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Literary Review

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POETRY

Undeniably here

ANNA SUJATHA MATHAI

Like all true poets, Narayanan seeks the mystery behind the face or the façade.


The poet must transform the scene so that we see it more clearly, more luminously...

Universal Beach, Vivek Narayanan, Harbour Line, 2006. Rs.150.

THIS is a remarkable first collection of poems. Narayanan's poetic voice, half riddle, seeking truth as a snake chases a small creature into a hole, often catching it, fleshed with fine detail, is often moving and illuminating. Surreal ("Surrealism only matters if it is real"), somewhat like the Impressionist painters, he can move to the fine detail of modern masters with a chilling undertone. Some of his urban poems have a dark satire, and the chilling ambiguity of a painting by American artist, Hopper. A cabin in a Mumbai train: "We yawn/ around Chembur's clefted shoulder into the city's strangled/ neck.... soon the cabin's/ an empty dictatorship of chairs." "We drank from face-refracting decanters in bars/ and tried to fall in love by default..."

The train song, where "the sound/ of human ailing grows loud and in the background/ the grinding tarmac teeth/ of the city" moves to more universal experience:

"Night ushers us further toward/ its collapsing centre, dark matter..."

Narayanan's poetry is set firmly in the "theatre of the undeniably here" but his questing spirit fills that theatre with satire, tenderness and infinite longing. There is the tale of Pandit the Pundit, who "plunged his funds into development machines/ blind to the warlords there mongering./ Thus he blew up his home planet, unaccountably... too rapidly, the grieving townships spiral/ into the gold-heart with the force of collapsing moons./ Chris: the night comes to dissolve the dialectic, / the morning sings of broken storefront glass."

Striking images

The hour of godhuli "when cowbells take filmsongs/ into the alleged horizon,/ when the slumlords of the imagination/ come to collect their dues..." is another satirical and striking image! The familiar image of the hour of cow dust, so romanticised in Indian classical literature, is slapped back into the horror of the modern urban reality.

Narayanan has lived in Africa, America and India, and the poetic process of assimilation still goes on, but his locale is always somewhere beyond, his longing always for "the vertical reach of verse", though, "on other days the dark pebbly-smooth noun-stones in a well of prose will do".

Many modern young poets are simply clever but Narayanan is also a wise and wondering wanderer! As in lines from a Greek tragedy, he speaks of being lifted out of the self into a vaster meaning: "we know ourselves only as sacrificial space/ for sound — then does the human frigate/ approach — we line the ramparts — wait, and wait." I was so moved by that!

In the fine, long poem "Fernando Pessoa in Durban", the language becomes lyrical:

The vespertine light drains by degrees
into the night-time as if through bright
perforations of stars. The lamps of the ports
dim in economic sequence
On the lip of the land's triangle...
But song remained at close of day. Song took root
in the decaying estate: song in the house of faith...
the highway gutter-drawls into stacked flats
or tin doors, curling dirt roads, satellite towns
on satellite maps, and the moon is still red
and the ancestors reach down like willows.

Seeing anew

Narayanan is never just a cosmopolitan tourist. As all poets must, he seeks the mystery behind the face or the facade or the scene. Elemental, or modern, the poet must transform or recreate the scene, so that we see it more clearly, more luminously, sharing in his heightened vision. In one of the earlier poems, Narayanan, in a moment of adolescent angst, concludes:

what can be said, except that the universe stayed mostly empty
despite the lively plots we farmed. And this
another fraction of that irrelevance,
made homely by microscopy.
It was night, but no one heard me.

Like Rilke in "Who if I were to cry out, would hear me among the angelic orders?", all true poets share this anguish. One can only hope that somewhere, someone hears!

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