Perched on a hyphen

The hyphen offers you very little space but poets have never needed much. They make do. The space they demand is internal.

Written by Jerry Pinto | Updated: June 17, 2017 1:41 am
Heart’s Beast, Heart’s Beast: New and Selected Poems, Saleem Peeradina, Copper Coin, indian express books review The poet in a position of privilege, looking askance at privilege, must work against this so as not to turn compassion into pity, empathy into condescension.

Book- Heart’s Beast: New and Selected Poems
Author- Saleem Peeradina
Publication: Copper Coin
Pages: 184

Saleem Peeradina’s best poetry has a strong social consciousness working in it which sometimes makes war upon the images that give his work its strength. The poet in a position of privilege, looking askance at privilege, must work against this so as not to turn compassion into pity, empathy into condescension. Peeradina never slips into the easy mode of othering, but he does not look away. This sense of unbelonging is not just a part of having a hyphenated identity. It is my contention, for instance, that everyone in India has a hyphenated identity, that segues across the blood-iron lines of caste, the crass lines of class, the cartographer’s lines on maps. Saleem Peeradina was perched on a hyphen long before he left India and moved to Canada.

The hyphen offers you very little space but poets have never needed much. They make do. The space they demand is internal. First, they grant themselves a huge interior space and Peeradina’s goes from Bandra to Canada. The next demand is the space that you must make inside your head for the poetry, a reader’s gift of space. Peeradina as poet-prophet wrote about popular culture in a poem — ‘The Real Thing’ — before we knew we had popular culture: “Consider intolerance/ It is easy to learn/ and if developed along proper lines, incredibly/ easy to believe in…”

We believe. This is a poet speaking to us out of time. He has his space in my head and his early work still burgeons there and takes on new meaning as I read these poems again. For I have changed too since I first read First Offence, and so the Peeradina poetry inside my head has changed as well.

But there is a new Peeradina at work here too, and I am not sure I have found my way into this work. ‘The Daughter’s Lament’ asks for you to take in the quotidian and work your magic on it. You must take the sick mother, the cracked ceiling, the intransigent housing society, the suitors who will not come back for the woman in her mid-thirties and give them life. Peeradina’s new diction is deliberately degree zero. I wanted to feel for this woman. I could not. She offered no purchase. I fell off into a skillet. Take the opening lines of ‘Tavva’:

“In my current mould, I am ten inches in diameter, with a gentle/ Curve from end to end. I have cousins who are larger and come/ With wooden handles. The ones used in restaurants and wayside/ Fast food stalls can be three feet wide and are generally/flat-bottomed.”

What is one to make of this resolutely conversational tone? To read a poem is to change the way you perceive the world. How will you look now at a tavva? Will you think of this line:

“… I can flip pancakes, omlettes, dosas, crepes,/ Chappatis, fried fish, and a lot more.”
‘A lot more’? What is ‘a lot more’ doing in this poem? How does it add to anything else? The usual answer is the rhythms of the poem. I tried reading those lines aloud to sound the rhythms. I failed. It must be me.
I read ‘In Praise of Persimmons’. Nothing Peeradina says in this and the poem on bananas leaves any mark on the fruit. They are apercus parading as poems. I have now learned to wait for persimmons to ripen, how to make banana fritters and that the ripe custard apple may smash in my hand.

There’s a great poem in ‘The Lesson’, a poem that takes its cue from representation, from the improbability of the universe we live in, from the impossibility of ever catching it all and committing it to paper. The poem takes on the tone of instructions, draw the earth, the moon, the sun, the planets, ‘a smudge to mark the Milky Way’.

“But you are not done yet. Fold this sheet/ to fashion an origami pigeon and release this messenger bird/ into the sky. It will quickly reach a vanishing point/ flying among billions of other winged creatures/ each carrying its own universe.”

I am at home at last. Another Peeradina poem burgeons in my head.

Jerry Pinto is an author, poet and translator, based in Mumbai

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