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Review: Dreams that Spell the Light, by Shanta Acharya

The Real and Ideal

Shanta Acharya's deeply probing book puts her in the middle of the argument we have been having with ourselves since Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God. Some affirm his presence, others, that without him anything goes. Central to both approaches is the idea that meaning and value must be tied to some transcendental reality. Acharya offers a fresh way to affirm value and meaning without the usual props.

She possesses an easy naturalness of voice that cloaks her sophistication, and in part the depth of her project, unconstrained by the narrow constraints of modernism. Add to this her striking imagery, like a woman on the Underground in Easter Message ...embracing large bundles of carrier/bags like dead infants in her arms. Her rare ability to write a humorous poem should be noted, too, as she skewers an online dating experience in Shaadi.com.

In the initial section, Acharya struggles to find a sense of the divine in an opulent Renaissance church in Rome (Italian Prayer), has better luck in the Mosque of Wazir Khan (in Lahore, Pakistan), though struck by its modern neglect; finds only surfaces in The Trees of Nanjin, or in the spectacle of the Grand Canal. The Great Wall of China hides the sufferings of those who built it under the throngs of tourists, any divine presence notable only by its indifference: Time sits on its haunches, Laughing Buddha;/indifferent the lofty ranges of soul mountains.

However, her poems often have an unexpected celebratory feel. In Aspects of Westonbirt Arboretum, the ability not to identify with but wholly attend to Nature allows one to ...be one with the universe, free. Brilliantly in Highgate Woods, she reshapes Descartes 'cogito, ergo
sum' into 'est, ergo cogito':

It is (whatever it is), therefore I think. Nor are we the isolated and unique 'selves' we so often think: instead 'We are what others make of us -
pearls in a necklace, resplendent in company
. Being not only is, it shapes.

It tries to evoke a sense of this broader, basic reality, which finds, however indefinable, the earth a mirror for what cannot be seen.

It is no accident Acharya, familiar with Hindu philosophy, perceives Nature as the outward sign of a greater power, whatever it is, however amoral or untraditional, that can only be known through its effects. How then, perceiving this, should we live?

The Sundarbans explores an actual and imagined land of dream and sandbar, tiger, and dispossessed men where the sea and land meet each other - the edge of mystery (Part I); Part II evokes settlers who race ahead unafraid of their destiny though All migrations leave scars. In Part III, a sated tiger watches children play in the mangroves, ...swinging like strange fruit, killing forsworn for one, Edenic night. In Part IV, monsoons transform the fields that fill with wildlife, and men ...follow the fabulous otters flushing / out shoals of fish, an activity not for the faint-hearted, but hungry. In Part V, the womb of the Ganges lies dry and empty and life, in response, takes on other burdens, and other festivities. Should the natural cycle of balance, courage, life, death, fail no man will be fit to take the measure of another.

Even better: Placed as I am, Acharya writes in Transit of Venus, speaking through Venus' mask,

...there is no option
no choice to figure out what goes on
in the universe except what I have been
chosen to bring to the party-
laughter, music, dance, pleasure, poetry...

This is a fine book, to be savoured.