Poetry Wire Books

Somewhere there must be the sea

Volumes to treasure and poems that should be left in the margins

Have been reading an old favourite, Karl Shapiro, and came across a poem I had never encountered — ‘In India’. He was not a great admirer of the country: ‘These beautiful small millions turn to stone/ Before your eyes, become soft sculpture swarming up/ The slant of temples where their thighs protrude/ Half out of joint...’ Obviously, not a great lover of our sculpture. But he talks of the ‘Brown saint in the shining spectacles

Who took the hand of the untouchables

Who wove all India from a skein of thread.

Now he and all their spinning wheels are gone,

For a young Hindu, under whose homespun

Lay a revolver, knelt and, in good faith,

Received his blessing and then shot him dead.’

Still flame

That bit about ‘good faith’ can send ambiguous messages to the ill-informed. That kneeling bit and touching of feet were pure hypocrisy and diablerie.

After stabbing Julius Caesar, didn’t Brutus say, “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more”? With Godse, guided by false prophets, hate replaced all other feelings.

Karl Shapiro’s most famous line falls in the poem ‘University’. He went to the University of Virginia and wrote, ‘to hurt the Negro and avoid the Jew is the curriculum.’

The year provides considerable riches in Indian poetry. Ranjit Hoskote’s tour de force Jonahwhale, which I have yet to read fully, has just appeared, and I will need to deal with it in a later column. Manohar Shetty’s Full Disclosure, New and Collected Poems and Menka Shivdasani’s Frazil, which incidentally means, ice at the bottom of a stream (I paid for my ticket to the dictionary), have come out, not forgetting Tishani Doshi’s fine volume earlier.

Shivdasani is an unusual poet, her poems, a little out of control at times, slanting off to their preferred endings. Poets are a fraternity. You think you know one another. It is only when you read their oeuvre at a stretch that you come to know the hurts they were harbouring. The title poem ends with the lines: ‘Tomorrow will come but for now/ winter is your friend.’

Her poem ‘Dachau’ ends with the lines: ‘The silence is spreading / like leukaemia.’ Sample another poem. ‘We grab our fish raw/ sailing the seas in trawlers full of hate’… A refrain ‘and God is great’ runs through the poem which ends with the lines: ‘we grab them, stab them, sink our lines./ We are still good for we chant god’s name/ as we serve death on our dining tables/ and the taste on our tongues is great.’ There’s a touching poem, ‘The Almond Leaf’, dedicated to Eunice de Souza, where she plays with both aquarium fish and the almond leaf as it rots, ‘no longer flamboyant/ but still flame.’

Manohar Shetty has been writing some of the best poetry written in the country for over three decades. I recall reviewing his first book, A Guarded Space (1981), with admiration. After his book, Domestic Creatures (1994), he went into a silence fast for quite some years till he emerged with PersonalEffects in 2010. Since then he has gone full steam.

As a carping critic, I noticed a falling off in quality in his 2014 volume, Living Rooms. Even in an earlier volume, poems like ‘Marginalia’ could have been left out. Experience shows that marginalia should remain in the margins. The one exception is Saadat Hasan Manto’s ‘Siyah Hashiye’ (‘Black margins’), among his strongest short stories.

Drooling flowers

Full Disclosure, New and Collected Poems is a volume to treasure. It offers you a cornucopia of riches. As a reader I just revelled in the language: flowers ‘drool’ over a hedge; a matchstick chars and unfolds a pigment’; ‘the tightening tourniquet of the seaaround Bombay; the moon, ‘a thumbnail sketch’; ‘a wisp of saffron suffusing into gold’. At a Jungle Retreat, a ‘snake poured itself into a hole’; ‘a tiger’s roar sets/ Off a squall of parrots’. And when he contemplates the sea, the waves become a ‘right ragged gossip column.Yes, as Menka said, somewhere there must be a sea. After all, Manohar Shetty studied in Bombay and lives in Goa.

Manohar has a sharp eye. In a poem, ‘Homecoming’, he talks of the Indian coming home from ‘those burning wells/ In a desert kingdom with the tallest/ Edifice in the world and gasoline/ Incandescent in its blood…’ He comes to a ‘garlanded welcome’ and the front pew in the church is as good as reserved for him. It is a pleasure to see how he builds a poem. Take ‘Make-believe’. He starts off by saying ‘Only if you believe/ In the make-believe/ Will water turn/ Into wine, the wizard/ Spin gold from/ A molten urn.../ Only then will the wingless bird glide/ over the horizon.’ And the poem suddenly ends with ‘only then/ Will words rise again/ In your daily bread.’ Yes, and there are some lovely poems on cats, porcupine and scarecrows.

Woe is me, have left the carping till the end. Even in a volume of collected poems you can leave some of them out. For instance, he has the President speak in English reminiscent of Nissim Ezekiel’s ‘Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T.S.’ A dozen poems could have been left out of this volume.

And Menka Shivdasani has a poem ‘Peak and Troughs’ where the first stanza has almost perfect rhymes. After that the rhyme is put into an orphanage, or left on the road like an unwanted girl child. That is letting the reader down. His ear has just got used to rhyme and cadence, when the poem leaves him high and dry.

The author is a poet and novelist.

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 3:19:05 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/somewhere-there-must-be-the-sea/article22772016.ece

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