Kamala Das' life provides rich fodder for those who wish to ferret facts as evidence that her poetry is predominantly confessional, and therefore a 'woman's voice'. Raised in the warmth of a tight-knit matrilineal society in Kerala, Das was uprooted when her father moved to Calcutta and she was suddenly thrust at a very young age into a loveless marriage with her cousin. Her soul 'balked at this diet of ash' and freedom in the form of amorous liaisons became her 'dancing shoe'.But Das' poetry should not suffer careless, undiscriminating labels and, what Romila Thapar once termed very succinctly, thesyndrome of the separate chapter on women. Her poems are no thinly veiled, angst-ridden gesticulations of a turbulent life. Instead, her poetry is a complex, zestful body of work, shot through with a keen sense of irony and pathos even as it weaves it way through the corridors of her life and plumbs the deeply shaded interiors of desire and despair.
In Only the Soul Knows How to Sing, Das' sexual confessions delight, because theyconstantly surprise. Her feelings are unstable and shift rapidly, assuming new postures, new attitudes of defence and attack, shame and celebration. Her self is at continuous play and her poems dramatise its myriad moods. From defiant declarations like the opening lines of The Bison At The Water's Edge: Who says a marriage must mean only two?
The clement climate of mine was due Not to one man alone but two.
And the self-conscious adoption of a face in An Introduction: ...It is time to Choose a name, a role. Don't play pretend -ing games.
Don't play at schizophrenia or be a Nympho. Her poetry glows with the incandescence of moments of uninhibited passion and yearning as in Composition: Excavate Deep, deep pain.
The other dominant theme in her poetry is a nostalgia for the innocence and unfractured self of her childhood. Her grandmother is a seminal figure in these poems whose presence/absence is wrapped in conflicting skeins of hankering and rejection, security, love and guilt.
These poems stand testimony to Das' achievement in disinheriting herself of the sort of poetic diction common in her time—which spoke of the 'domino dusk of the stalagtite evening'—to replace it with an easy colloquial style which speaks of 'endless female hungers' and the 'musk of sweat between the breasts/ The warm shock of menstrual blood' without any ludicrous corseting. But despite a preponderance of the conversational tone, her poems have their lyrical moments too, lines such as: "In the fluted heart of shells/Doze the ballads of the sea" (Cerebral Thrombosis)and "where did my love words go/as birds, wing-tired, fly at dusk to roost?" (The Eighty sixth Birthday).
The weakest stroke, perhaps, in Das' largely successful poetic canvas is her prosody, her sense of rhythm and metre. In the final consensus, however, Only The Soul Knows How to Sing retains 'in other things' as Kamala Das wishes 'potent fragments of oneself'—and the book would sit proud on any shelf.