In 2015, it would be quite odd for followers of Indian writing in English to say that Vijay Nambisan’s First Infinities is his debut full-length collection of poetry—and yet it is, technically speaking. So when a poem like When suddenly the poems die uses a stylised self-conscious irony, the poet is actually making the claim—take it or leave it, this is how I choose to chart my own history—The poems that I will make true/Were born in this interregnum.
Nambisan’s poetry has appeared in journals and anthologies; and as part of a two-poet volume, Gemini 1 (1991), published by Viking almost 25 years ago. His non-fiction books include Bihar is in the Eye of the Beholder (2000) and Language as an Ethic (2003). Under the Penguin Classics series, he has also beautifully translated Puntanam and Melpattur: Two Measures of Bhakti (2009).
I first published early versions of many of these poems in The Lines Review Twelve Modern Young Indian Poets (Edinburgh, 1992), Wasafiri (London, 1995), and more recently in The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (2012) that I edited. Now to see the fully fleshed out volume, along with newer poems written in subsequent decades, is a delight.
The book is architecturally arranged and acts as a triptych—not only is it divided into three sections: ‘Loss’, ‘Balance’ and ‘Profit’; but the eponymous ‘First Infinities’ series of poems also forms a triad: ‘Need’, ‘Hospital’, and ‘Drying Out’. It is in another life that I was well/And time moves like the sea, he writes in part three of this sequence. But at its very core, Nambisan finds lucidity: No life is short/That at its centre has this clarity.
Oxymoronic as it may sound, the book opens with a celebratory Dirge, a poem-tribute to the senior English-language Indian poets of the first generation—Arun Kolatkar, Dom Moraes and Nissim Ezekiel. In this poem (and in the very witty Elizabeth Oomancherry, Mind the Gap, Lady with Parrot, and others), Nambisan uses, with great skill, the device of an envoi or refrain or repetition to instill an incantatory, rhythmic character.
Fine use of metrical sprung-rhythm give his lines bounce and liveliness, a measured cadence that is almost ‘English’ in their approach, even though the poems’ terrain and characters are largely Indian. It is the seamless fusion of the classic and the local, the place-specific and the abstracted modern, which gives Nambisan’s poetry a contemporary tone.
Some of my favourite pieces are the long-poem Dvija, with its sustained persuasive narrative; the highly polished Sakuntala; and Mahasivaratri, with its effective fragmented-mosaic format.
Nambisan’s language is lithe and precise, sometimes almost non-emotional in its restraint. The latter aspects are a measure of his skill to present things in an understated, persuasive way. The book closes with a chiselled poem, Shame and Renown, with the first line from Hafiz: “If you call me shamed, then shame is my renown”.
First Infinities is an outstanding collection. It is as if the poems have been held back to mature and distil in a long-aged vat, and only allowed to be poured out when its maker felt the time was right—and for that, we readers and poetry lovers, feel grateful.