Two books that are completely different in their poetics but mark the presence of a poet.
am thinking about a coffee with a publisher friend earlier today. We were talking about the recent launch of a book we both had reservations about. “But the event was absolutely packed,” she marvelled, adding ruefully, “Perhaps we’re missing something. There must be something to the book.”
Perhaps. My quarrel is not with the book. But with the wisdom that decrees that where there is noise there must be news, where there is a crowd there must be merit.
Where does that leave a book like the one I have beside me? A book that works with quite the reverse logic? Malayalam poet Veerankutty’s book in English, Always in Bloom is a reminder that some truths can only be whispered in intimacy, in silence.
Here is a voice so quiet that it could almost be a passing murmur in the mind. A voice that is hushed because that is the only way to talk about an undocumented verandah in a family home or an anonymous old woman with a sack of potatoes walking into a Kerala dusk.
What does one say about a voice that doesn’t defend, proclaim, flaunt, attack, chest-thump? What does one say about a voice of conscious vulnerability, a voice that chooses not to raise its voice? To speak softly here is choice — radical choice, not cowardice, not incapability. This is a voice that reminds us that fragility can be its own reward. To underscore some insights, to shout them from the rooftops, to belt them out in a stadium is to distort their integrity. Nothing wrong with rooftops – or stadia. But what of truths that demand other modes of articulation?
The book is modestly produced, as books of poetry usually are. Additionally, as with so many works of translation, there are several bumpy moments — gauche constructions, awkward syntax, proof-reading blunders. But through all the clunkiness, something blazes through: the presence of a poet.
One realises yet again the power of that verbal resource in a poet’s arsenal: the image. For only a poet can tether to the page moments that could otherwise so easily turn into statistic or slogan, headline or homily. Veerankutty reminds you, for instance, that justice and injustice are not abstruse concepts for parliamentary (and News at Nine) debate, but this particular old woman hobbling along with her half kilo of potatoes, hoping to buy her ragi and her eye-drops before sunset.
And it is only a poet who can document a sense of wonder at the ‘precision’ of creation (‘light staying light/and not slipping into/something else’); the tenderness one feels at watching two people in love (‘The world isn’t going to end soon’); a mother leaving the door unlocked ‘lest the verandah feel/left out, cold and lonely’; a forgotten Bisleri bottle capable of producing an entire landscape replete with ‘birds with sprouted wings…/trees with branches/leaning into the river’; the need to stand witness to a tree — its grammar of defencelessness and dignity, its fragility and wisdom.
The poet Rilke talked of ‘the news that is always arriving out of silence’. Veerankutty’s volume is one more reminder of the value of that news — and how indispensable its broadcasters are to our lives.
Manohar Shetty’s new book of poems, Body Language (published by the indefatigable Poetrywala), speaks in a different register. The dominant tone is irony — a tone often regarded as a limited and overused resource. But the book testifies to just how polychromatic irony can be — ranging from self-deprecation to searing indictment.
Generally, however, Shetty’s irony is less a savage Swiftian affair than a dry, dispassionate, mildly despairing amusement. There is a need to archive — with grim relish — the affectations of a new upwardly mobile Indian middle class. ‘There’s no bookshelf here,/Or paintings…/The plush divan sinks/With a hush and leaves no wrinkles,’ he says in a poem entitled ‘Luxury Home, Goa’, invoking in a few sharp strokes a particular brand of nouveau-riche abode. The last lines are slyly cruel: ‘The kitchen/Is crystal rich,/Clinical, and the gleaming/Sink reflects an oblong/Face with a triple/Chin.’
In ‘Dinars’, the satire is directed at another familiar brand of Gulf-returned Mr. Moneybags: with ‘an SUV’ purring ‘in his garage’; a wife with a gold necklace on her ‘sand-dune bosom’ and children whose voices ‘roar over the choir/ like a sandstorm’. ‘New Chic’ is a piercing lampoon of those who ‘speak soundlessly on their/ iPads’, consider ‘the no smoking sign’ to be their ‘last will and manifesto’ and believe (the irony is delicious here) that ‘Paulo Coelho/is deep, real deep.’
‘Colonial Museum’ adopts the imperialist’s gaze to speak in chillingly dulcet tones about ‘chaprasis/grinning like langurs’ and a land that was ‘divided and sliced so delicately/like cucumber sandwiches’. And ‘Local’ is an unsparing portrait of Goan small town-ism where ‘a snide remark/made nine years ago/is a slur against/family honour’ and ‘the belle of the ball/is the next Miss Universe.’
In Shetty’s finest poems, it is the spare and crafted images that give the irony its charge. There is also a satirist’s ability to read the ‘fine print’ (a recurrent phrase in Shetty’s poems) beneath every label and slogan, and show up the yawning chasm between the two.
What rescues this irony from broad strokes (in a couple of poems, including one about ‘Miss America’, one wondered if the cultural critique ran the risk of sexist stereotyping) are the moments of self-implication. And so there are poems that speak of ‘our ‘diffident, difficult selves…carefully/counting our loose change’ or ‘my hunchback walk/and dragging feet’ which suggest a personal admission of bewilderment.
One realises, then, that this is not the privileged insider parodying the arriviste. The gaze belongs, instead, to one who knows his position is far from secure; that he, in fact, is the endangered species, increasingly out of step with the times, aware that there might not be any campaigns, any dirges to mourn his passing — nothing other than perhaps a fine print obit in a local newspaper.
In ‘Template’, Shetty speaks of ‘the nervy/blue streak in the ice, its scalding clarity’. It is precisely this ‘nervy blue’ aliveness that is the poet’s strength. It imbues the book with an ability to dart from biting rejection to playfulness and rueful candour in ways that frequently surprise the reader.
Here are two books completely unalike each other in their poetics. Interestingly, however, both are devoid of effusive blurbs and self-congratulatory author bios. And both reveal a preoccupation with silence — as possibility, as erasure.
‘You will only be heard,’ says Shetty, ‘when the noise/ has died down’. Poetry, of course, is about keeping that faith, the odds notwithstanding.
If a plastic mineral water bottle can produce a universe (as Veerankutty tells us) and an ‘aloof’ book of verse – ‘an outsider, like Humphrey Bogart’ -- can linger on in the memory (as Shetty reminds us), perhaps there is hope for the broadcasters of silence, after all.