By Barnali Ray Shukla

Jhilmil Breckenridge’s new book of poetry, Reclamation Song, was just released in May 2018. Barnali Ray Shukla, filmmaker and writer, lived with the book for a few weeks and several questions emerged. Here are Jhilmil and Barnali in conversation about the book, its themes, and how Jhilmil came to be the confessional poet she is.

Jhilmil Breckenridge

Barnali – Breaking away, the bruised love… is that the cynic, the poet, the student, the mystic?

Jhilmil – A long time ago, in Delhi, my yoga teacher, Shivachittam Mani, taught me a concept in meditation – in every breath we die, in every breath we are born again. This tenet has stayed with me through my darkest days, through all the heartbreak, the ups and downs, that if I have my breath, it’s going to be ok. In fact, the name of this collection originally was Just One Breath.

Barnali – Does confessional poetry make you more vulnerable? Would you have it any other way?

Jhilmil – Confessional poetry is definitely not for the faint-hearted or the ones who care about log kya kahenge! I think those of us, who can and do write confessional poetry, have been through a fair amount of pain and have dealt with vulnerability, shame and frankly don’t care about society and her rules any more. In my case, when I started writing, I had no idea that I would bare all, i.e., I had no plan when I started writing that I would write confessional or autobiographical poetry, I truly thought I should aim to write sonnets or something like Wordsworth, etc. (no offence to the Masters!). You ask whether writing it makes you more vulnerable — on the contrary, it makes you more resilient because you can write your pain away and so, writing this style makes you stronger even though you bare all. I would have it no other way. I believe poetry has to come from witnessing, from living, from feeling, and so what else if not confessional poetry?

Barnali – Your influences (apart from what I noticed in the list of acknowledgements).

Jhilmil – I am a late entrant into this space. Although I have been an insatiable reader all my life, I stayed away from poetry. Perhaps it was the boring way we were taught, perhaps it was the learning by rote. So I read genre fiction, non-fiction and literary fiction a lot; some of my favourites are Alan Hollinghurst, Philip Pullman, Franz Kafka and a new favourite, Carmen Maria Machado, her style is so poetic! Three years ago, I was bit by the poetry bug and I have not looked back. In poetry, I am influenced by the work of Jane Hirshfield, Naomi Shihab Nye, Faiz, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Ellen Bass, and of course Claudia Rankine, Warsan Shire, and Ross Gay. In British poets, which is the community that I am living within, and have been adopted because of the #metoo anthology, which included my poem, “Button”, my absolute favourites are Kim Moore and Carol Ann Duffy.

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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
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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…’