‘My smile is a courtyard’: ‘Out of Syllabus: Poems’ by Sumana Roy reviewed by Manohar Shetty

A poetry of disparate images, piled relentlessly one upon the other

May 25, 2019 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

It’s customary to be kind to a first book of poems, to overlook minor flaws. Poetry is a demanding and unrewarding field, with few serious practitioners, though poetasters abound.

Sumana Roy writes free-flowing verse, the poems often running into a few pages. Not for her the art of conciseness, of terse, tension-filled verse. This is a poetry of disparate images, often hard to follow. If, for some, poetry is the art of merciless deletion, for others it is the craft of accretion, of piling image upon image. Roy belongs to the latter school. The imagist poem is alien to her. Which is all very well if the long narrative form works for you. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always for Roy. Ironically, among the best poems in this book is one called ‘Sadness’, a vivid and concise poem running into just 14 lines.

The book follows an interesting concept, with its 15 sections distributed among various school subjects such as history, geography, maths, art and so on. The poems are not literal in this aspect, but course-setters of Eng Lit would surely earn marks in red should Out of Syllabus be made part of the syllabus. There can be good abstract poetry, poems that yield themselves and are fulfilling after a few readings. But they can also be hopelessly overwritten.

Here is a random example from the poem ‘House’: My love,/ my love, is my forehead/ on which you scatter grains/ for pigeons every morning./ My smile is a courtyard,/ my reclining shadow a cowshed,/…. my legs, my legs a canal/ that brings the flow of anklets your way/ my mouth a betel leaf you fold and chew for taste . This reads like unbridled rhetoric.

And here is the beginning of ‘Lust’ with its disparate, disconnected images: The window’s a quilt/ I scratch with toes/ in my finger-sleep./ Two men climb a coconut tree/ Their feet are tied with rope . And in a poem called ‘Spit Feast’ the exclamation “Thoo” is repeated 16 times. Economy of language is not Roy’s strong point.

In an interview with a local paper in Goa, Roy remarked that ‘honest’ literary criticism in India is “almost nonexistent”. The word “almost” deserves a tick mark.

The writer has published Full Disclosure: New and Collected Poems (1981-2017).

Out of Syllabus: Poems; Sumana Roy, Speaking Tiger, ₹299

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