Thursday, June 11, 2015

First Infinities

Vijay Nambisan, poet-in-exile for more than 20 years now, is back with a new book of poems, and the world ought to be grateful for this. Last week, he released this book, First Infinities, at The Toddy Shop in New Delhi's Hauz Khas Village. That evening was the third in a series of events called Poetry at Toddy, curated by Jeet Thayil. Thayil and Nambisan co-wrote a collection of poems called Gemini in 1992, the only book of verse Nambisan had published before now.

Thayil has been instrumental in persuading the poet to dig into his pile of unpublished poems, the end result being First Infinities. While introducing Nambisan, Thayil called him "the best-kept secret in English poetry". He added: "If you haven't heard this name before, it's because unlike some of us, Vijay never learnt to attend the right literature festivals, make the right noises and kiss the right asses." At this point, the novelist Upamanyu Chatterjee, who was in attendance, wisecracked: "Why don't you give him some tips?" prompting a round of good-natured laughter from the audience. But when Nambisan started to recite, there was pin-drop silence, punctuated with loud and enthusiastic applause at the end of each poem. (This writer has been to enough literary soirees to understand the difference between genuine and fake applause.)

After he had finished performing about half a dozen poem from First Infinities, Nambisan spoke to the critic Supriya Nair about the book and the long gap since Gemini. On Nair's request, the poet recited a poem called Elizabeth Oomanchery. As one realises after reading First Infinities, this short, sharp poem bristling with indignance encapsulates one of the poet's pet peeves: the cult of the celebrity writer and how it ends up killing the joy of the writing itself. Here's the poem in its entirety:

"Elizabeth Oomanchery / The celebrated poetess / Went to the corner shop / To buy a loaf of bread. / The shopman said, "Excuse me, / "Aren't you Elizabeth Oomanchery, / "The celebrated poetess?" / So Elizabeth Oomanchery went home. / Elizabeth Oomanchery / Sat at her desk one evening / To write herself a poem. / The poem asked, "Excuse me, / "Aren't you Elizabeth Oomanchery, / "The celebrated poetess?" / Elizabeth Oomanchery / Said "Yes," / So the poem went home."

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What happens to poems deferred? When they lie unshared, unseen. Do they dry up, raisins in the sun? Fester like sores? Do they sag? Like heavy loads. Do they explode? Rarely do they land in your hands, like Vijay Nambisan's First Infinities, beautifully bound and produced. He isn't new on the scene. In 1988, at 24, he won a country-wide competition organised by The Poetry Society of India and The British Council. The winning poem, "Madras Central", displays special mastery of sparseness.

It begins with a quotidian black train pulling in at the platform - "Hissing into silence like hot steel in water" - and comes, not to a crescendo, but what Marianne Moore calls "merely to a close" with the description of a solitary traveller carrying "unwantedness" from place to place. A quiet finish both vulnerable and lasting. In 1992, Nambisan's poems appeared in Gemini, a two-poet project, which Dom Moraes called, in the foreword, "an indication that Indian poetry, after many years of striving, ha(d) at last arrived at maturity." Since then, there was poetic silence. Nambisan embarked upon a distinguished career as journalist and critic - documenting his experiences of small-town Bihar in Bihar is in the Eyes of the Beholder and arguing for the importance of written communicative honesty and integrity in the Orwellian Language as an Ethic. Most recently, he has translated the devotional bhakti verse of Poonthanam and Melpathur Narayana Bhattathiri. Twenty-two years after Gemini, Nambisan delivers his first full-length poetry collection. First Infinities is worth every minute of the wait.

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Vijay Nambisan’s First Infinities (2015) selects sixty poems from the last three decades of his largely uncollected verse. Because the net is cast this wide, a fiercely varied cast of poems becomes possible, each experimenting with a different mood, register and form. Together they form a picture of Nambisan as someone who is both broodingly cerebral and goofy, someone pointedly serious and incredibly self-mocking.

His best poems bring these aspects together, where he is able to heed the weighty, despairing voice within him, even as he keeps it from becoming mawkish by a wit that is both devastating and funny.

For instance, in the short poem ‘The hole in the earth,’ the poet-persona on spotting a mysterious ‘hole through to the earth’s bowels,’ starts a slightly woolly-headed, self-serious monologue wondering about ‘what beatitude, what hate, / what hope of sanctity’ might lie in there, only to discover the next day that this hole is a far more unpoetic and disenchanted thing – a ‘manhole,’ which the workmen come and cover the next day. The brooding self of the poet, its labours of the mind, its indulgent explorations of the ‘void,’ are all sharply undercut by the labour, always caste-bound, of the workmen who make a shattering debut at the end of the poem. The poetic ‘void’ implodes into the more material ‘manhole’.

Do not for a moment mistake that the labour of the mind, the work of the intellect is devalued in Nambisan – no poetry does that, and most of his own is very allusive and densely meditative – but this intellectual labour is neither over-enchanted nor cauterized by pedestalization. His mind is always roving, searching, thinking, but never in a vacuum, and is always acutely anxious about self-indulgence. The intellect is worn lightly on one’s shoulders, hoping it would never turn into a performance, a burden.

Nambisan is a poet’s poet, but not in its banal, back-handed sense that only a small coterie really ‘gets’ him. Here instead, it implies that he makes the scene of production of poetry as available to his reader as the product. The worlds where poetry is written, published, disseminated find their way into the meat of his poems, often to be ridiculed. On more than a few pages, you get a sense of his chosen poet-forebears, his acute awareness of writing in English, or the trials of the modern day poetry scene which overwhelm him and not in a good way.

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Read some of the poems here/

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