Literary Review

Golden hour of poetry

John Berger

John Berger  

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A review of John Berger’s Collected Poems

Suddenly, it’s raining books of poetry. While publishers like HarperCollins, Poetrywala and Pratilipi have been steadily building a poetry line, a welcome entrant to the Indian scene is Copper Coin. This new publisher establishes its credentials with a volume of verse by influential critic, essayist and novelist John Berger.

Published last year in the United Kingdom by Smokestack Publishers, Berger’s Collected Poems is the first compilation of his verse in a single volume. For readers like me, whose formative years were shaped in significant ways by Berger’s well-known work, Ways of Seeing, this book whets one’s curiosity. What does the well-known Western writer and intellectual sound like in verse?

Berger’s poems are works of stringent verbal economy, unfussy and formally spare. A scene is delineated and an object conjured, with short, sharp, minimal strokes. Wary of sentimentalism, the poems remain grittily terrestrial, largely unwilling to soar into flights of lyricism (although they do sometimes seem poised and itching for take-off).

In the best poems, Berger’s still life portraits pulsate with an inner life. Consider “Ladle”, with its strong opening image: “ Pewter pock-marked/moon of the ladle/rising above the mountain/going down into the saucepan.” In a few lines, the ladle straddles earth and sky, the domestic and the cosmic. From images of a family of children “hungry as boars”, the poem opens out into a plea for a “carrot sun” and “stars of salt”, a plea for soup, for sleep, for life. The ladle turns symbolic of the axis of existence, real and mythic all at once. A humble implement of the hearth becomes, in fact, an enchanted instrument — reminding us that poetry is a form of magic that needn’t necessarily mean cheap mystification or “bogus religiosity” (a Berger phrase I recall vividly from Ways of Seeing).

Berger’s sympathy for those relegated to the margins of history is palpable. The poems reach out to those with “vagrant languages”, “incorrigible accents”, “bad foreign news” and “another word for milk”. My personal favourites are those where the poet allows the image to do most of the talking — where what we see is given more importance than what we know. At the close of these poems, the images extend our understanding of the world through suggestion rather than statement. “Words II”, for example, opens with the striking line: “ The tongue/is the spine’s first leaf/forests of language surround it.” The poem speaks of the tongue’s many negotiations with language, and closes with a memorable image, near-aphoristic in its precision: “ The tongue/is tethered and alone in its mouth”.

“Memory of a Village Church” is another poem that moves from the particularity of place and time towards more generic questions. Since the poem bears the imprint of that journey, the reader arrives with the poet at the sense of bewilderment at the close: “ How to explain the world/with a Madonna../…who knew no evil/and a devil whose horns/were invariably visible?/The wagon was drawn by our prayers/we did not know/ it would deposit us here.” The danger of too naive a faith is implicated, but there is also an underlying elegiac note at the loss of innocence.

Although acutely sensitive to a world of human injustice, it is not merely outrage and lament that we hear in this book. The poems also memorialise love, companionship and sanctuary. In the moment of authentic encounter between two fellow migrants, the poetry speaks not just a language of bitter home-truths. Instead, it is also possible for us, we are reminded, to sometimes hear something unexpected and deeply consoling: “the truth as lullaby”.

Collected Poems; John Berger, Copper Coin, Rs.295.

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