Book Review: Available Light – New and Collected Poems by C.P. Surendran

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By Mani Rao

Available Light_Front Cover
Title: Available Light
Author: C.P. Surendran
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Pages: 272
Price: INR 499/-
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Available Light is a collection of new poems by C.P. Surendran appended with his four previous books of poetry — Gemini II (1994), Posthumous Poems (1999), Canaries on the Moon (2002) and Portraits of the Space We Occupy (2007) – of which the first three are out of print. The publication of Available Light brings these early poems back into circulation, and to our attention, helping us survey the achievement of this mid-career poet.

Like most collected works, Available Light is chronologically ordered, as though requesting a biographical reading or an evaluation of how the poet’s craft progressed or changed over time. I duly read this book from the end to the beginning so that I might arrive in the present, maybe with Darwinian notes; instead, I found a circle. After the stunning opening of Gemini II, the next two books were disappointing; Portraits returned to the passion and technical brilliance of the first book, with added maturity. The latest poems in Available Light continue to soar, but now the political and impersonal has become personal and C.P. draws his blood and ink from the wider world. The circle has come around, but now it is wider.

The book also includes an essay written by C.P. as a tribute to his friend, poet Vijay Nambisan, who died in August 2017, in which he describes the 90s Bombay. The inclusion of this essay helps us contextualize the angst in C.P.’s previous work. It also illuminates C.P.’s own milieu and lets us locate his time and place in the history of Indian English poetry.

A devastating separation fuels C.P.’s first collection, Gemini II (1994), which remains a fresh and fulfilling read. The poems do not indulge in melodramatic declarations, nor dampen intensity with platitudes. The narratives seem quick but they are terse and well-controlled; lines play off each other for resonances. A discussion of a single poem from this book will illustrate C.P.’s craft:

Renunciation

First light on the kitchen table.
Breakfast for one. Beer and wine.
Feline eyes kiss fallen tart.

Lunch is a conceit of three. My cat,
Your snapshot and me. Secret rum
In mint tea. Invalidation of the sun.

Last light comes to sup. Dinner is a feat
In rectitude. Water and whiskey. Campaign
Of shadows on the wall. No despair.

A silver of music around the ankles.
Endless retreat of inaccessible feet.

Each of the three stanzas is a tableau set around a kitchen table at breakfast, lunch and dinner. The scene is similar but slightly different each time. If the first stanza is somewhat cryptic, the second stanza clarifies the three characters — the narrator, a cat, and a missing lover. Pronouns mark relationships — “my cat, your snapshot” with the slant rhymes of “[C]at” and “shot” and “rum” and “sun” against the monotony of “me” and “tea”. Every detail adds to the poignancy of the missing person — the evening visitor is none but the sunlight, and even the cat’s kiss is only visual. The dynamic events, a “campaign of shadows” and the “silver of music” are a counterfoil to the sun and silence.

Short bursts stack bits of information, and restraint helps amplify the suggestiveness. The poem’s three-step swelling hangs on these two words — “[n]o despair” – and shatters into the last stanza. The remembered or imagined “music” of absent anklets is not actually stated except by reference to ankles, and an “endless retreat” establishes the finality of an eternal missing.

Nothing can be moved around in this poem. If “the” seems excessive in the penultimate line, it is also necessary. Try replacing the jarring word “tart” by, say, “crumb” and you lose the glinting double entendre.

Many poems in Gemini II follow a three-part structure — ‘Saturday Poems’ are three (233-234); ‘First Signs Last Rites’ (229); ‘Loose Ends’ (228); ‘Back’ (232).  In fact, the progression of thought often follows a triptych even when poems do not have three stanzas — ‘Lazarus’ (231); ‘Marked’ (235).

Poems in Posthumous Poems (1999) continue the themes in Gemini II, but they are weak, as though rejects that did not make the cut for the previous book. There are dreamy patches – “leaf by leaf light emptied” (‘Night Vision’ 178), but on the whole, the poems are average, and often staccato. Passion, when present, tips over into histrionics:
All that I write is to get one word right.
It kills. But death doesn’t matter.
It’s metaphor.

(‘Toast’ 205)

Posthumous Poems lives up to its title.

Canaries on the Moon (2002) moves into surrealism with coded images or symbols, or perhaps incoherent hallucinations. A vague war forms a backdrop and features the figure of a King (‘A Necessary War’ 150, ‘Parli – Exile and the Kingdom’ 153, ‘Each King in his Place’ 160), a soldier who is probably a persona for the poet, and creatures ranging from a lion and a tiger to a rabbit, bat, dog, vultures and serpents. Many imagistic short poems (‘Replenishment’ 155, ‘Soldier’ 156) do not stand on their own. The lack of lucidity in this set is not compensated by CP’s technical skill, and the titles betray haste — for instance, a poem which ends “He sat next to the lion, feeling old / And futile as a dinner going cold” is titled ‘Futile’ (166).

It is with the 2007 book, Portraits of the Space We Occupy that the genius of C.P. returns; additionally, he has now gained a mature vision. Unlike the two previous books, even 4-line poems in this collection are complete and project scale. Two examples:

Professional

Two fingers of the right hand hardened
With filth, stuffed into his mouth, and two of the left
Digging into his bottom, sun-baked Raju
Is working round the clock so both ends are met.

Sound Proof

Each day is a padded door shut
In my face, the other side of which is you.

How shall I make you hear the music
Of the grass growing silent as dew?

In ‘Professional’ C.P. takes the expression of making ends meet and embodies it in the person of Raju (perhaps a construction worker?) whose situation, if you’ll excuse the expression, is buggered. In ‘Sound Proof’, it is not just a door, but a “padded” door that separates the poet from the addressee, and we notice how the two-way non-conversation is echoed by the double-comparison of music/grass and silent/dew. One can only marvel at the simplicity as well as the complexity of these gems. The three main sections of this book are ‘Bombay’, ‘Ruhnama’ and ‘Catafalque’ with individual poems competing for perfection. The “King” reappears in ‘Ruhnama’, reigning over a hellish landscape. Ruminating on his father’s ageing and demise, C.P. surpasses himself in ‘Catafalque’. ‘Favour’ “[C]aught in the cross hairs of a farewell sun” sets up a trope of target that is neatly fulfilled at the end of the poem with “a steady gun”. In ‘Who Shifts the Stars So June Is Here Again?’ the very arrangement of ideas and words creates a haunting lyricism.

Compared to Gemini II (1994), there is more reflection in the poems of Portraits (2007) and the narrative is more extended. See ‘Translation’ (144):

Time effects its slow translation of the original
Into elements, the living text’s various versions.
I must bow down to the ground I tread,
Recall with grace what’s lost as you pass
Into the earth and air, holy as the Host in bread.

It was with bated breath, then, that I opened the first section of the book, written over the last ten years. Many poems of this first book are like ballads with deliberate rhyme sequences and flowing narratives. In ‘Absolute’, he pushes the choral form far enough with the repetitive question, “When will you let her go?” Poems that stand out in this set are concerned with the world, and specific events are the themes of many poems. The 2014 Hong Kong public protests inspire ‘Umbrellas in Hong Kong’ (65) and ‘A Promise in South Sudan’ (53) comments on militants who are too-young. ‘Shakti Mills’ (50), perhaps about/around the 2013 gang-rape, carries pathos — “the air kissed your face, fled”. ‘Sparrows’ comments on the numberless places of state violence – “Gaza, Kobane, Kashmir” – “where no one remembers […] from whose chest/Flesh will fly like sparrows from a nest.” ‘Headcount’ (14) visits the scene of assault to death of Mohammad Akhlaq by Hindu fanatics. Here is the last stanza from ‘Headcount’—

Stick out a finger to the wind.
Cattle and god, kettle and drums
The caravan takes count and finds
The day clear, loud, shorter by a head.

A series of poems titled ‘David, Don’t Be Sad, That Was a Dream’ expresses the horrors of genocide and atrocities including the Nazi pogrom against Jews. This series ends with the poem ‘Available Light’, addressed to the wife of the commandant of the Buchenwald concentration camp.

This, then, is an exciting turn in the writing of a poet who now takes the world personally.

Ask me to pick one thing that I found annoying, and I will complain about C.P.’s use of upper case beginning every line in every poem in each and every page of this book. Yes, that was me screaming, “A line is not a sentence!” Perhaps C.P. will respond: “A stanza is not a paragraph.”

*******

When and whether a living poet ought to release a “collected” rather than a “selected” is an intriguing question. The new poems in this volume are substantial, filling one hundred and two pages from a decade’s reasonable crop of writing. Why puff it up with previous work, including the not-so-strong poems of Canaries or Posthumous?

Traditionally, volumes of Selected Poems punctuate a poet’s writing career, and Collected Poems tend to be published either towards the end of a lifetime of writing, or just posthumously. A posthumous volume of Collected arrives with a commemorative or celebratory tone, a concern for documentation, and tries to fill a gap. Collected Poems of A.K. Ramanujan, published in 1993, a year after his demise, included three previous books (Striders 1966, Selected Poems 1976, Second Sight 1986) and a fourth, new collection. Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems edited by her husband Ted Hughes 18 years after her death included 50 poems from her juvenilia giving readers a broader view of a literary giant’s evolution. Plath’s early poems are cordoned off in a section titled Juvenilia — the reader knows that the inclusion is not for quality, but for their helpfulness in tracing the germ of her later style, or the beginnings of her themes. Collected Works of Lorine Niedecker (1902-1970) edited by Jenny Penberthy in 2002 helped correct omissions or errors in previous collections. H. D’s Collected Poems: 1912-1944 published in 1983 and edited by Louis L. Martz was a new ‘cut’ of the oeuvre of Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961) involving substantial archival research. A sense of doom prevails when a living poet releases a collected volume. As Basil Bunting declares in the preface to his Collected Poems, “A man who collects his poems screws together the boards of his coffin”.

Among Indian poets writing in English, Jeet Thayil’s Collected Poems was published by Aleph in late 2015. Almost at the same time, Hachette India published I Dreamt a Horse Fell from the Sky (1962-2015), a collection of fiction, non-fiction and poetry by Adil Jussawalla that includes – as Vivek Narayanan puts it – “the broadest selection of Jussawalla’s poetry currently available”. Though Thayil’s volume is called Collected Poems, its first section features new content — ‘New and Uncollected Poems (2003-2015)’. C.P.’s volume is similar insofar as ten years of writing form the front section, appended by previous books. These kind of retrospective anthologies mark a new trend among Indian English poets, as well as raise questions about the new meanings (i.e., uses) of the concept of “collected”.

In the Preface to his Collected Poems, Thayil suggests that this may be his last book of poetry. Thayil’s statement occurs in the aftermath of a tragedy; he writes, “‘These Errors Are Correct (2008)’, written in dedication to my wife, who died, is the last full-length collection of poems I intend to publish.”

C.P. Surendran has also had such a moment of abdication. The entry about C.P.’s work in the 2013 Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry (eds. Ian Hamilton and Jeremy Noel-Tod, 2nd ed.) notes: “A sharp critic of contemporary Indian culture (‘poetry is dead because normal looking people killed it with their shopping’) he has said that he stopped writing verse in 2006.” Whereas the context of C.P’s statement is not available, one may surmise from the date mentioned that it occurred after his father’s death. The publication of Available Light suggests that we ought to know better than to expect poets to be their own soothsayers. Perhaps an editor is likely to be more realistic than the poet; editing Adil Jussawalla’s collection I Dreamt a Horse Fell from the Sky, Vivek Narayanan writes, “This anthology is not an end but a waystation.”

There could also be pragmatic reasons for an anthology of collected works. C.P.’s Available Light includes three books now out-of-print — Gemini II (1994), Posthumous Poems (1999), Canaries on the Moon (2002). Fifty poems from previous books have been, in CP’s words, “disowned” and “quite a few poems have been edited”.  Thayil also edited / revised previous poems, but disclosed this in the preface, citing the rewrite tradition as “honourable” and even providing an example of a poem and its revised, new version.

Intervention has precedents, as does non-intervention. Robert Creeley’s Collected Poems which cover three decades (1945-1975) of poetry published in books, magazines and broadsides does not leave out anything. He expresses his fondness for watching such a collection, “There is a sense of increment, of accumulation, in these poems that is very dear to me.” By contrast, W.B. Yeats revised his poems so much and published so many collected volumes that later editors found it difficult to establish a definitive collection of his poetry.

If poems have already been revised and juvenilia censored for a new self-representation, the biographical/historical approach to reviewing has limitations. Selection and revision then best represent the poet’s current poetics.

 

Mani Rao is the author of eight poetry books and two books in translation – the Bhagvad Gita and Kalidasa for the 21st Century Reader. Her poems and essays have been published in journals including Tinfish, Wasafiri, Meanjin, Washington Square, Fulcrum, West Coast Line and in many anthologies. See manirao.com for links.

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