Read now. There’s heaven inside these words./Hang on to every line. The heart of this poem will never stop.
(written, inspired by Ranjit Hoskote’s ‘Incision’, from Central Time )
C entral Time stopped the clock for me every time I picked it up. It has been a meditative, satisfying experience reading the poems in this latest collection from Ranjit Hoskote. Bringing together poems written over a period of eight years, the collection spreads itself like the sky, stretching across centuries, cultures and spaces. It is central time and therefore, the past, the present and the future all merge into each other. And as we travel through this strange yet powerful timescape, we meet the most endearing, enduring and lonely characters.
The first section, ‘Zoetrope’, is nearly like the first poem in it — ‘Platform Directions’. “ You can take your time at this station./No train stops here, no train ever leaves. ” Readers can take their time here, reading through poems that take them from continent to continent, from a vast expanse of a forest to a room, from encounters with Sanskrit poets to grammarians and painters to gargoyles and giant squirrels. And then, all of a sudden, the train stops. At least, it did for me when I read ‘Nazm’, a beautiful love poem:
“ Forget the star maps of the Old Kingdom./Dress yourself in night./Trust me:/Our hands can see in the dark. ”
Whoever finds their way through the star maps of this collection will have such revelatory moments.
The sense of movement set off by the Zoetrope continues in the next section, ‘The Pilot’s Almanac’, except that it is the movement from the rain to the skin, from meteor dust to the moon, from strophe to strophe, of the ‘Free Fall’ and more. The most haunting poem from this section is ‘The Collector of Meteor Dust’, which seems to be inspired by or dedicated to a shop sign from the Bombay of 1989 — ‘Moon Winding Works’: “ I make the moon happen. It blows up, fades,/bites roundels from heaven’s blackout at my command./I trick the planets into shape. Without me, you’d have/chunks of ice phantasming through space/on slipstreams, drifting out of range/across an ocean numb to the naked eye’s sounding,/depth painted on velvet depth, such distances: distances/across which I stretch a net of chain-linked stars...Tomorrow’s another night: I’ll collect my toll/of meteor dust, make the moon happen, blow up, fade./I wind all things up, give them names/and beginnings that haunt them to the end. ”
Nearly every word, image and theme is made new by Hoskote’s unusual and complex imagination. And it is evident not only in the poems but in the section titles as well — for instance, the third one, ‘Gravity Leaps to the Eye’. Three poems stand out in this segment. The first, ‘Chimera’ dedicated to Adil Jussawalla, imagines translation — or a translated poem — as a chimera with the translator’s “amber-flecked lenses”. The concluding lines are significant as they proclaim a certain confidence, of the translator perhaps:
...These amber-flecked lenses/are mine, on loan. They’re strong enough to pierce/the walls and roofs of the floating mirage/we call world., and never turn to stone. ”
‘Lunch Britannia’ is an enjoyable take on the poet persona’s late arrival at an Iranian restaurant and, therefore, missing a friend by a few minutes. A lively description of a painting sets the tone for the best line in the poem: “ At Britannia, there’s life/after still life. ”
Hoskote’s achievement lies, among other things, in the sheer range of these poems and also the manner in which he has arranged them. The realism of ‘Lunch at Britannia’ shifts to a Shakespearean Midsummer-Night kind of setting in ‘In the Margin of an Autumn Folio’ which holds a tender, amorous plea to his lover to ‘ enclose him in her landscape ’.
Strange characters inhabit the last two segments, ‘The Existence Certificate’ and ‘The Institute of Silence’ — an exiled poet, a secret agent, a magician, a navigator, an informant... all in search of something they’re yet to find. As Hoskote says in the last poem, ‘The First and Last Portrait’, these characters can be all “ madness and insomnia, hover above this town of barking dogs like an eclipse. ” They can “ become gods .”
But ‘Incision’ spoke to me the most: “ Cut quickly./There’s sky behind the flesh./Prise up the fold. The atlas of the body is never complete. ”I think it was T.S. Eliot who said that genuine poetry can communicate before it’s understood. This collection communicates through little nooks and crannies of time and space, and through haunting voices of ghostly warriors, leaving a beautiful aftertaste. And who said every word in poetry must be analysed, explained or understood? The mystery of Central Time is perhaps its most endearing quality.