Grief is the thing on chinar leaves: K. Srilata reviews Naveen Kishore’s ‘Knotted Grief’ 

Form and content come together beautifully in Naveen Kishore’s haiku-like poems about loss and desolation

Published - April 16, 2022 04:00 pm IST

Haiku-like and delicate as butterfly wings, the poems in Naveen Kishore’s collection Knotted Grief traverse the landscape of grief and loss. The first section — a long poem titled ‘Kashmiriyat’ on the trauma caused by the violence in Kashmir — consists of 105 stanzas, each of which work like short, stand-alone poems. ‘Kashmiriyat’ is striking both in terms of how carefully etched its images are and in its unusual approach to line length.

The lines tend to be short (varying from one word to three, sometimes four) but there is nothing staccato about them. There is a sinuousness to the words as they move through the poem, teasing out images, moving swiftly and easily from the concrete to the abstract, establishing unexpected connections and juxtapositions — all very much in the spirit of the haiku. Through lines and phrases such as “burst into flame/ solitary flower immolating/ your petals detonating/ like suicide vests”, “a sky full of bullet wounds” and “dogs sniffing blood/ on chinar leaves”, Kishore juxtaposes one kind of image with its exact opposite — in this case, gentle and beautiful images from the natural world with images of violence.

Power of repetition

‘Kashmiriyat’ has all the formulaic Kashmir tropes but they don’t perform the way in which one would expect them to. Therein lies their power. A “red-faced” chinar, for instance, “stands helpless/ its sapling drawing from wasted limbs”. Kishore is also no stranger to the power of repetition. The word “ash”, the image of something being gutted (“ash-coloured leaves”, “a dream in ashes”, “forest/ full of tree trunks/ gutted”) and the spareness of the landscape are repeatedly evoked.

Particularly striking are the stanzas in ‘Kashmiriyat’ that work like haiku with that almost imperceptible link and shift between ideas — “their eyes shut tight/ dead men learning/ to dream” or “breaking/ the silence/ death’s soft whisper”. And just when you think short stanzas are his thing, Kishore sneaks in an occasional long stanza which begs to be read aloud, performed, for it carries an altogether different charge.

Dramatic moments

The deliberate absence of definitive narratives tied to particular people leaves us with a more unsettling sense of loss, of grief that is a maze through which we are destined to wander. Even stanza 57, which begins with the lines “they tried him/ without a trial” turns out to be about an angel-like figure with “wings like clenched fists” who is expelled. In stanza 78, it is the moon who lies “looking up the ceiling/ widowed”. The dramatic moment lies always in the image, not so much in who does what.

The section titled ‘Street full of Widows’ moves into the particularities of human tragedy and loss — the child who, while playing hopscotch on the deserted street, mutters the names of missing friends and the fathers who “stand at the edge of the lantern/ light engaging the shadows into a conversation about the/ children who have disappeared.” This section also has some remarkably evocative one-sentence micro-poems such as “Tongue hidden deep in your throat/ you swallow” and “There are no more white lilies in the valley”.

Perhaps the most powerful poem in the section titled ‘Selected Griefs’ is the one in which the speaker suggests that a loved one “put down/ everything/ lists make lists/ secure in the sudden knowledge/of your leave leavetaking”. The poem I found most interesting formally, however, is the one about knotted grief. Form and content come together beautifully, the poem’s braid-like structure mirroring the idea of a grief that is “braided” and “knotted”, hard to untangle and fundamental to the human condition. In many ways, this poem is synecdochic of the entire collection.

Knotted Grief; Naveen Kishore, Speaking Tiger, ₹499

The reviewer is a writer and independent scholar who is currently writing verse that re-imagines the Mahabharata.

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