Poetry Wire Books

Like the final notes of Schubert

Two poets who exude stateliness and philosophy in their work

In a poem, ‘The Hourglass’, perched on a ladder, she is counting the missing tiles on a friend’s roof:

The Velux window seesaws, reflects your face in

the clouds. You stand on edge, streamlined as a stalagmite,

on the spiralling staircase, steadying me with your touch.

This can’t be love? I ask myself as I perch on your roof,

surveying the texture of weather-beaten tiles with a field-glass …

This is Shanta Acharya, tentative, not sure whether to turn an incident into a metaphor, and yet almost managing to. She does climb down the ladder into the magnetic field of arms, but refrains from any overt conclusion. This restraint characterises her poetry, and possibly her life as well, for can one divorce poetry from life? Acharya has a doctorate on Emerson from Oxford, has written large expensive books on finance and her poems have been published in at least 50 journals in the U.K. And she has published five volumes of poetry, most of them in the U.K.

Difficult themes

She tackles themes—life, death, doubt, faith—where others would not easily venture. I’d like to believe in a benign God./ Perhaps in my own sceptical way I do./ Doubting is one way of believing. And from a poem ‘Let Me Go’: Let me go smiling, not blinded by light. The poem ends with the lines, If only we could move with the grace of light/ through glass, water, bodies, worlds/ Like words settling for life not oblivion,/ racing through the tunnel of time, a child announcing its arrival. I came to these lines after initially loving them, but I now find a clutter of images at the end. The tunnel of time and the child could have come later in the poem.

There is a stateliness about her poems. Take this favourite: After great struggle/ descends/ an alternative calm./ The mind’s swirling sky/ now emptied of its thoughts in snowstorm./ Wrapped up like Trappist monks/ the trees preserve an immaculate silence.

A fine poem on her father turns into a poem on belief and disbelief. You were blessed with faith, not struck with uncertainty/ about the nature and existence of God./ I got lost somewhere along the way/ —my faith changing colour like a chameleon. Her poem, ‘Beware’ was chosen as The Guardian’s ‘Poem of the Week’. It is a fine diptych on living in a third world country and a Western one, written, as the paper said ‘with the clarity of a black-and-white movie.’

In ‘London: 7 July 2005’ she writes a poem, tight as a knot, on the bombs that went off. Flash of yellow light, blinding/ the splinter of glass in my eye—/then silence as if thunder has lost its calling,/ brain’s beating tide of blood drumming…, she brings out the terror like an eye witness. This volume, Imagine: New and Selected Poems, is a welcome book.

Diana Bridge’s poems, like her autumn leaves, cascade / as lightly as the final notes of Schubert. Bridge’s poetry is an outcrop of vast scholarship, a profound and sympathetic understanding of the cultures she is familiar with (Chinese and Indian particularly) and an extremely observant eye that can spot ‘the flow of flawed stone’ and a gourd breast in Konark, that is enough to/ tip you into worship.

Bridge was a member of the New Zealand Foreign Service. She resigned to study Chinese language and literature and became the first foreigner to teach in the Chinese department in Hong Kong University. Her husband was ambassador to India for over three years. No wonder she deeply empathises with Indian and Chinese culture and people. She has won many awards, and the Irish poet Vona Groarke, while handing over an award, described her work as ‘possibly amongst the best being written anywhere right now’, going to talk about ‘the carefully wrought thought and language’ and ‘the beauty of the phrasing’.

Eye for detail

The new poems in the book In the Supplementary Garden: New and Selected poems cover just 30 pages. She is first and foremost a landscape poet, because very few have the eye to focus on what she sees or the rich imagination to take off from there.

From the 4-wheel drive I see the plain

shimmer and lift, lap around wheels,

a dance floor for the buck who steps,

languid as a violin, into the open.

His doe flickers, tawny, behind cover,

The ineffectual purdah of trees.

The nilgai’s coat is blue, a patch

Of foreign language rinsed in haze.

But in most poems, she applies the fine black line of philosophy. In ‘Othello in Kathakali’, Bridge sees Desdemona’s strip of neck/ twists in his fingers. She has an interesting sequence on Sarnath. You come upon him as you turn the corner/ like the surprise of an idea. At the end of the poem she realises that from here to the base of the statue is quite a long way.

A pity one can’t talk of her fine poems on Chinese vases and paintings for lack of space here. But then, both these poets needed more space, for both have a large frame of reference.

The writer is a poet and novelist.

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 9:48:18 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/like-the-final-notes-of-schubert/article18934292.ece

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