The violence of thought: Mihir Vatsa reviews ‘Annus Horribilis: Poems’ by Avinab Datta-Areng

Avinab Datta-Areng’s debut poetry collection  Annus Horribilis, introduces us to a voice that is conditioned by the violence of the personal, familial and spatial. There is a thread of lament in these poems, and though the emotions are recognisable, their articulation is strained. 

The anxiety of deciphering meanings manifests in the very first poem, where a day marks “the anniversary of you being misunderstood”. A familiar expectation is undone when, from the pocket of a postman, slips not a letter but a chocolate wrapper. In the poem ‘Writing’, we find the human unwittingly entangled with the non-human environment: “The wind picks up pace because/ you say too much when you shouldn’t” or “the grass says I am sense”. 

What emerges is a space of inter-human incompatibility that looks towards the non-human for validation. In this space, language is so hostile to human feelings that it not only obscures intentions but also destroys their relevance. This destruction is exemplified in ‘The First Problem’: “Speaking of/ shame,/ speaking is shame”. The spectre of speech annihilating emotions consistently haunts the collection.

Dutta-Areng’s poems are striking when they address familiality. In these works, peace and conflict cohabit the poetic space. There is both the urge to invoke trauma as well as to somehow find resolution. Whether it is the anxiety of being perpetually inadequate for the father (“father will/ die the failure that you will too/ eventually become before dying”); the tender yet pervading presence of the mother (‘I can never look at them, as if I’m/ crossing a gallery of your/ most intimate thoughts”); or the inevitability of death looming over life (“For the longest time whenever anyone/ muttered mother I only heard murder”), the poems show an intense negotiation of language with reality. 

Corrosive violence

In ‘Your Father’s Shirt’, the narrator talks of seeing a “russet stain” on their father’s shirt even as their “mind” always deciphered the stain as “blood”. In ‘Genealogy’, the narrator informs us of his brother and of joking about a signboard that read ‘Coffins available’. The narrator then tells us that a year later the brother is “now in the coffin”. It is only in the end that we are made to realise the unnerving congruency between the dead brother and the narrator himself: “Someone like you, brother/ who still cannot love himself,/ which is me.” 

This corrosive violence extends through the entire collection. Near the end of the book, in ‘Looking for a Weevil’, the narrator’s gaze tries to deliberately find misery: “I want to find a weevil in the littered/ undergrowth, struggling on its back,/ legs flailing. I want to meditate on its earnest/ despair for a moment.” It is here that one suspects a sadistic fascination with pain. In this particular poem, it is a kind of pain suffered by the non-human that enables the human to “have the resolve to walk away”.  

The synopsis on the back of the book tells us that the collection “is concerned with the violence of thinking, alone”. Reading the poems, it appears that often, the instances of thinking about violence in solitude end up fetishising violence to a solipsistic end.

This solipsism also manifests itself linguistically in the collection. Notwithstanding some extraordinary lines, many poems deliberately mystify and end weakly.

Annus Horribilis: Poems, Avinab Datta-Areng, Vintage Books, ₹250

Mihir Vatsa is a poet from Jharkhand and the author of travel memoir Tales of Hazaribagh: An Intimate Exploration of Chhotanagpur Plateau.

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Printable version | Jun 25, 2022 2:20:24 pm |