Thursday, October 26, 2017

Raging against the dying of light

Morning Light by Manohar Shetty, Copper Coin, Delhi-NCR, 2016, Pg 116, Rs 250

Manohar Shetty is a singular voice in the canon of Indian poetry in English because of his steadfast refusal to take a larger-than-life approach. Since the days of Toru Dutta and Sorojini Naidu, or better still, since the days of Nissim Ezekiel and the Bombay School of Poetry, Indian poetry in English has a been a series of questions and comments, about the way of life and social mores, and about the so called Indian aspirations. Broadly, Indian poetry in English has been poetry of disquiet, a tug-of-war between the personal ‘liberal’ outlook and the idea of the ‘nation’, between the tyranny of history and false promises of the future.

Shetty, who was very much a part of the Bombay School (he studied under Ezekiel) before moving to Goa, however, remains a happy aberration to the rule. This is what sets him apart. Take for example, his animal poems, his masterpieces through which he has been introduced to generations of college/university students. The traditional impulse is to read these poems as allegory. But they are not; they are as ‘they are’ — acts of observing and reporting. In the poem, ‘Pigeon’, Shetty observes:
Swaddled cosily, he
Settles by the window,
Burping softly;
Eyelids half-closed,
Head sinking
In a fluffy
Embroidered pillow

No, the Panchatantra is not his influence, but perhaps the shadows of Ted Hughes and DH Lawrence are. In an interview with this reviewer in 2015, Shetty had explained, “Animals are a useful vehicle to comment on the human animal.”

True. But his comments have always been strangely impersonal. Rarely would you find a Shetty poem where the poetic persona is involved with the narrative. Rarely would you find the ‘I’ pronoun in his poems. His poetry has the preciousness of a laboratory work — brevity of expression (his lines rarely go beyond five or six words) and an almost microscopic observation of his subject. Like a high-powered binocular, his poetry zooms in and let the readers make out its own meaning.

In this context, however, his latest collection, Morning Light (his eighth so far, and fourth published since 2012), has been a pleasant surprise. The collection contains vintage Shetty, and it has something more — a philosophical edge, an acute awareness of mortality, his own and other’s.

But his steadfast refusal to larger-than-life approach remains. Here he looks inwards towards himself and his surroundings, with the same microscopic vision, with the same brevity of language, distilled in striking images.

If the bulk of Shetty’s early poetry is about ‘creatures great and small’, then Morning Light is indeed about the human body, the decay of it and the inevitability of this decay. So we have references of hospitals, cemeteries and vultures, and of the past, the yardstick to measure the rationale of existence, not that it helps, especially when you cannot share the past. Shetty writes in the title poem:
My memory a half-filled
Library where borrowers
Have left bookmarks
After the first few pages.

These concerns of memory, old age and mortality are a minefield of sentimentality, and a happy occasion to dole out advices. He does neither (except a brief ‘Advice to Poets’: Remember, the more you bew/ilder the bet/ter you are....) Instead, like a scientist, he studies the occurrences and reports, in his own distinct style he has been cultivating since the publication of A Guarded Space in 1981, and since his magnificent achievement, Domestic Creatures, in 1994.

Thus, the meaning of the title, Morning Light, reveals itself in a latter poem in the collection, ‘Ways of Going’. After describing various ways of dying, he comes up with the perfect exit for himself:
...(I)n your favourite
Rocking chair in your
Kitchen with a smile
Crossing your lips in
The early morning light
And your eyes
Wide open.

Of course, the eyes must remain wide open. Because the act of seeing is central to Shetty’s poetry. This is how he makes sense of his surroundings. This is how he finds meaning in existence. This is how he finds otherness, both as a source of regret and awareness. In the poem, ‘Second Sight’, the poet observes the new generation, with their ‘old school ties’, ‘their flat bellies’ and ‘the austerity with which they sip two small brandies and no more’. There is a desire to swap his existence with theirs. But it cannot be possible. Is there regret? Yes. But there is also acceptance. The poet made a choice and he will stand by it:
But I have long forfeited
Such dreams for a belief
In trees that speak
At night for the tall grass
That droops in grief,
For tides that pine for the moon,
For whales that sing in perfect
Chorus, for the symbiotic creeper...
.... ... (F)or the stars
That will one day be peopled
When the sun darkens.

In short, every choice the poet made was for poetry. Yet, despair and despondency remains, so does hurt and hope. The bulk of the 66 poems in Morning Light is a see-saw between these conflicting emotions, a meditation on constant change and disconnect.

And death. It lurks just round the corner — an inevitability. Some leave old, unmissed... ... Others are fallen heroes (‘Unnamed’). And cemeteries (The washed gravestones/ Speak through dimly/ In memory of lives spent... (‘All Soul’s Day, St Inez Cemetery’). The poet accepts this with sage-like stoicism in the poem, ‘Last Rite’:
Even the smoke rising with ash
Doesn’t bring grief,
The years like charred
Deadwood floating
Downsteam into a sea...

Writing about the self, or inventing a poetic ‘I’ is one of the key forms of poetry. To see Shetty write about self in poems are poems is a bit surprising. He would rather be happy writing about tigers and snakes, porcupines and cats, or about visiting tourists in Goa’s beaches. All these make their due appearances (contrast between humans eating venison and a tiger eating a deer in ‘Jungle Retreat’; a porcupine as a stand-in for the poet, the ‘black and ivory quills’ replacing pen in ‘The Porcupine’; and the poet posing with a topless blond, On her tabletop tummy/ Behind my victory sign... in ‘Selfies from Calangute’), but even there, most of the poems are about the self.

But observing the self is difficult; to do so without sentimentality is more so. Thus, Shetty invents a ‘He’ persona, his doppelganger, creating a vehicle for unobtrusive observation, of old age, mortality, and loneliness (In his lucid moments/ He draws a headstone,/ Skull and bones, long knives/ And the spiralling smoke/ Of gunfire... (‘Condemned’); and, In his threadbare garden,/ He wanders between/ Twilight and sunrise, gathering/ His life in the folds of his/ Crumpled pillow and blanket (‘Sleepless 1’).

In the end, however, Shetty’s concern is more about matter than spirit. So, the frailty of the body takes precedence over the abstractness of life and death, or the act of living over just being alive. He writes in the poem, Standstill’:
He’s arrived at a standstill,
Others see him running but
It’s only his feet stamping
Old ground. He welcomes
The ceiling closing in on him.

If this review has given the impression that Morning Light is dour and dreary, the reviewer has done a bad job. Morning Light is a clear-eyed study of mortality in the age of constant connectivity, by one of India’s greatest practicing poets. The best comparison would be Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle into the Good Night’. There is despondency, but there are also bouts of celebration, in the very act of being alive. In the poem, ‘Small Blessings’, Shetty writes:
I’m grateful for small blessings;
A full night’s sleep,
A journey without incident,
A tree bearing fruit after
Two barren seasons,
A letter from a friend
Long forgotten,
... .... ....
A poem every month
Or so, a home with no
Sign of ghosts, termites,
Or unpaid dues, and the sun
Settling down on schedule.

It doesn’t take much to be happy, and to appreciate Morning Light. Or,
To find that still
Cupped hand of a pond
Reflecting the forest.
(‘Working Conditions’)

Tailpiece: The last few years have been great for the admirers of Manohar Shetty. We saw the publication of two volumes, Creatures Great and Small and Living Room in 2014 and the reissuing of Personal Effects in 2015. And this magnificent collection in 2016. This is indeed heartening in a landscape where poetry publishing is nobody’s business. The credit for this must go to Copper Coin, which has so far issued three of Shetty’s collections.

Just to contextualise, in the 2015 interview with the reviewer, Shetty explained his approach to poetry thus: “Poetry is about economy of expression, of beauty in brevity. My ‘influences’ have not really changed over the years —Ted Hughes, Thom Gunn, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Norman MacGaig, Richard Wilbur. In the recent times, I’ve admired the poetry of Simon Armitage. ‘Influence’ is such a nebulous term. A poet has to find his own tenor and timbre.”

(The review was first published in Indian Literature: A bi-monthly journal published by Sahitya Akademi. Issue 301. September-October 2017)

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