My poetry didn’t come
a perfect flower,
It was never a goddess
rising from the waters…
No. It grew painfully,
a few stray petals here and there,
more like wounds…
(‘Goddess Without Arms’)
Follow your own footsteps
to the well.
Stand among the thirsty,
Share their thirst.
Give your last drop of water
To one thirstier than you –
Anna Sujatha Mathai is one of the finest Indian poets writing in English today. She is a skillful, compassionate, and sensitive poet with a clear voice, strongly individualistic and feminist, yet at the same time universal and human. Her sixth book ‘Lighthouse for Drowning Memories’ confirms her place in the canon of Indian Writing in English. The late poet Nissim Ezekiel was supportive of her poetry and had published her in the PEN journal. He had predicted that her book ‘The Attic of Night’ ‘would go into a second, third and fourth impression.’ She makes mention of him in her opening poem ‘Name.’
‘Don’t use Anna, advised Nissim E./ It will give you a Western image.’ Stalwarts like Keki Daruwalla too have endorsed her work, with praise for her deft handling of the English language.
An example of her feminist beliefs is found in these lines:
Don’t we women at least have a right/ To our words and loved objects? / Took me many years to fight for/ My own words. /My own love/my own name.
In her poem ‘Hunger’ Mathai reveals her profound sense of compassion, ‘There are all kinds of hungers that stalk the earth/and the only bread that satisfies/is ordinary human compassion.’
It is my belief that one of the best definitions of poetry ‘A poem must not mean but be,’ in ‘Ars Poetica’ by Archibald MacLeish, is the actual measure of good poetry. MacLeish’s description, poems that ‘be’ as opposed to poems that merely ‘mean.’ provide the reader with a fuller enjoyment and a true appreciation of a poet’s work. It allows the reader to make an immediate connection to the poet’s thoughts, ideas, and emotions. Sujatha Mathai’s poetry lives up to the very essence of MacLeish’s definition. They speak directly to the reader. Her poetry is the expression of her various roles in life, actress, writer, daughter, sister, wife, mother, and social worker.
Sujatha gives a road map to her verse in her own words ‘I plant the seed of my experience, so painfully, joyously excitedly discovered in the rich soil of my soul and it blossoms into a poem.’
The title of the poem ‘Lighthouse for Drowning Memories’ may seem to present itself as somewhat of a paradox. How does one drown memories with a Lighthouse to show the way? Reading all the poems, and Sujatha’s own key to how her poems were born, a clearer picture of the poet appears as one who, though submerged in memories, does not drown in them, but is fully immersed in the events, and recognizes and acknowledges their emotional impact on her life. It is an aptly chosen title as she rises above the painful memories and deals with them with empathy and compassion. As a lighthouse shows the way to ships on the high seas to prevent them from sinking, so the poet is able to see her memories in a clear light, whether they are happy or traumatic. Mathai uses her poetry to question and challenge her predicament.
Why should she give/her passion/to the dead/When life all around her blooms…(‘Why’)
The word ‘drowning’ occurs in several poems as in ‘The Blue Dinner Set,’ ’Families,’ and ‘Doors with Wrong Knobs.’ The themes that emerge from this collection are memory, family, loneliness and isolation, heartbreak, inner turmoil, death which overshadows life, a deep desire for justice for the needy and the downtrodden. As many poets are wont to do, Mathai provides definitions towards an understanding of what poetry is, as in the poem ‘Words.’
words are fish
swimming in the ocean
unless there are waves
the fish won’t come up
unless there is excitement
the words won’t swim up
that’s how a poem starts
with waves of excitement
In her poem ‘Archaeologist,’ Mathai compares the role of a poet to an archaeologist:
As an archaeologist/ excavates the earth/ To discover lost glory…/ So, a poet in a single image, / a single word, / A few cryptic signs, / Brings together separate worlds, / Stamps wildly disparate visions together/ Like a butterfly on a page, / Dreams caught and pinned down.
The poems have a lyrical and contemplative quality, and as in her other collections of poetry, she is completely comfortable and at ease writing in the English language. The smooth flow of language enhances the continuity carrying us with fluidity through lines and images. Vivek Narayanan in his foreword to her book says, ‘Mathai was born in 1934, born already into English, one could say, in that her father, trained at Oxford, was for a period the head of the English department at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi.’
Sujatha’s poetry is shaped by her life, as she so vividly summarizes it in her poem ‘My Journey.’ In the poem ‘Heaven.’ the reader, especially those who know of her illness, will feel a deep sense of empathy for the situation in which she lives. I have nothing but great admiration for her ability to continue to write poetry, something which she has a passion and a gift. I have had the privilege of several conversations with her virtually and though I have never met her, I feel as though I know her well. The poems come even more alive for me since she has given me the opportunity for a personal glimpse into her life. The skill with which she is able to embrace and transform her personal situation into powerful verse, employing language that touches the heart of the reader, evokes a depth of emotion which lingers long after the poem has been ‘read,’ a quality all great writing, whether poetry or prose, must have.
Travelling on a boat
that seems to be ferried slow,
is actually speeding me
to my extinction.
The key dropped by memory
might help me divine
the lost path, the lost face
I searched for so long.
Even if I gain the sweet heavens
I shall not cease to regret
The loss of the joy
of watching trees grow,
The wondrous colours of my saris,
My books and pictures speaking to me,
The joyous laughter that I loved.
Friends round a table,
Eating special food cooked by me
Each spice its own language.
How shall I leave this human feast
For a colourless Heaven?
‘Lighthouse for Drowning Memories’ is published by POETRYWALA (an imprint of Paperwall publishing) and has an attractive and tastefully designed cover.
(In a career spanning over four decades, Kavita Ezekiel Mendonca has taught English in Indian colleges, AP English in an International School in India, and French and Spanish in private schools in Canada. She is a widely published poet. Her poems are featured in various journals and anthologies, including the Journal Of Indian Literature published by the Sahitya Akademi and the Yearbook of Indian Poetry in English. Kavita has authored two collections of poetry, ‘Family Sunday and Other Poems’ and ‘Light of The Sabbath.’)