EDITOR’S NOTE

–Abhay K

100 Great Indian Poems

On 10 December 1950, William Faulkner began his Nobel Prize acceptance speech with these words, “I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit…” As art transcends the artist, poetry transcends the poet. Faulkner further elaborated upon the importance of artwork over the artist in an interview with The Paris Review in 1956. Referring to the futility of conflict over the authorship of Shakespeare’s works, he contends, “…what is important is Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not who wrote them, but that somebody did. The artist is of no importance. Only what he creates is important.”

This is what I had in mind when I started editing 100 Great Indian Poems and its companion volume 100 More Great Indian Poems. The poetry anthologies I have come across have a clear emphasis on ‘the poets,’ illustrated in the titles such as Ten Twentieth Century Indian Poets, Twelve Modern Indian Poets, Nine Indian Women Poets or 60 Indian Poets. These My Words, edited by Eunice de Souza and Melanie Silgardo, which could be otherwise daunting and inaccessible to common people, may be an exception. These lines from De Souza’s poem ‘Meeting Poets’ are telling –

I am disconcerted sometimes
by the colour of their socks
the suspicion of a wig
the wasp in the voice
and an air, sometimes, of dankness.
Best to meet in poems:
cool speckled shells
in which one hears
a sad but distant sea

A general reader does not need to know which prizes a poet has won, how many books has s/he published or which festivals has s/he attended; the charm and force of an individual poem is sufficient to move the reader. Poetry survives the poets because of its timeless and intrinsic value. Therefore, I don’t understand the obsession of the 20th century anthologists of Indian poetry with the poets.

I was fascinated with Rashmirathi by Ramdhari Singh Dinkar while growing up as a child in Bihar. I chanced upon my father’s worn-out copy of this book at home when I was in class four. The magic that I had felt in the sound and energy of words in Rashmirathi stays with me till date. This Hindi epic tells the story of Karna, Krishna, Pandavas and Kauravas. It was my first lesson in literature as well as in politics and diplomacy. I memorised the third canto by heart as I often read it. I still do. I have unsuccessfully tried to translate this work into English. The magic of native words is lost in translation; and therefore, verses from Rashmirathi do not find a place in the anthology of great Indian poems. For the similar reason of untranslatability, several other great poems could not fit into this anthology.

By Bhaswati Ghosh

Wet Radio and Other Poems

Title: Wet Radio and other poems
Author: Goirick Brahmachari
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (August 18, 2017)
Pages: 148
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If rain is the central motif seeping through Goirick B’s Wet Radio, the poems live up to their task of carrying wetness and drenching the reader with soaking endurance. Like his poems, the poet carries a lot, too – the weight of nostalgia and nonconformity, strains of relationships and a disquiet that refuses to be quelled. In all the different themes Wet Radio explores, the poet’s visceral engagement keeps one hooked to his words.

This very act – of carrying impressions from location to location, both physical and psychical – makes Goirick almost a modern-day itinerant poet/songwriter. His sense of place, especially of Northeast India, is acute; at the same time, his is a poetic spirit that defies the idea of rooting in any one place. This impulse to move, even run, lends his poetry both breadth and passage.

There is gasping pain and seething anger, life-saving love and cynical disillusionment in the poems. The poet often travels back in memory to the Northeast, and in doing so confronts the impossibility of defining identity on the basis of the usual markers of region, religion and language. Consider these lines from ‘Rumour’: “The cave is like any other/only sometimes a Naga would enter/and come out as a Manipuri/Sometimes a Khasi would turn into/a Mizo or, a Bengali, a Bodo,/usually, after every 32 tunnels.”

Goirick plays with the question of identity even more adventurously in ‘Worshipping the Blue Mad Man’, a poem on Charak Puja held in eastern India to worship Shiva. In the poem, he employs a bi-lingual structure, which for those who read both English and Bengali, create a unique sensory and rhythmic experience. The Bengali words occur where they are evidently impossible to render in translation except as approximations, which is how they are presented in the final stanza.

Pain and its many contours has been a favoured subject for poets. Goirick touches the slippery pulse of pain, both physical and invisible, in a number of his poems. He speaks of sadness that’s “not of this earth but born out of the void above,” alluding to a hollowness that could be hard to frame within the conventional context of sanity. In ‘Ache’ he maps the journey of pain and the way it afflicts the mind as “it travels through the body earth./From the head onto the shoulders/From maps to borders/Down to the viscera,/nails Flowing like a stream.”

By Mani Rao

Available Light_Front Cover
Title: Available Light
Author: C.P. Surendran
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Pages: 272
Price: INR 499/-
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Available Light is a collection of new poems by C.P. Surendran appended with his four previous books of poetry — Gemini II (1994), Posthumous Poems (1999), Canaries on the Moon (2002) and Portraits of the Space We Occupy (2007) – of which the first three are out of print. The publication of Available Light brings these early poems back into circulation, and to our attention, helping us survey the achievement of this mid-career poet.

Like most collected works, Available Light is chronologically ordered, as though requesting a biographical reading or an evaluation of how the poet’s craft progressed or changed over time. I duly read this book from the end to the beginning so that I might arrive in the present, maybe with Darwinian notes; instead, I found a circle. After the stunning opening of Gemini II, the next two books were disappointing; Portraits returned to the passion and technical brilliance of the first book, with added maturity. The latest poems in Available Light continue to soar, but now the political and impersonal has become personal and C.P. draws his blood and ink from the wider world. The circle has come around, but now it is wider.

The book also includes an essay written by C.P. as a tribute to his friend, poet Vijay Nambisan, who died in August 2017, in which he describes the 90s Bombay. The inclusion of this essay helps us contextualize the angst in C.P.’s previous work. It also illuminates C.P.’s own milieu and lets us locate his time and place in the history of Indian English poetry.

A devastating separation fuels C.P.’s first collection, Gemini II (1994), which remains a fresh and fulfilling read. The poems do not indulge in melodramatic declarations, nor dampen intensity with platitudes. The narratives seem quick but they are terse and well-controlled; lines play off each other for resonances. A discussion of a single poem from this book will illustrate C.P.’s craft:

Renunciation

First light on the kitchen table.
Breakfast for one. Beer and wine.
Feline eyes kiss fallen tart.

Lunch is a conceit of three. My cat,
Your snapshot and me. Secret rum
In mint tea. Invalidation of the sun.

Last light comes to sup. Dinner is a feat
In rectitude. Water and whiskey. Campaign
Of shadows on the wall. No despair.

A silver of music around the ankles.
Endless retreat of inaccessible feet.

Each of the three stanzas is a tableau set around a kitchen table at breakfast, lunch and dinner. The scene is similar but slightly different each time. If the first stanza is somewhat cryptic, the second stanza clarifies the three characters — the narrator, a cat, and a missing lover. Pronouns mark relationships — “my cat, your snapshot” with the slant rhymes of “[C]at” and “shot” and “rum” and “sun” against the monotony of “me” and “tea”. Every detail adds to the poignancy of the missing person — the evening visitor is none but the sunlight, and even the cat’s kiss is only visual. The dynamic events, a “campaign of shadows” and the “silver of music” are a counterfoil to the sun and silence.