Review: Sitakant Mahapatra’s Rotations of Unending Time
Sitakant’s poetry befits Lenore Kandel’s description of poetry as “a medium of vision and experience…bursts of perception, lines into infinity”, writes K.K.Srivastava in this review. .
Great poets may be agonizingly languid in many things–for instance, in speaking eloquent or building castles in the air about their own creations–but never in their observations; for these carry in them acts of unsoiled grace. It was a tavern, with a window-seat on which lay a copy of Thomson’s book of poetry, Seasons, that gave Coleridge his aha moment. “That is true fame!” he exclaimed. Great poetry does exactly that. It produces an aha moment for its readers. I need belabour the spirit of the above episode farther to the next plateau of current times–times of disenchantment, disagreement and disapprobation when it comes to modern poetry. Does modern poetry make sense? Is it reassuring? Or have frivolities masked it, making it effete? Critics normally attribute the enigmatic nature of modern poetry to the linguistic contrivance (rhetoric and forms) that poets use as expressive tools.
Let’s put this in the context of a book of poetry–Rotations of Unending Time–penned by Sitakant Mahapatra, who joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1961 and is a prolific poet and writer with more than fifty books in different genres to his credit. He received the Jnanpith Award in 1993, the Padma Bhushan in 2002 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2011. The book is a collection of 42 poems written between 1963 to 2011, and translated exquisitely from Odia to English by Sura P.Rath & Mark Halperin.
The first poem, “Relationship,” gives a sketch of an ordinary day in which people go about their daily routines that remain the same on any given day. The poet portrays the very tragic nature of this routine from various vantage points. It is a poem of collective consciousness in a place. The intensity of people’s concerns is such that the poet does not feel the need to describe the “joys and sorrows/the tangles and encumbrances of each life?”
The poem about his “Grandma,” of whom he seems to have fond memories, deals with her death, which he describes as the beginning of “her second long journey.” His imagination drives him to the day when she came to that very house adorned in her new bridal decorations, and he speaks about the stark reality of her mortal remains lying in the room, his lifting the “white sheet” from her face, and identifying her face with history itself. “Out in the front yard, I glanced at the sky/where she was a new star.” His tender mind wallows in a childlike observation: “When we cry in this life, I understood that day/it has to be in private, alone.”
The poet becomes more articulate when he sits down to remember his father in his poem “Father, Heaven.” He writes: “Behind his every act/lay one desire/heaven.” A role model for him, he believes that his father must have been in close communion with all the Gods–“That gruff voice of prayer mixed with the sweet sleep/of my childhood days”–and expresses his inability to understand where his father has gone after he handed him over for cremation “on the wet sands of Puri beach,” with “stars blinking in the dark sky.” He says that “only those trickster gods/in heaven” would know the answer.
“Shadow” is a poem that elicits his emotions as a consequence of his mental awareness–perhaps acquired sub-consciously–of the presence of the ultimate truth, Death, always lurking–“Like a scarecrow/on a moonlit night, he stands/ there/just so”–in the doorway or elsewhere waiting to take his toll. This is a recurring topic in some other poems in this collection like “Come Some Other Time, Death,” and “A Morning of Rain.” In the former, he writes: “Tell me: how could I give you/time now, at this moment/of eager rain?” In the latter, he pontificates, “Fear of somber death?” must make one “understand that every joy/ends one day.” Then, “Dreams surrender/like waylaid butterflies–to the delight.” He tends to dissociate the phenomenon of rain from the onslaught of death. This may be an acquired mythical belief, with roots in some childhood exchanges the poet had shared with his brother. He writes: “The ineffable beauty, the deep mystery/of those tales is not present/in any treatise.”
The poem “Mother” finds him dishevelled, as, “day after day/the dusty darkness–/treacherous illusion–/covers everything in all directions.” His memories come flooding his soul and mind as he perceives “a widow’s thin, antique hands appear/face like the faded moon/and cracked like dry soil/the lips that showered love.” There lies an underlying current of sorrow and caring in all these lines.
Almost all his poems are ardent and soul-touching lamentations of a sensitive mind on a voyage, remembering lost relationships as he spills out his agony at the tragic losses. He goes back in time and memory to recollect childhood nuances and experiences. He painfully attempts to console his own soul and accept the inevitable tragedy, even at a time and age when we all tend to grow up and accept the realities in life. Both his land and his mind have mythical, mystical and metaphysical landscapes. The craft is as important as the subject.
Towards the concluding part of the collection, the poet dwells on the subject, seemingly unable to pry loose from the melancholy mood, or from a conviction that has dug its roots deep within him–that the ultimate escape from all worries and sorrows of this world lies in “the second journey.” His search for lost and battered innocence has a unique ebbing coherence and he ends his search for innocence in “The Sky” with a question, “You, maker of souls/ master of the void, shall I never be/ the sky?” The presence of a simplicity of style and graphical description, normally a forbidden facet of modern poetry, prompts readers to take on a leisurely attitude while reading these poems.
Sitakant Mahapatra’s poems are rhymed, metered, and they display a fair amount of assonance and alliteration. With his hypnotic emotional quality, he allows readers to reduce his poems to metaphoric or symbolic interpretations. Rich in rhetoric, both figuratively as well as ornately, and tight in structure, his poetry sharpens the skills essential to prevent modern poetry from being dubbed as an art of the margins. His poems deal with the ordinariness of life; abstraction is absent and the veil that modern poetry is said to wear vanishes, as readers get a fair idea as to the course his poems will take. The poems cover all shades of the spectrum imparting pleasures that don’t diminish as readers proceed ahead.
The very model of acceptable modern poetry, many of the poems, despite being melancholic and disturbing–“that deep darkness/that deep emptiness/that unexpressed grief”–involve a large array of emotions and feelings, and the poems are more “meditations” in nature than mere simple poems. The images evoke remnants of questions that keep hovering and dispersing long after these poems have been read. Sitakant’s poetry befits Lenore Kandel’s description of poetry as “a medium of vision and experience…bursts of perception, lines into infinity.”
K.K.Srivastava is a poet and Principal Accountant General, Kerala. His fourth book, Diary, is expected to be out in 2016.