Verse Affairs: Three New Poets

The title of my column is only partially correct. The three poets whose books I write are “new” only in the sense that they have recently published their first books of poetry. However, Michelle D’costa, Sayan Aich Bhowmik and Avinab Datta-Areng have been writing and publishing for a decade and are well known Indian poets. It’s only natural that their first books are mature works, with a wide range of subjects, techniques and even publishing conventions. Reading them together, I believe, shows how rich and diverse Indian poetry in English is.

The shortest of the three books is that of D’costa gulf (Bengaluru: Yavanika Press, 2021) – an e-chapbook with 15 lyric poems. Born and raised in Bahrain, D’costa is well known in literary circles as an author interviewer for Bound. The title of her book, naturally, refers to the Gulf of Bahrain, and she writes of her experience and memories of growing up in this West Asian country in her poem, “Flight to India”:

I leave Bahrain
with tongues under my tongue
like pills. They ask me to open my mouth.
The smuggling of languages ​​is illegal.

A little later, in another poem, “My neighbor”, we learn what these different languages ​​are: English, Arabic, Hindi, Konkani and Kannada.

D’costa problematizes the Bollywood concept of non-resident Indians in the prosperous countries of the West. His poems remind us that while the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia continue to be popular destinations for people migrating from India, many Indians – especially from the southern states and the west – often travel to the countries of Western Asia. It is increasingly becoming the subject of contemporary literature such as Benyamin’s award-winning novel Jasmine Days.

A poem in which D’costa challenges our notions of non-resident Indians is “Haughty NRI”:

Mom said English would take you abroad.
Gulf will kick you out when it sucks
the life out of you. You have to go abroad. At home,
Konkani is the language of closed doors because
in the world, English opens doors for you.
Our cousin came back from America
with an accent that we do not follow.
His mother spills hot water
on her feet and comes out our mother tongue
that I am not.

It is a particularly contemporary situation of a person stuck between languages, expressed through humor.

Preoccupation with language is common in the second book under consideration – Sayan Aich Bhowmik I will come with a lighthouse (New Delhi/Calcutta: Hawakal, 2022). In the poem “Masks”, Bhowmik writes:

when i write in urdu
the words crawl from the right
like children taken to school
against their will.

The title of the poem itself is suggestive and recalls that of “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” by TS Eliot: “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet”.

Bhowmik seems to suggest that a poet wears a new mask each time he writes in a different language. For him, Urdu is perhaps his fourth language – after Bengali, English, Hindi and maybe a few others. This is, of course, an unmistakable feature of Indian poetry in English, and not really a novelty. Kamala Das in her poem “An Introduction”, which generations of Indians have read in school, proudly asserted: “I speak three languages, I write in / Two, I dream in one”. Most Indians who write in English know at least three languages ​​and the literature of all these languages ​​acts as an influence on their English poetry.

Bhowmik is aware of these influences, perhaps even a little anxious. In “Twin Cities”, he writes: “I switch between two languages ​​/ when I write about you / between Faiz and Shahid.” Faiz Ahmad Faiz, of course, wrote mainly in Urdu and Agha Shahid Ali in English, but the influence of English on Faiz – he had an MA in English from Government College, Lahore – and Urdu on Shahid is undeniable. Bhowmik’s poem “Witness”, just 20 lines long, is a tribute to Shahid, with many references to the work of the Kashmiri-American poet. The title itself refers to Shahid’s remarkable English ghazal “In Arabic” and its last verse:

They ask me to tell them what Shahid means: Listen, listen:
It means “the beloved” in Persian, “witness” in Arabic.

An even more complex reference is woven into the lines:

Some nights he asks me
cross Lycidas
to write letters to an october autumn

As Donald Hall writes in his introduction to Shahid’s The Veiled SuiteShahid had committed the pastoral elegy of John Milton Lycides in memory later in life.

Bhowmik, as I said in my introduction, is not new to poetry. He was co-editor of Plato’s Caves, a Kolkata-based online magazine, and founding publisher of the recently launched Parcham, which also published my poems. In our country, where poetry is anathema to most mainstream publications and publishers, it is independent and often online-only spaces that provide a platform for poetry and have sustained the monstrous growth of Indian poetry in English in recent years. Bhowmick’s commitment to independent publishing is also reflected in the choice of publisher for her book, Hawakal. The publisher, which operates in both Kolkata and New Delhi, has released several important new books in recent years.

Avinab Datta-Areng breaks the bastion of mainstream publishing with her book Annus horribilis (Gurugram: Penguin, 2022). Being able to convince a mainstream publisher to release their first book is no small feat for a beginner. Datta-Areng is, once again, no novice. A recipient of the Charles Pick Fellowship and the Vijay Nambisan Fellowship, he edited the renowned literary journal Nether for several years. The title of his book does not refer, as some may assume, to the pandemic year or years; instead, the poems in the volume are deep, well-crafted meditations on loss, love, and language.

The image of the mother haunts many poems – “Decapitation of my mother”, “Fever, mother”, “My mother’s brain” and “Letter to my mother”. Of these, the most striking, at least on this reading, is the last, which begins:

I drank too much hoopoe crown
so I can see you while the world
got things going. Things were getting done.

A kind of feverish imagery takes hold of this poem (and others), intoxicating the reader with mysteries. The experience of reading this poem is like watching a surreal film, where one image after another tumbles down, refusing to make sense to the reader too quickly, and resulting in a kind of condensed philosophical statement:

I will call again
Your words I can seldom follow:
the opposite of sympathy
it’s more compassion, the opposite
of love is, always, more love.

Perhaps the best example of Datta-Areng’s mysterious method is found in the titular poem, which is also the last of the 54 included in this book. It has only one line:

I trust you to turn every yes into you

The poems are dense and purposely unknown. They invite the reader to make themselves vulnerable, as the poet does, revealing their most intimate emotions and images. It can be alluring and scary at the same time.

Uttaran Das Gupta is a New Delhi-based writer and journalist. He teaches journalism at OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat.

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