own voice and his own usage of language to adopt different personas and accents. For example, in “The Railway Clerk,” the speaker is the railway clerk, who does not speak English as well as Ezekiel and yet clearly and evocatively gets across his concerns. Similarly, in “The Truth about the Floods,” Ezekiel adopts the voice of a journalist who goes into poor urban towns to interview their residents: “At Badapal / I heard the children / wail with hunger. / An atmosphere of despair / pervaded the village. / I asked the men to help me / organize relief, / but they turned their backs on me / till I told them I wasn’t a government official” (188).
Often, Ezekiel’s playfulness when it comes to perspective has satirical effects. For example, in “Ganga,” the speaker adopts the register of a wealthy Indian family that pride themselves “on generosity / to servants” (202). The speaker adopts a haughty attitude towards his servant Ganga, which is revealed to be particularly harmful and condescending by the end of the poem: “She brings a smell with her / and leaves it behind her, / but we are used to it. / These people never learn” (202). As a result, the voice is simultaneously self-aggrandizing and hateful towards others. The poem as a whole is a cutting condemnation of elitist structures in Indian society. It is so oblivious about its own elitism and hypocrisy that it becomes humorous. Additionally, as Surjit Dalai notes, “’Ganga’ is a sarcastic play on the proverbial notion about the Ganges as the river of abundance” (162). Ezekiel routinely adopts the voices of others and uses other cultural markers to highlight what he sees as the problems of his society.
LATER-DAY PSALMS (1982)
Latter-Day Psalms is Ezekiel’s last major published work. This collection continues the themes we have already seen in Ezekiel’s earlier work. Like the poems in Hymns of Darkness, these poems focus on what it means to live in India, often with a satirical tone. For example, “Poverty Poem,” the second poem of the collection, relates a conversation between the speaker and a white foreigner to India. The speaker’s friend is taken aback by the friendliness of the poor people she sees on the streets: “Before he released me, / he smiled and I smiled back, / I turned and gave him a coin, / past belief in that or anything” (230). The speaker does not tell his friend that “beggars in India / smile only at white foreigners” (231). “Healers” satirizes the healers in Indian society that promise anything and everything to anyone and don’t demand any effort to improve: “Sex is prohibited or allowed. / Meat and drink are prohibited / or allowed. Give up / everything or nothing / and be saved … / God’s love remains your heritage. / You need not change / your way of life” (231).
In Latter-day Psalms, Ezekiel also widens his scope from Indian society as a whole to more specific communities therein. For example, “Jewish Wedding in Bombay” presents a Jewish wedding that “delighted all the neighbours’ children, who never stopped staring” (234). The speaker, who is the bridegroom, quickly reveals his status within his own society: “There was no dowry because they knew I was ‘modern’ / and claimed to be modern too” (234). Neither the bride and groom, nor their families, seem to take the entire day seriously: “I don’t think there was much / that struck me as solemn or beautiful. Mostly, we were / amused, and so were the others. / Who knows how much belief / we had?” (235). Ezekiel also meditates on Jewish identity in “Latter-Day Psalms.” This poetic sequence was written in response to 10 of the most famous psalms in the Bible. In the fifth psalm, the speaker grapples with religion in the face of human evil: “Vain is the help of man, / and vain everything else. / Did none pray who was ca- / ught in the Holocaust?” (256). Near the end of the poem, he exalts in religion and his poetry: “The images are beautiful birds / and colorful fish: they fly, / they swim in my Jewish consciousness” (261).
Ezekiel also returns to the themes of love and sexuality in this work. In “from Songs for Nandu Bhende,” Ezekiel touches on marriage in part 2 of the poem: “Song to be Shouted Out.” In the poem, the speaker describes coming home every evening to be shouted at by his wife: “I come home in the evening / and my wife shouts at me: / Did you post that letter? / Did you make that telephone call? / Did you pay that bill? / What did you do all day?” (241). The speaker responds: “Shout at me, woman! / What else are wives for?” (242). We see a more positive view of love and sexuality in “Nudes 1978.” In this poem, the speaker describes his body as an expression of his love: “It is not the subject of my love / but a form, an art / in which I am absorbed” (245).
The poems that were published in the later part of Ezekiel’s life are emblematic of the aesthetic and thematic transition that we have traced thus far in Ezekiel’s writing. They are about a broad range of subjects and flow in free form. They dive deeper into issues of self-doubt, identity, Indianness, sexuality, and love. Ezekiel also turns his gaze towards himself and demonstrates an honest self-regard in these later poems. For example, in “Woman and Child,” Ezekiel allows himself to write about a love affair in a way that almost criticizes his own treatment of women: “Male master of the glib promise, / I swear I will not step on her” (267). The themes of skepticism, love, and religion also mingle in “Woman and Child,” when the speaker tells his lover that he has prayed for her. Her response speaks to a general attitude towards religion that stretches across the Collected Poems: “she says dejectedly, hypocrites, / to pray without belief in prayer / when we don’t know what to do” (268). Ezekiel also displays self-awareness in “A Different Way,” in which he describes his own opinion of religion: “Skeptical as always, / I cannot go in search of it / to an ashram, or settle down alone / on the top of a mountain, / with an assured income of some sort / and a servant to do the cooking” (272).
The theme of Indian identity can also be found in these later poems. Ezekiel also includes a continuation of “Very Indian Poems in Indian English” in this later collection. This poem, like the other ones in the series, considers what it’s like to speak “Indian English” and endows the hybrid language with legitimacy and levity. Ezekiel’s eternal humor also emerges, as the speaker of the poem relates a fight with a shopkeeper and notes their use of Hindi is not as good as their use of English: “So I’m saying very politely— / though in Hindi I’m saying it, / and my Hindi is not so good as my English” (269). In “Occasion,” Ezekiel again adopts the voice of the privileged middle class as the speaker and his friend pity the friend’s typist. Meanwhile, they are being served by a servant: “We click our tongues, / sip our drinks, / a servant brings us snacks” (277). The friend complains about living in India with the speaker: “I tell you, we should have left / this country twenty years ago. / Now it’s too late. There’s no future for us” (277). The tension between the friend’s perceived ‘lack of future’ and his own social status speaks to privileged blindness that becomes funny—the ironic and scalding tone turning in to humor, as many of Ezekiel’s poems do.