Poems with a sure and delicate touch.
Sujatha Mathai is one of our most consistent poets, for this is her fifth volume since 1990. That consistency is true of her standards as well. She rarely ascends to heights; but then she never gives us a poem which does not have something to say or is unreadable.
The 51 poems in this volume are fairly representative of Mathai’s concerns. The first few tell of the dead not being dead, as in the first and title poem: …throbbed with the heart/of the player, and the dead,/though secretly living/composer.
Mathai is, of course, a romantic, and the Wordsworthian moment touches her more than the Blakeian. She is at her best, though, when she eschews adornment, as in the simply beautiful poem ‘Salt’: My son has not learnt/ flattery./I asked him if he loved me/He said No but your/ hands are warm./That was better/than Cordelia’s answer.
I happen to know something of the difficulties in Sujatha’s life and how bravely and cheerfully she has faced them. She rarely now mentions personal matters, but when she does she handles them with a very sure and delicate touch.
‘Coming Running Jumping’, towards the end of the book where the most powerful poems are grouped together, deserves to be a classic, at least of ‘Indian English’ idiom.
Just before that, ‘Light’ is prefaced by this quotation from St. John of the Cross: “He who seeks light must learn to walk in the dark.” The poem itself could be an anthem for women. Another which consciously sets out to be, ‘Experience’, is dedicated to Nirbhaya, and begins with an evocative expression of a woman’s (particularly an Indian woman’s) longing for freedom she is denied:
When I was a child/I thought as a child/I spoke as a child/And then my mother sought to protect me/…from holding up the face/to rain in ecstasy….
The end of this poem, unfortunately, does not display the same strength. May I say it now? Too many Indian poets seem to me to be afraid — there is no other word — to work out their feelings to the end with intellectual and moral rigour. I have overreached myself, I fear, but surely a poet of Mathai’s experience and skill has no business being afraid of anything.
Here and there all through these poems there are wonderful fragments, perhaps the fragments in the quote from Eliot which Mathai uses as an epigraph: We must all bow before/the Gods,/The gods that make us/bowed.
The poems ‘Swing Low’ and ‘Poetry’ stand out for their completeness: There is no poetry,/which cannot include,/a family of three/existing on the earnings/of a ten-year-old boy.
Indeed, there should not be.
I have not come across Authorspress before. On the whole, they do a good job, but a little more subtlety would be welcome. They are based in south Delhi, so why the many footnotes to Indian words?
The first line of the first poem is spoiled by an asterisk next to “veena”, and four lines later to “gopurams”. And there are no footnotes to these asterisks. The horror, the horror.
Mother’s Veena and Other Poems; Anna Sujatha Mathai, Authorspress, Rs.195.