‘‘The poems that I will make true were born in this interregnum’… Of all the poetic utterances—words that make one sit up and read again, words that hang between despair and a strange resignation, and words that make one begin to believe that, after all, ‘poetry is the only thing that matters’—these words are, as if, whispered into the reader’s ears explaining the birth of these poems into the arena of what we call public. It has been a long wait of twenty-two years; after, as the poet points out, maybe after coming of age at twenty-one.
However that may have come into being, readers have a fresh new harvest of long-nurtured poems by the pen of the poet who won the first prize in the All India Poetry Competition in 1990 organized by The Poetry Society (India) and the British Council for his Madras Central. This comes after a long break; his collection of poems with Jeet Thayil (Gemini I) having been published in 1992.
Vijay Nambisan is better known for his prose works Language as an Ethic and Bihar is in the Eyes of the Beholder. His poems, however, reveal a very insightful poet who not only creates visual expressions but steps back and reflects on the same. Often we find him pondering over the art, the act of poetry itself like in these lines from the poem ‘The fly in the ointment’.
Do I know what insincere word I wrote
Caused this evil to hatch here, assuming
Property in the fabric of my thought?
Not exactly; but poets never can guess
What it is makes their magic to grow less.
He takes the poem in his hands, almost, and looks at it from various sides, through various ways—through those of the creator, receiver and the critic. Once that is done, he submits himself and the poem to the greater cause—the cause of poetry, of truth.
Should I kill this misbegotten creature if
It really does reflect my creative state?
Truth is beauty, just like the man said,
So I must preserve truth if I’m to be read.
This might be a step too far into conjecture, but his poetry makes one think of the rites of passage of a poet; the journey as valuable as its milestones. This takes on another hue, though, when the poet is placed in the context of ‘our times’.
Nambisan’s poetic avatar is much like his envisioning of Kalki—one with ‘lonely might’ and coming into existence in times when the ‘wheel spins without weight at a careless touch’. There is a heartfelt regret for the poet of our times. He does not have the world that befits a poet’s craft. The intensity of this thought comes through in several poems, especially those in the section titled ‘Loss’. The most poignant expression of the same comes in the poem ‘Dirge’.
How well they wrote, those friends now fettered, how the Indo-Anglian tongue
Allowed them to be lovely-lettered, their lives lived when the world was young.
I’ll live and hold my words in, for I am wearied of hypothesis;
And, in place of getting glory, kisses take from my missis.
The poet chooses the mundane over the exalted, rejecting glory in favour of everyday bounties and the burden of this choice is borne by the world grown too old and commonplace for a poet’s exaltation and, possibly, magnification.
In Nambisan’s own words, one of the reasons for his not publishing these poems earlier was his belief then that ‘poetry does not matter’. Interestingly, though his poems might look at a bleak future ahead for themselves and their creator, they never doubt their power as a medium of expression. They are strong, powerful utterances drawing from the deep conviction of a cynic who is a veiled, disgruntled believer. His poems do, in all truth ‘bear the scars’ of times past but are, in every way, representative of the times that have made the poet. This quality of these poems makes them extremely interesting and it is as if we are sitting with the poet with a cup of coffee and listening to him opening up his web of thoughts gathered over the years.
The tussle between the high art of poetry and the bleak times the poet is living in reaches a beautiful symbiosis in his vocabulary. Nambisan’s vocabulary is a great mix of the poetic-imaginary world where stars ‘play out their autumnal dance’ and the very real temporal world where ‘rains may have other plans’; where he ‘of countless bottles made a river’ and at the same time, ‘one more dropped its love/ Into my slow veins.’
Nambisan’s similes and metaphors, too, are drawn from the real, tangible world, complete with the sights, sounds and smells of the world experienced through the senses. The black train in ‘Madras Central’
… pulls in at the platform
Hissing into the silence like hot steel in water.
Through everyday objects of the material world, he manages to convey deep truths and reflections that are worthy of the metaphysical. It is almost as if the poetical mistake of indulging in abstractions is made right by bringing those abstractions to life in everyday objects, scenes, imagery and words.
The long rails recline into a distance
Where tomorrow will come before I know it.
I cannot be in two places at once:
That is axiomatic. Come, we will go and drink
A filthy cup of tea in a filthy restaurant.
And sometimes, when his cynicism recedes into a corner and he dwells on his surroundings only as an observant poet, he gives us breathtaking imagery in the most unexpected quarters. In the poem ‘A Little Better’, Nambisan describes a fern growing near a trickling pipe at a construction site.
There is a little green thing there, hardly
A plant, come of a seed which lay in wait,
And whether it has leaves or feathers or
Wings, I must wait to discover.
The pleasure this image affords, of a tiny green thing ‘satisfied with itself’ taking flight even in its nonexistence to the world is much more that he gives it credit for.
Another deeply unsettling poem where the poet’s angst comes to the fore is ‘The Corporate Poet’. The corporate poet begins with ‘making poetry’—‘the highest art of all’. However, the demon of deadline and another task awaiting his pen limits the writer. The writer, who, writes of ‘Solemn Moments’ and ‘Centenary Celebrations’ and preserves his wrath and anger for the speech that he will deliver at a literary festival. His poetic energy deadened, he cannot ‘devise a new rhyme for “pyaar”’, and he needs to prepare a ‘short, clever, pithy’ poem for presentation before ‘fifty college girls’. All this he does waiting for the opportunity to speak on, interestingly, ‘Language as an Ethic’, for which he doesn’t need preparation. Too true for our world, this poem makes one feel ashamed for not letting the poet answer to his true calling—‘of transforming truths from insistent dreams to his harsh waking.’
At last, as one closes the beautiful book and ponders, one is left with an unexplained feeling—Poetry is the only thing that matters.
Kadambari Mishra got her MA, M Phil degrees in English Literature from Delhi University. She now works with Teach for India as a Fellow.