Poetry Wire Books

Vodka does not ‘go on’

But poems go on and on, and some others go nowhere

Fair Reader, if perchance thou dost one fine day get immersed in the shale and husk of an old chronicle, thou wilt discover that thy speech will hearken back to older centuries. When that gallant knight Nitish Kumar, sword in hand, galloped toward the serried BJP ranks, till then massed against him, with herald, horseman and postilion from Sir Lalu Prasad Yadav hard on his heels, what dost thou think was writ in the Yadav missive? Lalu proclaimed:

That he which hath no stomach to

this fight,

Let him depart; his passport shall

be made,

And crowns for convoy put into his

purse;

We would not die in that man’s

company

That fears his fellowship to die with

us…

Sunrise saga

Bold words, befitting swordsman-and-sword-stick operator, our lithe and lolloping leader, Lalu Prasad, betel-in-mouth and vest-clad. But hearken gentle reader, I am now assailed by misgivings, for the unforgiving tentacles of old age have gripped my mind, heaven forfend. On second thoughts I retract my earlier assertion and tentatively attribute the quotation to Henry V just prior to the battle of Agincourt.

That is what Sir Lalu Prasad Yadav, steeped as he is in Shakespeare, had quoted. The French had thought that ‘the vapour of our valour will o’erturn them.’ And scorned the English as ‘Yond island carrions, desperate of their bones…’

But to poetry. Rochelle Potkar, a former Writer-in-Residence at Iowa, fiction writer with an award in her knapsack, came out with a volume, Four Degrees of Separation. Jaguars stalk through these poems; mangoes, the sweet, salty vinegar of bodies in love, bodies falling out of love. The city of Bombay is omnipresent, ripe with cars and blossoms, heaps of saris, “anklets clinging to camel bells.” Encomium richly deserved.

Let me quote from Rochelle: “Love is slow, a poppy seed/ flowering psychedelic in the head.” Wah, what a line! There’s wisdom from grandmother: “Don’t love a man more than he knows what to do with…/ he will look through excesses and abuse it./ Love him a little less/ So he comes, wagging his desires.”

She is a Bombay poet: “Mumbai will stamp on your feet/ but allow you your space.” That’s a true definition of Mumbai, coming from a writer or artist. Potkar is wise: “Relationships die before a person/ relationships outlive a person.” And she is laconic: “If you don’t go for their book launches, they won’t come to yours./ If you don’t go for their funerals, they won’t come to yours.” A quote from the declining days of romanticism, in her first poem, ‘Timely’:

“Don’t ask a rose to wait.

There is no time in its petals

only the saga of one sunrise

and one sundown.”

Time for criticism. Like another Mumbai poet I had mentioned in earlier columns, some of the poems are too long, for instance ‘Train to Bombay or Mumbai’ just goes on and on — Surat, Rajkot, Junagadh. Even a fabulous poem like ‘Balcony Seat’ is stretched too much. ‘Halftone’ is a fine poem: “Have you ever lived in a moving film/ and not known about it?” It has a bad first stanza: “I am searching for a hinge/ in this abstruse ocean of thought/ to pin a poem.” Even imagery needs logic. Here you have hinge, ocean, pin — and they don’t connect. You don’t look for a hinge in an ocean.

First cry

Can poetry serve as an escape from depression? I cannot hazard an opinion. I know that dissecting poetry can be depressing. For instance, I am unhappy with Vibhu Padhi’s Selected Poems, just published. Criticising Vibhu is like criticising oneself — after all, one has grown up writing verse together. But I find he has been careless in his later poems, lines slipping into awkward English. He needed a good, by which I mean a stringent, editor.

His poem ‘Turning Forty’ (I am taking up the worst examples) starts: “I imagine a blue deeper than the sky,/ despairing the Bay of Bengal’s / depth and nightly activity.” It should read ‘despairing of’. And what did the stanza mean?

Another stanza starts with “What distance of time comes in between the hour of the first cry and this/ early morning speechlessness?” “Distance of time” sounds very awkward. Later he talks of doors ‘turning’. To my mind, doors swing open or shut. The poem is going nowhere, despite a fine line like “while his mother/ is inventing a new language of consolation.”

In ‘Night Stalkers’ we get Vodka goes on in the inn’s only table. Vodka does not ‘go on’. Is this desi idiom ‘whiskey chal rahi hai?’ Then we get “A goods train waits for its allotments.” We know what he wants to say, but this is not the way you put it. The point I am trying to make is that even good poets need good editors.

I spent some time looking for a worse translation of Kabir than the one I had tackled in my last column. I found one. Robert Bly, no less. He is a very big poet and I have learnt much from some of his books. But his translation of Kabir is a disaster. Will take him apart next month.

The author is a poet and novelist.

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2020 7:09:20 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/vodka-does-not-go-on/article19931172.ece

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