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Literary Review

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Salvaged silences


Despite lapses, some of these poems have an appealing old-world simplicity.

A Place for the Stars and 60 Other Poems, Hariharan Balakrishnan, Lark Books. p.76, price not stated.

In his preface to this debut collection of poems, Balakrishnan speaks of how the poems that came to him on occasion used to “vanish in time”, swallowed up by the “humdrum” nature of his life. Not until 2001 when he brought home a computer was he rewarded by the unimaginable luxury of re-visiting his poems to polish them as he pleased. Self-admittedly a “late bloomer”, Balakrishnan started writing poetry at the age of 50. His preface reminded me what the American writer Tillie Olsen says in her book Silences about literary history being dark with silences” – the silences of great writers as well as hidden silences, the silence that falls when a writer ceases to publish after the appearance of one work, or when the writing fails to take the form of a book. Sometimes a writer decides to abandon a genre altogether because there are no readers or because no one will publish it.

To sustain the creative fire despite the fragmentation of time and the self can also pose a challenge. That Balakrishnan has managed not to lose sight of his vanishing poems entirely is perhaps what makes him a poet and indeed it is this that makes us forgiving of his lapses in craft and style. He speaks frequently of the aridity of his working life. In “Doubts from the 7 {+t} {+h} Floor”, the speaker looks down from a window on the seventh floor and feels nearer to god and nature. He then wonders if this is merely the “fleeting wish of one who yearns/for something above this mundane life.” There is even a poem about having “no more deadlines to meet”. “Why do you come to me, my muse/At this hour in time/The noon is past, the sun has set/I am in twilight zone/The penumbra of life/Now – why have you come?” asks the speaker of the poem “Are you Saraswati?”.

Sense of wonder

Some of Balakrishnan's images have a wonderful, old-world simplicity to them. Perhaps they belong more properly to an earlier time. The rapture and sense of wonder the poet expresses through these verses – especially in relation to the natural world – reminds one of the romantics. I especially liked the poem “A Place for the Stars” for the image it revolves around: the speaker worries that the stars he holds in his hands might escape through the gaps between his fingers. “Blue Diamond” employs the curious image of a blue-throated Shiva to describe angst. There is also a rich visual quality to poems such as “The Lonely Howl of a Forlorn Wolf”.


One wishes sometimes that the poet would tarry longer over the images he sets up for us, plumbing more than just the surface. In the poem “Mango Blossoms” for instance, one wants him to do more with the mango blossoms than he does. This failure to stretch the image, to distil every drop of it is a bit of a disappointment. At times, the idea itself falls by the wayside as in the poem “Tomorrow, Just Another Day”. Stock-phrases like “Indian summer” are also an indication that the poet has not pushed himself hard enough.

The over-use of rhyme even where it doesn't work is another problem. Balakrishnan lacks the craft to make rhyme work every single time and quite often it ends up feeling amateurish and forced as in these lines from the poem “Silence”: “Childhood passed in thought and wonder/In teens he feared no lightning thunder.” A sharper awareness of the path contemporary poetry has taken would have stood Balakrishnan in good stead.

The poem that stood out for me and the one I would like to remember this book by is “Man-U-Script Woman?” which, despite its somewhat over-done title and other stylistic flaws touches a chord. This, as with many of Balakrishnan's poems, has more to do with what the poem is about (the loss of the poet's mother's manuscripts) than with how it is written.

On reading the collection, one can't help feeling that long years of silence have finally been broken and that Balakrishnan has now entered a writing life that may yet prove a rich one.

K.Srilata is a poet, writer and academic. E-mail:

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