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The silt inside our warm blood: the sea in poetry



Bits and pieces of life that the sea dredged up

Collected poems can often be a pain. Why? Because you never read even half the book. I am ploughing through Philip Larkin which Faber gifted to me 25 years ago. I find I read the same favourites, for instance, ‘Here’, where he swerves to ‘solitude/ of skies and scarecrows, haystacks, hares and pheasants’, goes past a cut-price crowd’ in a small town till he reaches land’s end (Dover?) where hidden weeds flower,

And past the poppies bluish neutral


Ends the land suddenly beyond the


Of shapes and shingle. Here is

unfenced existence:

Facing the sun, untalkative, out of


Carcass of coconut

Poets who write about the sea tend to write more about the night sea. In his poem, ‘I dreamed of an out-thrust arm of land’, after talking of gulls, he comes to the wind which tore at ‘a dark-faced garden/ Whose black flowers were dead/ And broke round a house we slept in/ A drawn blind and a bed.’

He walks on a chilled shore and says surprisingly, ‘And I was empty of tears.’ English poets seldom talk of tears, but this is obviously a moment of personal grief he is talking about. Larkin was an unlikeable chap, a loner and contemptuous of contemporaries.

Tishani Doshi starts her latest volume Girls are Coming out of the Woods with a word to the reader — dubious strategy. ‘Dear Reader/ I agree to turn my skin inside out/ to reinvent every lost word, to burnish,/ to steal in order to singe your lungs… I will forego happiness,/ stab myself repeatedly,/ and lower my head into countless ovens.

Why are Indian women poets in the year of our Lord Mr. Narendra Modi 2017, still flapping and Sylvia Plathing around their poetic persona and destiny? Not a promising start to a fine volume. The rain and the Tsunami seem to hover over the book, a walk on the beach, ‘Coastal Life.’

Rain at three splits the bed in half,

cracks at windows like horsemen


through a century of hibernation.

The sea is immanent. In the poem, ‘What the Sea Brought In’, one knows as one reads that the piling up of detail is with a purpose. The sea brings in not just ‘carcass of coconut, crows, crabs’ but also four dead grandparents and a ‘cavalcade of cognitions’, ‘Virginity returned/ in a chastity box’, also a ‘betrayed school friend/ stuck in the dunes like the legs of Ozymandias’. The metaphor comes in the end, as it should — a well-crafted poem.

A similar strategy was followed by J.G. Farrell in his Booker prize-winning novel, The Siege of Krishnapur, where the besieged English soldiers are fighting our ‘heroes’ of 1857. They lack shot, so they fill their cannons with Victorian bric-à-brac and let go.

As a nation we could do with similar tactics. Put December 6 (Babri Masjid), June 6(Blue Star), October 31, all references to and memories of rath yatras and bomb blasts, of Godse, books like Anandamath and Rangila Rasul, all ridiculous fatwahs, all the recent mumbo jumbo about ‘Vedic science’ in a cannon and fire, and wake up next morning to an amnesiac dawn. Life would be good na, as we desis say.

In a previous book by Ms. Doshi, we get ‘The day we went to the sea:/ mothers in Madras were mining/ the Marina for missing children.’ Like most poets she scours the bleakness that traumatises our lives.

The title poem was not impressive. ‘Girls are/ coming out of the woods, lifting/ their broken legs high, leaking secrets/ from unfastened thighs.’ What is all this in honour of? There are much better poems in the book. A politically correct poem, strong on feminism, need not necessarily be a good poem.

The poem that really upped the stakes was about a Bharatnatyam dancer snubbing her at a cocktail party, telling her that her body language was not really Indian.

It comes from the same syndrome that Indian language writers suffer from — English poets in India are not ‘native’ enough. It makes me laugh. Doshi gives a memorable riposte. Why should I elaborate? Buy the book.

Familiar motions

Very few poets talked about the sea. Even the Bombay poets (Nissim included) did not. Apart from Doshi, I find Bibhu Padhi has an entire volume called Sea Dreams published this year. The title poem, ‘Sea Dreams’, in 32 sections, goes into almost 30 pages.

But it is worth it, going through this long, dreamy poem, and the vignettes remind one of reality — fishermen carrying their boats on their shoulders,the bass cries of crows

Look how familiar the sea looks now,

as though it were within us, its silt

slowly crystallizing inside our

warm blood’s colour.’

A big project has been undertaken by the bold editors of two journals — Aainanagar and Vayavya, with five women poets coming out with what are called chap books. I plead ignorance and have yet to know what a chap book means or stands for. I will talk about it in detail in my next.

I have read Nandini Nair’s Occupying my Tongue. At least half the book is about her mother (why not?) and the other half on cooking. How does it matter what the subject is, if the poetry is good — and it is. In a poem aptly named ‘Kitchen Pastoral’, she talks of mother scrubbing ‘Blackened skillets in the kitchen sink... stops to scratch her itching cheek’, and yet singing ‘the same four lines again and again/ the colour of her voice blue.’

A lot of bad poetry is being self-published. So, apart from chap books we also need choppers and chopping blocks for some volumes.

Keki N. Daruwalla is a poet and novelist.

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 3:52:56 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/the-silt-inside-our-warm-blood-the-sea-in-poetry/article22146968.ece

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