Review Books

I watch you struggle to become a city with a soul

Capitals: A Poetry Anthology Ed Abhay K. Bloomsbury India ₹599  

Abuja, Accra, Cairo, Athens, New Delhi, Kathmandu, New York… the names of capital cities are reeled off in the pages of this anthology edited by Abhay K., titled, well, Capitals. It deals with images of the city through memory (history) and desire (future). They are like “The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/ Petals on a wet, black bough” that Ezra Pound wrote about in ‘In a Station of the Metro’. The notion of power gets reflected through bright, clear images; the dominant notion is of power, or rather the conflicts that emerge from struggles for power.

The anthology is divided into four sections—Africa, the Americas, Asia-Pacific and Europe. The cities are brought alive through memory, silences, fantasies and dreams.

The poems on Africa recreate the beauty of flowers and birds, and the terror of guns, racial tensions, heat and segregation. In ‘Poems for Abuja’, describing the fear of the city being swallowed, Jumoke Verissimo writes: “I watch you—struggle to become/ a city with a soul./ On the shoulder of trembling grounds/ your eyes though open cannot see/ the earth is shifting. You’re saving sand./ I will not be swallowed./ I’ll move on.”

In his poem ‘Green Boy’about Accra, Kwame Dawes describes a night when “they stared into/ the orange dusk over Accra, poured libation/ listening for guns first, but soon/ it was drums, the celebration/ of the King’s survival,/ and somewhere in there,/ there is this bauble of delight/ in a child born, intact, facing decades,/ facing decades to come.”

In ‘Harare: The Sunshine City’, Zimbabwean poet Chirikure Chirikure evokes the pain of subjugation, “Colonial ghosts cling on, unable to reverse the time/ We move on unconsciously gloating over the sunshine/ While the sun over Harare gets dimmer each day/ choked by poverty and squalor in the ghettos.”

In the Americas, images swirl and descend, recreating sensuality and pleasure, as in Marcela Sulak’s ‘The Ninth Floor in Caracas’, “it’s raining/ on her bright breasts, it’s raining on her belly/ down her thighs; the people below are wet/ with stolen light.”

In ‘Night in the Gardens of Port of Spain’, Derek Walcott recreates the history of slavery: “Night, the black summer, simplifies her smells/ into a village; she assumes the impenetrable musk of the negro.” The powerful countries attract the powerless. In ‘Photographs of Old New York’, Alfred Corn says, “And still the wretched refugees swarming/ out from Ellis Island, the glittering door,/ to prosper or perish.”

In the Asia Pacific section, myriad aspects of Asian cities are recreated with metaphors and allusions. In ‘Wintry Beijing’, Inara Cedrins states, “After Mongolian hotpot, we assemble over wraps,/ and recreate the dark hutong.” Ruth Padel states in ‘Facing East’, a poem about Damascus, “On the news/ is flat-to-flat warfare in Aleppo/ and air attacks in Gaza.” A powerful poem on Bangladesh mentions, “Your schooling had somehow neglected Bangladesh/ the martyrs of 1952, of 1971 and the floods,/ You could not appreciate the language,/ Your soul was empty.”

A shapeless dust

In the section on Europe, the nuances of culture and lifestyle are brought out. Athens in ‘Big Heat’ is so hot that Claire Askew is at a loss. Pascale Petit says in ‘My Father’s City’, “All of Paris is quiet, while the oxygen machine struggles to fill your lungs./ The gargoyles’ cheeks flush/ from the strain of breathing for you.” Priya Sarukkai Chhabria describes ‘Vienna’ as, “A peephole, an iris closing on itself.” Tabish Khair’s beautiful poem on Copenhagen, ‘Stranger in the City’, uses the mermaid’s tale as a metaphor for alienation.

As Italo Calvino, author of Invisible Cities,says, “Travelling, you realise that differences are lost: each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents.” All capital cities merge and blend, at one level, into the same notions of power. Apart from having the main theme of power, this painstakingly assembled collection ensures that almost the entire gamut of human emotions is covered—valour (Africa poems), pathos, humour (Dublin), sensuality (Caracas), wonder (London), horror (Sarajevo) and nostalgia (Paris).

The writer is senior assistant editor at the India International Centre, New Delhi, and has published three collections of poetry.


Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Oct 11, 2021 9:07:30 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/i-watch-you-struggle-to-become-a-city-with-a-soul/article19132559.ece

Next Story