‘Small Towns and The River’ by Mamang Dai is a poem about life and mortality. The town symbolizing death presents a weeping picture of those who have lost their dear ones. In this poem, not only the poet grieves but the town also mourns the loss. Moreover, the poet presents a contrast in the image of the river that lives eternally. Whereas, humans are prone to death and decay. However, the symbolism and the imagery used in the poem make the poet’s idea more thought-provoking and interesting to the readers.
‘Small Towns and The River’ by Mamang Dai presents a dusty and gloomy picture of small towns in the first two stanzas. According to the poet, in small towns, every other day news of someone’s death comes and makes one sad. In contrast, the following stanzas, depict the immortality of the river that flows by the towns. The river is permanent in comparison to people living in the towns. Moreover, in the following stanzas, the poet talks about eternal life. The concept of the afterlife and having God as a guide pacifies the poet amidst the death-ridden thoughts which constantly cause pain to her soul.
You can read the full poem here.
‘Small Towns and The River’ by Mamang Dai consists of four stanzas each having an irregular line-count. The overall poem doesn’t contain any specific rhyme scheme. But, the rhythm of the poem isn’t monotonous at all. The flow depends on the intricacy of internal rhyming. Moreover, there are a few instances where the poet uses slant rhymes. Apart from that, the metrical scheme of the poem is also irregular. As the syllable count differs in each line, it is hard to frame the lyric in a specific meter. For reference, the first line begins with a spondee followed by iambic feet. And, in most of the cases, the poet uses the iambic meter accompanied by the anapestic meter.
‘Small Towns and The River’ by Mamang Dai begins with a paradox. Poets generally associate the idea of death with small towns or any such habitations. In this stanza, there is personification. Here, the poet personifies her “hometown”, “dust”, and “wind”. Moving forward, in “dreadful silence” there is a personal metaphor. Apart from that, the lines of the second stanza, as well as the other stanzas, mostly get connected by the use of enjambment. However, in “sad wreath of tuberoses”, the poet uses pathetic fallacy. Along with that, there is an epigram in “Life and death, life and death,/ only the rituals are permanent.” In the third stanza, there is a simile in the comparison between the river to a “torrent of grief”. In “torrent of grief” there is a metaphor.
There is a refrain, “The river has a soul” at the beginning of the fifth stanza. Moreover, in “mist on the mountaintops”, there is alliteration. Here, the “m” sound gets repeated. In the following stanza, there is metonymy in “golden east”. And the “house of the sun” contains a circumlocution or periphrasis. However, the last two lines contain another paradox. The meaning of these two lines depends on the idea present in the previous sections of the poem.
‘Small Towns and The River’ by Mamang Dai contains some important themes such as mortality, life vs death, eternity, nature, and spirituality. The theme of mortality haunts the poet the most. Through the symbol of “small towns”, the poet introduces this theme. Moreover, the theme of life vs death is integral to the poetic reflection on mortality. The imagery used to depict this theme can be found in the “wreath of tuberoses” and the river that remains constant throughout the poem. In the poem, the river symbolically depicts nature and its permanence. Apart from that, the poet resorts to the cozy bosom of spirituality for recovering from grief. The hope of the afterlife gives the poet peace of mind.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
Small towns always remind me of death.
or the wind howling down the gorge.
‘Small Towns and The River’ by Mamang Dai introduces the first paradox of the poem. The poet says the “small towns” remind her of nothing other than death. She lives in a town amidst the trees but the life there is the same. According to the poet, living in the town is a monotonous journey that ends at the hands of death. Here, the dust is a synecdoche that presents another symbol of death in this section. Moreover, the howling of the wind creates a gloomy mood. Here, the use of onomatopoeia resonates with a pessimistic note.
Just the other day someone died.
only the rituals are permanent.
‘Small Towns and The River’ by Mamang Dai presents the theme of death in the second stanza. Just the other day someone dies in small towns. The news makes the poet sad and she mourns the loss. After seeing the sad wreath lying on a dead person’s bosom somehow reminds the poet of her mortality. Here, the poet presents the tuberose as a messenger of death. Moreover, there is a repetition of “Life and death” in this stanza. It refers to a continuous cycle of life and death. These two things are temporary. According to the poet, “only the rituals are permanent”. Here, the poet turns the maxim, “Nothing is permanent except birth and death”, upside down. The last two lines reflect the poet’s disillusionment about life after seeing many deaths.
The river has a soul.
seeking a land of fish and stars
In the third stanza of ‘Small Towns and The River’ by Mamang Dai, the poet presents a contrast. Whereas in the previous section she discussed mortality. In this section, she highlights the permanence of the river. She says the river has a soul. In summer it flows across lands. Here, she uses the metaphor of “torrent of grief” to portray the river’s course in the dry season. Moreover, the poet personifies the river to invest it with the ideas of holding the breath and seeking something. She thinks as if the river is an explorer who seeks the land of fish and stars. This imagery reflects the course of the river water and its flow.
The river has a soul.
the immortality of water.
In the fourth stanza of ‘Small Towns and The River’, Mamang Dai reiterates, “The river has a soul”. The river knows about the towns where death lays her icy hands. Her knowledge isn’t limited to towns only. She knows the first drop of rain that rejuvenates the dry earth and the mist on the mountaintops that circles the mountain like a scarf. Last but not least, she is aware of the immortality of water. In this way, the poet also immortalizes the river.
A shrine of happy pictures
into the house of the sun.
The fifth stanza of ‘Small Towns and The River’, presents another contrast. Firstly, Mamang Dai refers to the “shrine of happy pictures” of childhood. Childhood is the beginning stage of life. The happy pictures of one’s childhood remind her of the purity of the soul at its dawn. That’s why she compares the childhood days to a shrine. In contrast, small towns grow anxious about the future. It’s the poet’s anxiety about death that eagerly awaits in the future. In the following lines, the poet refers to the eternity of the soul. The hope of shedding off the mortal burden and ascending to the “house of the sun” in the “golden east” revives the poet with new energy.
In the cool bamboo,
life matters, like this.
‘Small Towns and The River’ by Mamang Dai the meaning of life and its importance in this short stanza. According to the poet, life is like the sunlight that warms the cool bamboo. It’s temporary and still beautiful. Moreover, the “cool bamboo” is a reference to the body and the sunlight is a symbol of the soul. Apart from that, the poet says sunlight is important to any living plants. Likewise, life is also important for keeping the spirit of the universe alive.
In small towns by the river
we all want to walk with the gods.
In the last two lines of ‘Small Towns and The River’, Mamang Dai transplants her dead thoughts from her mind. She says living in small towns has made the poet strong. Now, the thoughts of spirituality and eternity are in her mind. Like the poet, others of the “small towns” only wish to “walk with the gods” after their death. This section highlights the poet’s belief in the afterlife and eternal bliss. Apart from that, there is a repetition of the “w” sound in the last line. Such a harmonious rhythm reflects the poet’s peaceful state of mind.
‘Small Towns and The River’ by Mamang Dai belongs to the poetry collection “River Poems” (2004). Mamang Dai is a poet based in Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh. She was born in Pasighat of East Siang District. In this poem, the imagery of the small towns, the river, and the gorge reflect her proximity to her native place. In every subtle movement in the poem, the essence of Arunachal Pradesh is there. Moreover, the reference to the tuberoses and the spiritual elements in the poem presents the Indianness of the text to the readers. Apart from that, the poem reflects how close the people of the Indian “small towns” are. The death of a person in the neighborhood somehow pains the whole town. In this way, the poet depicts the nature and values of the people living in the villages and small towns of India.
Like ‘Small Towns and The River’ by Mamang Dai, here is a list of a few poems that talk about the themes of life vs death and spirituality.
- The Voice of the Mountain by Mamang Dai – This poem by Mamang Dai also presents a macrocosmic picture of India through the image of the mountain.
- A River by A. K. Ramanujan – Talks about a river in Madurai, a city in India.
- The River God by Stevie Smith – Here, Stevie Smith describes the god-like river.
- Death of a Naturalist by Seamus Heaney – This one of the best Seamus Heaney poems, depicts the harsher side of nature and death.