Book Review: The Poet as A Persevering Witness by Dion D’Souza


Dion D’souza talks about E.V. Ramakrishnan’s Tips for Living in an Expanding Universe (Poetrywala, 2018) and shows how it has acquired even more relevance today.

In Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), the protagonist Alvy Singer, having found out as a child that our universe is expanding, decides to give up mundane activities like his homework. What’s the point, he demands petulantly, if it’s just going to blow up one fine day? (The universe, that is, not his homework.) And suppose one could travel into and back in cinema time (as the older and heartbroken Alvy does in the film) and slip the boy a copy of EV Ramakrishnan’s Tips for Living in an Expanding Universe, would that in any way serve to ease his anxiety? I doubt it. But what I can vouch for is the fact that Alvy’s excuses for not turning in his assignments would have been more innovative than the standard go-to of an unruly pet’s voracious appetite.

But, man of wavering faith as I may be, why, in this particular case, do I doubt? To put it simply, the vision of a capricious universe that Ramakrishnan offers us is not very reassuring: one where “nothing is permanent, only sorrows and stories” (‘Local Gods’) and “the end [is] always imminent/but the narrative, like a coroner’s/report on a mass suicide, drags on” (‘To a Writer in Exile’). Reality and identity are in a state of flux; and violence, disease or a natural calamity can at any moment rip through our fragile and illusory sense of order and stability. However, this is a vision we must face up to of necessity. (And have now been forced to…thanks, 2020!)

Fittingly, the title poem counsels one to:

…Watch out

for alerts, travel advisories every morning

to know where you are, or rather, where you will

never be….

A very palpable and ‘skin-crawling’ sense of menace and terror is always lurking around the corner in these poems, where the sky can suddenly open up “like a war-machine gone/berserk” (‘Father’s Day, 2010’) and where a city’s denizens “walk as if they are fleeing a scene of crime” (‘To a Writer in Exile’). In the “haunted,/inconclusive world” (‘Avvaiyar in a Haunted Choultry’) conjured up within the pages of this book, the “difference between a prayer and a false affidavit” is blurred (‘Falling Figures’) and “[t]o pass for a sane man, most of the time,/I have to choose my words and cast my vote” (‘Letter to an Afghan Friend’).

One of the words that we would do well to avoid perhaps is “The Darkest Word in the Dictionary”, the opening poem of this collection. Encountering this “unspeakable word” in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic hellscape, the narrator, who thought he was well acquainted with “all the synonyms of despair”, suffers a terrible visceral reaction.

The author’s preface to the collection provides some helpful context to the poetry: the tension that accompanies linguistic ambidexterity, how the political currents of his home state, and of those his career as an academic have taken him to, have gone on to shape his poetry. “Freedom, equality and social justice,” he writes, “are not givens in any society; these are values one has to nurture through constant struggles” – a line that assumes deeper significance today.

In “Made in India”, for instance, any pride and self-satisfaction that accompanies “authentic Indian/masks that are made in India” (a remarkably prescient reference, regardless of whether or not they are of the N95 variety) must coexist with this reality:

A letter re-directed seven times

is finally held and put on trial.

Its testimony is a tract on

what transpires in a mind on the brink

going blank just before lights go out.

Several of Ramakrishnan’s poems undertake an almost Bergeresque exploration of the dynamics of seeing. In “Terms of Seeing”, which is easily one his finest poems, the discovery of “an occasional roasted vertebra” from the nearby crematorium is not the most terrifying experience awaiting a bunch of kids playing in an overgrown orchard. No, rather it is the transformation of a well, in the slanting, shifting light, into a staring eye that snatches them, for a fleeting moment, from the ordinary “world of gravity”. Stylistically more Twilight Zone than Stranger Things, this poem is masterfully crafted and brimming with brilliant metaphors and images: the well water smells “like freshly distilled alcohol”; in it, turtles with “shaven heads” move “with monastic grace”, transmogrified at the end of the poem into “white optic nerves”.

In “Gama’s Ship”, the Portuguese conquistador’s “gaze moves over the land/like the shadow of a predator bird”, while in “The Flayed Head of a Goat” (a poem inspired by a Picasso exhibition), the subject of the nature morte is “unguarded, exposed, /like an orphan’s childhood”.

An urgent and epigrammatic quality characterizes the lines of several poems – a sinister channeling of the tone of wisdom literature. For instance, here is the rather alarming opening stanza of ‘Never Build Houses’:

Never build houses, they will become

bunkers, you will lie there in wait,

for your friends, fingers on the trigger.

There is also irony and wry humor. “Stray Cats” are shockingly insouciant. But have you ever thought why? “When you have nine lives to live/you learn to take things in your stride.” And “A Speech Heard at a Feminist Seminar in Payyanur” begins with this casual admission by the speaker:

I know nothing of women writers of Kerala,

the topic I am supposed to speak on.

But I know something of women.

Poignant poems on parents and unnerving poems about dual identities share space in this rich and diverse collection. But naturally, in a poetic universe where everything is far from hunky-dory, the poetry itself has its shortcomings. Sometimes a poem is marred by overstatement. For example, the closing lines of ‘Father’s Day, 2010’ and ‘Nocturnal’ needlessly spell out the meaning of the poem’s events and their implications for the speaker, with the poet all too eager to step in and relieve the reader of interpretative effort. In certain instances, the lines are too densely packed, hampering natural speech rhythms. One example will suffice:

…Chased by the randomised

algorithms of an antique disposition.

Savaged by manifestoes ghost-written

by travelling salesman who exchange

stories of an uprising for a pair of monkeys.

(‘Misreadings’)

In closing, I’d like to return to the beginning of this essay and little Alvy Singer: the doctor the boy’s harried mother takes him to cheerfully reminds him that the catastrophe he fears is still very distant, and that it makes sense to try and get on with and make the most of things meanwhile. That we may soon be able to. That, in the luminous words of Ramakrishnan’s ‘A Letter to Allen Ginsberg’, we may also learn to:

To trespass into truth, make the world dwell among us,

Dream with our legs and fingers, learn from the faith

That pilots tiny birds across vast oceans into unknown lands.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

E.V.Ramakrishnan is a bilingual writer and translator who has published poetry and literary criticism, in Malayalam and English. He has published three volumes of poetry in English: Being Elsewhere in Myself (1980), A Python in a Snake Park (1994), Terms of Seeing: New and Selected Poems (2006). Tips for Living in an Expanding Universe is his latest volume of poems in English.His critical works in English include Indigenous Imaginaries: Literature, Region, Modernity (2017), Locating Indian Literature: Texts, Traditions and Translations (2011) and Making It New: Modernism in Malayalam, Marathi and Hindi Poetry (1995).

Among his edited volumes in English are Bakhtinian Explorations of Indian Culture : Pluralism, Dogma and Dialogue through History (co-edited, 2018), Inter-disciplinary Alter-Natives in Comparative Literature (co-edited, 2013), Indian Short Story 1900-2000 (2001), Tree of Tongues: An Anthology of Modern Indian Poetry (1999) and Trees of Kochi and Other Poems by K.G.Sankara Pillai (2016).

He has published seven critical books in Malayalam, including Anubhavangale Aarkkanu Peti? (2013), Malayala Novelinte Deshakalangal (2017) and Aksharavum Aadhunikatayum (1994) for which he was awarded Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for Literary Criticism.

After a distinguished career in academics, he retired from Central University of Gujarat, Gandhinagar, in 2015 as Professor and Dean of the School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies. He has been Professor Emeritus at the same University during 2015-2018. Widely travelled, Ramakrishnan has been Visiting Professor at Georgia University (2014), Delhi University (2017) and Central University of Hyderabad (2018). He lives in Gandhinagar, Gujarat.


Reviewer’s bio

Dion D’Souza is the author of Three Doors, a collection of poems. His work has appeared in journals such as Out of Print, Guftugu and The Punch Magazine. He lives in Mumbai.

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