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Raking up the everyday

It is impossible to get away from Anita Nair's poems, evoking as they do states of mind that we recognise immediately. Yet, there is a difference between being a poet of the ordinary and an ordinary poet, says KALA KRISHNAN RAMESH.

ANITA NAIR'S first book of poems Malabar Mind is impossible to get away from. As Anita's words — the nuts and bolts of verse — come tumbling out, pouring all over the page, spilling into the reader's mind, the effect is like walking between thousands of rolling marbles in a room whose walls are closing in on you. You will realise two things — the first, that there is no safe passage through the poems in this collection, and second, that had this poet been a better craftsperson, her words would have done their work of holding together and showing the reader what meanings they stand for, rather than tripping up the unwary reader.

The blurb correctly puts its finger on the area of trouble when it says that Anita's poetry "rakes" through the everyday, seizing an "unusual moment". The poems in Malabar Mind — the words, the images, and the sound patterns — have the indiscriminate sweep of an efficient rake, impartially gathering everything into a basket.

For instance the poem, "A Baga Imprint", is a series of images strewn across five and a half pages. It begins with:

Flaming a tongue of yellow
darted.
Searching
probing
the flaming deep.
The aching hips
the swollen lips.

And continues with listing a mixed variety of images including "bleached bone-dust of some ancient heap... cashew grease. Blackened boats. Toothy urchins...

Hairy armpits.
Romping dogs.
Bobbing heads.
Lone towels.
Knotted fishing nets.
Old men aching to die.

Waves pounding. Waves retreating. Waves cast with golden bellies turning.

This is rather like being handed an artist's preliminary sketches and asked to make the artwork. That, as we know, being the artist's work. Every poet elects, nay, let us admit, every poet is called upon, to make poetry from the images that people the world of her living, thinking and dreaming. The poet who has laboured at the work of crafting verse, can — as those who have studied such things, Eliot among them, tell it — construct a bridge strong and beautiful that takes the reader from the personal images of the poet to the truth of what these images stand for, and, to the reader's own everyday truths. This is precisely where Anita's verse seems a little underdone. Often the images that she foregrounds, whether it be the conductor who "likes my face, gives me a ticket", or of longing to sit "beside you in a dark balcony/ Where yesterday's washing doesn't flap its crackling wings", or the mail box that "gushes junk mail and family pleas", are felicitous, evoking feelings and states of mind that we immediately recognise. But then they stop there and go no further.

If you want to counter this with the argument that the fragmented nature of our worlds today makes it inevitable that we deal in fragmented images and words that are fated to go nowhere, then one must ask whether such images are of any value to a reader who too sees the same images, unless they at least briefly light up feelings, a mood or a thought to make something new out of it, new but also shared. Something that is transparent but complex, caught in the moment but flowing into time. Poems like "The Face Mask", "The Eleven O'clock News", "Transgressions" and "Love For a Cat Man" are too literal and simplistic to evoke anything beyond recognition.

There is a crucial difference between being a poet of the ordinary and an ordinary poet. Finally, of course, it is up to every reader to judge whether the poems in Malabar Mind are worthwhile or not. One must admire the quality of sincerity that Anita brings to her poetry. One so sincere may yet learn the craft, may yet learn to exercise discrimination, that indispensable tool of every writer who wishes the reader to return to listen again to the timeless resonate in her writing.

Malabar Mind, Anita Nair, Yeti Books, 2002, p.97, Rs. 150.

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