Pramila Venkateswaran is ‘one of our finest diaspora poets’, declares Keki Daruwala. This collection enhances that point. The poet laureate of Suffolk County, Long Island from 2013 to 2015, Venkateswaran has already six collections of poems to her credit. The Singer of Alleppey creates a viewpoint on feminism for the readers. It avoids all pitfalls of direct winging and rhetoric in the true discipline of art. However, through Sitala, her late paternal grandmother’s eyes, mind and heart she leaves no doubt about her message on men’s violence against women. The work is not prescriptive or judgemental, but as the title suggests a search for the joy and yogic harmony through a quest for songs. The joy is fragile. When the joy of enjoying the chiku juice is over:
all this despite living with a stone husband.
The uncompromising lyricism in the backdrop of violence creates a compelling narrative.
A bird bangs itself against glass and falls.
That’s how I feel when he slaps my face.
And that’s how an innocent girl is delivered into a violent drama as a woman. It shocks and at times is painful to comprehend. In ‘Letter to Sarojini’, she dismantles the dream to highlight the reality.
The things I love in your poems:
nightingales, peacocks, bangle sellers, bangles.
I have yet to see a nightingale here in my corner of Kerala.
There is a peacock in the temple but it does not dance, the bangle sellers are morose and show the same dull colours. If only they captured the hues of spring!
Why don’t you write about our struggles in our homes…?
The book is divided into sections: Night, Morning, Noon, Evening, Midnight, and Dawn, in that order. A narrative follows the cycle as Sitala’s life. However, there is a timeless poem on its own at the beginning of that timeline. It sets the fire that follows.
How will they pick their paths
through evil sown by ghosts?
What is the mechanics of forgetting one’s pain? Sitala finds the release in rain.
I want to twirl around
in the rain that’s pouring perfume.
She dances: We are birds widening the sky of earth, feet flying. She knows the sky under her feet is surreal. There is a perfect husband others paint, but only she can see the demon: I see what they don’t …../his words that emerge from their mine. It saddens me often how humans don’t choose their words wisely! Each word spoken carelessly is a mine. Each sentence is a minefield. The night for this woman, with a girl hidden inside her, is long in the ambience of the bustle of humdrum things. She watches boat races, finally gives birth to a son and watches the hypocrisy of men chanting Vedas by day and visiting mistresses by night. The Morning section explores motherhood. Nevertheless, Sitala tells her son to spare her grand-daughter the trappings and baggage her name carries.
Son, don’t let my grand-daughter carry my name,
my past, religion, duty, customs, tribe, line,
deaden her heart, play someone else’s game,
Found everywhere, cow dung was once an integral part of rural life. I have lived during school holidays with my grandmother in a house maintained with the cow dung! Hence, it is nostalgic to find songs about them in this book. It also allows Venkateswaran to experiment with language with many repetitions of
thathi thi thai thom thom thom
Dung Song lists all things ‘dung’—shitty—in Sitala’s marriage. She can’t sing about it, ‘with husband glaring’, so, goes for the safe thing: I am going to sing/about the product of Krishna’s favourite beast,/I will sing about cow dung.’ There is also a separate serving of a Cow Dung Cakes. Humour makes humans more human, and so it does Sitala. In conclusion, Venkateswaran has created a swaying collection of feminist poems from a unique perspective.
Meena Chopra is not in any quarrel with men. A true feminist, she approaches her work through an astonishing abstract art. In the crowded scene of loud feminist poets, she is a feminist who wants to celebrate the inner soul and capture the beauty of the female body. Every poem is accompanied by a sensual painting that is abstract to leap out of the mundane in search of ascension to nature. Her sense of colour and their perfectly balanced contrast evoke the sensual reality of a feminine shape that attempts to materialize in words as poems. These are the entwining shapes of a woman forming from clouds of colours and shades with only the hints of borders or lines. They are attempting to say something about the spiritual, female dimension. Poems and the paintings together represent an uncluttered universe of self-definition that is ‘SHE’. One may get the impression that they are ekphrastic poems. However, the poems are able to sit easily with some other paintings in the collection too. Therefore, these are not ekphrastic poems in any true sense. This condition arises because they do not latch onto anything mundane in the paintings. In other words, they are part of the whole ‘SHE’ that arises in this collection, not just a descriptive part of a particular painting or text.
As the poems can stand alone on their own as proven at Chopra’s reading events, they possess a refined expression of what Chopra calls ‘SHE’. One is reminded of Juan Jimenez’s poetics about the artistic purity. This tradition has no room in the current poetical trends prevailing in the West. English poetry is far too much preoccupied with the everyday twaddle and such poems have no space spared. However, strangely, it is an acceptable current in Hindi literature under Chhayavad. Vinay Dharwadker, a scholar, explains in The Oxford Anthology of Modern Indian Poetry he edited with A K Ramanujan: ‘This movement rejected the poetics and politics of adarshavad and produced a poetry of intimate moods and obscure desires, a lyrical nature of poetry, an other-worldly poetry of love and longing for the divine, a confessional poetry of despair and anguish.’ My bet is that this is where most critics in the West and in English literature will drastically fail in understanding this collection.
The key clue to these poems and artworks is in the subtitle of the book: ‘The Restless Streak’. Chopra has explained this SHE vividly as ‘the everlasting stark female element of the entire universe, with all light and shadows, joys and pains./SHE is the “effect” constantly in search of its “cause”, the cosmic existence as well as liberation.’ Therefore, her poems are not engaged with any dull daily happenings. The abstract means abstract, they are singing without any limitations of lines! This is not the ‘She’ with ‘he’ etched in the word. The form used is SHE, all capitals. All its energy balanced in equal tensions. Everything else silenced.
On her body and flesh
An oceanic silence.
Shadows come from the solid objects, the harsh outer realities. Plunged in her inner world, she finds another reality.
The dream sequence
Besieged the far future
SHE rises above the trivial time and engulfs moon and sun to re-energize herself
She inhales sun and moon
In the midst of trivial time
Chopra never unshackles SHE from her earthly bounds.
Is it the smell of the earth
that she eats?
SHE is often a digital shape, when Chopra is working with the digital canvas there are dangers of losing her work if not saved in time. One wrong stroke of a button and the virtual SHE is erased! That is how transient SHE is!
With one harsh note
An invisible stroke
Effacing the memory stick.
Note the word ‘effacing’, it is not about ‘erasing’! What a marvellous brushstroke! Hence, the poet fittingly conjures
The brush of tainted time?
I learnt here that there is poetry in even a mistake!
Overall, this collection is more a joy, a celebration, a real feast for the eyes due to abstract art plates, and when you land in a text, a fling to nowhere where everything is energy!
Yogesh Patel is a poet from the UK. A recipient of many awards and widely published internationally, and a former editor of Skylark, he currently runs Word Masala Foundation and Skylark Publications UK to promote the diaspora poets.