Literary Review

Fluid words

Collected Poems; Jeet Thayil, Aleph Book Company, Rs. 499.  

Reading Jeet Thayil’s Collected Poems is a reminder of the singular pleasures of reading the work of a poet from first book to last. You see changing approaches to form — from terse implosive verse to expansive, full-throated song; from a nascent verbal ingenuity to an ability to combine exuberance with exactitude.

Why a Collected, one might wonder, given that Thayil is nowhere near his dotage. The poet offers a rationale: his conviction that he will never write a book better than These Errors are Correct (2008). There is also a more persuasive rationale: the fact that none of his four volumes of verse is in print. That, as he points out unarguably, is ‘business as usual’ for the Indian poet.

Arundhathi Subramaniam

Journeying from his first book, Gemini (1992), to the present offers the trajectory of an artist growing not just in dexterity and sophistication, but in a widening capacity to embrace the Dionysian. For me, the most rewarding poems are the recent free-form paeans of love and loss, passion and praise, riverine, extravagant, moving, yet playful: ‘ Your lips go from sunny side to suicide in a single click’; ‘Your green will outlast plastic’ or ‘O captain, my captain,,/ objects had a way of breaking/ in the life we shared.’

While Thayil revels in sonnet and ghazal, the poetry also reveals a capacity to segue between the spoken voice and lyric impulse, between the wild and the bravura. There is a skilful ability to modulate scale, to nuance the emotional chords.

‘Between’ is the operative word in this poetry. Poised between the reflective and the lyrical, following the imperatives of mood and melody, it arrives at a kind of ‘sound sense’. Here, mood is not in monochrome, and music does not spell monotone. Instead, the poetry unfolds into a versatile soundtrack, now soaring, now muted, now passionate and inconsolable, now low-key, thoughtful, spare.

An early poem speaks of belonging to a ‘generation stuck between shores’. The poems seem frequently located at such a precipice — ‘between white concertina and gallows’, ‘between thought and its correct articulation’ — and evoke landscapes arrestingly suspended between ‘Dunkin’ Donuts’ and ‘Apna Bazaar’, ‘Jesus’ and ‘the Malabar Whistling Thrush’.

On closer reading, you pick up a deeper tension: between the love of ‘disorder’ and an equally urgent need for reprieve. On the one hand, there is praise for all sources of anarchic vision: the moon and majoun , ‘the 1001 names of heroin’, ‘the sick-sweet grace of opium’, the ‘miracle’ of ‘methadone’. There is the hectic euphoria of making ‘my home…in transit’, or leaping between ‘years, avenues/ financial/fashion/ meatpacking districts’, of being ‘reveler of starlight’, ‘bedlamite, friend to traitor and debauch’. But, on the other hand, there is also the yearning for ‘rest’ from the ‘uncontrolled, speed-made, fearful’, for ‘measured iambs’, the quiet logic ‘of a line defined by rhyme’. And sometimes there is a yearning to write a poem ‘of no cleverness…/ not high, or drunk on language’.

Where do these contrary impulses meet? Interestingly, I believe they find poetic resolution in the image of water — a recurrent metaphor from the very first book. The work evokes the ‘waterlogged crawl’ for wholeness, the endless human drama of ‘founder and sink and founder again’. Even ‘words are water’. And while all the tributaries of love seem to lead to drowning, there remains the deep Ophelia-like longing for ‘ooze/ frogspawn/ bright ring of algae/ round my throat’. Water is erasure, oblivion. But water becomes homecoming too — ‘a home for molluscs and oyster shells’, that place ‘where once we lived’.

In his ‘Preface’, Thayil writes, ‘This is my life and these are my collected poems. There is nothing collected about any of it.’ And yet, from ‘squalid, anonymous, free’ in the second book to ‘shipwrecked, dizzy, free’ in the third, is a distinct change of tenor and direction.

What we find in the fourth book is not just a Prufrockian desire for ‘ragged claws’ and the watery chaos of unconsciousness. It seems possible now for the drowning to swim by acquiring ‘a new set of skills: vigilance, silence, gills.’ Here is a journey towards a more profound creative repossession that makes this book far more ‘collected’ than Thayil might suppose.

Arundhathi Subramaniam is a poet and writer.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2022 6:54:50 AM |

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