Poetry Books

A stone, a star and the pearlthread surf: Meena Kandasamy reviews Ranjit Hoskote’s ‘Hunchprose’

What is poetry’s place while a deadly pandemic rages on: do we read it as a prayer or a lament? As our isolation aggravates our sense of alienation, do we default to poetry? If not, where do we turn to collectively grieve? Days before the second wave hit, I got a copy of Hunchprose, Ranjit Hoskote’s slim, dazzling collection of poetry. Over the course of the last two months, almost reflecting the iterative, aimless way life has unfolded, I’ve engaged with his work in all manners of reading: intermittently, haphazardly, repetitively, blankly, meditatively.

In a recent interview, Hoskote said that these poems were written in 2018, 2019, before our lives became hostage to a relentless virus. Reading his poems with this information in mind, one marvels at how prescient the work is today.

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Drowning voices

Seeking an entry point that will pin down the emotional blanket of this book, I want to begin with ‘Lemuria’, a long polyphonic, multi-part poem appearing towards the end. Hoskote references Susan Hiller’s work, The Last Silent Movie (it is to her that this poem is dedicated). In that video, voices of the last speakers of endangered and extinct languages are built into a sequence while the screen remains blank even as subtitles convey the translation of these disembodied tongues. This reminder of death and disappearance evokes the funereal idea of the poem as a speech act before humanity vanishes.

His name comes to you like the light/ a star began transmitting a million years ago;/ a message so long in streaming/ from a source so distant/ it can’t tell you the source is dead.

Reading the work while taking a compulsive break from doom-scrolling, one realises how much this sense of dead and drowning voices pervades Hunchprose — where poetry is the last witness, a silent grieving for the end of times. The theme of a distant past that revisits us in the form of an apocalyptic future also runs through the work.

You’re one dotted line away from extinction here/ one glass skin away from escape/ a landscape returns/ to dust in every jar

A stone, a star and the pearlthread surf: Meena Kandasamy reviews Ranjit Hoskote’s ‘Hunchprose’

Being trapped in time is a constant refrain. Hoskote’s poems remind us that we are stuck inside the hourglass, like a stray pigeon “on the wrong side of the glass.” The estrangement that accompanies highly atomised life under neoliberalism is captured when he writes, In this town/ ask for directions in whispers/ tell no one your birth name.

In a poem titled ‘Homer’, Hoskote asks, What was his crime? and answers, Tell them at home he was taken hostage by his own fictions. Hoskote carries the role of the poet with seriousness and humility, interrogating his own engagement in a society that is dominated by other forms of text/ speech/ address. Hunchprose is a nod to both the intuitive nature and to the not-prose nature of poetry; it is also a nod to Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. There is nothing under the sun which is not material for poetry. And there is a case to be made here about how poetry lets itself get heard.

Dramatic tension

Hoskote is one of the best artistic minds at work in India today. Inevitably, the wealth of his experience as a curator, cultural theorist and critic informs and infuses his rich and resonant poetry. Adept at interlinking religious, historical and mythical voices, and playful while moving between languages, the poetry in this volume is a delight.

Ghalib and the Gita and the myth of Varaha turn up, as does a nirguni bhajan of the saint-poet Kabir. Hoskote’s poems reclaim the plurality we inhabit, a plurality that is constantly under threat. Language is spontaneously recalibrated; the poems are rife with fresh coinages and compound words.

The poem, ‘Protest’, makes our thoughts turn to Kashmir under occupation, to the farmers’ protest, to the many Shaheen Baghs around the country.

hand on the placard

fist around the stone

hand around the flagpole

fist around the stone

hand around the baton

fist around the stone

grip the flint-edge clarity

of breath ebbing from stone

Here, poetry steps out of nervous cadences and becomes a chant, slowly accelerating, taking us on a split-second journey from non-violent, approved modes of protest to the violence of a repressive state, which, in turn, provokes the counter-violence of the people. It is a testament to Hoskote’s genius that he packs such visual power, pulsating energy and dramatic tension in so few words.

Hunchprose is also populated with parrots and fireflies and cormorants; with spiky trees and marigold petals and pearlthread surf. I am filled with regret that I couldn’t quite accommodate in this review the richness of the natural world which Hoskote evokes in verse after verse. Perhaps this misgiving comes from my search for the political, from my desperation to seek and affirm humanity. I quote my favourite lines from Hunchprose:

Never forget those who stretch hide

into leather

they can craft drums that bring

down palaces

I come away from his poetry having found what I sought.

Hunchprose; Ranjit Hoskote, Penguin Hamish Hamilton, ₹499

The writer is a poet, novelist and translator.

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