By Lakshmi Menon
Orpheus in Kolkata opens with its titular poem, and there can be no better introduction to the poetry of Joe Winter, or to this collection.
Kolkata is presented as every note from the seven strings of a divine veena, carried by the musician best known for the tragic beauty of his playing, Orpheus himself. Each string is a section of the city; the para and its nest of roads, the Esplanade and the heart of the city, and the quiet of Jorasanko Thakur-bari, where Tagore the master musician lived and wrote. Orpheus hears the music of the city, plays the music of the city; and in Kolkata, Winter sees the heart of an “India of old”. The myth of Orpheus can be seen as what links this collection of poetry together. Like the myth of the man who could not gaze back on his love to keep her, there is the ceaseless movement of time, the change that time brings, and the constant reminder that one cannot return to the past. As a translator of some of the stalwarts of Bengali poetry, Jibanananda Das and Rabindranath Tagore, Winter is no stranger to the city or its people. In his poetry, Winter takes us on journeys into Kolkata and its psyche, and to the world beyond.
The other poems in the collection flicker from the intimate to the quotidian, all bound by different strings, like Orpheus and his veena. This collection of poetry is more of a collection of remembrances, a constant journey linking past and present. A 125-year-old bookshop in Kolkata bridges that gap, while the death of a dear friend represents the time that has passed. Winter draws his inspiration from art, from literature, from the daily news. His scholarship is clear when he likens the world as it has become today, to Beowulf’s monsters, of a mankind changed from the heroic to the terrible in the space of “World News Headlines”.
The other long piece in the collection is “Independence Monument”, five poems from Uganda, moving in their simple verses of a nation and its tragedy, of a people and a reminder to the world of the possibility of hope in the darkest of futures.
Winter’s collection is populated with people and places, friends and family, loved and lost to the ebb and flow of time. He introduces the readers to them and they become as real in their lyrical worlds as they might have been in the mundane. The final poem, “In Kali’s Shadow”, brings us back to Kolkata and brings yet another figure out of legend, the many-armed goddess Kali, representing light and shadow, and a reminder that time is a destroyer but that it is also only in acknowledging time that we become truly human. Orpheus in Kolkata is a collection of poems about the truth of life and death, of the sweet sorrow that parting is, but it also revels in the joy of experiences, of remembrance, so that the parting, when it comes, is never a true separation.
The reviewer, Lakshmi Menon tries to concentrate on her day job teaching English to college students, but she is constantly distracted by shiny things. She dreams of someday winning awards for the best piece of unwritten fiction.