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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 02, Dated 14 Jan 2012

    Sing What’s Left Unsaid

    A new collection from Adil Jussawalla after a 35-year break. A set of four libretti from Vikram Seth. Sampurna Chattarji invites you into the joys of reading new poetry

    Illustration: Rishabh Arora

    THE UNIVERSE of contemporary Indian poetry written in English is surely more fascinating than we give it credit for if it can, in the same breath, offer us two books as diverse as Vikram Seth’s The Rivered Earth and Adil Jussawalla’s Trying to Say Goodbye. The first records a collaboration spanning over four years between three creative artists — a writer (Seth), a composer (Alec Roth) and a violinist (Philippe Honoré ) — who produced a piece of work every year for performance at three different festivals in the UK. Seth’s four libretti in verse are at its core. The second is a book of poetry by one of India’s most significant poets, whose last collection was published 35 years ago. Jussawalla’s book marks the online journal Almost Island’s foray into publishing, a fact that is indicative of the increasingly active role that independent initiatives have in keeping poetry alive in print.

    Trying to say Goodbye

    Trying to say Goodbye
    Adil Jussawalla
    Almost Island Books
    88 pp; Rs 300

    Jussawalla, who has been editor, anthologist, columnist, publisher, film writer and lecturer, has published two poetry collections before this one. Seth has published three novels (one in verse), a memoir, a travelogue, another libretto (Arion and the Dolphin), a book of translations (Three Chinese Poets) and four books of poetry. For me, the most delightful of these have been The Golden Gate and Beastly Tales from Here and There. Seth’s great gift as a poet has always been that most unfashionable thing (especially in current times) — rhyme. Rhyme is his element, the air he breathes, the idiom he employs so fluidly it seems like the stuff of everyday speech, the means of all human communication. One can be suspicious of such effortlessness, and cynical about its use, but how can one fail to delight in lines like, “Then (prime pleasure of his life)/Drag the carcass to his wife” or “He is permitted food, and I/ The furred indulgence of a sigh”? In Seth’s best poems, the rhymes tumble from line to line, creating narratives, moods and impressions that range from the melancholic to the comic, the self-deprecatory to the self-protective (“the rules/Of metre, shield him from/Himself”). Used intelligently and with finesse, rhyme can produce the kind of poem that is no less complex for being easy on the tongue and pleasing to the ear.

    Hence it comes as no surprise to find Seth existing quite comfortably in a scenario where, as he writes in his introduction to The Rivered Earth, he was conscious that what he was writing “had to be sung”. Interestingly texturing the book are the many absent presences in it — the composer and the violinist, present only in conversation with the poet; the music, present only as a visual in the endpapers; the dead poets and ancient texts present in translation or in originals inspired by earlier forms. So, poems by eighth-century Chinese poet Du Fu feature in Songs in Time of War; excerpts from the Rig Veda, Dhammapada, Bhagavad Gita and Silappadhikaram sit alongside children’s rhymes in The Traveller; and poetic forms and rhymeschemes used by 17th-century poet George Herbert are recast in Shared Ground. To me this libretto was the most rewarding, and also intriguing, in that it seemed to give what Harold Bloom called the “benign haunting in poetic tradition” a tangible dimension, with one poet inhabiting another poet’s domain not just intellectually or spiritually but physically — Seth purchased Herbert’s house in Salisbury, and lived and worked there during phases of the collaboration. (Ironically, the poems in this section actually got written in Delhi! As Seth says, “Such are the vagaries of inspiration.”) It is very moving to read Seth describing his “great affinity” for Herbert, the effect of being in the house where some of his favourite Herbert poems were written, his awareness of the presence of his “tactful host”, the “quiet spirit” that helped him live with his own turmoil. This section illuminates the way in which homage can become deeply personal, particularly in the poem And. Returning to the Herbert poems (Paradise, Easter-Wings, Hope, Love III, Virtue, Prayer I) whose form, features or rhyme-scheme they follow, then re-reading Seth, I realised his quiet celebration of Herbert’s influence (which, in a different measure and context, reminds of Auden and Yeats). The ghost loses a letter and turns into the host, loses two letters and turns into the guest who “could do worse/Than rent his rooms of verse”. Tradition is the house that poets live in, tear down, renovate, a thought I carried over into my enjoyment of Jussawalla’s book.

    For Jussawalla, the poem is the place where you get to finish the sentence left unsaid in life, the place where memory goes

    Despite my awareness that in a libretto words must serve the music, while reading the fourth and final Seven Elements, I found myself wishing Seth had stuck to his original version of Fire instead of succumbing to Alec Roth’s criticism of it being “fine as a poem, useless as a text”. For the reader interested in process as much as in poetry, for the reader afraid of poetry but keen on song, The Rivered Earth offers multiple pleasures, being as it is part writer’s diary, part poetry book and part personal testament of a collaborative performance project.

    Adil Jussawalla’s book is a longdelayed, much-awaited event. I have turned to his poetry repeatedly for its plenitude of gifts. A poem like Approaching Santa Cruz Airport, Bombay made me see the city I considered my own for what it was — trapped within yet floating free of its own almost unbearable contradictions. In fact, this is a poem that continues to make me see “the various ways of dying that are home”. Thinking about what it means to be modern, cutting-edge, experimental, I often found the answers in poems that Jussawalla had written (answers that were never modish and so had genuine lessons to offer), poems that across the space of so many years still read mintnew, full of a raging here-and-nowness that so many poets can only aspire to.

    If I had to pick one word to describe his work, I would pick ‘mordant’: (adj.) bitingly sarcastic, incisive, trenchant; (n.) reagent that fixes dyes to cells, tissues, textiles; adhesive for binding gold or silver leaf to surfaces; corrosive substance used in etching. In Jussawalla’s poetry, mordant is more than tone or stance. Binding image to word, idea to emotion, form to content, it is the substance that gives his poems their indelible colour, their gleam, their sharp lines. Land’s End, written while he was in England, was published when he was 22. Missing Person, the title poem of his second collection published in 1976, was, as Jeet Thayil put it in 60 Indian Poets, “an extraordinary piece of writing”, “part skewed autobiography, part paranoid delusion, part politically incorrect sociosexual history”. Since then Jussawalla’s work (new or old) could only be found in anthologies, print and online journals, or heard at the occasional poetry reading.

    Seth's gift has been that most unfashionable thing- rhyme. It is an idiom he employs so fluidly, it seems like the stuff of everyday speech

    Which makes the arrival of this book all the more important. In it, old fans will encounter once again that surefootedness with which language, in a Jussawalla poem, pursues not the most immediate, most accessible prize, but the more complex, more subtle triumph. While those reading him for the first time will be struck by how witty and with-it he can be. For Jussawalla, the poem is the place where you get to finish the sentence left unsaid in life, the place where memory goes, where objects (a radio, a wristwatch) speak in human voices, where people are loved, looked at, remembered, mourned. In poems like Connection, one sees afresh how deftly he can construct and follow a metaphor. In House, Minibrix Sets, The Pardon, Crash, the idea of homelessness, imminent and actual, is made concrete in strikingly different ways. Reading Have I Heard Right, I Wonder, I was reminded of Robert Hass’ line — “a word is elegy to what it signifies”. As it closes with the refrain “bougainvillea bougainvillea bougainvillea” the echo of Hass’ “blackberry blackberry blackberry” is a haunting, unmistakable resonance, fitting perhaps as Hass too was investigating whether the “act of naming the world can separate us from the world” (Forrest Gander on Robert Hass).

    Some poems read like painful, beautifully- told micro-fictions. The wordplay can be sudden and lethal, at times lethally funny. Jussawalla puns with no awkwardness on sun and son, creating not hilarity but poignancy. He is acutely aware of space, that cruel, tormenting, tantalising space the poem seeks to demolish, or simply inhabit, like the houses that recur in the book. He knows when and how to draw the lines to their horizontal or vertical extremities. In Materials (one of my favourites), wood is “An unfinished stairway’s/Plot-line”. This is a universe of high-rises, “every lit window a cry for help”, where both English and Urdu lessons fail, falter, leaving only “a bitterness that spoke no language./ Not a word.” And yet, poised within The Web of Human Things this book says to each of us, as it does of the writer and his relationship with words — “We’re dancing,/we’ve danced”.

    While drawing comparative frames may seem facile — in The Rivered Earth, words are integral to an aesthetic experience outside the realm of the book, in Trying to Say Goodbye, the words are all — it seems to me that for both poets the past is present, a lingering reality. In Seth’s book that past is literature, in Jussawalla’s, it is life.

    Chattarji’s latest poetry collection Absent Muses (2010) is published by Poetrywala. Her second novel Land of the Well will be out shortly from HarperCollins.

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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 02, Dated 14 Jan 2012



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