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Phantom Camera

Jaswinder Bolina


Pages: 80 Rs. 399

Reclaiming poetry from the tyranny of the obvious

Jaswinder Bolina’s poems are blessed with lyrical vigour, a superbly eclectic vocabulary and a steadfast refusal to look at the world in black and white, writes Aditya Mani Jha.

ADITYA MANI JHA  17th Aug 2013

Jaswinder Bolina

n Writing Like a White Guy, Jaswinder Bolina's oft-quoted 2011 essay for the Poetry Foundation, he talks about how class and race have historically coincided in America, and how this can lead to an erroneous assumption – that so-and-so is completely unbiased towards 'the racial Other'.

"In their native lands, where there exists a relative homogeneity in the racial makeup of the population or a pervasive mingling of races, the "minorities" of America are classed based on socioeconomic status derived from any number of factors, and race is rarely, if ever, principal in these. You can look down on anybody even though they share your skin color if you have land enough, wealth enough, caste and education enough. It's only in America that such an immigrant discovers any brown-skinned body can have a "camel f***er" or a "sand n**ger" hurled at him from a passing car—a bit of cognitive dissonance that's been directed at me on more than one occasion."

Bolina's essay was about his decision not to write about the immigrant experience. And indeed, his early work barely touches upon his origins. However, he had ended the essay with an eloquent reaffirmation of the poet's license to offend – or not. "Whether I choose to pound on the crooked nail of race or gender, self or Other, whether I decide on some obscure subject while forgoing the other obvious one, when I write, the hammer belongs to me." As if echoing this defiance, a poem in Bolina's second collection Phantom Camera tackles the very example he used to talk about America's casual racism – someone shouting 'sand n**ger' at him from a passing car.

"If I'm going to be attacked,
let it be by a rare pathogen

Not some yokel hurling
sand n**ger at me

from a beat-up Cutlass Ciera at seven a.m."

The poem is called Course in General Linguistics, and while it is clearly inspired by the incident Bolina wrote about earlier, it really is about a whole bunch of things; the comprehensive 'gap' between a word and what it represents, class envy and the nature of human compassion.

"Anyway, he shouted sand n**ger,
and all the others I told this to all agreed

it was hideous that he shouted that at me,

so the signifier hideous signified that

which signified sand n**ger

which had meant hideous all along, (...)"

As a poet, then, Bolina is in many ways the exact opposite of Daljit Nagra, whose entire body of work (like the superb poem Look We Have Coming to Dover!) depends on a kind of linguistic commerce between the Punjabi immigrant and the typical Briton. Bolina occupies, also, the space occupied by a John Ashbery or a Paul Muldoon; he is maddeningly, brilliantly, thankfully complex. Please note that complex here refers to the writer as master weaver, weaving threads in an out of a gigantic pattern which, for the moment, makes sense only to him. It does not refer to inaccessibility for its own sake; it does not refer to a certain fashionable penchant for dense imagery. In the poem Make Believe, for instance, Bolina sets the stage for what appears to be a feel-good moment between father and son – only that the moment never actually arrives. The erosion of the American way of life, the loss of optimism that Americans have been experiencing increasingly over the last ten years – all of these make an appearance; they're just balls the poet has tossed in the air, an expert juggler very visibly enjoying himself.

"It's that time when I'm alone in America with my young daughter who startles

herself realising the woodpile beneath that black oak is itself formerly a tree,

and she wants to know whether these trees have feelings.

It's this acquaintance with death she so improves upon annually.

It's in this precise moment in America that I realise this acquainting, this becomes

familiar, this cordiality with death is the entire task of her growing older.

Next year her ficus will die and the next year her minnow will die,

and it's in these moments in America

when my daughter's plump lip quivers in a preface to bawling,

when I'm alone and can do too little, I say,

I'm sorry life is too much, my
love, I'm sorry it's not enough."

Bolina's penchant for scientific metaphors is apparent. The titular poem starts off thus, "Whatever happens here happens for a reason. It so happens

it's not a very good reason. A tactless thermodynamic,
a static interference, the chemical flukes and chance fractures, (...)"

In this and in other poems, Bolina uses the word 'axon', which refers to the tail portion of a neuron – a nerve cell, responsible for transmitting electrical impulses away from itself. If the human body is the pantheon, the axon is Mercury; the patron god of messengers, but also of thieves and tricksters. Bolina is wise enough to realise that even on the best of days, memory can't help itself, can't help being a trickster. Summoning the image of another before your eyes – how simple, and how utterly improbable. As Bolina says in Phantom Camera,

"(...) you go ahead and grin anyway for that other in the indefinite
offing who you can almost make out, who even now
pictures you too, fanciful mammal, you charmed conspiracy
of nucleotides, all your unwitting electrons in their right place."

In a recent Guernica interview, Bolina said, "I want words in the poems that aren't in anybody else's poems, or I want to put words together that don't usually go together: Oldsmobile and gladiola, Nader and grackle, Topeka and boffo." Phantom Camera is full of these consistently surprising juxtapositions, and is a collection that leaves you unable to resist a second consecutive reading.

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