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

This chronological anthology from Keki Daruwalla's nine collections (with four new poems) illustrates the scope of his talent as well as the evolution of his work. The compulsion to anchor the poem in an Indian setting or reality (notably to resist the alienation systematically diagnosed in Indian writing in English) has gradually given way to more freedom, to a poetry less immediate and less reactive which takes its inspiration from plural influences, from events and characters which belong to all times and places. Like many other Indian poets who write in English, Daruwalla does not need to justify himself anymore either in front of an Indian or a Western audience.

Yet his poetry, especially in the first collections, confronts itself directly to the harsh, often unmanageable reality of his country. The poem is meant to canalize the emotional upheaval born from an overwhelming outside world or a haunting image. The poet is the witness of a tragic time and a tragic land (in Calendar, Starting in June). The poems of this period are thus replete with images of famines, riots, epidemics, curfews, associated with the tumultuous and disenchanted 70s and 80s but also with a feeling of revulsion for a corrupted society, depraved by violence and greed.

However, in spite of its realism, this poetry is also characterized by a certain distancing, a controlled detachment, a refusal to sentimentalize. A lot of his poems have an ironic, abrupt, or confusingly contradictory ending which cut the possibility of an emotional participation. The omnipresent you also contributes to impersonalize the poetic voice by often referring to the narrative voice itself, rather than to an interlocutor. The distanced observer (in Boat-ride along the Ganga for example) estranged from his community or from the observed reality, and the guilt that goes with it, is a recurrent figure, like in the poems which deal with Daruwalla's policeman experiences (Routine, Variations, etc.) or with his Parsi identity (The Parsi Hell).

This distancing is also paradoxically enacted through the mediation of landscape and of the human body. Man's suffering and emotions are perpetually mediated or kept at bay by these objective correlatives. This leads us to one fundamental characteristic of Daruwalla's poetry which is its concreteness, its physiological quality, the imbrications and intricate lexical transpositions between man and his environment. Human feelings, tensions and historic events are inscribed in a body, in a place, in a tangible situation. Many poems are packed with sounds, lights, scents, tastes, sensations: synesthesia-like. And the textual space of the poem is often saturated by a bodily presence (see Pestilence), in all its intractable materiality. Men and women are reduced to their (often uncontrollable) bodies, which threaten the smooth, rational and appropriate order of society. This physiological dimension testifies to the impossible spiritualization of the perceptible world. In the beautiful eponymous poem The Glass-blower, the poetic voice thus laments the failure of the alchemical transmutation of matter.

This poem also bears witness to another important feature of Daruwalla's poetry, which is a disillusioned meditation on the chaos, fragmentation and disconnection of the world. Nothing holds fast. Reality is on the verge of falling apart. This poetry of ruptures and dissociations, literally corrupted, is often expressed in jagged rhythms and a discontinuous language, almost telegraphic sometimes. Several metaphors also represent a kind of clinical apprehension of reality, never analogical or comprehensive: the arid and fissured land, the splintering glass or the mirror breaking to pieces, and the recurrent images of dismemberment (in Pestilence, Suddenly the tree, etc.) which are by no means synecdoches insofar as the part is never inclusive or taken for the whole.

This poetry expresses the difficult relation between the interior and the exterior, the I and a form of community, the present and the past, the body and the soul. And no other text expresses this difficult negotiation than the poem Suddenly The Tree: now is the need felt / for a membrane, firstly / to intervene at the border, where the bard-like poet, in the final incantatory movement of the poem, endeavors to speak for a whole generation. This text which also shows that the central disconnection, in this poetry, is between man and his memory, manifests the brutal confrontation between two spaces. The poem is situated in a luminal territory, in an in-betweenness (which is never a threshold) on the shores of the unconscious, of the body, of otherness, of the past.

Daruwalla's poetry thus wrestles with a suppressed, haunting, chaotic memory. It is also driven by a desire to recover the pulse of the past, by a fascination for history and for characters who are bearers of memory. The poet exposes the diversity of human destinies and individual consciences, often at times of crisis and conversions where the history of the individual is linked to the history of mankind. Likewise in his poetry, and in this anthology particularly, many poems move from very intimate and personal situations to more general destinies (in Childhood Poem for example).

This fascination for historical evolutions explains another feature of this work which is its ambivalence and its instability. In this poetry of discordances and severances, frontiers between things and roles are paradoxically characterized by their mobility. A lot of poems are developed around contrasts, antithetic representations or frontiers which are finally subverted or dissolved. Oppressed and oppressors, slave-drivers and slaves, predators and predated are always reversible. There is no fixed position on the chessboard of power or of history. And this poetry never ceases both in its form (which does not stabilize in one univocal meaning and is characterized by a discontinuous narrativity) and in the labile human consciences or historical situations portrayed, to express this perpetual deformation.

This poetry also makes the most of irresolute tensions and ambiguities. The poem A Tale of Two Statues for example plays with the Dickensian echo and the first ambivalent line of the novel: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.... The whole poem is constructed around this ambivalence and around an equivocal history. Who really won and wins in India? Victoria? Gandhi? The revolutionaries? India through the process of Indianization (Victoria as Devi)? Or the former empire through the Westernization of Indian reality and language? The poet does not settle on one conclusion.

We could regret the absence of some particularly beautiful poems in this anthology: The Epileptic, Hawk, The King Speaks to the Scribe (Third century B.C), or the very complex Dialogues with a Third Voice (from Under Orion), where it is the voice of poetry and more specifically the voice of Daruwalla's poetry which is the object of the poem: a voice torn between myth, tragedy, and a demystified reality, between the spiritual and the palpable, between incommunicability and a dialogical conscience, between the fascination for a crude implacable power and the empathy for the infinite vulnerability of man, for the fire of human voids (Agni-Sutta).