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Accessible poetry

TWO years ago on a nippy December afternoon, I was at a little tribal village Nenmenikunnu in Wayanad district in Kerala. There were volunteers there to help de-silt the reservoir and raise the bund of the check dam; and artists to be part of an art camp.

There were several speeches and then a local poet was invited to recite a poem. His poetry recited in a sonorous tone was about mountains and forests. Pretty words and complex phrases flowed. When Rajeevan was invited to read his poem, he smiled into his beard and I thought I saw a twinkle in his eye. I comprehended the amusement when I heard his opening line: Yende Mulagal evide? (Where are my breasts?) And then in a deliberate voice, just so that no one thought they had heard him wrong, he reiterated it. A ripple ran through the audience. Children tittered; women gasped; men stiffened and I (and a few other kindred spirits) settled back to enjoy the ride through the alleys of Rajeevan's imagination.

Every year, I draw up a list of writers/ poets that I consider to be my discovery of that year. Writers who make you want to rub your hands in glee and say, "Yes, yes!" Writers who reaffirm my faith in literature. As I listened to Rajeevan then, I knew he too would be part of my list. A feeling that is validated when I read T.P. Rajeevan's He Who Was Gone Thus.

While T.P. Rajeevan has his own place in the literary establishment as a writer of poetry and prose in English and Malayalam and more recently as publisher of an avant-garde publishing house, this is his first collection of poetry in English and includes my own favourite, the poem that introduced me to T.P. Rajeevan's inimicable voice, the very seminal "Kannaki" with its opening line: Where are my breasts?

Poetry collections seldom work their magic at first reading. One has to dip and go; return for affirmations and then pounce on another flash of the expanse of imagination... That is the nature of the beast. He Who Was Gone Thus however is a collection that dazzles even as you skim through. Take the poem "The Cat":

For every shadow/ four legs
For every stillness/ a moving spotted tail.
For every silence/ five sharp claws.
For every darkness/ a mouth that opens
To the netherworld./ In every eye that rises
a rat's foetus.

Rajeevan's poetry is suffused with animals and wit. From the amoeba to ants to the tortoise to the rabbit among vegetables. And so when you chance upon a quiet gem like the poem "Lakes" (but/ don't call/ the eyes/ that never close/ lakes) you feel a certain warming of the soul. This is a voice to be nurtured, cherished perhaps.

Just as long hair, sandals and creative angst have typified the poet, poetry that is dense and inaccessible is considered weighty. Does a metaphor become a true metaphor only when it is beyond comprehension? Do subjects of poetry have to be sublime or the tortured and condemned? I have always wondered if poetry that demands its reader be as erudite as the poet who wrote it is really poetry at all.

Rajeevan's poetry comes with no fences between his mind and the reader's. You understand even as you read and yet its very simplicity is deceptive. For as you read again you see the unleashing of a truly splendid imagination. His metaphors are energetic without being pretentious. In fact I shudder to think of how hi-brow reviewers and readers would react to this collection. It must be a disquieting sensation for them who have gone thus: Should poetry be as much fun?

He Who Was Gone Thus, Thachom Poyil Rajeevan, Yeti Books, p.100, Rs.125.


Anita Nair's books include The Better Man, Ladies Coupe and Malabar Mind.

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