Poetry Review: Four Degrees of Separation
By Jessica Faleiro
Rochelle Potkar is a Mumbai-based fiction writer and poet. Her first book, The Arithmetic of Breasts (2015), is a collection of short stories and Four Degrees of Separation (2016) is her first poetry collection.
The collection consists of sixty poems structured under seven pronoun-ed section headings namely: i, he, them, they, her, there, those. I found the section titles interesting, then distracting as I wondered about the choice of “he” but then the switch to “her” instead of “she”. Perhaps the intention was to be elusive, so I let it go and dove straight into the writing.
With the opening poem “Timely”, Potkar immediately draws the reader into a world of voluminous images, bringing life to each syllable. “Don’t pick a wilted flower/ even graves are dressed in fresh ones/ – heart-beating petals over dead bone/ and you ask me to wait.” The last verse bears a haunting refrain to the opening, “Don’t ask a rose to wait. / There is no time in its petals/ only the saga of one sunrise/ and one sundown.” Her words are rich; full of colour and brilliance. There is a poignant sense of pause as we are called to measure our breath while reading these words.
The next poem, “Stray epiphanies”, introduces the sense of disconnection and alienation that weaves its way into some other poems in this collection too, while also showcasing Potkar’s capacity for diversity of form. The eleven epiphanies leave me with the impression of a mind bouncing mercilessly awake on tossed linen while staring up at a dark ceiling at 3 am. She opens gently enough, introducing us to the idea of the poem, then by epiphany number 5 we arrive at “Mumbai will stamp on your feet/ but allow you your space. / She doesn’t care whom you date.” But it’s epiphany number 8 that really grabbed my attention, “Eat my words, you word-vulture/ give me back none.” Ending with “I will one day cut you open, and take away your entrails.” This is where the poem’s tenor shifts to reveal surprisingly dark corners. “Doggerel” introduces us to Potkar’s playfulness, with her final words in the last verse, “We sometimes remember not the model student/ the first ranker, / but the one who was completely out of rhyme, / out of tune./ out of line./ out of time./ This is only about memory./ If not, what is?”
The poem “Two-paths query” endorses Potkar’s sophistication in crafting a line to reveal startling beauty, as in, “But even a butterfly/is a bi-polar discharge of wings.” Then, at the end of this first section lies “Pivot” waiting to blow us away with, “Only if you had enough solitude would you know/ that the silver lining of it is loneliness./ I’m trying to find balance/ as the end of days percolate/ into large empty boxes of weekends/ that need filling./ I move in reverse to the world,/ witting at its edges, watching it.” This is just one example of a time where Potkar astonishes by taking our breath away with these stretches wide into space and time, leaving us with a sensation of being startled and excited by the possibility of the next word, line and verse. By now, I am hooked, especially when I read the last third of her poem that refrains the loneliness set in the first line, “Loneliness teaches you the wobble of the long walk, / that bruises are invisible and unspoken of, / more than the jammed nose, / the scraped knee,/ the underwater gasp,/ growing longer in the stride with time./”
With those words, the reader is led into section two with “Sculptor of Radiance” where we meet, “Black night, black white, black times/moments stop and stare at us.” Her poetry has breadth as it moves its energy out into the world and departs slowly away from the self. “How can we forget anything/when memory keeps a chronicle of us?” the poem asks of us in the final line.
In addition to her wonderful visual imagery and its precise execution, it’s Potkar’s experimentation with form that makes this a great book to explore. For example, “Midnight Moon” and “Six Minutes” are a couple of examples that Potkar calls “Chat Poems” that consist of interweaving alternate stanzas on a pre-decided topic, co-written with another poet.
It’s in this second section that we meet the poem from which the collection takes its title. At first mention, I thought that the book title was a play on Six Degrees of Separation – the popular theory that everyone can be connected to everyone else on the planet through five other people. But after seeing two references in the book to “Four degrees of separation”, I wonder if it’s more about the recognition of a collective consciousness that keeps us in an interconnected web that gives us a sense of alienation when we are unaware of it at a conscious level, but a feeling of home and nostalgia for something familiar, at a subconscious level, even though we are far apart from what we know to be familiar, including our childhood memories. Indeed, this could be one particular reading of Potkar’s collection.
As I delved into the third section, “them”, I was drawn into familiar scenes, smells and images of the Goan extended family with all its quirks and foibles brought alive in “Gathering”. “Disquiet” reminded me of my Goan father, “Rage” of my own, simmering somewhere deep inside me, constantly. In this section, Potkar’s own Goan origins leak out, taking on a nostalgic tone of remembered childhood memories. The backdrop of Goa comes to life in these.
The fourth section “they” starts broadening our horizons, dipping into the emotional distances and embedded psyches of airports and the city of Mumbai. In “Exodus”, one cannot mistake this following description, “Builders collage to keep these flats inflated/ so the actual price a person pays/ with his tropical sweat and blood/ is twice as much in a falsely-expensive city/ that has no leg room, / and elbows into the sea,” for anywhere other than Mumbai. “Airport diaries” brings home one’s sense of alienation in movement and flight with “Another girl fingers through her partner’s hair compulsorily/ like the sun rising into my corner-seat window, / the turbines rotating for fly-off./ Cities grow cold under morning haze, hip hop moons,/ misplaced suns,/ and jet lag old announcements,/ fresh-fruit trays, drinks, and glossy in-flight movies plans.” There is a strong sense of motion and of leaving something behind, as if caught in a search for location, especially as this poem ends with the idea of airports as “…towns of our new beginnings…”
The section “her” dips back deeply into self-introspection with poems titled “Birth”, “Sick-bed”, “Baby”, “Skirt” and “Deer”. We are re-introduced to our own human vulnerability and given reminders of the beauty and strength it contains within. I was intrigued by the underlying sense of controlled rage that makes itself felt within these poems. As in “Birth, they say, is red and joyous. / I say, it is black/ and never anticipated.” Or in “Skirt”, where we read these lines, “We might not get killed but don’t ever think nothing else/ happens to us./ Did you know of the woman who walked 10 hours/ on a social experiment through New York/ and collected 108 vile propositions?” Then in “Shape-shifting” we read, “Grow lard so you can’t be seen/ retreat, refuge, go where the sun isn’t.” There is more than just pathos punctuating these lines. That’s why they stand out so strongly from the rest.
By the time I’m reading the last two sections, “there” and “those” I’ve become a fan of Rochelle Potkar’s poetry. This feels like a first collection – a little awkward at places, slightly forced in others, but crafted with obvious technical skill that sculpts glowing brilliants out of words.
Overall, Potkar’s studied and thoughtful poems form a collection full of extraordinary moments of depth, volume, rich beauty and startling emotion as well as touches of nostalgia and romanticism. While there’s some room for improvement, it’s obvious that Rochelle Potkar has the capacity and ability to deliver magnificent verse with stunning precision. I am already looking forward to her next collection.
Jessica Faleiro is a fiction writer, poet and travel writer. Her poems, stories and non-fiction have appeared in Indian Quarterly, Rockland Lit, Mascara Literary Review, Muse India, IndiaCurrents, TimesCrest, tambdimati and in various anthologies. Her novel Afterlife: Ghost stories from Goa was published by Rupa in 2012. For more information, please visit her website: https://jessicafaleiro.wordpress.com