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Review: Dreams that Spell the Light, by Shanta Acharya

Reviewing Shanta Acharya's previous collection of poetry, Shringara (2006), I had called it 'a sheaf of grief, an elegiac volume about the loss of loved ones, through which a rawness of the pain still throbbed'. In the present volume, her fifth collection, we see her emerging out of that phase with the help of those precious resources which she has always commanded and which continue to sustain her in her diasporic life. These include a deep vein of philosophy which runs through all her poetry, a capacity for meditation that can draw peace, comfort, and hope from immersion in the simple phenomena of nature, remembered travels, vicarious journeys through the perusal of books and other documentary material, a wry sense of humour that does not abandon her even when she is clearly making a passage through tough times, and, of course, family loyalties and childhood memories.

Two quotations at the head of the book, acting as epigraphs, reinforce the theme of learning from travels. The first is from T. S. Eliot: We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time. This sounds wise indeed, but I confess that I cannot let go of a nagging feeling that there is some poetizing verbal trickery in this statement, for when we return to the place from where we had originally started, it will not be the same, it will have changed, so there is no way, really, of arriving where we started. Besides, in so far as the scenes evoked in this book are concerned, we as readers are always seeing them with Shanta's eyes, as she is showing them; there is no way that we ourselves can see these places 'for the first time' through her narrations.

The second quotation is from Marcel Proust: The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes. Again, this has the ring of a sage's paradox, but a little voice within me says that while sometimes we are able to look at familiar landscapes (both natural and human) with new eyes, at other times we stumble upon scenes which are genuinely, stunningly, even brutally new to us, which we could not have imagined before, and which overwhelm us.

I would say that as readers we really learn more from the poems themselves that flow through the pages as we turn them than from the epigraphs at the start of the journey, which have a somewhat uneasy relationship with the rest of the book. Contrary to Eliot's serenely articulated conviction that we can arrive where we started and know the place for the first time, this poet sometimes brushes against more bitter and dramatic realizations, empathizing, for instance, with refugees who sail across 'treacherous seas' in search of a new homeland:

Our country is closed in; our days clouded by war.
At night fear rose like the moon
spreading its shroud over death and hunger.

from Dispossessed

Next to this is a poem entitled Return of the Exile, in which the returnee wails:

Gone is the mansion, the garden I grew up in,
gone are my people, landscape of my childhood.
None left here to comfort me
through the long journey into light
or nothingness, redemption or oblivion
no compensation for turning back.
We have hardened ourselves, grown up;
no longer ask questions we do not understand.

And contradicting Proust, Shanta does make us see some landscapes which are likely to be as good as new or at least very uncommon to many who will read her lines, places which readers of English-language poetry seldom visit. One poem is called On the Grand Canal, and we think immediately, 'Aha, Venice,' but sandwiched between a poem entitled The Trees of Nanjing and another entitled The Great Wall of China, the canal of this poem, we soon realize, is a different Grand Canal altogether, with chains of boats carrying an odd assortment of goods - / stones, cement, vegetables, ducks, dogs, people, where:

Mother and son peer from the kitchen bedroom.
Father grins toothless from his steering wheel.
They wave back to us, their expression impossible to decipher.
Could these be the faces that mourn foetal deaths of daughters?

A poem entitled The Sundarbans takes us necessarily to a 'strange, wild place'; it cannot be otherwise, even if some readers are acquainted with Amitav Ghosh's descriptions in The Hungry Tide.

The strong and fearless enter this
immense archipelago of islands;
some treacherous, vast as cities,
others shifting sandbars of dreams.

It is the habitat of a twelve-year old tigress, one canine missing, who patrols the village with a gap-toothed grin, a location where Ganges, the river goddess, may herself fail to reach the delta of her dreams, a landscape that may one day disappear,/ leaving no man fit to take the measure of another.

This book may be regarded as a voyage of recovery for the poet after a period of bereavements and intense grief, and the places through which she makes us pass, either directly through her own travels or indirectly through other documents she has looked at, have a wide geographical range. They include Italy, Lahore, Ibadan, Bryce Canyon,
China and the Sundarbans (as already indicated above), Colombo, St Petersburg, Kabul in November 2001 (presumably drawing on a TV documentary), the Australia of Captain Cook's time, and of course, various locations in England where she lives, and her native Orissa. It is a storehouse of direct and indirect experiences on the basis of which she can philosophize as a poet. The very first poem, Italian Prayer, dwells on the inter-cultural dilemma of a poet whose first instincts have been trained in that land of temples, Orissa, when she moves through places of worship in Italy. She finds that to catch a glimpse of divinity it is easier to let the mind auto-focus when set in poverty, / pain and austerity. In the opulence of the Italian houses of worship, one is 'distracted' by 'treasures', by

the tapestry of mosaics, paintings, and sculptures,
by Michelangelo, Botticelli, Raphael,
Tintoretto, Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio.

How true - I know exactly what she means! In another poem I appreciate the irony of her admission that she has travelled from Kalinga to Colombo/ via London (Kandy Perahera). She is indeed very much at home in London, whether watching an East European refugee muttering to herself during an underground train journey (Easter Message), making a long-distance call to her little nephews and nieces in Orissa (Boxing Day), or, as I interpret it, taking her aunts who are visiting her for a walk near her London home (Highgate Woods). She is also remarkably at home and spiritually poised when communing with the beauties of the British natural environment (Aspects of Westonbirt Arboretum or A Place for All Seasons). I have lingered with pleasure over lines like these:

If you can listen to the sound of acorns falling,
worship the Japanese maples in crimson, gold and ruby,
flaming lanterns against the sombre yew at dusk,
you will be one with the universe, free.

Amongst poems evoking her original homeland, I found Delayed Reaction, which draws on a childhood memory, particularly poignant. The Dream is a haunting poem capturing that special quality of dream-experiences that we shall all recognize, when we see everything clearly but don't know exactly where we are, when everything is
simultaneously very vivid and tangible on the one hand and utterly elusive and irretrievable on the other. In a poem entitled Somewhere, Something Shanta wrestles with the paradoxes embodied in the epigraphs she has chosen for her book:

We travel not to explore another country
but to return home fresh, bearing gifts.
Let's fly free, not nailed to a mast;
see the universe with new eyes
not blinded by shadows that light casts.

In Going Home she suggests:

Having known many homes, many dreams
you learn finally to live with the freedom of a spirit,
heart like a prairie field, open -

But despite such engagements, I would say that the question of where her 'home' is itself remains open. The issue is never quite resolved. An anxious questioning erupts right in the middle of the poem Somewhere, Something: Surely there is somewhere, something/ that justifies our coming and going? And the poem Never Look Back rings like a somewhat formulaic and strenuous effort to convince herself that the path she has taken is the right one, that there is no need to look back at the path not taken:

Never look back, never go looking
for some one or some thing
out there. All the truth you need is within.

Despite the uncertainty about where 'home' might be, a Hindu quality of piety clearly suffuses the poems, marking their cultural anchorage, a piety which even has a regional accent in the context of the subcontinent - I say so because I recognize it as different from my own region's - Christ, Krishna or Ganesha, are as much my endowment/ as all the children who sleep hungry tonight (Boxing Day). It cannot be an accident that she chooses to end the book with the lines: 'May God hold us always/ in the palm of his hand... (The Wishing Tree). But the piety does not preclude humour. Far from it. Poems like Beware and are charged with a sense of humour which readers who are familiar with Shanta's earlier poetry will recognize as very much her brand.