Book review: Paper Asylum by Rochelle Potkar
Reviewed by Paresh Tiwari
Title: Paper Asylum
Author: Rochelle Potkar
Publisher: Copper Coin (2018)
Price: INR 295/-
Among the many sub-genres of poetry, haibun might be the hardest to categorise. Is it in essence poetry or prose? Or a tapestry woven from the two threads by a skilled practitioner? Is it distilled from personal experience or a product of the fanciful flight in a fabulist world created by the poet?
Haibun, despite being a 500-year-old form, assiduously escapes the narrow confines of a definition. Yet, the critical elements of this form – sincerity, brevity, suspension of cleverness, living the moment, and experiencing the world afresh (to name but a few) – are universal. They lay the foundation for works which stop being a collection of words, images, memories, or feelings and invite the reader to embrace the poetry and own it.
Rochelle Potkar’s full-length prose poetry collection, Paper Asylum, is humanity turned inside out, flesh, bones and soul, painted skilfully on every page. Her poetry deftly navigates a plethora of complicated subjects and themes – love and lust in their myriad shades, longing, pain, loss, gears of society, growing up in a world that makes little sense, and the multifarious joy at finding and being found in the bargain. These poems are explorers journeying through the self and its projection on the universe beyond.
Potkar’s prose poems (most of which could be categorised as haibun) strengthens my belief that one of the qualities of good poetry is its ability to surprise. Much like life itself. In that sense, I propose that poetry and life are one and the same. Paper Asylum brims with life, in all its visceral, raw, urgent, messy glory.
He missed her after the breakup. Although he was the one who had broken off. He didn’t know what came into him when he got too close to women. When he poured everything into her like an ocean into a jug of wet earth.
He felt deeply wronged.
fish catch –
the boat swinging
– “About Turn”
Anyone who has ever had a breakup would instantly recognise the truth in those lines. The hunger of loneliness and the need are not only palpable but instantly identifiable.
Rochelle has an eye for stories. She gets into the bones of people around her and births them on the pages. They live there happy in the skin she stitches for them. Content to be immortalised. For the sake of the poetic truth, she may have at times sacrificed the absolute, and in the bargain, she creates a singular world. Her haibun are uniquely plot centric. But her authority over stories doesn’t limit itself to the prose; she understands haiku from the lens of a storyteller. Something I must say quite new and fresh in the world of this tiny little one-breath poem.
A haiku is often called half-circle poetry, where the poet paints images and the readers complete them; furnishing the other half with their own unique experiences. What strikes me unique in her haiku is her ability to weave complex narratives in three short lines.
silting skies —
between his homecomings
she loses her ground
full moon again …
buying sanitary pads
after pregnancy test kits
– “Broken Shells”
Potkar’s is a potent voice; in this book she is at her voyeuristic best. Not only do the works look all around us, but also within. She could be her own lover, muse and activist, all in a span of a few lines. In fact, if there was one criticism for her work, it could be her (over) reliance on this peep hole. When she abandons this need to look outwards, her poetry shines even more.
In the lines that follow, she could be talking about herself or every 13-year-old girl who has ever walked the streets of this chaotic world.
My 13-year-old breasts are growing, budding nuisances that feel weighty and uncomfortable under my petticoat and school pinafore. It is too early so my mother buys snug cotton vests meant for very young boys.
One noon while walking back from school, a group of boys accost me. A tall boy reaches out, grabs, and squeezes my breast. The shanties around are deserted. Somewhere, a TV set blares.
I watch them go.
This collection doesn’t shy away from tipping the lamp over wounds and scars: instead, it puts them on display, and composes poetry from the hieroglyphs of these cracks. I came to this book expecting to cross paths with work that would surprise and delight. What I found in addition was a mirror that reflected my own truth.
Paper Asylum does not abandon grace at the altar of story. It flows generously from the macro to the micro; from the personal to the universal. It is this effortless waltz, much like the river of time, which makes this collection of prose poems such an enjoyable and thought-altering read. I would recommend it whole heartedly to readers of poetry and stories. I would also recommend it to the viewers of reality show – for unlike the television, the environment is neither controlled nor manipulated.
But most of all, I would recommend it to the readers who wish to pick up a book that would stay with them long after the last page is turned.
Poet, artist and editor, Paresh Tiwari has been widely published, especially in the sub-genre of Japanese poetry. A Pushcart Prize nominee, he has published two widely acclaimed collections of poetry. Raindrops chasing Raindrops, his latest collection of hybrid poems has found an honourable mention at the ‘Touchstone Distinguished Book Awards’ – 2017.
He is the resident cartoonist for Cattails, a journal by United haiku and tanka society, USA and the serving haibun editor of the online literary magazine Narrow Road, a tri-annual publication.
Paresh has been invited to read his works at various literature festivals including the Goa Art and Lit Fest – 2016 and has conducted haiku and haibun workshops at Arcs of a Circle, Mumbai, Hyderabad International Literature Festival, SIES College, and the British Council Library, Mumbai.