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BY SMITA AGARWAL
Available Light: New and Collected Poems
Speaking Tiger Publishing Private Limited
The poems of Available Light may safely be placed within the tradition of confessional poetry from India, arguably initiated in the Rig Veda by Yami explicitly expressing desire for her brother, Yama. The Bhakti poets from all over India continued this tradition in the regional languages, with Meera Bai saying, for instance:
Merey mann mey aisi aavey
Marun jeher bis khaayi key
Oji Hari! Kith gaye, neha lagaay key …
Ultimately, the confessional voice showed up in the brief but startling history of Indian poetry in English via Derozio, Dhan Gopal Mukerji, Sarojini Naidu, and star performers like Kamala Das and Dom Moraes, who also happened to be Surendran’s mentor.
By and large, conflicted memories related to childhood, especially the father, and failed love, form the sediment upon which the edifice of the collected poems is erected. For this anguished, vulnerable self, negotiating the world is a continual challenge. And, articulating this process of negotiation is an even greater one, for it is not at all necessary that the reader affirms a similar bleak and despondent view of life.
In Surendran’s seamless melding of the conscious and the subconscious, his poems may systematically create angst in the minds of staid, middle class women in their dotage, like me, straitjacketed in a predictable, safe, boring life, clueless of Mirtaz, Daxid, Zapiz or of sleeping in the nude, living alone and drinking all by themselves in the dark. Bizarre, forever receding and appearing in flashes, till both the poet and the reader don’t know where reality ends and fantasy begins, in this world of sudden bursts of luminosity forever threatened by an abiding, overwhelming darkness, the poems continually battle with nascence, and a deep anguish, stark and inescapable, makes its presence felt. Cupping his hands to contain this Available Light, the poet struggles to put before us this shadowy world peopled by the ghostly revenants of memory. Memory is Muse but it is also the repository of disquiet and confusion. So the poems articulate, pain, pain and more pain…
Hence, surrealistic imagery and, very, very rarely, flashes of a black, ironic humour are the devices available to the poet to illuminate his crepuscular, inner world.
Consider “Catch 22”:
There were times when he didn’t know
What to do with his love
Especially since she seemed
Quite all right without it.
Also, the new poems of Available Light are an artist’s response to Narendra Modi’s MODIFIED India of today, an India reverberating with the Munch-like silent screams of Perumal Murugans, Mohammed Akhlaqs and Gauri Lankeshs. To animate this scenario Surendran uses surrealistic techniques to bridge the abyss between reality and imagination, and to articulate the utter confusion and anxieties created by the conscious and unconscious mind as in the poem ‘Hadal’.
The waves white with what they witnessed
Below return, bowing and scraping
Along the shadows they throw
On shore; back,
Back to the silence thick as massed glass,
To first fish, time cutting teeth in the dark;
Ossified bones, hermaphrodite flesh, marine snow.
The cold is without thought. Things alive
Barely breathe. Your body sieves the sun
To the last. Here you are: in your element,
Feeding the sea out of your hand;
The memory-pumping heart is salt.
The sands rise from your pores,
There the shadows start.
And it is because of this that the scope of the collection moves beyond Bombay, Bangalore and India to voice the aloneness and edginess of any person living anywhere in the contemporary world of Uber and tweets.
All in all, a volume of collected poems is an interesting read as it charts a course in a map: where the poet set out from, where he has arrived, and what happened on the way. There is an unwritten contract with the reader that she may expect changes in course, some high drama, where one got lost, how one found the way back…
Not much of that happens in Available Light. Although several individual poems crafted with finesse are memorable, the themes and devices used to start the journey in Gemini II continue to be the same making Available Light a tad tedious because of the repetition of the overarching concerns. The presence of women is also dull and stereotypical: self-sacrificing, loved and hated mother and intensely desired, feared and despised because unattainable, lover/wife/bitch. There is a whole bunch of poems, across volumes, that talk of desire and love but not one poem to express the ecstasy of sexual or emotional fulfillment. So, in a span of many years, not a single positive point of contact with the female of the species!
However, the reader can discern a gradual evolution from the largely straightforward confessional voice of Gemini II to that of the more complex voice of Available Light, now fully aware of the presence of the two birds of the Vedas and the Upanishads and of the sense of there being both a performative and a witnessing presence that dominates the landscape of the poems.