Prime Edition

When God Is A Traveller

Arundhati Subramaniam

HarperCollins India

Pages: 116 Rs. 399

A ‘cinnamon tongue’ moves beyond classical sounds

Arundhati Subramaniam’s poems are a shape-shifting bouquet, bridging gaps between the mortal and the divine, the metaphysical and the deeply sensual, writes Lora Tomas.

Lora Tomas  2nd Aug 2014

Arundhathi Subramaniam

n the painting Eros Killing Thanatos by the Goa-born Expressionist Francis Newton Souza, the blue-winged, nude Eros is stabbing an arrow into the beastly Thanatos (or Mors). His wound spurts blood, his jaw is distorted by an agonised grin. On the left is a naked woman holding a sword in her hands, her Renaissance curves outlined against the yolk yellow aureole rimmed with white; some art historians suggest she might be Psyche. According to the Greek legend, Eros kissed Psyche back to life from her deadly stupor, rescued her from the lulling vacancy into which she had, inadvertently, slipped while travelling the world in search of him, her runaway lover. Ultimately, he saved her from both Mors and Morpheus.

The same image haunts one when reading Arundhathi Subramaniam's thoughtfully crafted collection of poems, When God Is a Traveller (just released by HarperCollins), which brings together some of the poems from Where I Live: New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, UK, 2009) alongside more recent works.

A "monsoonal ferocity" of desire that escapes satiation is juxtaposed throughout the book with the finiteness and security of emptiness (both death and nirvana): the "tribal shudder / in the loins" (and the more transcendent qualities of craving) delaying the "shock of vacancy". Are these two seemingly antipodean phenomena mutually exclusive and neutralising, or can they be negotiated, even while continuing to be paradoxical in relation to each other? This seems to be the undercurrent question posed by the poet. In any case, their opposite charges induce fertile tensions between them for Subramaniam's characteristic poetic expression, which remains recognisable in its register and tropes: a delirious, "non-vaccinated" cityscape which, rather than being a safe environment for the body, presents an assault sometimes even assented to because it abolishes the boundaries of skin; commuters on Bombay locals with their all too readily shared life stories and lunch boxes; soiled kitchen sinks and residual vegetable peels clamouring poetry; electrified bodies as discordant fabrics crisscrossed by the seams, with numinous sapience coursing through their lymph and bones; eternally hungry lovers ("I'd suck you to the marrow / like a drumstick / and throw away the sapless corpse"), and vagabond gods.

Her comparisons and metaphors span continents and cultures: she just as skillfully draws them from the subcontinent ("Breath that's warm / like the sigh of palmyra trees / in Tirunelveli plantations"), as from the characteristic poetic landscapes of the Mediterranean ("the wet perfection / of the Alhambra;" "wine / baroque with the sun / of al-Andalus" or "the endless melancholy / of the Arno"). The fine-edged irony, which never tilts towards jagged cynicism, is further embellished by acuteness of perception, succinct, terse humour, and an adroit turn of phrase.

To read Subramaniam's poetry is to be constantly reminded of the idea of language and grammar, the sounds and pauses between them. Grammar pervades bodies as well, as the inherent frame, the structure that holds all their dissenting parts together. In the poem Lover Tongue, the poet is "yearning for (...) the soft flesh of pure vowel", the double entendre revealing the tongue both as an organ of pleasure and (a) language. As the feminist cultural critic Camille Paglia proposed, it seems that this grasping towards the system and patterns of language uncovers Subramaniam's Apollonian impulse to confer order and symmetry to the amorphousness and chaos of emotional experiences. In Printer's Copy, she words it as "The need to believe language / will see us through / and that old, old need / to go, typo-free, to the printer."

To read Subramaniam’s poetry is to be constantly reminded of the idea of language and grammar, the sounds and pauses between them. Grammar pervades bodies as well, as the inherent frame, the structure that holds all their dissenting parts together.

ut Subramaniam's aptitude to ground the abstract is nowhere more felt than when she introduces the shoebox as a self-willed ontological categor; an "Upholder of Symmetry, Proportion, Principle," it "abdicates / shape / and Gucci worship." In the poem that follows, A Shoebox Reminisces, it again craves union, since shoes do come in pairs, not to mention couples:

...but there are days
when the longing
and I cannot abide
the sterile cynicism
of the Anti Couples Club,
the smug peddlers
of Uni-sole Advaita.
It yearns for:
laces in a perpetual snarl
of knots
...that old charade,

Persistent on these pages is also the need to "claim verticality," indulge in "deluxe delusions" and "illicit" worship of an ishta devta: a personal, customised god. In How Some Hindus Find Their Personal Gods she (re)defines that divine as:

A god who looks
like he could understand
errors in translation,
blizzards on the screen,
gaps in memory,
lapses of attention...

As in the case of inherited spirituality, her relationship to the Indian literary tradition is one of contesting and embracing at the same time. This is best exemplified by the sequence Eight Poems for Shakuntala, in which the epic heroine is "just another mixed-up kid, / daughter of a sage / and celestial sex worker," "goddamn human". She is lost in "this endless city" and the ways of the world, a crossbreed with conflicted identity and sense of belonging. As such, she becomes a synonym for the "unpremeditated green" of the forest she has left behind; of the possibility of authenticity and back to basics, but not in the simplistic sense.

Subramaniam's Dushyanta, on the other hand, is a "cinnamon-tongued" man "with winedark eyes who knows / of the velvet liquors and hushed laughter / in curtained recesses." These poems twist the classical story in the way the Kannada writer Vaidehi changes the narrative perspective in her own readaptation, the short story An Afternoon with Shakuntala. Vaidehi's heroine becomes a disillusioned loner, a yogini of sorts who we meet, at the end, sitting by herself on the verandah of an ashram at dusk, contemplating, matured. Like Vaidehi, Subramaniam questions and ironises classical Sanskrit kavya conventions with uncritically using the standard sytlistic devices (she does something similar with Tamil Sangam poetics in Six About Love Stories: "Between us / we had seventeen words / to describe the moon").

What is more, her Shakuntala could also be the Psyche from the beginning: the god(dess) of the book's title, wandering the world in search of reunion with Eros, or simply "a respite / from too much wisdom." On her way home, she is gaining experience and finally senses (to paraphrase the Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy) what these homes mean.

Still, it is in the last title, Poems Matter, that we may look for the collection's poetic statement. Maybe Mors or deathlike vacancy should not be confused with la petite mort, a momentary release induced by pleasure or, in Roland Barthes's terms, the eros towards language and poetry, that could be seen not as a means of negating the emptiness, but as "this weave / that dares to embrace / air."

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