Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Absent Muses by Sampurna Chattarji

Sampurna Chattarji's Absent Muses covers a wide width of experience and sentiment. Reading her collection is a journey through the poetic consciousness as it encounters, contends with and finally captures the many different experiences of the writing subject. The resulting narrative lays bare the large montage of images that crowd her thoughts. It is, as it were, a collection of collections, a collage of the different images we read into the world.

Her credo, if we must determine one, is probably most quaintly asserted in the eponymous poem 'Absent Muses', where she says that her muses are of the flesh. The recognizable characters that crowd her everyday reality are the muses that become the sites of poetry in their respective absences. Their conversations are like "alms" clutched tightly in the hand. She says she must read them later in open palms, even as sometimes they are swept clean by time, memory and, as it becomes acutely evident, geography.

If I had to name one of the strongest facets of her poetry, I would say it's the reading of her interactions with people. Her poems are strongly embedded in the dynamics of human friendships and relationships. Some of her poems directly speak to or of the subjects in mind, but most carry an ephemeral allusive essence instead, contending with the spectre of their absence, or the shadow of their overwhelming presence. In 'Translations', for example, we find a record of her relationship with the translated poet, whose presence forces the despondent admission, "his words are escaping me" - she is not him, and yet it is his "letters on the page that are leaping into flame". The complexity of this relationship goes deep. The act of construing someone else's reality taps deep into the recesses of the translator's energy. She must reconstruct, but her world is pre-determined.

Being the generous and prolific correspondent that she is, the poet records in 'Migration and the Mystery of Letters' something of the experience of sharing letters and conversations, snippets of our lives that travel with gathering momentum through the world of our friends and acquaintances. In another of her poems, 'The Assassin, the Arsonist and the Babykiller', Sampurna finds a beautiful set of images to reminisce on the three conversationalists of the title, whose putative characteristics are so recognizably familiar, so acutely memorable, you could see them as prototypes for the assassins, arsonists and babykillers in your own life. The assassin speaks infrequently, and always to deadly effect; the garrulous arsonist is explosive, "resorting to flamethrowers and detonators"; and the sullen babykiller has "written off the possibility of redemption".

In the collection, we also find an attempt to understand the abstractions surrounding our lives, some of them universal, and some of them politically rooted in our urban reality. In 'Strategies of Silence', silence appears as pity, sorrow, rage, shame; 'Ciphers' speaks of the arbitrariness of daily portents, the anticipation of predictions; likewise, 'Auspicious Enough' captures that stifling need to wait for the propitious moment, when every moment is fraught with the reluctance to move. 'Who Calls That Strange?' is still more rooted in the politics of the country. The goddess of the poem chooses, almost nonchalantly, the bodies of the dismembered, from among those determinedly seeking "moksha". And 'No Shape Is More Constant' treads the site of the poisoned breast, the site of vulnerability.

'Hoping To Land' is a section that captures the exigencies of travel, and all its constitutive experiences. I find in this section poems written with a recognizable sense of longing, a strong reminder of the happiness of travel. The traveler confronts her own almost immediate sense of belonging ("map in our bones"), and her sense of shared camaraderie, but she must also intermittently confront her understanding of home. In 'August in Edinburgh', home is a fleeting figment - "We are dreaming of confined spaces/ walls that will comfort us". And yet, the traveler encounters home everywhere, in kitchen chatter, in absent hosts and familiar food. In the same section, the poems on Japan have a distinctly dreamy and quaint quality.

Home, therefore, is the last predominant, and perhaps the most intricate, theme in the book. Home is treated differently in the different poems, and the emerging notions of home as a dissipated entity emanate from the various locales that are identified as home. There is Calcutta, there is Darjeeling, and perhaps equally significantly, there is home as that ephemeral quality transmitted through literature - the home that we know intimately and yet never wholly possess. 'Where Do I Put This Love' tries to locate the different corners and crevices in the embodied home that could possibly hold and contain the bottled love for Calcutta, compressed into boxes hidden in dark places, struggling to escape to the open flower petals and paddy fields of its provenance. 'One or Two Things About Home' cites travel in space, literature, food, cups of tea and wine. "Every new/ Place is an open invitation to/ Disappointment..." It concludes with an allusion to "the Hungarian who walked to Tibet and died in Darjeeling" and its consequent realization - "And the more I'd like to stay with Hangary, the more Darjeeling comes back - / the sound of Buddhist gongs, the stench of horse dung..."

Sampurna is a poet immersed in literature and her reading of the world is a distinctly literary one. It would definitely be interesting to read more critical material from her, her take on literary works, because she has a wide range of references and it reflects in her work. Absent Muses is, in part, an offering to the many influences that have shaped her work.

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