Arundhathi Subramaniam

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 Reviews and Responses

Review Excerpts  

'...one of the finest poets writing in the country today....It is not dulcet music that you hear in Where I Live. It's the swish of swordplay, each poem skewered at sabre-point and then placed on an electric grille to sizzle like a rasher on a barbecue…. We need to accept her as the conquistador of the poetry page.' -- Keki Daruwalla, The Hindu, February, 2010

  
'...by turns both laconic and passionate, she asks questions about morality and integrity that many poets simply refuse to take on. Yet she is also an extraordinary love poet...This is a remarkable book, from a remarkable poet.' -- John Burnside, Poetry Review, Summer 2009. 
 
'...a strong personality and an individual voice; her poems feel as if they are meant to be read aloud as well as on the page.... Subramaniam is becoming a major poet.' -- Bruce King, Journal of Postcolonial Literature, 2010. 


 '...a combination of sharp (at times even cutting) intelligence, uncompromising honesty, and probing subtlety...It just such writing that illuminates the fact that in our times the truly global perspective is offered by writers like Subramaniam, who have the privilege of knowing the philosophies and mythologies, the human and natural landscapes, the sounds, smells and tastes of both East and West.' -- Brenda Porster, Semicerchio, 2009 
 
'Few poets capture contradictory impulses so convincingly. This unexpected range is what makes Subramaniam’s work such a pleasure to read. You never know what country, mood, streetscape, or relationship you’ll be plunged into but the ferociously intelligent attention to detail ensures that you are given every opportunity to engage with the pure energy of the poem.' Jules Mann, Poetry International Web.



 

Reviews (Poetry)

 

By Keki Daruwalla (The Hindu)

By John Burnside (Poetry Review)

By Bruce King (Journal of Postcolonial)

By Brenda Porster (Semicerchio)

By Michelle Keown (Journal of Postcolonial Studies)

By Jules Mann (Poetry International Web)

By Anjum Hasan (Indian Literature)

By Keki Daruwalla (Kavya Bharati)

By Jerry Pinto (Tehelka)

By Brenda Porster (Semicerchio)

 

Keki N. Daruwalla (The Hindu, February 7, 2010)

Unusual Vision

Where I Live: New and Selected Poems, Arundhathi Subaramaniam, Bloodaxe Publishers, £8.95.

 

Recently, during a poetry reading by Arundhathi Subramaniam at Varanasi, I was surprised that the chairperson introducing her had no idea who she was. I had half a mind to shout out loud that she was one of the finest poets writing in the country today. But, as usual, inertia won the day. This volume contains new poems as well as selections from her first book, On Cleaning Bookshelves, and the second, Where I Live, and has been brought out by Bloodaxe, the most prominent publisher of poetry in England.

 

The first thing that strikes one, apart from the deft way she uses language, is the unusual way she looks at things. She will start by saying she is wearing her mother's sari. After that line, don't expect a mention of Kanjeevaram or chiffon: ‘I am wearing my mother's sari, /her blood group /her osteo-arthritic knee.’

 

The pairing goes on, the crushes the mother-daughter duo had on celebrities, the way they use language till “I grow stealthily/ into her body.” The poem is aptly and splendidly titled “Sharecropping”.

 

Unique perspectives

 

To repeat, it is the oblique phrase that ambushes the reader page after page. In a cardiac unit, even the shadowless illumination is disinfected. The language is unique not only because she is excellent at spinning the yarn of language across her poetic loom, but because her perspectives are different. For instance, take the line, “Faith spreads like the hum of crickets”,where sound and spirit get conjoined so effectively. The volume would be remembered for its striking lines/ images — ‘the ferment of crickets', ‘moon-lathered Parthenon', ‘lurching empires of the sea', ‘ dark, deccan bodies supple as bowstrings'.

 

In a poem like “Archivist”, she weaves various strands. First the lover has to be ‘documented' “out of the corner of the eye/ where the retina bleeds/ into the imagination”.So far you don't know where the poem is heading. Then you enter taxonomy; Arundhathi takes sadistic delight in driving reviewers to the dictionary. We are into principles of classification. A normal poet would have been satisfied talking of pigeonholes etc. Not Subramaniam. Even the lover's body has to be segmented, “cleaved into zones—/ the austere collage of seasons/ that is his face,/ and the caesura of the navel…” As a fellow poet I turn pale at the audacity of the concept and the aplomb with which she has carried it out.

 

Like some other fine South Indian poets, Ramanujan and Parthasarathy, for instance, she is strong on family bonds. Her grandmother, “wise even at eight/ hid under her bed/ when her first suitor came home.” But even as she “stirs ancestral aromas” in the kitchen, she will bequeath her recipes and genes but never her secret longings for “dark forbidden paramours whose eyes/ smoulder like lanterns in winter.” A lover's breath will come to her “like the sigh of palmyra trees/in Tirunelveli plantations” (‘Demand'). Of a piece are the poems “Winter, Delhi, 1997” and “Madras”, which bring forth a lingering nostalgia for her childhood. When she writes of memories they seem to be on 3D film, so vividly are they portrayed.

 

Existential strain

 

More than the ambivalences the blurb talks about, it is the strong existential strain running through the volume that hits one, this business of living that has to be got through. She tackles the “fragile ecosystems/ of hope and conversations and memory” that surround human intimacy. And yet the poems are not devoid of idiosyncrasy, for “when the world arrives,/ gurgling in imperial anticipation” she says she is “ too far gone to care.” There are also whimsical moments in her poems when she is in a quandary — unsure whether to “dice” carrots or a lover.

 

It is not dulcet music that you hear in Where I Live. It's the swish of swordplay, each poem skewered at sabre-point and then placed on an electric grille to sizzle like a rasher on a barbecue.

 

As in life so in poetry, there's need for space, caesura — the moment that brings forth brief befogged epiphanies, Parashurama recognising Rama, “between tenancies /form and reform”. The mode however is always demotic with Subramaniam, none of that high falutin high seriousness of Mathew Arnold and Indian language poets. The need of space is recognised “so that some old mistakes can be made again/ and some not.” (“Interval”). The demotic leads to self effacement of sorts: “ To stand/in the vast howling rain-gouged/ openness of a page,/ asking the question/that has been asked before…/To leave no footprints/in the warm alluvium…/This was always a way /of keeping the faith.

 

This volume starts with the lines ‘I am for just this moment,/conquistador of the blank page'.

 

We need to accept her as the conquistador of the poetry page.

 


 

 

John Burnside (Poetry Review, Volume 99-2, Summer 2009)

 

 

Delayed Debuts

 

Where I Live, New and Selected Poems also marks the British debut of a poet who has been working in the field for some time, bringing together poems from Arundhathi Subramaniam’s two earlier collections (On Cleaning Bookshelves and Where I Live, produced in India by Allied Publishing) and a selection of new work that, for those who have followed her remarkable writing so far, (albeit from a distance) are exciting additions to her oeuvre. Subramaniam’s writing is by turns laconic and passionate, often tender, always vital, drawing on family relationships (her poems about her mother, for example, are among the finest to a parent I have read), the clamour and sometimes sensual mayhem of city life, the journeys and homecomings of a sometimes solitary woman, and, in the new works especially, the steady tension between the desire for intimacy (in all its forms) and the need to be alone. Throughout, her work is about choices made and not made, false choices offered and illusions sometimes painfully dismantled, sometimes carefully repaired; an early poem, entitled simply ‘No’, is answered towards the end of the book, by the beautiful ‘Learning to Say Yes’:

 

They matter,

the minor questions –

the smell of a new wardrobe,

the eternal bus ticket

in the bag’s second compartment, the leer

of the late shift security guard.

 

Yes, Draupadi’s sari is endless

 

and there’s no way to tame

life’s wild unstoppable

bureaucracy

but this:

 

Fill out the form. Do it in bloody triplicate. Enrol.

 

That reference to Draupadi – when Dushasana tries to undress her, after Yudhisthira loses her in a game of chance, Draupadi’s sari extends infinitely until her tormentor gives up from exhaustion – is indicative of the creative and sometimes playful way Indian mythology is used in Subramaniam’s work, but also beautifully renews its metaphors and  themes – questions related to Dharma, that is to say, to law and morality, and to the complexity of time – with marvellous ingenuity and wit. Indeed, Subramaniam is a poet whose appreciation of time is both vivid and poignant:

 

Nothing like the cool

morning sanity of leaf

to remind you

green is the colour

of borrowed time                            (‘Reading the Leaves’)

 

and she asks questions about morality and integrity that many poets simply refuse to take on. Yet she is also an extraordinary love poet, expanding our conception of what that means beyond the usual romantic notions, to include, not just other, but self:

 

And then the nights

when, turning over on the side,

the arm reaches out

 

and finds,

with some ancient riverine instinct,

a familiar lost tributary

of self.                                                  (‘Return’)

 

 

This is a remarkable book, from a remarkable poet; say ‘yes’ to it; buy it; enrol.

 

 


 

Bruce King

 

Hegelianism, Postcolonialism and the Self

(Excerpt)

 

…Feminist no longer seems the right word for those such as Shamsie, Subramaniam and de Souza who write from a female perspective but without ideological flag waving. The Bloodaxe edition of Subramaniam’s new and selected poems includes two volumes previously published in India, On Cleaning Bookshelves (2001) and Where I Live (2005), along with Deeper in Transit, a sequence of twenty-two recent poems.  Subramaniam from the beginning of her writing had a strong personality and an individual voice; her poems feel as if they are meant to be read aloud as well as on the page.  The rhymes are subtle; assonances feel natural while having rhetorical power.  Her subject matter is personal, whether the individual who does not fit in, the problems of love, the emotions and care that go into writing poetry, or her relationship to the past. Probably her best known poem is “To the Welsh Critic Who Doesn’t Find Me Identifiably Indian”, an amusing, sardonic, mocking reply to patronizing foreigners who think of authenticity in terms of essentialist polarities:

 

Smear my consonants

with cow-dung and turmeric and godhuli.

Pity me, sweating,

rancid on the other side of the counter.

Stamp my papers,

lease me a new anxiety,

grant me a visa

to the country of my birth. [Where I Live 54]

 

Her poetry, however, is less about ideas and more about the emotional anxieties, conflicts, and contradictions that are part of living. The poems speak less of disappointments than of life as battles, tensions, and being on the road. The comfort of feeling settled is, paradoxically, to be someplace temporary, alien, that is depersonalized.  Although she does not write poetry about meditation and the spirit, she is attracted towards Buddhism and has written The Book of Buddha, which Penguin has republished. Her poems are part of larger structures which form an evolving narrative pointing towards larger themes.  Sixteen poems in Where I Live are titled “How to Disarm”.  This is followed by a sequence titled “Another Way”.

            The new Deeper in Transit poems represent a further stage of development and are powerful, rich in complexities, at times obscure as they rapidly shift among such motifs as the effects of age, desire, lust, failures of the body, love, anger, pain.  Ordinary objects such as a sari, high heels and shoe boxes become symbols:

 

I have grown

too tall for heels.

 

The boys have grown

into bankers

and soft-bellied intellectuals.

 

But when lights dim

and city drawing-rooms

turn vertiginous,

I see them all over again,

dark , feral,

lean-haunched,

shadowy,

shape whittled down

to what really counts –

 

men.        [110-11]

           

These are poems written by a woman in their unexpectedness as well as perspective. Instead of lyrics about the coming of the muse of poetry there is the excited energy and violence of creation. Differences of feelings and expectations between being thirty and forty are revealed in ways that most male poets would not reveal and are possibly not aware of. Osteoporosis is a symbol of Mumbai’s streets and India’s bureaucratic inertia:

 

intent doesn’t translate

into action

without bottlenecks

at every joint,

every junction,

every circuit,

every street.     [116]

 

Such strikingly swift leaps between levels of signification are characteristic of

her poetry, which layers the commonplace, the personal, myths, nostalgia, and the metaphysical through a range of dictions, languages, parodies and allusions to suggest that life is a hurricane of emotions.

 Although the sequence concludes with “Life is here.” [126] so much has happened in the poems that even such banality is dramatic. The energy of the later poems in Where I Live and especially the new ones is immense. With hindsight one sees that all the bits were present earlier but it took time for them to come together and for earlier love laments to be drafts for the hidden sexual rage, the existential anxieties, and rapid shifts of reference increasingly characteristic of her verse. The attachment to life, self-dramatisation and discontent that emerge from these poems are the opposite of the negation of attraction and attachment that Subramaniam praises in The Book of Buddha and which she practises when on retreat from her job and life in Mumbai. I imagine that these poems are intended to show life as wrongly lived. One wondered who, besides Jeet Thayil, might replace such now dead major Indian poets as A K Ramanujan, Dom Moraes, Agha Shahid Ali and Nissim Ezekiel. It is good to report that Subramaniam is becoming a major poet . . .          

Brenda Porster (Semicerchio, 2009)

The Mumbai-based poet, arts critic and cultural curator Arundhathi Subramaniam is already familiar to Semicerchio for her lively and authoritative contributions to the post-colonial section (see, among others, Semircerchio 23 [2000/ 2], p 20 and 28 [2003/1], pp. 84-5). Since her first collection of poems, On Cleaning Bookshelves (Mumbai, Allied Publishers 2001) she has gained well-deserved recognition on the wider international scene: in 2003 she won the Wallace Fellowship at the University of Stirling and in 2006 she toured the UK for a series of poetry readings sponsored by the Visiting Arts fellowship. In fact, this, her third volume of poems, is published by one of Britain’s most prestigious publishers of contemporary poetry in English, Bloodaxe Books. As the subtitle promises, it includes a wide selection from both On Cleaning Bookshelves and her second volume, also entitled Where I Live (Mumbai, Allied Publishers 2005), which here becomes the sections «Where I Live», «How to Disarm» and «Another Way», while the new poems are found in the final section, «Deeper in Transit».

 

For those of us who already know Subramaniam’s distinctive voice, this anthological collection serves to renew our pleasure in finding old favorites and discovering new ones (though it is hard to make a choice, since almost every poem presents its own delights of phrase, image and thought). What is unmistakable and, fortunately, not at all diminished over time, is the combination of sharp (at times even cutting) intelligence, uncompromising honesty, and probing subtlety with which this poet explores her reality. And the reality is a highly composite one, ranging from meditations on the poet’s love-hate relationship with her native city, Mumbai, as in the title poem ‘Where I Live’ (« I live on a wedge of land / reclaimed from a tired ocean [...] Greetings from this city / of L’Oréal sunsets / and diesel afternoons, deciduous with concrete, / botoxed with vanity / [...] where it is perfectly historical / to be looking out / on a sooty handkerchief of ocean, / searching for God.») to her knowledge and experiences of the West (see, besides the signature ‘On Cleaning Bookshelves’ also ‘Another Home’ and ‘Recycled’). It just such writing that illuminates (at least for this common western reader, whose knowledge of Indian culture is, alas, limited) the fact that in our times the truly global perspective is offered by writers like Subramaniam, who have the privilege of knowing the philosophies and mythologies, the human and natural landscapes, the sounds, smells and tastes of both East and West.

 

The variety also breeds contradictions, and Subramaniam has the courage and honesty to embrace them fully. She has described the process of writing a poem as ‘learning to grope’ -- writing serves her as a tool for trying out (and prying into) the changing perspectives offered by daily life, for exploring and illuminating personal and collective realities. Of the  many poems that deal with writing as existential quest, a particularly fine one is the poem that closes the section of the same name, ‘Another Way’: «To swing yourself / from moment to moment, / to weave a clause / that leaves room/ for reminiscence and surprise, / that breathes. / welcomes commas, / dips and soars / through air-pockets of vowel, / lingers over the granularity of consonant,/ never racing to the full-stop [...] To stand / in the vast howling, rain-gouged / openness of a page / [...] This was also a way/ of keeping the faith.»

 

Swinging from moment to moment, learning to live in the interval between fixities, in the continuous present that does not exist and is at the same time all that we have of eternity – this is one of the central themes of these lambent poems, which trace Subramaniam’s growing maturation and acceptance of impermanence. In a recent (June 4, 2008) interview about ‘place’ in Indian poetry, she said, «The finest poetry is able to capture this sense of ‘not quite’ and ‘somewhere in between’». Emblematic of this condition is the turtle-subject of ‘Olive Ridley in Kolavipalam’ (I have always been especially excited by the poems in which Subramaniam imagines us into the subjectivity of a totally other life-form, as in this poem and in the earlier ‘Amoeba’): «and between breaths, the gaze - / unblinking, / deathless. // Ahead / it beckons - / a lurching habitat / of oceantide and dream / the promise of life / without investment / without dividend / in a salt-spangled / present continuous. // Until land beckons again. // Deliverance always / an element away.». Thus, it is totally significant that one of the most characteristic stylistic tropes in these poems is the use of nouns as verbs: «Envy./ The marrow igloos / into windowlessness. [...] The trick is not to noun / yourself into corners. / Water the plants. / Go for a walk. / Inhabit the verb.» (‘The Strategist’) or again «...I know I often long / for some warm lair [...] monsooned in grace.» (‘Locality’). While in one of several poised yet tender love poems, ‘Lover Tongue’, the poet explicitly plays off the fixity of noun against the transience of verb: «Perhaps I will tire / of your grammar, // find myself yearning / for the rumble of verb or the soft / flesh of pure vowel / those mornings when I stumble / over your landscape / of unforgiving nouns».

 

Beneath the irony (but there is less of this in the more recent poems) and the wry humor (e.g. «Between the doorbell / and the death knell / is the tax exemption certificate»,   ‘Epigrams for Life after Forty’), beneath the occasional disillusionment and disgust, we feel the urgency of the poet’s desire to explore the contrasting pulls of belonging and solitude, memory treasured and memory felt as encumbrance, nay-saying and yea-saying, form and flexibility. At the deepest level, there is the quest to understand, if not define, self -- self as separate from and part of ‘other’, whether this ‘other’ be friend or family (see ‘Sharecropping’ and ‘Sister’) or lover, or the social and physical place where she lives, and self in relation to the cosmic whole. Self as mind and as body, her own and her lover’s: «I tell you it’s about your quest / and your creativity/ and your tuneless songs in the kitchen [...] But that’s not all. / It’s actually this - / the warm tautsoft springy irrepressible / materiality of you, // [...] the lingering isotherm / of your presence on my bed – », ‘What Matters’. And in ‘Rib Enough’: «... life without ritual / would be body without ribcage. // But let there be just enough rib / between the two of us / for a rumour of edge -- / frugal hint of rampart and crag -- // and an ever-widening commune / of breath.».

 

Finally, in recent poems in the last section like ‘Rutting’ and ‘Black Oestrus’ the body’s demands can take on an almost shocking erotic intensity: «I could swallow you [...] / ravish you / with the rip, snarl / and grind of canine / and molar, taste the ancestral grape / that mothered you, your purpleness / swirling down my gullet / and it would be a kind / of knowing // but you still wouldn’t be / me enough.» (‘Black Oestrus’). 

 

There remains much more that deserves to be said, but that in the scope of a review like this can only be mentioned: The poet’s canny way of yoking the abstract with the physical to create descriptive passages possessing the evocative force of the exactly-right (one for all: the cityscape in ‘Tree’, «and buildings that hold sun and glass together / with more will-power than cement», a verse worthy of Frank O’Hara). Or else the way a poem can start out in humor and end in a beauty all the more poignant because initially so unexpected, mindful of the movement of a Donne song, as in the already-quoted ‘Epigrams for Life after Forty’, which dares to end like this: «And there is a language / of aftermath, / a language of ocean and fluttering sail, / of fishing villages malabared / by palm, and dreams laced / with arrack and moonlight. // And it can even be / enough.». 

 


Michelle Keown

 

 

The title of this poetry collection bespeaks a central preoccupation in Arundhathi Subramaniam’s poetry: modes of habitation, variously spatio-geographical, metaphysical, existential, discursive. A key motif throughout the collection is Subramaniam’s experience of living in Mumbai, the ‘crazy’ yet ‘liberating’ megalopolis in which she was born, brought up, and is currently based as poet, editor and arts critic.[1] Combining new material with poems from two earlier collections (On Cleaning Bookshelves (2001) and Where I Live (2005), both with Allied Publishers of India), the volume offers a series of vignettes of Mumbai life from Subramaniam’s childhood to the present day. Some poems offer glimpses into intensely personal experiences: of establishing ‘quivering dominions of love and malice’ in a childhood bedroom shared with her sister; of a moment of social alienation on a school bus (the latter poem, significantly, is titled ‘Habitat’). In the title poem from ‘Where I live’, on the other hand, the city becomes protagonist, embodying extremes of wealth and poverty, where botoxed Bollywood stars jostle with beggars, and where the poet is prompted to consider larger ontological questions. Still other poems explore diverse locations within and beyond India, pointing towards Subramaniam’s sense of existing ‘between places’ in ‘a condition of chosen liminality, of multiple citizenship’.[2] Again, many of these geographical poems are filtered through memories of personal relationships - winters in Delhi with grandparents, a holiday with a lover – while others explore situations in which the poet is cast entirely adrift from familiar faces and rituals. In ‘Another Home’, written during a period as writer-in-residence at Stirling University in Scotland, a kitchen sink becomes ‘an egg-white skull/ scoured clean of the slimy debris/ of biography’ in a space both liberating and lonely. ‘Locality’ meditates upon the common human propensity for dreaming of living elsewhere, in hypothetical other-worlds that transcend– yet paradoxically reinscribe – the ‘local’.

 

But as Subramaniam has pointed out, habitation is not just about occupying space but rather moments in time; these are ‘flashes of alignment’ that can occur ‘when you’re in love, writing a poem, or just contemplating your toenails’.[3] These subtle calibrations are frequently associated with the creative process: ‘Leapfrog’, for example, envisages ‘amphibious’ words ‘alighting on paper’ for a brief instant of constitutive clarity before ‘leaping’ to a place ‘the voice/ is still learning / to reach’. Here, the moment of discursive lucidity is characteristically fleeting; meaning remains elusive. The poem points towards a metalinguistic strain in Subramaniam’s work: many of her poems focus upon the process and poetics of writing, and she has described a fascination with the ‘magical’ capability of metaphor ‘to make abstraction crunchy and thinginess intangible’ (personal communication, Monday 20th April 2009). This potential is realised poignantly in a range of erotic poems in which desire and other emotional intensities become materialised through visceral imagery; as she puts it in ‘The Archivist’, lovers are ‘best documented/ out of the corner of the eye/ where the retina bleeds/ into the imagination’ (13).

 

This focus on the corporeality of desire intensifies in Subramaniam’s newer poems, which are also more direct in confronting the relationship between the material and the spiritual, particularly as elaborated within Buddhist and Hindu philosophy. Underscoring Subramaniam’s wariness of “reinforcing stereotypes about the ‘metaphysical east’” (20th April email), these asomatous references are subtle, fleeting, subsumed within the quotidian. In ‘Sharecropping’, the poet recalls discussing Buddhism alongside Bollywood and cricket during a conversation with her mother, while ‘Wearing High Heels’ captures the memory of a high school dance in which ‘weedy’ schoolboys temporarily transform into ‘lithe warriors,… gait honed by a wisdom as old/ as Patanjali/ (with just a frisson/ of Travolta)’. In the delightful paired poems ‘Catnap’ and ‘A Shoebox Reminisces’, the gradual dissolution of a shoebox inhabited by a slumbering feline prompts a playful mediation on Buddhist philosophy. The collapsing shoebox takes comfort in the mantra ‘form is emptiness, emptiness is form’ but resists a complete surrendering of self or ‘otherness’, its former role as the receptacle of a dialectical pairing of shoes generating a suspicion of the monistic ‘smug peddlers / of Uni-sole Advaita’.

 

Though tongue-in-cheek, the references to alterity and ontological embattlement in this philosophical diptych resonate with other poems in the collection where Subramaniam critiques the machinations of “arbiter[s] of identity” who place the “self under siege”: Western critics who attempt to appropriate her as a ‘postcolonial woman writer’; temple pundits who condemn her for choosing not to have children; bloated politicians and philistine civilians “grinding the cud / of a timeless latex wisdom” in a utilitarian world. Subramaniam is always searching for a mode of expression “unstained / by the wild contagion / of habit”, a poetics abundantly evident in her predominantly free-form verse, her ability to locate the marvellous within the quotidian, those luminous “flashes of alignment” that demonstrate her ability “to disarm”.

 

Jules Mann Poetry International Web, 2006

(Excerpt)

 

‘Her work leaps between taking a dynamically philosophical view on immediate daily experiences to skillfully etching cultural or geographical references as compass points to a sweeping emotional landscape. Few poets capture contradictory impulses so convincingly. This unexpected range is what makes Subramaniam’s work such a pleasure to read. You never know what country, mood, streetscape, or relationship you’ll be plunged into but the ferociously intelligent attention to detail ensures that you are given every opportunity to engage with the pure energy of the poem.’

 

Anjum Hasan Indian Literature (No. 231), Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, Jan-Feb 2006, ISBN: 81-260-1791-0

 

 

Umberto Eco has written a delightful essay called ‘Fragments’, which is set in a fictional time – about two millennia after much of the earth was destroyed in a nuclear explosion. The essay is in the form of a conference paper presented by an archaeologist who lives in the Arctic – amidst what is possibly the only community left on earth. Prof. Anouk Ooma researches ‘the ancient civilisation’ that once flourished on earth, and he is especially interested in literary fragments – what do covers torn from books or random lines from poems suggest about that long-vanished civilisation? Well, judging from its jacket, The Name of the Rose, is ‘obviously a treatise on horticulture’, says the confident Prof Ooma. But his most exciting find is a small book called Great Hit Songs of Yesterday and Today. To him lines like “It’s a material world’ quite clearly belong to some ode condemning terrestrial concerns. “I’m singing in the rain, just singing in the rain, it’s a glorious feeling…” is a notable example of a fertility hymn to nature, and most, tellingly, the lines, ‘Mine in May, his in June,/ She forget me mighty soon,” suggest, says the Professor, “a worthy correlative to some English verses of the same period, the songs of James Prufrock by the poet Thomas Stearns, who speaks of an unspecified “cruellest month”.

 

Eco is demonstrating in his typically sly fashion, the fantastically fallible nature of historical research. We naturally read all historical clues through frameworks we have constructed based on other historical clues.  But what if the initial clues were misleading and the frameworks themselves are flawed? What if we’ve missed the fact that there existed on earth a genre called ‘pop music’ and that this had nothing to do with the genre called ‘modernist poetry in English’? But Eco also seems to be raising the opposite question – namely, isn’t it the prerogative, perhaps even the function, of literature – both high and low – to remain essentially mysterious, to not lend itself to the easy generalisations of future decades?

 

I was reminded of Eco’s essay while reading Arundhathi Subramaniam’s new book of poems. Her poetry is set at such an angle to the familiar and the everyday (even while its subject matter is consistently the familiar and everyday) that she well may be writing about mystical experiences – encounters and revelations that would thrown the Professor Oomas of the future into a delicious confusion.

 

Consider these lines from three different poems: “We are ink and syrup/ and virulent acid./ We are the midgets/ who turn in three strides/ into lords of the universe./ We are here to restore order,/ to put the voices – of books, lovers, teachers, customs officials -/ in their places.’ And ‘…you need to be/ seasoned sleuth of the undergrowth,/ watchful of every false move/ and false note, grizzled performer/ who knows that the best lines/ are never punched, just/ thrown away.’ And finally: ‘To leave no footprints/ in the warm alluvium,/ no Dolby echoes/ to reverberate through prayer halls,/ no epitaphs,/ no saffron flags./ This was also a way/ of keeping the faith.’ If we didn’t know better, we could think up any number of professions for the author of these lines – mystic, alchemist, ascetic, oracle. It would be hard to guess for those at a few removes from the underground world that Subramaniam inhabits, that all of these are only different ways of describing the significance of poetry through the act of writing it.

 

Which says a great deal about what has come to form the subject matter of poetry – poetry itself certainly, but also a kind of wide-angled reflection on life where the boundaries between things or their location doesn’t matter all that much, a kind of universalism that harks back perhaps to something simpler or a longing for something simpler, more unified, more elemental. The collection has to be read for this point to be adequately understood. But what I mean is – by way of an example – that though this is not a self-absorbed book of poems, the world figures in it only as a metaphor for the self. Take the poem, ‘First Draft’, for instance, where the act of writing on paper has become an arduous journey: ‘the smudge of blind alley/ the retraced step, the groove/ of old caravan routes, the slow thaw/ of glacier, the chasm that cannot be forded/ by image’. Or another poem called ‘Another Way’ where again the act of writing is transformed – this time the metaphor used is that being in suspension: a clause ‘dips and soars/ through air- pockets of vowel,/ lingers over the granularity of consonant,/ never racing to the full-stop…’

 

On the other hand, the self is also a metaphor for the world. This is especially evident in the poem about relationships, which again Subramaniam takes apart so she can turn them into something compellingly, even scarily, different. In this case, she probes the subliminal aspect of loving, the animal-like instinct – ancient and intractable – that underpins our feelings for other people. This primal creature metaphor runs across poems. ‘And I want to pray for you/ in the furry way that animals know,’ she writes in one poem, and in another, wonders how best he and she could lay their weapons down: ‘how to disarm,/ how to choose/ mothwing over metal,/ underbelly over claw,/ … even while the drowsing mind still clutches at carapace and fang’. In a third she knows that love awakens the knowledge of a language that no human tongue has devised: ‘What is it about an armful/ of animal presence/ that makes you feel you could decode/ a language that has always seemed/ a little garbled…’

 

Subramaniam’s poems refuse to get tied down to topical concerns. The often eerie and stark landscapes of her poems have something otherworldly about them. There are poems with identifiable locations too – a clutch of lovely childhood poems and some memorable ones about Bombay where she lives. On the whole, though, she races ahead of the here and now, and is impatient with the niceties of cultural identities – what occupies her are the forgotten basics, the rules that exist in the blood, the need to listen ‘just beneath the skin’.

 

But these enthusiasms do not unequivocally translate into joy. What binds much of the poetry in this book together is an open-ended quality that could take the form of a celebration, but just as often results in a deep sense of unease. Doubt is a recurring theme – she uses the word in several poems. And in the end, it’s perhaps this which gives these poems a location and which justifies the book’s title – the underlying feeling that all is not resolved, that perhaps too little is, and that one ought to nevertheless conduct oneself with poise, wit and detachment – and mystery in the Eco-ian sense.      

 


 

 

Keki N. Daruwalla (Kavya Bharati No 18, The Study Centre for Indian Literature in Translation, American College Madurai, 2006)

 

Of Arundhathi Subramaniam

 

I first heard of Arundhathi Subramaniam from Gieve Patel and Adil Jussawalla. Both spoke highly of her. Both of them more about poetry than I do. Reading her two books I find how right they were. Arundhathi Subramaniam comes to the reader ‘fern-cool’ from ‘a lagoon of language without sediment’, ‘through dew and cinnamon and starlight’, her voice ‘filtered through the crust/ of morning dreams’. Her verses come from ‘the mint-green underbelly/ of grime-roughened thought’, and from ‘the mud of tactile memory’. I am not sure if they emerge from ‘the crevices of festering karma’. (All the quotes above are from her first book.)

 

Subramaniam’s poetry is one of illumination. She flashes a pencil-torchlight on a subject, and you suddenly feel you are the richer for it. Hers is a poetry that lights up a moment, a place; puts across something which occurs in our everyday life. She does it with originality, with rapier-sharp observation, and puts everything in such a new light that the reader is pleasantly astonished. At least this reviewer was.

 

We have all dealt with old books, felt the paper disintegrate on our fingers. Take these lines from the title poem of the first book, On Cleaning Bookshelves: ‘trace the occult insignia of silverfish/ on paper that crumbles at a touch/ into dragonfly wingdust’. Could anyone have put that better? And earlier in the poem she has talked of ‘the frowning grandeur of Russian classics’, and the old leather-bound books, ‘still fragrant with the smoke/ of old cheroots’. Or take another poem, a feline one this time. A cat, ‘swathed in a chiffon of languor’ starts thinking ‘she is the pin-up idol’ of the leopards of Nepal and Tibet. Her body is ‘tensile with the jungle wisdom/ of a primeval huntress’, and in the next poem we are told she has ‘ice-box eyes’. 

The reader often encounters an insight and a subtle twist towards the end of her poems. In the last lines of ‘To My Mother’, the poet wonders in surprise at her mother ‘deciding terrifyingly/ to forego/ the option to despair.’

 

My favourite poem is ‘5.46, Andheri Local’:

 

Like metal licked by relentless acetylene

we are welded –

dreams, disasters,

germs, destinies,

flesh and organza,

odours and ovaries.

A thousand-limbed

million-tongued, multi-spoused

Kali on wheels.

 

When I descend

I could choose

to dice carrots

or a lover.

I postpone the latter.

 

Anyone who has travelled on a Bombay local, standing cheek by jowl, belly to belly, the elbow caught in someone’s armpit, your knee in someone’s groin, would know what the poem is all about.

 

Where I Live is a more meditative book. When you meditate and look back into the long mirror of the past, verbal pyrotechnics are not your main concern. The verse becomes more sedate, in keeping with the mood. ‘Madras’ becomes a key poem here, a place she hasn’t grown up in but which still tugs at her roots. Cities annex you, she says, ‘through osmotic memories’ and a particular flavour of coffee. Madras becomes the ‘city that creeps on me/ just when I’m about to affirm/ world citizenship.’

 

There is almost a defining process of work here – of space, of consciousness, of milieu, and it starts with the title poem, ‘Where I Live’:

 

I live on a wedge of land

reclaimed from a tired ocean

somewhere at the edge of the universe.

 

These lines seem to foreshadow concerns beyond the merely physical, but that is not the case. The city (obviously Bombay) is described refreshingly – city ‘of garrulous sewers and tight-lipped taps’, ‘deciduous with concrete’, city ‘where you can drop off a swollen local/ and never be noticed. Then, in imagistic terms, comes the knock-out:

 

City of the Mahalaxmi beggar

peering up through

a gorse-bush of splayed limbs.

 

Arundhathi’s metier is short. With another poet, this could have meandered into a longer poem. It ends with a statement that in this city, ‘it is perfectly historical/ to be looking out/ on a sooty handkerchief of ocean,/ searching for God’. She stops short of some grating introspection between ‘the edge of the universe’ of the first stanza and the search for God in the last. But then that is her style. Not for her those long expeditions into the metaphysical, which with most poets nearly always end in flops. Reading her one could almost define poetry as precision. Look at the way she talks of ‘a sea as Arabian as the spirit’; ‘snorting steed with cumulus mane/ pounding into the tides,/ foaming galaxies of unbottled fiction/ deferred coastlines.’ (‘Side-gate’)

 

Even more than precision, what defines her verse is its subtlety and the angle of vision from which she sees life. She has a fine poem on as unlikely a subject as ‘How long it takes to reach/ a moment that is not the past’. It would be too mundane to try and explain the poem, for its essence lies in its gossamer subtlety. ‘In the turn of a line/ the bend of the road’, even in ‘an alien language/ stubbled with memory’, she finds something familiar. And a moment after you’ve reached the present, you realise ‘you’ve been here before’ (‘Been There’). In her own nonchalant, fitful way, Arundhathi has meditated on space and time and our psychic suburbs in the volume, Where I Live. She would need perhaps another volume to delve into ‘the crevices of festering karmas’.

 

This reviewer has always wondered at the magic by which good women poets can turn something cooking on the stove into literature, and bring out from the ‘hush of granaries’ and ‘the deep slumber of lentils,’ the ‘first tremulous shoot of dream’ (‘Where Lentils Sleep’).

 

I consider myself fortunate to have read these two fine volumes.

 

Jerry Pinto (Tehelka, 2001)

 ‘On Cleaning Bookshelves’

 

 Arundhathi Subramaniam’s first book of poems, On Cleaning Bookshelves, heralds the arrival of a new voice. It is a quiet herald, but a definitive one.

 

In the opening lines, the poet declares, almost unwittingly, what might be seen as her poetic enterprise: ‘I am for just this moment,/ conquistador of the blank page,/ my words stabbing/ the white autocracy of silence…’ (‘Blank Page’).

 

Even before the announcement has been made, it has been undercut, the status of conquistador effaced by the transience of the moment of control. It is these moments that make you trust this voice. It is a voice of great control, of sublime linguistic precision, but one that hints at underlying hinterlands of emotion. The lines seem arrived at, each adjective placed with lapidary definitiveness, each verb selected for its activity as well as its nuance. This is that rare voice that can posit a stance without turning it into a slogan; that can implicate the self without fetishising or worse still, lacerating it: ‘And you who look away/ as I seize this moment/ and ride it fleetingly,/ do you fear that if you look me in the eye/ at his terrifying moment of omnipotence/ that I shall insidiously,/ surge into your frontiers/ and claim for my own/ the sleeping mohenjodaros of your mind?’ (ibid) 

 

Anyone who has put a book of poems together knows how difficult trajectory can be. For me, the ‘you’ in ‘Blank Page’ is male. And the poem therefore is as much about the act of creation as it is about the subversive nature of poetry. It is a feminism arrived at, a personal mixture of belief and feeling. And so for me ‘Heirloom’ has Subramaniam retracing a matriarchal lineage, beginning with a deceptively low-key narrative: ‘My grandmother,/ wise even at eight,/ hid under her bed/ when her first suitor came home’… (‘Heirloom’).

 

We arrive in the present, and watch with her as her grandmother stirs ‘ancestral aromas/ of warm coconut lullabies’ and wonder with her at an ‘unrecorded language of romance’. We are outsiders to this world where ‘nayikas still walk/ with the liquid tread/ of those who know their bodies/ as well as they know their minds’ (….) ‘The secret of a world/ that she refuses to bequeath/ with her recipes/ and her genes.’ (ibid)

 

It is tempting to graph the rest of the book in terms of this feminist trajectory. However, there are too many seductive thoughts lying around to tread this easy and ultimately claustrophobic path. At this point perhaps, it would be interesting to look back again at the way the poem moves. The quiet opening in the ordinary present. The well-crafted irony. And then the sudden opening out into what might have been described in a more innocent age as ‘larger issues’: the loss of contact with that language of romance, the divorce of mind, body and soul, the constraints of a new-wrought world.

 

‘I’ve never quite understood/ your plumbing --/ what rumbling cistern feeds/ your self-containment…’ (‘To My Mother’) Here it is again. The wheel is. How to reinvent the wheel, rewrite the love poem? A sewage psalm will suffice to begin with, love held back, turned into a kind of accusation. And then again, the slow build: ‘And it still remains a mystery to me,/ how you allowed a fragile bubble/ of treacherous technicolour hope/ to explode/ into the flaming hullabaloo/ of yet another life,/ deciding terrifyingly/ to forego/ the option to despair’. (ibid)

 

This sense of being excluded, of being an outsider, continues through the poems. In another language, that of the spiritual quest, it is the status of seeker, the pilgrim, the questor. ‘On Manori Beach’ begins with a feeling that must be familiar: ‘That night we were sure/ we were meant to be larger than this --/ our days chewed to ragged edges/ by invisible silverfish of doubt/ the wilderness of our interiors/ whittled down to trachea and lung.’ (‘On Manori Beach’)

 

Yes, I have been stood on my own Manoris and wondered at the sense of a world getting smaller. Yes, I have cleaned my bookshelves and known ‘…that it is time/ to turn away./ And accept finiteness./ Accept exclusion.’ (‘On Cleaning Bookshelves’)

 

And yes, my God, yes, I have been here too: ‘Some mornings/ you know you’ve had enough/ of standing sentry,/ shutting windows, doors,/ checking the bolt and safety-latch,/ against the great blind buffalo strength/ of a world of consequence/ running its own course.’ (‘Back Soon’)

 

And my God, if you are listening, I would like you to know that I too have ‘…watched and waited,/ listened and nodded,/ murmured and clucked and smiled./ Now permit me/ idiosyncrasy.’ (ibid)

 

The seductions of another way of seeing: begin with the sense of God as the ‘you’ in ‘Blank Page’, annotate the book as quest, see ‘Back Soon’ as the long dark night of the soul, come to ‘Arunachala’ as ending. In Tiruvannamalai, at the hill which is Shiva, at the ashram of the quiet sage, Sri Ramana Maharishi, the poet finds ‘…something black/ something large/ something limpid/ something like home.’ (‘Arunachala’)

 

How will you read On Cleaning Bookshelves? What will you find there? What if you ignore order and dip and find ‘Ode to a Cat’? Perhaps it is time for the critic as well ‘to accept finiteness, accept exclusion’.

 


 

 

Brenda Porster (Semicerchio, Italy, 2001)

‘On Cleaning Bookshelves’

 

Arundhathi Subramaniam is not new to Semicerchio: poet, dancer, performing arts critic and journalist well-known to the most important periodicals in her native country, she has added her authoritative (and entertaining) voice to the discussion of ‘post-colonial’ poetry in these pages, commenting especially on the always-heated issue of the choice to write in English, as well as on questions of verse form in contemporary Indian poetry (see Semircerchio 23, 2000). Although she has previously been published widely in numerous journals both in India and abroad, On Cleaning Bookshelves is her first published collection of poems. Nor is this surprising if we consider her young age, together with the difficulty that Indian poets continue to face in finding publishers for poetry written in English.

 

Like several of the poems in this collection, On Cleaning Bookshelves, the title poem, begins from a minimalist situation to explore the possibilities that life’s casual conjunctions can offer. It then proceeds to revisit with characteristic humour and irony the memories, both personal and historical, that well up to the surface during the course of this exploration: ‘Tumbling unexpectedly/ out of the swirling mists of mothball/ and nostalgia, a world/ of lighthouses off the Devonshire coast’ (….) ‘and rising somewhere/ the crushed/ azalea scent/ of Manderley’. These are worlds experienced through the power of the written word to constitute a store of mental landscapes both European and oriental, just as the authors who etched them in the poet’s mind are both eastern and western. For the word is explicitly acknowledged as an instrument of power, historically wielded by western males (‘I can hear the menacing ripple,/ the steely bulge/ of your biceps/ as you clinch your argument/ with sleek after-shaved assurance’ in ‘I Am Impressed’), but here in the possession of an acutely aware and sophisticated oriental female (‘I am, for just this moment,/ conquistador of the blank page,/ my words stabbing/ the white autocracy of silence’ in ‘Blank Page’, the first poem in this collection).

 

The word is also instrumental in the poet’s quest to comprehend the essential meaning that could reconcile her to the often distasteful and contradictory aspects of life in the modern metropolis of Bombay: ‘Someday I shall find a meaning/ in the clammy conjunction/ of rancid bodies and briefcases./ In the hieroglyphic/ of sunset spittle on the lam post./ In the benign toothy leer’ of terylene-shirted men’ (‘City Riddles’, not included in this collection). The quest is a continuous process, often baffled (as at the end of ‘On Cleaning Bookshelves’) but never abandoned, characteristically expressed through the questions that frequently punctuate these poems – questions which are not, however, rhetorical so much as existential, as in ‘Niagara’, ‘On Manori Beach’, ‘Sea at Versova’ and ‘Amoeba’ (‘No more/ than a smudge of organic paste, a single inviolable nucleus,/ no skins of memory/ (…) unselfconscious and yet aware/ of my fluctuating frontiers,/ never burgeoning with too many selves,/ no messy nuclear explosions,’ a simple solution to every cellular crisis (…) sever self from self./ But would there be just a fleeting recollection,/ (…) as I watched you,/ self-contained and immaculate/ swim like a virgin/ into your unruffled watery domain?’), a poem which reveals in exemplary fashion Subramaniam’s particular ability to make the reader participant in an extraordinary range of subjective perspectives. Through these poems we re-experience and thereby discover reality, including the physicality of an olive in ‘That Olive of Amfissa’ or an apple in ‘Maggot Mission’, along with their historical and symbolic implications.

 

For this reader, it is precisely in her capacity to make us realise the essence of so wide a range of forms that the Indian humus that nourishes Subramaniam’s philosophical roots is evidenced, more than in occasional lexical or cultural references. Subramaniam sees one potential role for herself as artist as ‘an adventurous explorer of inner spaces rather than a mere sentry of my embattled outer frontiers’. This dichotomy sums up her essential condition of ambivalence, of yearning for total possession in and of the self (like the model feminine figure of her grandmother in ‘Heirloom’ avulse from the churning tides of history (mindful of Eliot’s ‘still point in the turning world’), while at the same time recognising a need for commitment to social change. Out of this ambivalence comes the intellectual detachment that often produces the ironic concluding twist characteristic of her poems (see, for example, ‘You and Marmalade’, ‘Andheri Local’ and ‘Vigil’, where one might almost have wished her to leave the intensely realised lyricism of the first half of the poem to stand), but the complexity of her emotional stance does not preclude poems of great tenderness, such as those dedicated to family memories, or the closing ‘Prayer’.

 

Just a final word to underline what by now should be clear: this is the carefully crafted work of a highly conscious poet, one for whom the painstaking search for the right word or collocation is a correlative of her existential search for perfection and permanence. Lexical choices are never foregone; line divisions respond admirably to an intimate inner syntactic and metrical logic. For those of us who have up to now appreciated Subramaniam on the occasions when it was possible to find her poems in print of hear her during her recent readings in Italy, it is a genuine delight to have an entire volume to read and reread, and one which fully confirms the authenticity of her poetic personality.      

 

 



[1] See Subramanian’s 2008 interview with Jules Mann on the International Poetry Web, http://india.poetryinternationalweb.org/piw_cms/cms/cms_module/index.php?obj_id=12080

 

[2] Ibid.

 

[3] Ibid.


 

 


Responses

By Gieve Patel

By Rohit Manchanda

By Imtiaz Dharker

Gieve Patel

What is it that impels a poet to write a poem? One would have different answers to this almost each time the question is posed. Here's today's answer: Its as though experience by itself were not experience enough, and sorely needed articulation in intense, rhythmic and often paradoxical language and imagery in order to complete a circuit which for the poet could bring experience into the realm of the "real". Once articulated in this way as poetry, the experience can be finally acknowledged as having been lived through. Before that it is life indeed, but it is a lame sort of life -- who knows, maybe it never happened!

 It is in this sense that I would like to say that all the things Arundhathi Subramaniam talks about in her poetry want very badly to be said -- as poetry of course, not as mere comment. Its life outside of poetry would mean much, much less than when it is articulated in its home idiom, which is that of poetry.

 She herself says all I have said, much more exactly and completely, in her poem 'Leapfrog':

 Grant me the fierce tenderness

of watching

word slither into word,

into the miraculous algae

of language,

untamed by doubt

or gravity,

 

words careening,

diving,

           swarming, un-

forming, wilder

than snowstorms in Antarctica, wetter

than days in Cherrapunjee, 

 

alighting on paper, only

for a moment,

tenuous, breathing,

amphibious,

before

         leaping

to some place the voice

is still learning

 

to reach.  

 

Rohit Manchanda

Where I Live is bound to consolidate, and strengthen, the mark Subramaniam made with On Cleaning Bookshelves; it is simply splendid. The language she deploys seems even more powerfully to come from a remote, enchanted place. It is not the English of our lexicons and grammars; it is something new, more malleable than what we've known before, exquisitely capable of epiphany and revelation. Another book of beauty, poise, lambency; another feast.’



 Imtiaz Dharker

 ‘This is writing that creeps up on the reader quietly, sometimes with just the whisper of a sari, or the taste of a lullaby, and yet spins suddenly on the edge of stark recognition. Arundhathi Subramaniam’s is a strong new voice’


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