As the household wakes into a day,
still lingers in the bed I have abandoned.
Writing has made its violent way
into hide, skin, wood and paper
—‘A Brief History of Writing’
These two sets of lines from two dif-ferent poems of K. Srilata’s Bookmarking the Oasis succinctly depict the vast range of experiences and metaphors she employs in her poetry. The collection offers its readers a spectrum of poetry that speaks of history and memory, politics and subjectivity, natural habitats and urban spaces, and the sensuous and cerebral. It brings together poems from her volumes of poetry published earlier in a kind of organized whole that balances the innumerable binaries that come together in her writing. In the short Introduction, ‘The Poet as Her Own Archive’, Ranjit Hoskote writes ‘Srilata’s poems act as entries in a meticulous logbook of encounters with a shapeshifting reality: she testifies to its beauty, but equally to its evanescence’. The ‘logbook’ seems, without any superimposed structure, carefully divided into sections of poems related to different concerns that move the poet and pulsate the rhythms of her poetry.
While the volume begins with a series of poems dedicated to poets, historical moments, sensuous experiences that inspire the poet, it deftly moves to poems about loss, of individuals, moments, experiences, and sometimes, inspiration too. It moves from hope to despair, from memory to forgetfulness, and from light to darkness, yet these are not sharp or sudden movements but a subtle shift from the conscious act of experiencing and writing poetry to a subconscious exploration of poetry’s ability to express loss. Thematically, the volume seems to move from discoveries to disappearances, as evidenced in ‘Things I didn’t know I loved’ and ‘Bright Blue Bird’ on the one hand, and ‘Disappearance’ and ‘When the Lotuses Bloomed in the Pink Clear’ on the other, poetically it flows from one form of sensual rhythm to another. The memory of tastes, sounds, touches; odours bring together poems about varied concerns.
As the poems capture the momentary essence of sensuous experiences they present the act of writing poetry as an organizing principle rather than a dissipating one. Similar shifts happen gradually, from poems about childhood/children/motherhood/learning to poems of journeys/ movements/distinct spaces, from poems of natural elements/land/environment/rains/ to poems about poetry and poems about associative memories. The lightness of words the poet picks and the familiarity of metaphors make the reading seamless despite evoking a gamut of emotions and images. Srilata involves the reader in the process of exploration, the process of sudden yet slow discoveries, and the process of building a poem word by word by establishing an easy collaboration between language and moments. The effort in her poetry is not so much at capturing the essence of a momentary existence but on understanding and presenting the inextricable relationship between memory, moment, and expression.
This relationship occupies the primary space in the volume as the poet tries to assimilate individual-personal memories and politico-historical moments in a stream/ oasis of time and space. The particularity of an event is brought to bear influence on the generality of an emotion and yet, poetry is not shown to express it as a universal experience. Even as the poems relate moments in time and space to evoke the connections between experiential realities, they do not undermine the significance of specificities within historical and individual time and political and personal space(s). Poets like Nazim Hikmet (‘Things I didn’t know I loved’) or Hafiz of Shiraz (‘Looking for Light, Sunbirds’) inspire realizations of desires ever present in a subconscious way and direct a near immediate expression in poetry. Persistent desires that spread across the time and space of the poet’s subconscious find conscious expression in the immediacy of the poetic word’s rhythm and connects various scattered moments. Yet, poetry is not restricted to a role of establishing superficial connections but also taken to respond to the violence inherent in language. Poems like ‘Fellas Smoking Literary Cigars’, ‘Google Digging’, ‘Alphabet Setter’, and ‘Diminishing Metaphors’ convey the politics of literary writing, the gendered and sexist assumptions of the literary world, as well as the superficiality of language in a world ‘where a slow diminishing of metaphors/ has occurred’.
Srilata’s poetry presents these broad-ranging concerns in surprisingly short and specific visual images, from nature and modern civilization. The juxtaposition of the most basic sensory perceptions with hard hitting images from material reality brings the violence of our contemporary world and the gentle elusiveness of our routine existence together. As visuals of soft light, faint sounds, sensitive creatures of nature are presented alongside visuals of ‘dry land’, ‘dormant volcanoes’, a ‘muscular car’ the violent interaction of human civilization with nature is presented and critiqued. The poet uses the metaphor of the woman’s body, especially the womb, to reveal the extent of damage done not only to a natural environment but also to the human spirit/life, a damage which seems irreparable, ‘from which leaks/ the continuing despair of mothers’ (‘Who is responsible for the Same?’) or ‘the deep-cut canyon of a mother’s grief’ (‘For Peter D’Souza Who has Passed On’).
The strength as well as freshness of the volume comes from this intermeshing of human frailty and cruelty, of the transitory nature of existence and the stubborn continuance of human history. The poems compel the reader to step aside from the recurring idea of growth and development being served in the increasingly industrialized and modernized world and steal some moments of not only respite but also realizations and contemplation. They enable a distancing from the ‘rootless’ yet heavily grounded material reality of our times that has made us numb to the joys of sensuality and momentary pleasures of everyday existence. As it shows an awareness of the weight of time as political history, it also depicts attentiveness to the weightlessness of time as experienced in individual memories.
Even as poetry seems impossible in a world of ‘an industrial-scale sadness’ (‘Disappearance’) that takes over our understanding and perception, it is also shown as the only possible medium that can enable freedom of perspective and a retention of the earth as the ‘old, familiar one that comes to her,/in silly, big bubbles,/all perfectly spherical’ (‘Geoid’). The volume is a well-structured insight into the devastating pace of contemporary life and it simultaneously expresses the persistent need to step aside from this destructive pace and recognize the sheer pleasure of slowing down. As the word ‘slow’ recurs in the titles of three consecutive poems, ‘Slowly on the Hills Undulating’, ‘Behind me, a Slow, Full Moon’, and ‘How I Miss You, Slowness’, the poet, quite literally, moves to natural cycles of time and its unhurried movement. The volume ends with a series of poems about returning to a gradual, relaxed state of existence where perception is not muddled by life but made clear by every subtle moment of experiencing life in its totality. Even as the poems continue to reflect the need to resolve the puzzles of a modern existence devoid of personal memories or history and marred by overpowering external structures of power, they move to a more quiet and peaceful reflection on complexities and small but significant solutions.
As stated at the beginning, Bookmarking the Oasis presents a whirlwind of ideas, emotions, concerns, and reflections and yet, manages to steer the pace of that whirlwind in the rhythms of poetry. It depicts the maddening nature of life in a globalized world only to unravel the madness and paranoia and to reveal intimately personal ways of choosing one’s pace of life.
Yamini is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Dyal Singh College (M). Her doctoral thesis is titled ‘Idealism, Enchantment and Disenchantment: Changing Ideas of Freedom In the Indian Post-Colonial Context’. Her areas of interest include Postcolonial Literatures, Women’s Writings, Theories on the Novel form, Indian Literatures and Translation Studies.