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Review: The Glass-Blower: Selected Poems, by Keki N. Daruwalla

Look. Poetry is not therapy. Poetry can only suffer by association with the vaguely spiritual, the positive thinking. Poetry should be too honest to think positive: it should be an aid, rather, to thinking clearly, to thinking outside the boxes of language; the official; religion; ritual; prose.

Keki N. Daruwalla, born in 1937, is a major Indian poet writing in English, and winner of the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for Asia in 1987. He has published nine volumes of poetry and is equally prolific as a literary critic and a writer on international affairs. It is a shame, if not a surprise, that he is not better known in the British Isles.

As with Irish poets writing in English (for me a more familiar phenomenon), the subject of language rears its horns in his Selected Poems. His language is a mistress, half-caste...

Elegy 1 brings freshness to the old problem of language's inadequacy in the face of loss: ...the simplicity of the whole thing / left us quite bewildered. The poet disowns clichés, loses meanings, lacks adequate terms: grabs at nothing with nothing. Yet throughout this wide-ranging collection, the language is simple and direct, and feels well earned.

The title poem speaks clearly and with authority, in controlled quatrains. The vocabulary is precise: ...blowpipe, marver, pontil, each successive step / Which fire took to make clay transparent. We are invited to imagine an exotic history, in Amenhotep and Assurbanipal, a past when metallurgists were mysticists; and a present day that is different.

An early poem addresses a friend who can divide the world in two: Easy and Difficult Animals. It is an approach the poet envies, an escape from the fear of ...the iron edge awakening from its rust / the crawl of oxidised dreams / in lonely hours. If this is an ars poetica, it is a double-edged one: the poet seems at once proud and ashamed of his antipathy towards the simple. It is an antipathy that leaves a poet lonely...

Daruwalla translates Osip Mandlestam, quotes Wallace Stevens and dedicates poems to C.P. Cavafy and Theodore Roethke. He thinks through Palestine, the Spanish Civil War, Indira Ghandi's Emergency, the droughts of the Seventies. Here are poems of marriage; of love for a daughter; of travel and of mourning. Here is a deeply engaged poet, committed to the real world.

Look. Sometimes I am stumped by the task of writing about poetry. I have spent this morning marching around a damp South Dublin house, reading Daruwalla's poems out loud, thrilling to them. And so I want to say, somehow, magnificently, that they do something magnificent. They seem to reach back into history and, generously, into a future in a way that is not mystical but clear-sighted - and yet not prose but poetry. Successful poetry is impossible to describe in prose. It's like this:

Distinctions fall like gnats, one may or may not know
light from Ahriman-dark, but illusions I define:
don't dream of elsewheres - there's no elsewhere to go.
A truck, coming from the other side, blinks
its one Cyclopean eye. One moves into the future,
even as it closes in.

from By-pass

Stop reading poetry reviews, and go read this poetry.