Book Review: An Ember from Her Pyre by Shelly Bhoil
By Anurima Chanda
We see the various stages of birth – the birth of a piece of writing, in Shelly Bhoil’s maiden collection of poems An Ember from Her Pyre. She begins at the beginning, when there exists only the turbulent blank that comes before the beginning. The germs of assorted ideas squirming in the brain, while the mind is still trying to process which one of it needs to be carried for a full term and finally given birth to. This is what the poems in the first section of her book – “The Recalling” give you a sense of. Bhoil seems unafraid to let the reader penetrate deep within the poet’s mind space, where everything is still raw, half-processed and unbaked. It is like the dustbin full of scratched out first lines written down on papers that have now been reduced into crushed little wrinkly balls. Here the poet is not yet a mother, but still the one whose egg has not met its fertilising agent. The “dream” of a poem, the imprint of another poem or poet on your poem, the struggle with words, with meanings, with grammar, the play with form, with diction and with dialects, and the lure of stories heard and memories made – millions of these seeds of ideas ejaculated into the poet’s mind womb is put out on open display as they swim towards the egg trying to reach it before the others.
As we reach the second section of her book – “An Ember from Her Pyre,” the union of the two has occurred. As Bhoil herself writes in “Unstitch”, one of her poems, “the word is pregnant”. The poems in this section are more sure of their existence. They are no longer fragmentary. They have now become full grown foetuses, which the poet has carefully nurtured in “the womb of [the] waters” of the mind. The isolated words that had been floating in the poet’s mind, have now been assimilated through “self-consummation” to narrate stories of their own. These tales have reignited the memories of many a “forgotten story”, given words to many a story that have been guarding painful “secrets”, and encouraged the mute “mannequins” to shake off the weight of “scripted roles” and be born anew as “a bud”. Bhoil has carefully shaken out the ghosts of the yesteryears from her “urn of life” and let them form roots of their own, in order to branch “deeper into the earth” and unearth “saplings” of tales bearing the weight of those experiences that have so long existed only between the lines.
But no birth is exempted from the “Existential Angst” that precedes it. To give to the beautiful life growing within the womb a safe haven, the bearer has to continuously tackle the hormonal riots raging within the body. This is what the third section of Bhoil’s book attempts to unravel. In the poems of this section, we see the angst of bringing a new life in a world that segregates individuals according to set standards, class, physical appearance and behaviour. We see how a deviant life gets put under scrutiny and is made to feel unwelcome. We see the world divided with barbed wires into what they call “nations”, plagued with numerous kinds of wars and rife with intolerance. We see nature reacting to these man-made acts of violence with its own dance of madness. We see a world of “catacombs” – because in the uncertain domain of life, isn’t death the only certainty? And against this understanding, poems in this section also mull over the question of what is life and are we but only temporary tenants in this “rented house”.
The final section of the book, entitled “Take me my Mentor,” takes the readers to the level of spirituality, serving as an apt denouement to the book. It is not before the final stage of writing that a poet can see the fruits of her labour materialise as a living whole and it is only then that the poet is truly born – for a mother is born only when her child is born. In that moment of new birth, the body seems to reach a different plane altogether. For, physically draining off your body of that which you have been carrying so carefully for such a long time, can be nothing short of a spiritual experience. The poems in this section set out to ponder over many such questions and experiences of spiritual significance. They wonder about god and men, about life and death, about the transience of the human body and the dust that is left in the end, and nature that laps up that dust into its grand omnipresence.
What is ubiquitously present in all these poems is that of a strong feminine presence. Even had I not known that the poet was a woman, it would still have been difficult for me to ignore the various signs of femininity that have been splashed across these poems. It does not mean that others would not identify with these poems but rather that women would probably associate with them better, being able to connect to the intense birth pangs that these poems conceal. These pangs are not just about popping out an entire individual from their bodies, but also about how they have forever been visualised as urns whose sole purpose lies in holding life. The poem “Numbered” brings out this aspect beautifully, directly tackling the issue and portraying how women are reduced to mere numbers – the age at which she is most fertile and the number of babies that she has given birth to. Apart from this, the symbols of life sustaining fluids, of misused bodies and of the “uterus urn” are to be found aplenty in Bhoil’s work. In addition, the “frog” seems to be a recurring symbol in her work. Maybe, the cold-blooded amphibian who can adjust to both water and land seemed to the poet as a suitable metaphor for womankind who is expected to adjust to new conditions – both physically and emotionally, in different phases of their lives.
The other thing that is hard to ignore in her poems is the influence of being trained in the discipline of English literature. While there are echoes of the work of some well-known British poets at some places, at others they are at the core of Bhoil’s creations. The invocation of Wordsworth through daffodils, or the “Kubla Khan” effect of Coleridge on her “Future apostrophe” – preserved from a dream as remembered on waking up, are some of the more obvious instances. The reference to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and his Man Friday, and Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, the allusion to the psychoanalytical world of Freud and the harking back to the garden of Eden are other such instances when her academic lineage shines through. But, it is even more interesting how she amalgamates it with both Indian and Tibetan influences – one being the culture that she was born into and the other being the culture she adopted for her academic pursuit and fell in love with. Be it through her Kolatkar-ish experimentation with the structural form of poetry or through the frequent use of Buddhist chants and iconography, she brings in a tripartite blend to her poetry.
The other thing that is noteworthy is the way Bhoil uses language. Her collection, after all, is an attempt to “keep the ‘making’ of language always in sight” as has been fittingly pointed out in the Foreword to the collection by Tsering Wangmo Dhompa. That the poet is struggling to achieve a certain neutrality to her language that is not dictated by any one grammar rule, is strongly evident in her work. Her “i”-s are seldom capitalised and her lines go unpunctuated most times. She tries to address how a “standardized” language can be appropriated as a sign of class and how it can be unsuitably used as a tool for shaming a culture which has inherited that language only as a colonial legacy. In protest, she mixes languages. She attacks grammar and comes out of its strict diktats unscathed – as any creative work must, in order to find its own true colours.
It is difficult to find out a personal favourite from such a powerful collection of poems. Especially, since I have had the fortune of knowing the poet briefly and hearing her share her experiences in person, I was even more moved to find how much of her has submerged in the poems. The difficulties of the growing up years that she had to go through, the language problems that she has had to struggle with all her life, the ardent sincerity with which she has devoted herself to her research – the poems seem to be living examples of all these aspects that Bhoil has fought with and emerged victorious. But, the poem “Truth of a common uncle” gave me goosebumps and will stay with me forever, reminding me of similar times I have spent with my friends, sitting in my hostel room, pouring out our hearts to each other and how such a “common uncle” has frequently appeared in those stories. How a society forces such stories of physical abuse to be kept hidden under the carpet and how these “innocent” uncles take advantage of that practice, is something that probably most women would relate to. And how, all such instances end up making the abused feel “guilty for his crime” only exposes the horrific underbelly of our society.
Overall, the experience of reading this collection of poems has been highly refreshing. There is an oft-quoted saying by Tagore about how short stories should have the quality of being neverending, leaving you thirsting for more even after it has ended (“Sesh hoyeo hoilo na sesh“). I could say the same for Bhoil’s poetry. Her poems are like frames set within frames, half utterances that you want to hold onto but they slip away, like a silhouette – “scratches here and there,” “a nude poem of yours,” “a nude one mine”. But, there is nothing nude about the eloquence of her poems, which are heavily shrouded, like that in Sufi philosophy – where Allah is shrouded and chased by the devotee/lover. Her poems make you want to chase them for eternity, never really quenching your thirst and making you want more and more of it. “ Sesh hoyeo hoilo na sesh” – that is what this collection has been to me.
The reviewer is a PhD scholar working on Indian English Children’s Literature in the Centre for English Studies, SLL&CS, JNU. Her MPhil was on Indian English Literary Nonsense. Recently one of her papers: “Postcolonial Responses to the Western Superhero: A Study through Indian Nonsense Literature” has been chosen as course curriculum at the Berklee College of Music.