Review by Shaily Sahay for Kitaab
Mumbai rains were at their swollen best, slashing my windows as I read through the first section of poems, Water on Ink. And these stanzas, the first and the last, from the poem by the same name,
“Shadows quarter the rain
You’re wrapped in yourself
The street flows on.
All sketches on water by ink
All words on lines by language
All these un-fairy faces are I. Me.”
told me, that the poetry collection, Blue Vessel, by novelist and poet Nabina Das is misleading in its slimness, and that I shall not want to finish it in a single sitting.
The first section is sharp, evocative and fluid. Das thinks deeply, drinking in thoughts and ideas, sifting through them, before letting them settle onto the pages in words and verses, and makes impeccable use of poetic devices. In Cipher, which is a single sentence of a poem, for instance, she frames the desperation of lonely exploration in deeply melancholic metaphors in these opening and closing lines:
This blue on my arm
a lonely nail mark
to see it turn
to a dirty fawn
of neighborhood trash and dump
is sad like standing in the snow
also the blues and blacks of pages
are always words from far beyond
suddenly it all reads like a sign.
The line breaks, the internal rhymes create the confusion of loneliness and imagined or real hope, without turning sentimental or self-pitying.
A trained musician, Das often brings in strains of a distant music, sometimes with an echo of dance as well. Das’s verses are sphinxes – half poetry, half music. She not only brings in ragas, but is also a master of sounds, and you will find yourself clicking your tongue to tra la la la la (Music by the Riverside), or flash-a-dash-a-flash-a-dash (sea-aria), or revel in the sibilance-and-tremble of your teeth and cheek to Strum strum strum (Somewhere, Circa Unknown), and press your lips together to So, be my rythm lub-dub love (Never Poem).
The poems here are a blend of abstract and figurative. And the beauty of many of these poems is in the way it settles in next to you, and gives you company, no matter what you are feeling. The meanings change with your moods and your thoughts will coalesce with the words on the page. Das shines in her craft and makes a strong statement with her prose poems. Sea Aria is one of my favorite poems in the book, the lilt, the music of the words tinkle in my ears and conjure childhood nostalgia.
“when she woke up from the water with her conch thighs slapping the masked sunshine, she thought the sky was pink gelatin and the corner store a rainbow ship. the puffy bread fried as lovely as japanese lanterns while the pickled onions smelled of arms after a five-mile run.”
The second section, Still Lives, holds a poem by the same name, and here Das paints, and using her freedom, picks and arranges objects like a post-impressionist. The two pronged lamp, talking of dispelling a spurious void; the chair of the ribbed back, that mulls on its own solitude; the candle of the twined vines/ Has a dream where she emerges/ Unscathed from the hour-long arson; and a lucky bamboo swathed in solitude, whose glass vial meanwhile collects sun, give us Nabina Das’s eyes and show us what she sees, in solitude and dreams.
This section is pregnant with longing, for home, and nostalgia,
I sit dressed like the proverb
that suggests I’ve nowhere to go
the petals are falling outside in
an April wind-shower, slow
Camden is a happy maiden
with her toes in the ice-melt
You were not there
So more it seemed
The dreams were truer
Than their interpretations
You are back, a watermark on my waiting (Eight-and-a-half)
She talks of India in Indian Love Story : Khajuraho Longings, of Amrita Pritam in Love Story between Composing, and of Bihu, the folk-dance of Assam, the state to which she belongs, in A Song for the Bihu-Waisted-Sister. And she talks of love, again and again, for what keeps one going when she is starved for home and the familiar?
Love was when he lettered his fingers
Across the keys of her body
And poured the sky into her abyss
Before that love was just a pretense
Of a rounded vowel pressed by the lips
She knew too, love was almost gleaming at last
When she lay covered only by her bracelets. (Her Love)
These poems are extremely sensuous, very assured in their sensuality to worry about falling into vulgarity, for
the poet at puberty is mixed up about flesh
and aroused verses as to how they mix
meters in tongues as she half-pedals a bike
through a yellow road — a cluster of variegated words
to ride, to race a straight line and back home when comes the
night. (all things become islands…)
Spread across at least two continents, Das finds inspiration in things big and small, the arts, folk tales, nature, human emotions and a deep sensitive observation of life. As I turn the last pages of the book, I know that this is truly a vessel, a unique melting pot of music and dance, poetry and poets, culture and art and folk tales and life. If you, blindfolded, dip in, you might pull out any one of these, Othello, Jean Moreau, Kabir Sumon or Amrita Pritam, from among the three dozen poems.
..a blue vessel
Of forgotten strife, a chipped wall
Of rose petal and lime spits on
A summer night when the river
Comes home all austere (Blue Vessel)
Shaily Sahay is a writer, poet and critic based in Mumbai. Her short stories, poetry and book reviews have appeared in Ripples, Asia Writes, Pedestal Magazine, Celebrating India, Muse India, Cha Journal, Women’s Web and Misty Mountain Journal. A Computer Engineer by education, in another lifetime, she worked for Accenture as an SAP Consultant and also taught Verbal Ability to MBA aspirants at IMS, Pune. She was born and brought up in Dhanbad. She is currently co-editing, with Dr. Charles Fishman, Veils, Halos and Shackles: International Poetry on the Abuse and Oppression of Women, and working on her first book of fiction.