In the ‘Con | Text / Foreword’ of The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry, poet-editor Sudeep Sen makes an interesting case that deserves being quoted at length. He writes, ‘I want the poems themselves to primarily create their own aesthetic and critical discourse without the aid of someone hand-holding the reader. I believe that eventually only the printed word and its success as a piece of creative text or artifact on the page matter – and no critical jargon, contextualisation, footnotes and explanations are really required.’
It is perhaps an apt description of an endeavour that seeks to firstly, create a comprehensive anthology of Indian English poetry, and secondly, include ‘fresh’ pieces from the poets, who are born after 1950, all of them, the year India became a republic. An anthology that begins with a 1988-born and brilliant Aditi Machado’s scintillating lines.
You are attempting to describe your body. / There are empty spaces where skin was, bone, muscle, fat. / You would call them wounds if you had the word. / Absent organs if you were a poet. / ‘There was a lover with a great knife. There was thunder. / He came and cut me. Then a count appeared, kissed,/ healed me back to speech.’ – ‘Learning A Foreign Language’
The lines are overwhelmingly lush, green as a young shoot, risk-laden, throbbing with a pulse that beats in a trapeze artist, confident yet shivering, fearless yet cautious. Of all the 400 poems from 85 poets in this sprawling volume, this one, perhaps by the youngest, captivates with its swashbuckling effortless imagery.
Words are wounds, a foreign language, like love is an absent organ, or speech is healing. The very act of speaking is described beautifully through metaphors that link it to skin – a paper, a blackboard, a page.
So, from the very outset, the collection queers the pitch, as it were, of what an anthology should be. By dropping the biggies, the cultural, linguistic markers and names that have been counted as fountainheads of Indian poetry – no Dom Moraes, no Nissim Ezekiel, no AK Ramanujan, no Jayant Mahapatra either. English is here not a language of translated emotions for Indians; English is effortlessly Indian, one among the many, many in one, ever-pluralising and multiplying into something else. English is now blood and bone. English is now the drug in blood and bone, the cancer in the marrow, the air in the lungs and the soot in the lungs. English is at ease, with itself, in Indian heart, on Indian tongues, fornicating with others, incestuous siblings all.
A ghost mutates through intensity / gathering enough energy to touch you / through your thin blouse, or /your leggings, or your scarf. / A ghost damages /the triptych of ancestors / composed of descending, passive /and synthetic scraps. But /what if the ghost is empty /because it’s making a space for you?/ Vertigo is a symptom/ of profound attraction./ An excess of desire. —‘Vertigo’, Bhanu Kapil.
Chronology cuts its umbilical cord with origin and this anthology collects, vertiginously, voraciously, from 1950 onwards, sweeping off the postcolonial pantomime in pentameter under the carpet of a nation naming itself, almost shamelessly navel-gazing at its own excesses, its newness, its compositions, its to-be-consolidated-but-work-in-progress identity. To come back to Sen’s non-guidance, ‘You are likely to encounter a pantoum next to an acrostic poem, a triolet juxtaposed against a ghazal, lyric narratives and prose poetry’ – [I don’t have a penchant for those though, not Sen, I] – ‘Sapphic fragments and Bhartrhari-style shataka, mosaic pastiche, ekphrastic verse, sonnets, rubai, poem songs … reggae, creole, canzone … – the Indians poets are in full flight.’
Take for example the lines from Ananya S Guha’s ‘In Oblivion’: I negotiate with / crowds sullenly as / if entombed in / nights catcall or / thralled in horrific / skies; / I stutter, stammer / in crowds of procession / who stampede evening’s / silence by a raucousness / they understand / and arraign in / the midst of
At every point, there’s the crisis that is the speech-act and there’s negotiation, wily laryngeal, epiglottal schemings to utter the word. There’s a leap into the primeval womb of language and folklore, quite literally in Desmond Karmawphlang’s ‘Last Night I Dreamed’:
Last night I dreamed that I / was a sperm swimming in / the womb of folklore. / I was born an idea and / delivered into a naked nation.
These are lines that juggle poetic reticence with an interrogatory mood, holding a paint brush that draws cloud-shaped proverbs and riddles on the mind of a nation. In another lifetime, I would / dream of becoming a sperm in / the womb of poetry.
There have been very few anthologies dedicated to the verse by Indian English poets. A rare exception may be Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry (2010), with a focus on Indian-American poets. There is, of course, the very comprehensive Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets (2008), edited by the noted poet Jeet Thayil, though its spans three generations and begins at the beginning, as it were. Thayil is featured in this new, audacious collection, since he’s a 1959-born versandroid, commanding a thematic and stylistic range almost unmatched amongst his peers and juniors.
Consider his ‘2007’: The word with which you order time / is a kindness, a gift made in English / from your years in a house with English. Or ‘The Sonneteer’: I was famous, I won the Hawthornden prize. / Girls flashed me. One said, ‘You’re the poet, right? / What a godawful waste it would be, otherwise.’
Sudeep Sen’s own metalloid, petalloid world comes in at the end, alphabetically placed as the poets are, tucked in into beds of an anthology’s restless, chattering dormitory. His poems are efflorescences, blossoming with a silvery, glinty finish, a solid-coloured flowering in words. Read ‘Mediteranean’: A bright red boat / Yellow capsicums / Blue fishing nets / Ochre fort walls.
They are bursting out from the pages, voluminous colours. Think ‘Banyan’: As winter secrets / melt / with the purple / sun, / what is revealed / is electric — / notes tune / unknown scales, / syntax alters / tongues…
Sen has achieved what he had set out to with this collection. There’s geographical spread; there’s thematic diversity; there are some, really, really, breathtaking, intoxicating poems, which exist there not only because of the con of the text, but also because they wink at you with come hither looks. They are boldly licentious, their poetry svelte and sexual, adulterous and childlike.
Behold Tishani Doshi’s ‘Bridge-building’: We meet as lovers do, through births / and deaths, worn-down nubs of thigh / and breast, / silent spaces of inadequacy.