Reviewed by Rajat Chaudhuri
Title: Crow Dusk
Author: Mark Floyer
Publisher: Paekakariki Press (London, 2017)
Lilting Bengali melodies drift out of its pages. A crackle of old transistor radios animates the backdrop of ayahs, chowkidars and mosquito nets as crows descend for shelter amongst the banyans of a tropical night. Crow Dusk (Paekakariki Press), Mark Floyer’s collection of poems about Calcutta, the city where he spent his early childhood, is replete with images, sounds, smells and reflections about a place, a people and a country which is intricately woven into the fabric of his life and that of his ancestors.
Floyer’s great, great, great grandfather was John Shore, Governor General of Bengal (1793-1797) succeeding Cornwallis, who also became President of the Asiatic Society. Shore was a close friend of William Jones. The poet of Crow Dusk, while mentioning his ancestor in conversations, characterises him as ‘obscure’, perhaps rightly so, in contrast to his predecessor Cornwallis. However, in his well-crafted poems Floyer, who cites Arun Kolatkar as a major influence, casts the centuries old association of his family with India and the region as a backdrop for the evocations of boyhood and his renewed engagement with the city of Calcutta.
Half of his Calcutta poems are about his memories of the city, his home here and his family and the other half is about his return to find how it has changed. In the eponymous Crow Dusk, the poet writes,
And always crows
suspended high on rooftops and telephone wires
gathering to croak their dusk chorus
their black hoods
silhouetted against the purple disc of the sun. …
Sights, sounds and smells of this Calcutta of the late 1950s come alive in these carefully crafted imagist poems which surprise us with their sharp remembrances, distanced as they are by the smoke and dust of five and a half decades. This digging into the past is never an easy task as he alludes to in the poem Underwater, ‘I probe my diver’s torch for the rusting detritus of memories’.
Memories, sometimes of remembered lines from popular Bengali songs, surface in poems like Sulphur Nights, illuminating the past in a flash, transporting the reader to what is a sharply etched vignette of lost time.
Ayah sings to my six-month
saccharine Bengali ‘pop’ songs
Cholo jai Chole jai …
There is magic in the way he brings the past alive. Perhaps the secret lies in his economy of expression, pitch-perfect diction and a diver’s determination to fish out the biggest pearls or recreate lost stories from family heirlooms connected to India. The poet Stephanie Norgate writes about Floyer’s use of ‘sensuous, compelling language’ which could explain how, with such apparent ease, he can make the years melt before our eyes.
The latter half of the Calcutta poems is also vivid in their evocations but here we also find an analytical mind at work. Flashes of humour are our constant companion, yet what is more obvious is the voice of experience. In one of the memorable poems of this book, Pi-Dog (beautifully illustrated here and elsewhere by Olivia Floyer), where he invokes mathematics and Shakespeare to address Calcutta’s street dogs, Floyer finishes by saying,
If all the world’s DNA
was shaken in a test-tube
the solution would resemble you.
Stepping off the Plane, South Park Street Cemetery and The Chess Players at Gariahat are poems borne out of his gleanings from recent visits. Here we often find a meditative voice emerging, which he combines with sharp observation, wistfulness and often that light touch of humour. In Stepping off the Plane, Floyer describes how the heat melts the spine of his Lonely Planet Guide to West Bengal ‘spilling words into his shoulder bag’ and beyond the airport:
behind crumbling old colonial buildings
peering through period French latticed windows
slumbering jewel of the East,
my lost childhood.
This wistfulness, the realisation that the past is irretrievable, seems to take hold of his verse, fragmenting the lines with breaks, as if the chasms of forgetting have intruded into the empire of memory.
From the personal and familial, the poet slips effortlessly to larger themes of the colonial and the post-colonial world, in poems like Terra Incognita, which is a tightly wound spring releasing its energy in the final stanza:
Poised on a spirit level
between moon and horizon
my great grandfather gauged
billows of Baluchi sand dune
into measured patterns
With his sextant lodged in the crook
between forefinger and thumb,
he sketched out cartographies
of desert space and time
and mapped their contours.
Now his great granddaughter
corrals space into a garbage bag,
curates it in a Berlin gallery,
and calibrates time
with the click of a digital lens.
I ask you both—
(explorers of the colonial
and post-colonial ages,
pushing back the frontiers
of inner and outer geometry)
can your technologies
chart the imploded axes
the terra incognita of loss?
In a recent interview, I had asked Mark Floyer about his strongest impression about Calcutta. He told me it was the sheer vitality of the city that impressed him most. Talking about today’s Calcutta he added, ‘I must say that I felt very at home walking the city even when I strayed into areas of severe material deprivation and this is more than can be said for my home town in Hampshire on a Friday night when the pubs close and spill out their testosterone-fuelled revellers spoiling for a fight.’
During the late 1950s, Mark lived with his parents in a handsome old building on Ballygunge Park Road in south Calcutta. On a recent visit, he tracked down the house but sadly it had attracted realtors and was to be demolished soon. Perhaps, this house, which is evoked many a time in Floyer’s compelling verse, stands no more. Reading his poems about this Ballygunge Park property and listening to his stories, one feels a little sad and angry at the same time.
When I was writing my own book Hotel Calcutta, I had imagined an old hotel run by an Englishman, which had come in the crosshairs of developers and how story telling was used to protect the grand old building. But that was an act of imagination. In the real world, stories or poems can rarely save a piece of heritage from being pulled down. Powerless, we can only fall back on words. For words, and the images they evoke, cannot be taken away from us.
It could be
Yesterday’s wedding cake left out in the rain,
its walls mottled green and yellow
with the marzipan sponge of monsoon rain
my home on Ballygunge Park Road
where my early self was whisked up
with flour, eggs, yeast and milk
now subject to a demolition order
a slice of British India gone stale.
As the building readies itself for the wrecking ball,
I bless it inwardly:
glad to have lugged my aching limbs
across six thousand miles of land and ocean
to check if anything remains of the six year old boy
who once danced through its high-ceilinged corridors.
Rajat Chaudhuri is a Charles Wallace Trust, Korean Arts Council-InKo and Hawthornden Castle fellow and the Editor of Kitaab’s The Best Asian Speculative Fiction. The Butterfly Effect, his fourth work of fiction, was published recently.