Tanya Mendonsa’s The Fisher of Perch: A Fable For Our Times is a delicious long poem that you will want to savour word by word. Shaped much like the lazy meander of its central trope, the perch-filled river, it offers us a magical alterity.
Mendonsa’s poetic practice appears completely at variance with that of most of her contemporaries. The Fisher of Perch is a fall back, almost, to a Wordsworthian era, a tribute to the Nilgiris where she lives. In it, water “flows over the rocks like an airy white garment”. Beautifully designed and illustrated, the book works at multiple levels — the verbal, the visual and the aural.
The fisher, who is Everyman and the narrator of the poem, finds himself in a space that is “unfamiliar”. For once, he does not know where he is going. And soon, he has tumbled headlong down the rabbit hole of nature, re-made entirely into a citizen of the natural world. Shortly, he is overcome by a feeling that “all this is going somewhere”, even if in a meandering sort of way.
The river that calls out to him like bird song becomes his compass. He does a Thoreau on us by choosing the richness of solitude. He lives in a hut in the midst of nature. “There is nobody here to sweep away the cobwebs of my thoughts,” he says.
The hut consists of “two small whitewashed rooms, with two windows each/ smelling of dried hay” and the fisher sweeps the floor of “woodshavings and dead insects”. The unexpected high point of the poem arrives with the narrator’s sudden, abrupt mention of his old life and his “secret love”, a “young girl, shy as a bird”.
What follows is a sudden, sharp image of love as the knife that “cleaves the bone/ to let the other enter”, the revelation that the lost love is still part of the narrator. It is to the river that he must turn in order to heal and move on.
At some point in the rather amorphous, dream-like plot of the poem, the fisher catches a perch and eats it but doesn’t feel good about it.
The river becomes his confidant, the friend to whom he turns for answers: “Troubled, I ask myself, ‘what am I really doing?’/ The river answers, laving my feet with comfort: /fishing for kindness/ fishing for peace/ fishing for the courage to continue not doing anything/ far from the shark’s teeth of the world.”
Gradually, the fisher finds himself “becoming the river”, except he still needs some money for oil and grain. He constructs a simple raft and starts to ferry people for a living, often catching a glimpse of his lost love in his passengers. What sustains him right through is the river which returns him gently to a state of flow, becoming, in the process, a metaphor for renewal and for poetry itself.
Early on in the poem, the narrator says of the dreamscape in which he finds himself that he could “read this book all [his] life and never tire”.
This is a line that we could well use to describe our experience of reading The Fisher of Perch . Its deft use of a common enough metaphor, the river as creative flow and life energy, and its emphasis on the powers of solitude and uncharted time make this a poem you will want to return to.
The writer is poet, fiction-writer and Professor of Literature at IIT Madras.
The Fisher Of Perch - A Fable For Our Times; Tanya Mendonsa, Paper Project - An Imprint Of Design Foundry, ₹449