Book Review: Reclamation Song by Jhilmil Breckenridge

Reclaiming the Power of the Feminine

Reviewed by Soni Somarajan

Reclamation Song cover

Title: Reclamation Song
Author: Jhilmil Breckenridge
Publisher: Red River
Pages: (Paperback) 100

Holding Reclamation Song in my hands is sheer joy – here, at last, is a book of poetry made beautifully, an object of art in itself. Much thought is given to the cover design, the choice of paper, and the font – in this case, a Fell Type. The publisher, Red River, seems to have insight into how poets would love their books to be designed, evocative of the content as well as the fine delicateness of poetry itself. Thanks to Jhilmil Breckenridge, the poet who is also a painter, the illustrations in the book complement a poetic landscape that refuses to wear off days after.

The 55 poems in Reclamation Song are anything but ‘let it be light, it should float’ kind that Jhilmil aspires to, because the personal tragedy and anguish – the crux anchoring this collection – is of an enormous scale. The verse may be light but the effect is anything but floating, the weight of angst becoming our own – threatening to undo the objectivity of a review. For a debut collection, it has everything going for it – including a glowing introduction by the Master himself, Keki Daruwalla, who terms it ‘solid poetry grounded in pain’. Also, add a cluster of luminous blurbs from the who’s who in the world of letters.

Divided into three sections, we can easily say the first, “Overtures” hinges on the autobiographical – a diverse terrain: separation from children, graveyards, being born dusky, the mother’s influence, a lost childhood, abuse, longing, meeting expectations, and relationship dynamics. One begins to picture a comfortable couch, each poem a session of opening up – the release of the memories, vulnerability subject to public gaze, the poetry an attempt in and becoming the catharsis.

In “Letter to Liam”, notice the contrast between ‘I feared for your life and I let go’ and the delicateness of ‘grass and the daisies’. We focus on the poet’s earnest efforts for control over the turn of events as recalled from memory, the loss of her children. In the light of past events, note the second stanza’s ‘I love you more than words can express’ escalating into a superlative trope, ‘like an endless daisy chain’ – the mother’s love rendered in an unusually higher register, disguising a scream of helplessness. In “Love and Other Stories”, love of another kind, bruised by life’s experiences, comes full circle, inwards: ‘So now the safest place for my heart/ is with me. It beats a triumphant song…’

In “Being Invisible”, there is the desolate picture of resignation: ‘my hair silver, my nails unpainted – / the writing life…// Perhaps I am already dead, /’ Later, we see how there is a welcome phase of coping in “Last Will and Testament”, where the past sublimates into ‘Palms of henna told futures that didn’t matter./ After a while, the past didn’t either./ I am the poet who lived in this single moment.//’ Egging on the phase of personal blooming is the familiar images of Varanasi in “Dirge” – life and death of a former self, a rebirth, the old giving way to ‘Maybe I will belong:/ in a koel’s song or a tantrik’s dance//’

Shape shifting, as the aura of self-confidence sets in, the ‘geography blurs’ and there is a face-to-face with the coloniser of nations, its representative – possibly even intimate – told unapologetically to ‘Just call me Jill.’ with the afterword of a conscious inquiry: ‘Is the colour of my skin an atonement?/ Maybe I should ask you to wonder/ about the crimes of your ancestors -/ colonising, raping, plundering.’ I wonder where this conversation – unfolding from the personal and graduating to the accusatory – led to. But, no wait, the poet does have an answer: ‘And yet,/ when you call me Jill,/ I just look up sweetly/ and I smile.’

Related to skin colour, I also found this fascinating – in “A Few Lies About My Birth”, the poet deploys the antithetical to drive home: ‘they rejoiced/ because of my colour/ the dark bark of a mango tree.// Comparing my skin/ to my mother’s shade of pale,/ they smiled and nodded.//’ Any other voice would have nudged closer to the stereotypical. In this ritual of passage, she again walks new terrain to decimate the sharp edges related to time’s relentless melt in “Quiver”: ‘Waking early to watch you sleep, / the soft light generous as you age./’

The second and third sections, namely the “Chorus” and “Refrains”, are no less personal but mark the emergence of the collective, an intermingling of voices as we age – the growth of the larger conscience. Marital rape is spoken of in “The Gateway of Pleasure”, the sanctioned gruesomeness spot-lit by ‘Day after day, I decorated your home -/ alta on my feet, henna on my hands./ Night after night, your hands,// a hammer on its locks/ My body is a broken gateway/’ And then, describing the days at the asylum – ‘chemical shackles/ to tame your spirit/’ Notice the disembodiment – the ‘you’ – a distancing from the horrific, a device of objectiveness, an as-is narrative steering clear of the ‘victim’ perspective. The poems “Button”, “Redefining Care”, “Treatment” and “Staring” speak of a ‘thickening tongue’, ‘diminishing libido’, ‘limbs swimming in treacle’, ‘force-fed pills’, ‘barred windows’ in ‘a hospital with more guards/ than doctors/’ where the outcome is ‘you go back to staring’. At this juncture, you can’t but help notice the illustrated margin of each page – affluent with flowers, a style almost reminiscent of the arrested-motion in Starry Nights by Van Gogh.

In “Respectable Women”, there is the allusion to patriarchy. In how it is defining civility for women, a certain mindset hibernating in the most modern of men, at times so ingrained as to be not obvious to the carrier but giving itself away in the most ordinary: ‘patent red leather high heels -/ whore shoes you called them, and I’d laugh/ a woman like that is not respectable/ but I have been her/’. This calling out, this presentation of evidence, cannot be read in isolation, for the poet speaks for the sisterhood ‘a hundred soul sisters’ in “If You Have Forgotten”, where she announces: ‘My gift is presence/ My gift is being/ My gift is knowing/’. Hear it in context of the earlier ‘Perhaps I am already dead’ in “Being Invisible”. And, in the title poem, “Reclamation Song”, we espy the steady build-up of a dholak, ‘the echo of every woman shamed’ culminating in the liberated crescendo of ‘And I am home. I am finally home.’

The third section, “Refrains”, is an intricate blend of themes – to a great degree, a shift from memory to the contemporary. There is so much left to write about, realises the poet as she gets to the last third of her work. A far cry from the unwavering focus of the first two sections, we see an itinerary in verse – flitting through Kabul, Kashmir, Nationalism, Partition, Love Jihad, Acid Attacks, and Contract Marriages of Hyderabad. Almost a bucking beast threatening to throw the reader off. One wonders if there’s an invisible list in circulation – of contemporary themes to tick off, for that dream debut. This can impair a poet’s focus, the verse rendered superficial. But then, poetry is a speculative terrain for the reader and I am not exempt!

The third section is not without its moments. “Alternative Realities” is a brilliant poem, a video-in-reverse featuring Kashmir (‘where empty shikaras speak of visiting ghosts’), a poetic yearning to set the clock back. Sample this image of a school exploding:

Bricks come flying back to create walls –
children in Peshawar
turn the pages of history books

The bloom of fire moves inward,
like watercolour spreading –
the car remains parked, unharmed

With Reclamation Song, Jhilmil Breckenridge makes an unforgettable debut – emerging as a confident and powerful voice. To be shortlisted for the RL Poetry Award 2017 is an impressive accolade. Now with pressures of debut out of the way, we hope to see more from her; a deeper exploration of themes set rolling in the last section of the book. Perhaps, the poet will draw inspiration from her own astonishing lines in “Absolute” (written in a different context):

You are the interpreter
of rhyme. You wield
the staff. Your power
not scarce,
but absolute.



Bibliophile, tour consultant and poet, Soni Somarajan lives in the quaint, olde-worlde city of Thiruvananthapuram.

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