Shanta Acharya was born and educated in India, gained a doctorate from Oxford and was a Visiting Scholar at Harvard. She has written a book on Emerson, three books on asset management, and five volumes of poetry. This new collection reflects both the breadth of cultural reference and the rather privileged perspective one might expect from such a background. At the same time, hers is very much a poetry of the heart. Written in a direct, vivid, approachable yet highly individual style, using uncomplicated syntax and words of clear meaning, it achieves subtlety and force of expression through rhythm and evocative imagery.
The volume starts with a number of poems about places, leaping from continent to continent and culture to culture. Almost all are full of brilliant details, vivid and striking images of things that make each place distinctive. However, the journey the book seeks to take us on is not really a geographical one. It is always clear that Acharya wants us to feel these scattered places as jumping off points for more general spiritual revelations. One of her epigraphs is a quotation from Proust: The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.
All these poems about far-flung foreign places are interesting and original but I found two particularly so because of the way they draw on different poetic traditions. At the core of The Great Wall of China were a number of lines or short stanzas that could almost have been printed as short poems in themselves, packed with imagistic suggestiveness:
Women hold vigil for their stolen offspring,
Faces lit by lanterns flicker in the breeze.
Such lines seem consciously and appropriately influenced by the spirit of haiku or its Chinese equivalent. In them, all the universal resonance, spirituality and compassion that other lines explicitly propose are already implicit, and the better for being left to the imagination of the reader. Even more impressive is a sequence on the Sundarbans swamp forests in the Bay of Bengal. Here, vivid local details are fused with archetypes of voyaging and venture in a language that shimmers with reminiscences of T. S. Eliot's The Dry Salvages and the Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer. A touch of linguistic peculiarity of the kind one associates with poetry in translation works to Acharya's advantage, reinforcing the use of archetypes to create metaphors of universal experience. For example the Anglo-Saxon world, again, is surprisingly but pleasingly evoked in a description of bees whose syntax and alliterative style bring translations of Old English riddle poetry to mind.
Asset management, Emerson and poetry. Acharya's wide-ranging embrace of the world reflects not only a breadth and diversity of culture but also of sensibility. The spiritual, the carnal and the worldly seem to be much more complementary than competing forces in her response to life. There is an intense, almost erotic sensuousness to her descriptions of gardens and woodland in some of the later poems in the book, but also a delight in the innocence and laughter of children. Though the book shows her keenly and sensitively responsive to suffering, a sophisticated playfulness sparkles through it, whether gleaming in odd humorous lines or images among much darker ones, developed through extended jokes like that of the Anglo-Saxon Bengali bees, or forming the basis of a whole poem, as in the ruefully comic Shaadi.com about the quest for an ideal mate via a dating agency. All in all, though I regretted a tendency to over-explicit, sometimes sententious spelling out of the ideas in many poems, I found this a highly individual and rewarding volume.