How Sarita Jenamani visualises birds ‘flying with shards of sky in their beak’
Book Review by Dr. Anisur Rahman
Book: Till the Next Wave Comes
Poet: Sarita Jenamani
Publisher: Dhauli Books, 2018
A poem is not
a luminous firework
It is a lonely shooting star
from the forehead
of the firmament (“Poem”, 69)
(Excerpted from A Poem is Not a Luminous Firework: Sarita Jenamani in Her Poetry Workshop)
Constructed around four vibrant images, this definitional piece made me wonder if a poem is a curious construct for Sarita Jenamani. A moment later, I turned curious to find whether the poem comes in her grip, or gives her a slip, in a moment of becoming. To test this, I moved back and forth with seventy nine poems included in her collection Till the Next Wave Comes. In doing so, I found myself defining and redefining her poetics as any curious reader would do in the process of reading poetry. While reading the poems with shorter and longer breaks, I confirmed that a poem to her was a unit of a larger body of expression called poetry that sought its strength from sharp images and mixed metaphors, as also with acute turns of expressions and implied silences.
Jenamani’s poetry has allowed me a passage to a rich habitat of people and a veritable range of moods and modes of living. She chooses to draw upon locations near and far, conditions real and eerie, and people alive and lost in time. As she turns her words into images and images into metaphors, she transforms her memories into fantasies and conditions of living into those of loving. Her long and short poems are like breaths punctuated with regular strokes of strength. She survives through drifting and static scenarios that most of her poems represent.
Jenamani is a poet in English and Oriya. She lives in Vienna, Austria. She is the general secretary of Austrian Chapter of PEN International. She is the co-editor of an Austria based bilingual magazine for migrant literature Words & Worlds.
Living in divided times and spaces and writing her poems in imagist tradition, she draws upon the frozen moments in memory, the ebb and flow of moods, and the shifting landscapes. She seeks her points of reference variously as a poet would do to evolve a mode of negotiating afresh with one’s own self. One of them relates, directly and indirectly, with Vienna which spreads over her imaginative landscape in different ways.
It emerges now as an idea, and now as experience of exile; now as an engagement with foreign language, and now with the mother tongue. While recalling the experience of the “First Rain in Vienna”, “where the soil hardly ever exudes aroma even after the rains,” she fills it with greater vitality as she develops yet another view as the city takes a turn to rise up when “twiglets of memory shoot up/and somewhere deep down/loss strikes root”. Drawing upon her Viennese experience, she comes up with a clearly imagist representation in “Viennese Coffee-houses” where she recreates the city’s vitality and the coming of cafes to life after the dusk when “crowd of solitude” gets around the tables waiting for its guests. This poem creates a scene, as does yet another poem called “Winter in Vienna” where fog and snowy night are punctuated by a violet glow which envelop all and lead to a state where “voice darkens and submerges/in the sorcery of silence”. In the act of precise image-making, Jenamani recreates a vivid picture of silence and agility as experienced in reality and imagination.
At a different level, Jenamani engages with the dichotomies of existence with reference to different times and places in past and present. These experiences find expression in a number of poems. They are meaningfully punctuated by a set of poems that represent sublimated states of existence. In “An Open Window”, for example, she visualises birds “flying with shards of sky in their beak” and finds herself enveloped by “a swarthy despondency”. Nature, bird, and the human being co-exist in a silent relationship in this poem. It is the mysterious correspondence between the three that turns it into a material for poetry at the two levels of experience and expression.
This strength to create plausible equivalents with freshness also helps Jenamani to create concrete images. In “A Perfect Picture” she visualises “A man/A tree/A shadow/in golden silence/overlooking/a screaming landscape, surrounding them”. Her faculty to observe sharply and feelingly enables her to recreate a moment of togetherness in “While Making Love”. Here, she perceives desire as a mysterious condition that takes one to explore it in physical terms “between the pauses of a sonata”. This experience takes yet another turn in “Love” where suddenly the night turns cumbersome and she discovers “a rendezvous in the twilight/a mixed taste of tears and kisses/in the enfolding arms”. This lingering moment of togetherness finds another mode of expression in a poem like “Reflection”. These poems may be read as variations on the experience of love and its rarefied pleasures.
Jenmani holds a word-brush between her fingers to paint a scene like a deft artist would do to paint a scenario. “Mapping a World of Her Own” is one such poem where she paints a picture by enlivening the images of sunshine, stars, clouds, garden and moon. As she works with these images in the first stanza, she takes a sudden shift in the next stanza where the woman, being the central figure of the poem, wishes to leap over the walls that are stretched from one end of the sky to the other.
This desire to span the hiatus between two conditions finds a different mode of expression in “Desire and Language”. Here, she tries to negotiate the distance between the two in an atypical manner of a poet trying to evolve herself both experientially and stylistically. She points to “the limitations of decoding/a paradigm/with the smog of language” which is akin to a falcon’s flight in a state of epilepsy. With this, she wonders and seems to put a question of which there is probably no answer. In a way, she only looks askance: “Why don’t you map this span/through the sorcery/of your dream reflected/in a distant galaxy”.
Jenamani’s imaginative vitality is well expressed in her ability to find strong similes, metaphors and mixed metaphors. Expressions like silence spreading its wings “like the desert”, days flying “like camphor” and the sun pouncing” like a kite” empower her poems with vitality that correspond with the readers’ perception of the given condition. This quality may further be testified in expressions like strong wind thrashing a body “like a rag”, rain pouring like “unforeseen future” and vehicles fleeing from the cloudburst “like children escaping a drone attack”. Indeed, many of her poems acquire their intrinsic strength from her ability to create concrete states of being through abstract conditions of living. Some more examples like silence spreading like “moss”, earth lying thirsty “like a crumpled blotting paper”, memories falling “like leaves in autumn” and a heavy heart “like a sky about to collapse” would bear out this quality.
A reading through this collection of poems brought me with many more engaging poems like “Beyond,” “Only the River Gets Banished,” “An Equestrian Mindscape,” “Non-Place of Being,” ‘To Borges,” “Drowsiness,” “Collapse,” “The Path of Dawn,” “Fossil,” “Being Bemused,” “Nothing,” “Dew Drops,” “Inscriptures on Sand Dunes,” “Futility,” “Eternal Cities,” “Nothing,” “Driving on a Rainy Day”. These poems may be read to appreciate her interface with the larger associations of a poet who establishes a rapport with the world around at allusive and symbolic levels.
Jenamani’s poems are easily marked for their pithiness. Her words and phrases merge to hit the baseline of what we call a proverb which is yet another mode of poetical expression. Her images create a cluster of unities that underline the patterns of a life lived in disarray but with a strong desire to achieve an equilibrium. This is the kind of poetry that appeals to imagination and caters to reason but in a manner that defies any kind of constraining rationality. Jenamani has not been truly acknowledged for all her worth as a poet which she genuinely deserved. Probably, this is because she lives in a bewildering commune of poets where some voices get submerged in the din of voices that are too loud and too proud to be heard and absorbed with humility. Jenamani’s voice is the voice of self-effacement and modesty.
Dr. Anisur Rahman is a former professor of English at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He is currently Senior Advisor at Rekhta Foundation.
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