There is a blackness at the heart of the dark cycle of the moon when the streetlights have failed and a mist covers the stars and you have drawn the bedroom curtains against the cold of the first winter’s night. In this blackness it doesn’t matter greatly whether your eyes are open or shut. But they are open, and you lie there on your side in the middle of the night, your whole being aimed at the source of a steady breathing from the pillow beside you. All your colourful days are dissolved in this darkness and this breathing, and at this moment, they amount to nothing at all. For that sound in that place is the spouse, which is another word for soul, and although you have quarrelled before going to bed, the breathing might just as well be your own. Except that it isn’t. The knowledge that it isn’t and that it will go on despite you , or you despite it, is as old as the first couple who bedded down in the cave of ancient night, and the anguish that immediately follows upon that realisation is the root of all philosophy.
Blame it on the ocean,
on my frothing sea-breath,
on this opium air,
for all I can see now
are your plucked-out eyes
that continue to dream big
and become planets in your hands.
It’s a love poem, but one of sufficient contrariness to suggest that this lover will never be content with the rituals that pass for a more confectioned love. Reticence and gothic excess dangle like live wires of unknown voltage, and you brace for an explosion, just beyond the poem’s limits, that will deafen not only the participants in this quiet walk by the sea. Eyeballs, not eyes, recur in another poem just pages along, in the more extreme theatre of war; there they’re simply “bombs”. Faintheart Beware ‘Faintheart Beware’ might be the notice posted outside this lover’s dwelling; or for the hardy wooer a china plaque on the mantel inscribed, Consort, You Were Warned ‘Consort, You Were Warned’. Night is in any case a domain you feel this poet is happier ruling — in various poems it is “asylum,” “denouement,” “door” — and a diurnal lover had better mend his ways (adjust that clock perhaps) or find himself back outside.
Peace, the Baron von Clausewitz taught, is war conducted by other means. What can we then hope for from love? The cadet whose collection Nine is (and the ninth letter of the alphabet, she reminds us at the outset, is I ) declares in a poem two pages away: “ Tonight I will turn myself into a knife/ cut into you for a glimpse of heart/ just know you are not dead. ” It is worth noting that Raju takes her epigraph from Sylvia Plath. Pandora, of the box, is another referee. Reader attend. Luggage so boldly labeled will want careful handling.
Daylight holds no terrors for the cadet (though it’s always plain where her sympathies lie); there are pleasant Sunday forays from the academy to Mylapore and Chandni Chowk, and childhood is not so far away that the universe has entirely swallowed up jolly uncles and schoolgirl mischief. But even by day there is, (see ‘It is a Poem that Brought Me to This Country,’) a deconstruction of the national pledge, India is my country that will make uniformed patriots wince.
Despite its southern anchorage in image and milieu (and sometimes phrase), Nine is more notional than national: the terrain that stays with you, at once familiar and estranging, is an interior landscape. Drought is a constant danger here, rain a saving grace, and the dark suns that refuse to set on discord have a gravity and force that readings from the ordinary world cannot hope to match. By day, to be sure, there are vivid haunts (the most vivid are the nearest home) but it is the poems of night, with their sensual depths and their insomnia, that convince.
Not all of the poems in this collection are as strong medicine as ‘Disorientation’, but then love and hate cannot be sustained at that pitch for long. “I continue to speak,” the poet-spouse insists in the face of elegant if prosy neglect, signing with those words a deed of perpetual indenture. A spirit as determined as this will not be corralled for long, especially not by its own inventions. The poet who declares “Poems have no borders” in book one will be already patrolling her estate, torn with regret and fretting to sharpen and revise and plain toss out. The slips here are the slips of the hunter, inevitable and instructive. Orientation in this trackless night, often by no more than a shadow, is what counts; the rest is part chance and part a lifetime’s work.
Irwin Allen Sealy, a Padma Shri winner, is the author of Trotternama.
Nine: Poems; Anupama Raju, Speaking Tiger Books, Rs.199.