The English poetry scene in India is going through an unprecedented churn. Many small publishers are cropping up (most dying out after a few titles). Some younger poets have formed ‘collectives’, publishing each other’s books in their ‘closed group’ and then ceasing. Short-term egotistical enterprises like this is an unhealthy trend, not conducive to openness. Even though more people are writing poetry, not enough read or buy it. The level of intellectual criticism is at an all time low—conversations reduced to gossip and slander—a mass of banality, lacking cerebral gravitas. Amid all odds, independent publishers who soldier on include Poetrywala, Copper Coin, Red River and Dhauli Books. These presses, led by committed poet-activists, believe in the written word through an unbiased eye, a rarity in these dark times.
Satyajit Sarna’s Profane, his first book of poetry, shows the microcosmic care and concern he has for language. His lines are tightly wrought, content well managed, and the unfolding narrative convincing. Yet, he maintains a high level of lyricism. Take the first stanza of Moonlake: “You slip out of the tent first. /Like a moth I follow you /out, into the china white, /mountain bones, bleached by starlight, /pearls underfoot, hearts skidding.” There is maturity too, as in Door: “I am not so blinded by lust, /as I once was, …. /.… Now I hesitate, a moment of balance /between the first unveiling, /and the fitting pitch of the dance.”
Scorching comment on national politics is imbued with sharply subtle irony in National Anthem: “We will die of this: /Standing when told, sitting in relief, /while our guardians kneel to kiss /the hem of each passing belief. // Remember: /Freedom will not clutch /at the robes of her servants. /Death himself cannot touch /true disobedience.” Profane is a highly assured debut volume, and I expect fine things from this young writer.
Jhilmil Breckenridge’s debut collection, Reclamation Song, is a highly illustrated book—the poet’s own art/graphics liberally adorning the inside pages and cover. Her work in mental health and gender justly colours her poetry in a way that is not garishly overt but oblique. A good example is Sita. Savour the opening three stanzas: “There were many names for me /Wife, Mother of Four Sons, Girlfriend //But forgetting is another way /of surviving and thriving //And so amnesia, I know you well /as I create new identities.”
Ekphrastic, based on Mara Rucki’s art Spleen (1949), is a fine poem and a good example of its form: “It is the mother whose breasts leak milk /but her child is gone //It is the life left in a dragonfly /whose wings are broken //It is the oldness in a boy’s eyes /after innocence is lost // … // It is the ennui in your limbs /when a wave of depression strikes // It has many names, take your pick /Despair, Grief, Sorrow, what’s your choice?” The repetitive use of the “it is” phrase sets up a chanting rhythm, pushing the narrative’s intent in a convincing manner of therapy. In Reclamation Song, the poet not only reclaims her and humanity’s past, but also leaves the door ajar for future hope to stream in. In so many ways—despite the embedded pain, despair and darkness that engulfs our society—it is a positive, sane, open-minded book.
“A temple town tempts a pilgrim /into pawing its filigreed alcoves /in summer proper //the visiting dharma nerd’s head /becomes a battlefield for the blip ’n’ flip / of conflictual customs” opens Sarabjeet Garcha’s fine poem, The Believer. A Clock in the Far Past is Garcha’s fourth book of poetry (including one in Hindi), apart from two books of translations from Hindi and Marathi. That the poet uses his multilingual talents is not even in question. Instead, what is admirable is the way he moves in and out of these diverse language registers, cadences and textures with ease.
There is quiet wisdom and acceptance in his poetry: “How can we blame / the sun for erasures /we engineered ourselves? //We surrendered, /but didn’t admit /we were lost.” (Muted by Multiples). In Sarabjeet Garcha’s poetry, the metaphors are urgent, phrase-making taut, tonality rhythmically sound, and similes that ring with “tantalising ambivalence”. A Clock in the Far Past is a very fine volume, one that is equally well designed and modest in presentation.