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Updated: April 3, 2011 14:10 IST

Exploring lives

K. Srilata.
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Absent Muses, Sampurna Chattarji, Poetrywala, Rs. 300. Photo: Special Arrangement
The Hindu
Absent Muses, Sampurna Chattarji, Poetrywala, Rs. 300. Photo: Special Arrangement

The book is the poet's intuitive understanding of what to do with emotions says K. Srilatha.

The poems in Sampurna Chattarji's Absent Muses dexterously balance the spirit of intellectual inquiry and dialogue with the impulse to emote. The poet's eye is well-trained, its gaze wide and its focus sharp and narrow dwelling on the drama that inheres in small things. The voice is compelling, impossible to turn away from. Oftentimes, the tone of address that the poems use is charmingly direct and disarms us as it does in “Cities”, the first two stanzas of which are a collection of questions about the city to which the addressee belongs:

So tell me

Is it hot?

Does it rain?

Are there places

You can sit on a sunny day,

Away from the crowd?

Is it loud?

What do the streets smell like?

What do the women wear?

Are they pretty?

Do you love it?

Could you leave it?

Will I like it

if I come?

The last two lines of the second stanza take the curious, partly wistful, rhythmically striking questions of the preceding lines to another level. The questions enable one to arrive at the kernel of the poem in a most delightful way.

Sampurna's craft is informed by the deep way in which she listens and sees. The images are spot-on and strangely delicious. In “Hummingword”, she writes of a “certain kind of listening” that takes her to the flapping of wings and her discovery of “My hummingword/longing for nectar, thirsting/to burst into song.” The poem “Migration and the Mystery of Letters” extensively uses the leitmotif of migratory birds to talk about exotic letters from foreign places. Formally too, the poem is interesting, though one is not quite sure what Sampurna is attempting to do when she switches into prose-poem mode more than half way through. The switch is a bit distracting if not violent and one wonders about that.

Large compass

No one poem in the collection, which happens to be Sampurna's second, is quite like the other — either formally or thematically — though there are some recurrent concerns. The poet walks us through many lives and many experiences from a life lived in Edinburgh to the experience of “flirting with the succulence of salmon”. Her compass is large and poems cannot be contained. They spill out of the frame. Together these factors become the narrative hook that holds us from poem to poem. Some of the poems are particularly memorable. The poem “Dialogue” is literally what the title suggests it is and is structured like a dialogue between the poet herself and Ivan. The questions, concerned as some of them are with writing, elicit responses that are whimsical, not direct. The poems, “Dialogue” included, in their sharp capturing of life, read like found poems and one is not sure if the mimicking of that form is deliberate or accidental.

One of the most accomplished poems in the collection is “Our Knowledge of Faces”. (I found, to my delight, that it is dedicated to me!) The poet flirts with the notion of the mathematical, making it both less and more than what it is — personalizing the Pi and string theory. And yet, underlying all that is ‘the knowledge of numbers waiting to show themselves… daring you to defy them.' What we know is emotional, argues Sampurna, playfully bringing us back to the initial premise of the poem. Our knowledge of faces is simply not mathematical: “When she blushed, how pretty she looked, how sweet/ (was it an equilateral blush/ brushing her face into a perfect triangle of pink?)”

What is impressive about Absent Muses is the poet's intuitive understanding of what to do with emotions, where to place them and just how to flick that little switch so we feel just what she wants us to feel. Sampurna's trick is always to involve us, to pull us into the web of her narratives.

The writer is a poet, novelist and academic. Email: sree@iitm.ac.in

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