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Review: Dreams that Spell the Light, by Shanta Acharya

If Shanta Acharya's theme is about travel, pilgrimage, and a constant sense of another lost world, it is equally about returning.

We travel not to explore another country/ but to return home fresh, bearing gifts.

It is the reaching out to transformation that seems to be the driving force in these poems. Perhaps travel is about finding one's own centre. We are all returning, she quotes from the Qur'an in a poem titled The Return of the
Exile
.

Nourished under alien skies,
I come looking for certainties,
A child alone woken by nightmares,
unable to drift back to a land of dreams.

Travel is no antidote for feeling dispossessed. Some of the earlier travel poems, located in unconnected and distant places seem to leave us like stranded tourists who don't really know why they are where they are. We move from the Vatican to the Basilica of San Marco, to the Mosque of Wazir Khan in Lahore, to Ibadan, to Bryce Canyon, to NanJing, to the Grand Canal and The Great Wall of China, to Kandy, to St.Petersburg, to Kabul, and we are looking for the personal insight, the inner life that will make it all meaningful. It is when she moves beyond geography and travel, that her poems begin to stir us.

A long, very fine poem, The Sundarbans captures not only the mystery of place but also poetically draws us into the enthralling experience. In this poem and several others, she claims the place and makes it her own. To be where you are, most fully, is to make it your own. Shanta Acharya has a great feeling for landscape, and is able to bring it alive most tellingly.

All migrations leave scars.
World on the move, moving worlds...

She captures the atmosphere with an almost Keatsian richness of detail. In poems like Aspects of Westonbirt Arboretum, A Place for All Seasons, Awakening and Highgate Woods she captures the rapture of the seasons, and the beauty of nature most exceptionally. In these poems she is not a stranger or an exile. She claims the beauty of the world around her, and by doing so, makes it her own.

Under a shamiana of myriad bandanas,
magic quilt of earth and sky
woven with strings of sunshine,
...I have the experience and enhance its meaning -
beautiful the ballet of branches bending in the breeze.

In a fine poem Black Swans she again examines the feeling of being cut off from family, friends, country.

What has been, what might have been
two fractured landmasses drifting in time...

You wander down lanes of lives never lived,
reconciling what might have been with reality...

our own lives, elegant black swans, in full flight

A painful nostalgia for the lost country stirs beneath the surface of many of her poems.

No longer cold and restless like the temple monkeys in Puri,
I watch the snow scatter the darkness of my soul.

The poem ends with a sense of shared inheritance:

Christ, Krishna or Ganesha, are as much my endowment
as all the children who sleep hungry tonight.

In one of the finest poems in this collection, Going Home, which is for Doris Lessing, she enters again into the ambiguity, the enigma of home and exile. Doris Lessing, too, had to create a life in another country, far from where she had spent her youth.

You look at things from different angles,
lying in the grass singing, summer before the dark.
Every survivor needs a memoir, a golden notebook;
writing a habit of loving, like breathing.
All of us are shaped by war, twisted and warped,
our inner battles spilling out from under our skin;
Our body, the old chief's country, landlocked

This is an exceptional poem, linking the loss of an imagined or known life, to the inner battles that warp or heal us, and the link to the world claimed by the writer. Writing itself is an act of survival, a way of healing oneself of the regret or pain or fever that wracks our beings. Shanta Acharya draws us into her experience, and her inner conflicts with her charged, lyrical writing. She searches for dreams that spell the light. For the illumination the seeking inner spirit always dreams of. For the epiphany of

Language that is water, air, light, earth
shining nerves spread out like angel wings;
sun in water shimmering, the aura of kings,
earth a mirror for what cannot be seen.

From a poet capable of such lyrical and fine lines, one looks forward to more.