A review of Devadatta’s Poems by Judith Beveridge

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Devadatta’s Poems
By Judith Beveridge
Giramondo Press
April 2014, ISBN: 978-1-922146-52-6, 80pages, $24

Not that much is known about the historical character Devadatta, cousin of Siddhatta Gotama, the Buddha. Though much has been written about the Buddha, his shadowy cousin remains a secondary character throughout literature and historical texts, treated mainly as an evil and power hungry monk who attempted, unsuccessfully, to murder and usurp the Buddha’s power. In Devadatta’s Poems, Beveridge gives Devadatta a voice and a much richer characterisation, tracing his movement from ascetic devotee to jealous, murderous, and mostly ineffectual, rival. Although Devadatta’s Poems has been written as a companion piece to Beveridge’s sequences on Siddhattha Gotama and reading them together creates a wonderful balance between the forces of these character, it’s perfectly possible to read Devadatta’s Poems without reference to the other text.  Devedatta, though not exactly likeable, is a compelling character—enriched by his vast hunger, his aesthetic rather than ascetic perceptions, and the somewhat fun shadow he casts on his almost too perfect cousin.

Of course this is poetry, not an historical novel, so Beveridge’s Devadatta is both allegorical in his representation of the world of the senses, and also provides a hyper-sensual and moving exploration of the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of his world:

I smell ripe figs, dates, pomegranates; cumin and onions
sizzling in hot ghee. There are piles of sesame and honey cakes,
teas scented with cinnamon and cloves, but we must wait (“Alms Round, Sarnath”)

His childish coveting of his cousin is given more depth through an exploration of their youth together and the games they shared.  However, it is in Devadatta’s desire for Siddhatta’s wife Yasodhara and his ultimate hunger for glory and perhaps love in general, that makes Beveridge’s Devadatta more tragic than evil:

All they’ll think about
will be that Devadatta has come back and about how
their lives, at last,
feel as precious as silk
pulled through a ring. (“Return”)

Throughout the book, the language is soft and musical, using a range of techniques, repetition, enjambment, varied structure, and rhythms to create meaning through nuance and motion. Those poems, like “Tailspin”, that use shape create a sense of Devadatta’s journey, taking the reader down the page in a way that can be twisting, circular, or seemingly random, with starts and stops.

Beveridge’s India is as interesting as her characters, moving past rivers, foothills, wheat and mustard fields, and jungles “full of tigers rhinocerous, wild dogs.”

Towards the latter part of the book, Kapilavatthu, the town where both Devadatta and Siddhatta grew up, is referred to repeatedly, as Devadatta explores on his homesickness, and becomes nostalgic for a place already under siege and which will soon be destroyed:

Sometimes I wonder why I wobbled far into the distance
like an unhitched cart to bunker down to this life of alms,
slim pickings, lost hope. I cry for the blue and lilac
ring of hills and the shaded small valleys where I’d roam
as a child. (“Thinking of Kapilavatthu”)

Behind it all, almost as a theme, is Siddhatta’s religion: the asceticism and selflessness that Devadatta cannot emulate, despite his mantras and prayers. Devadatta rarely mentions Buddhism as such—he prays and fasts but never really embraces the notion of his own divinity—but the reader is allowed to perceive it, and Siddhatta’s grace is made evidence through through Devadatta’s jealous lens. Since we know that Buddhism will become a major world religion and Buddha will be revered by followers, Devadatta’s ill will takes on an irony so intense that we begin to feel some sympathy for Devadatta:

Four Noble Truths make the ever-increasing
Sangha where one day my name will be written
into infinity and Siddhattha’s will become a nullity,
a zero—his name never to be written anywhere, (“My Discourse on Counting”)

Devadatta’s Poems is a delightful book of poetry full of the kind of mischievous fun that comes with exploring a fallen character: an anti-hero already relegated, historically, to obscurity. Beveridge’s Devadatta is as compelling as he is repellant and his voice is one that will amuse, enlighten, and enrich readers.