By Ranjit Hoskote
Viking Penguin | Pages: 132 | Rs. 399
The book’s title, Central Time, is both an allusion to Ranjit Hoskote’s mid-life output, as much as how the idea of time is so obliquely central to his work. This volume contains a hundred poems written between 2006 and 2014, and it serves a perfect sequel to his Vanishing Acts: New & Selected Poems 1985-2005.
The anthology is divided into a quintet of enigmatically titled sections: ‘Zoetrope’, ‘The Pilot’s Almanac’, ‘Gravity Leaps to the Eye’, ‘The Existence Certificate’, ‘The Institute of Silence’—each, like a variation, containing movements that shift subtly, effortlessly in pitch and register. Hoskote expands his formal space here. I particularly like his explorations of the prose-poem form and poems that highlight, through their working, the powerful sense of understated minimalism.
Hoskote acts as a sutradhar in his poems, a storyteller weaving in characters and landscapes as varied and resonant as Ovid, Ghalib, Bihzad, Magritte, Fujihata, Kaleka, Claudel, Brocan, Lannoy, Turner, Srinagar, Goa, Indore, Bombay, Berlin, Dortmund, Utrecht, Kabul, and others.
There are beautifully touching verses to his beloved wife, Nancy: Nazm, and In the Margin of an Autumn Folio. These two pieces are overtly for her, and then there are others too that feature her in an askance-veiled manner. These poems provide a strong emotional and lyrical underpinning to his otherwise largely educated and sophisticated tonality. Here is the first nazm from the eponymous poem Quartet: “Our lives are voices in two heads. / The rest is background music.” And the last: “We lie embroidered on the mimosa. / I need no gauge of motives to tell me / why it has rained.”
Many of the poems are dedicated to his friends. Some of the specific dedications I find limiting and distracting, as the content of the poetry gets pulled away in a specific kind of narrative stream with the personality’s reference. Otherwise the same poems, without the dedication ‘for’ anchoring the titles, would have a much wider resonance.
Unsurprisingly, Hoskote’s engagement with the fine arts is supremely evident here. There are direct and indirect allusions to poets, painters and paintings, washed with vital parenthetical details and hues contained in its palette. So, you will find eulogies to Dom Moraes (Conspiracies), Adil Jussawalla (Chimera), and Charles Simic (The Reading); references to Bhupen Khakhar (Painter Talking to Flowers), Atul Dodiya (The Guide Recalls the Mountains), J.M.W. Turner (The Landscapist’s Advice to His Apprentice), and many more.
Hoskote brings an astute curatorial eye even in the way the volume is constructed—its placement and architecture—the way the book is balanced in five sections, each with its own circulatory and respiratory system. Sensuousness abounds, as does tactility and texture, and the way he handles “the roughness of stone, the dance of light, the flowering of touch and the taste of salt and cinnamon”.
Hoskote’s work as an art critic and curator has a direct bearing on his poetic aesthetics. In fact, he traverses the dual path with an easy sense of parallelism—the only exception to the geometric axiom being that here the parallel lines meet, not at infinity but in the penumbra zone of the finite. The finite, the specific, the exactitude of language and framing ultimately gives his poetry an enormous and subtle weight.
Much of the above can be seen in the poem titled Incision, that is dedicated to Lucio Fontana (1899-1968), set in a single couplet: “Cut quickly. There’s sky behind the flesh. / Prise up the fold. The atlas of the body is never complete.”
Central Time contains powerfully built poems that are at the same time clever, vulnerable, lyrical, stoical, intelligent, wise and moving. Savour the irony in the opening gambit of the prose poem, For Example: “The saint maintains his piety through the graphic imagination of other people’s vices. We thank him for it”.
Ultimately, Hoskote is whole-heartedly a Mumbaiah, a Bombay poet deeply rooted in its ethos. Tidemark bears all the watermarks of this: “Water draws a line around the things we loved. / I pluck dead birds from the wash and burn their feathers. // This is where I belong, in tidal water / drawn up over my feet like a shell blanket. // I hate this city on the sea, but I will die here.”
(Sudeep Sen’s recent book is Fractals: New & Selected Poems|Translations 1978-2013, and The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry)