Good marinade

March 01, 2015 12:00 am | Updated 02:03 am IST

The volume brings together Mehrotra’s work across decades. Anupama Raju

The only time I met Arvind Krishna Mehrotra was when we were panelists at a literature festival. But I believe I know him much better now. I know his ancestral home in Allahabad, his trees, his writing tables, his pen, his mother. I have walked with him, seeing the ironing lady and other people he has seen. His poetry has brought me closer to life.

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra: Collected Poems 1969-2014 brings together not only this pioneering poet’s work across several decades, including some of his translations, but also questions, spaces, the everyday and the blue moon.

In ‘A Lovely Strangeness’, (Outlook, December 2014), poet Arundhathi Subramaniam says poetry works best “when you hang around it, marinate in it…” This is a book of poetry to hang around with.

Introduced by Amit Chaudhuri, the collection begins with Mehrotra’s new poems written over the past 15 years or so. This section is followed by excerpts from his earlier books in the order that they were published. The last section consists of poems he has translated.

Through memory or lack of it, dislocation, loss, biographies of the self and of others, Mehrotra’s new poems create a mysterious universe. We see recurring references to his home in Allahabad and to his mother: “Bringing my face up against hers,/‘Who am I?’ I say to my mother.” (From ‘In a Greek City, Egypt, 315’). Then, there are imagined soliloquies of old emperors, a ear cleaner, an ironing lady and more.

The poems highlight his eye for detail, intellectual and linguistic craftsmanship. In ‘Ironing Lady’, we see common everyday clothes loosely tied in a bundle, which ultimately get ironed into a finished manuscript, with each fold a stanza break.

After the new poems, the collection takes us back to 1976 when his book Nine Enclosures was published. The poems here are perhaps from a phase in his literary career when he was influenced by surrealism. Mehrotra acknowledges in the Author’s Note that as someone who started writing in the 1960s, surrealism helped him resolve the contradiction between the world he wanted to write about and the language he wanted to write in. We get to discover the poetic imagination of a young Mehrotra traversing strange places. “Clouds cannot always be trusted/This one broke into my house/Went behind the cupboard, barked/I left the city/And like any hunting dog/It picked up the scent.” (From ‘Songs of the Good Surrealist’)

But even back then, we see a preoccupation with memory. ‘Remarks of an Early Biographer’ is a haunting example. “In his keen memory/he stored silences like mistresses,” he says. These “stored silences” seem to rest and then turn into more powerful poems. ‘Where Will the Next One Come From’ (from his book, Distance in Statute Miles published in 1982) brilliantly highlights the uncertain nature of where a poem wants to go. Like memory, it too shall rest and turn up unpredictably when you least expect it: “The next one I shall not write/It will rise like bread/It will be the curse coming home.”

The fact that writing is ultimately a very lonely, interior experience is what I understand from ‘The World’s a Printing-House’. Written as a concrete poem, the stanzas are shaped as inverted mountains: There’s a mountain in my mind,/I must be true to it./There’s a mountain in/My mind and I/Must read it/Line by/Line.

We recognise a faint sense of elegant melancholy in the poems excerpted from The Transfiguring Places (1998). “If writing a poem could bring you/Into existence, I’d write one now…” (from ‘To an Unborn Daughter’). There is no melodrama. Memory, longing, nostalgia surface as the poet is getting older.

Literary scholar Laetitia Zecchini says in her book, Arun Kolatkar and Literary Modernism in India (Bloomsbury, 2014) , that Indian critics and academics should be doing the work of drawing parallels between past and present, of rescuing works that have been forgotten, of showing that contemporary writers have forebears. She adds that since many writers feel this is not done, they choose to do it themselves, through translations as poets. Mehrotra’s translations of the Prakrit Love poems and of Kabir, along with those of Vinod Kumar Shukla, Pavankumar Jain, Nirala, etc. could be seen as his attempt at uncovering a literary history.

If you want to ‘marinate’ in good poetry, read this book. You never know where it will take you.

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