By Neeti Singh
‘The Silk of Hunger’ by Vinita Agrawal is a collection of 30 crisp elegiac poems embedded in urban sensibility, a wide range of symbols and thick metaphor. This collection of poems which is dedicated to the poet’s late father, makes a tidy offering – like a bouquet of the finest of roses in shades of black to burgundy – it is an epitaph that is both an offering and a coming to terms with loss, absence and the finality of death.
These tightly knit poems that are somber in tone and brilliant in terms of poetic craft and structure, deeply move and nourish as they foray with surgical precision, through symbol, narrative and objective inquiry, into the emotion or experience at hand. Mostly pain, separation and death – be it the death of an animal, a planet, a town, a relationship or a father – the loss must be faced and purged squarely so that a catharsis can be achieved and a closure struck by both the grieving poet and all of grieving humanity.
To overcome personal loss and the separation of death, Vinita settles with immanence –
Yet there will be no separation
no parting, no distance
You shall live through me.
Somewhere each of us shall feel this warmth
In the cold cold rain.’
‘Invertebrate Beginnings’, the very first poem establishes the fact of circularity – in the beginning is embodied an end ‘I wish I could feel right now/ what I will feel at the end.’ In this poem Vinita tropes upon the pond of life with its sunny surface shine and dark belly depths. The rich fusion of sensuality and experience that sculpts and extends the central metaphor of the poem showcases Vinita’s unique idiom and stylistic strengths. To quote a few lines from the poem, that I enjoyed immensely :
‘What I want is deep
The thick bottom of wet earth at the pond’s belly
Where the mud tightens over your ankles
In a fist like grip, making us revel in its hold
So that you know you are planted in it –
A lotus stem – delirious with feeling’s water.’
The rigorous facility with which the poet engages with reality through the ingenuous employment of personification, layered symbolism and synaesthesia – all designed to drape and displace ever so little, the habit and paradox of life as it appears, gives her work the promise of a greatness within reach. In the poem ‘Girl’ for instance where she negotiates the theme of being girl and girl child, the matrix is of a diseased pallid lake and blades and wounds and forceps. Rarely does one find in this collection a poem that is not strong enough or perfectly balanced; where the terseness is unbroken and the images meld organically with the essence.
‘You Are A Stranger Once Again’ and ‘Raw Silk’ are powerful love poems, breathtaking in their intensity with which they reign in so much pain and passion. Poetic tension is created here through dramatic juxtapositions, and power drawn from the politics of the paradox – contrary emotions, speech/silence, and expectations tightly leashed foray and play within the poetic grid to create intense expressions of opaque depth and sublime beauty.
‘Take my desires to the gallows this new year/ – set them free/ And let me feel pure emptiness / The only way to be.. The poem ‘New Year Resolutions’ locates itself in this same space wherein the poet gives expression to her journey on the inner path seeking an inner light. Even the blood and gore of modern metropolitan living finds itself sprout in expressions that are aesthetically graceful and compelling embedded as it is in Vinita’s engagement with the meditative, the compassionate and the empathetic.
Among poems that directly deal with death are, ‘Are You Asleep’, ‘House for Sale’, ‘Caribou’ and ‘The Night of Father’s Passing’. ‘Are You Asleep’ that deals with the theme of death/sleep is a delicately structured poem that resonates with one of Wordsworth’s Lucy poems (‘A Slumber did my spirit seal’) as the poet comes to terms with her death and visualises her as stilled – ‘No motion has she now, no force;/ She neither hears nor sees;/ Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,/ With rocks and stones and trees.’
Vinita as she writes the following lines conjures up the same state of being between the spiritual and the natural –
‘In some ways we share the earth. Share how it turns its back
to the sun
In those small currents vaguely circumambulating between us
I wonder if you are asleep yet.’
‘House for Sale’ wears the stamp of a typical Bombay poem,bleached of all human consideration it is postmodern in both its handling and the themes it negotiates – alienation, anguish, death and the cessation of humanity. The lonely old man who has willed his villa to the theatre group which ‘didn’t want it’decomposes for days, until his stench finds him, ‘And now the house is up for sale..’ Only the sea, the humus, the leaves scratching the earth’s surface, bemoan his loss. No one else.
‘I believe the day it was sold, the sea receded – like serotonin
levels in anxiety,
The mud path that led to the house became mottled, the
humus wept openly ,
Moss curled up, looked tawny. Dry leaves scratched each
All loyal to the old man who was one of them now.’
‘Caribou’ which honours a dead caribou, is written in a tone that is clinical, brusque and matter of fact. No words are minced, and yet there is a terseness of emotion and expression that gives the writing a sense of strength and masculinity. Vinita surpasses herself here. This is verse that is mature masculine even, and hails from a space of deep knowing and compassion. The poem ‘Caribou’ is the poet’s account of a tanner at work over a Caribou that he has killed – cleaning, scraping, brushing and chemically treating the body till it transforms from flesh and blood to clean consumable products meant for the consumer market. The poet does not share with the tanner his indifference, his brutal approach and yet has the courage to admit that ‘in your circumstances/ I’d take from the caribou too – it’s last drop of blood, its / thinnest sinews, / just to keep alive.’ Herein lies the poet’s amazing range in terms of thematic scope and multi mature perspective.
Separation through circumstance and/or death marks this collection of Vinita Agrawal’s, which is dedicated to her father who passed away last August. With death as a motif the thirty poems in The Silk of Hunger explore the theme of separation, absence, alienation and loss. The deaths of a father, of a relationship, a rose that has lain pressed for 25 years in a dictionary, or a lonely old man in Bombay struggling to give his life some meaning; the dead Caribouthat completely pliable and in surrender in the hands of his hunter, a town that is disappearing and nature and humanity at large – all become portals – extended metaphors that are elegiac and poignant, and tenuous but apt objective correlatives to the poet’s own emotions of loss, rage, anguish and death. And yet despite all the storms that rage within, the poet’s faith in the immanence of love and the circularity of life sustains, along with the seas, the plants, the trees and the stars clustered canopies that melt each time the moon shines in the window – the moon of hope, faith and love which was her father’s ‘Gift’.
Beautifully arranged, the poems read like a well calibrated symphony. And hold in places the promise of great verse. The Silk of Hunger is Vinita Agrawal’s third book of poems. From where she began with the publication of Words Not Spoken in 2013, the poet has come a long way. She has emerged as a strong sensitive voice showcasing a remarkable control and scope over her word craft and a poetic idiom that is uniquely her own. One is curious to see what she will publish next as she works her way over to a seat among the best. With hearty best wishes to Vinita who has found her voice as a poet, I would like to add here that I have known her since our days in the university when we shared and sometimes read out to each other, our fledgling poems.
Neeti Singh is a Poet, Translator and Researcher. She is an Assistant Professor – Department of English at The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Gujarat.