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Review: Sonata for Four Hands, by Amarjit Chandan

Moniza Alvi, Modern Poetry in Translation 3/15, April 2011

The Quality of Silence

Amarjit Chandan migrated to London from the Indian Punjab in 1980. This is his first full-length collection in English, but he has published eight books of poetry in Punjabi, and is widely considered one of the foremost poets in that language. Prior to migrating (his second migration - he and his family returned to India from Nairobi to India when he was eight years old), Chandan endured two years as a political prisoner. Two years spent in solitary confinement. What impact might such an experience have on a poet's work? In Chandan's case this trauma is reflected with subtlety - the poems are not overtly political, but convey a sharpened sense of an inner life. His work is marked by restraint and imaginative brilliance. They hold steady, as if written out of a still centre from which the flux of life, its richness and sorrows can be absorbed, contained - and let go.

His linguistic background includes classical Punjabi poetry (both his father and his grandfather wrote poems), and European poets such as Lorca and Ritsos, whose work he has translated. His mother was illiterate, and literary influences combine with his mother's 'unschooled' language, clearly of prime importance to him: 'All lives and dies/ In my mother language' ('Mother Language'). Thus literacy is not taken for granted by this poet, and a major theme in his poetry is the potency, though also the limitations, of the written word. The poems with their brief, often oblique utterances, their gaps and spaces, tend towards a deep, meditative silence. It is here that the poetry resides, as much as in the words themselves: When there was no paper, poetry was there. / When there was no man, poetry was there too, he asserts in The Paper. This fine version is by the late Julia Casterton, one of the book's seven translators, the seven including the poet himself. For Chandan roots are pre-eminent and poetry is at one with our roots: A letter just put down on paper / knows its roots, he asserts in Roots, the collection's opening poem. In addition to ancestral roots there is what Chandan calls root infinite. / The source of everything. This encompasses pre-birth - he fell into the womb of mother earth, and afterlife - the poet's father is alive in him. Chandan searches for the origins of all things: What was the first name ever given / Names are woven in names (Names). In To Paolo the Guitarist he asks, Who is the mother of the sound?

The poems move incrementally, and confidently. In the English versions the translators have experimented with layout, enhancing tone and creating emphasis by introducing indentations and steps on the page. Simple yet compelling images of the everyday often build quietly to a large concept inducing a sense of awe, while the voice is always level. In Who's Playing, for instance, the sun rises / and small pieces of darkness are / spread on the white wall of your house. Shadows of olive tree, lamp post and a bird perching on it are visualised. But ultimately, the last line (separated off from the rest of the poem, and with no closing full stop) evokes a momentous soundlessness: 'the sun stands on your threshold in silence'. The poems are imbued with a feeling for the beauty of the ordinary, a sense of wonder at the world, and the essences that are beyond it, yet part of it. World, or worlds: the stunning love poem Wear Me, translated by Chandan himself, concludes: Wear me / As the sound wears the word / As the seed wears the skin / As the book wears the touch of hands / As the sea wears the sky / As God wears worlds / Wear me.

Chandan's poems are strongly universal, partly because he brings to them, no doubt intensified by his years in prison, a phenomenal sense of time and its workings: Dhareja tries to remember when he was happy last time/ He was happy once, but he does not remember when (Painting with a White Border); While cycling / I take my country forward' (The Song of the Bike). In The Tomato Chandan queries tenderly of his home-grown tomato How could I put the knife to its skin / Shall we preserve it in a bottle / Or shall we give it a human name / and make it immortal. He asserts in the poem Names that days, seasons and centuries, the present moment, paper and the hand that writes - all are synonyms. All time is present, in a sense, but paradoxically time is also under threat. For Chandan, unsurprisingly, the living moment is precious, so much has been sacrificed for it, and it will 'unbecome' (This Moment). I'm unable to speak for the Punjabi, but these translations convey a very distinctive voice and Sonata for Four Hands is essential reading. With this spiritual, rooted poetry Amarjit Chandan has the capacity to return our own lives to us more richly.