“A key animating tension in Thakore’s poems springs from the conflicting impulses to burrow within domestic interiors and connect with the outside world,” writes Dion D’Souza.
In Henrik Ibsen’s early play, the fantastical Peer Gynt (1867), its roguish and restless titular character, running into the mysterious Button Moulder, asks him what it means to be oneself. The Button Moulder, having appeared to seize Peer’s soul and melt and obliterate it into a mass of ordinary and feckless being, matter-of-factly replies: ‘To slay oneself’. It would not be the least bit surprising if one of the narrators of Anand Thakore’s Selected Poems 1992–2012 (2017), which brings together work from his first three collections (arranged, interestingly, backwards), posed a similar question, were to offer the same response.
Vision, objects and words
Thakore’s poetry plumbs ‘lost void[s]’ (‘Nineteen Forty-Two’), ‘visions of lost comfort’ (‘Apostrophe to a Fondue Pot’), ‘vestigial memory…[and] lost motion[s]/[o]f the mind’ (‘Waking in December’). It is about the unflagging pursuit of a supple and resilient self while ‘floundering, lip-deep, in the gravy of speech’ (‘Departure’); about ‘wading through absence’ (‘My Father’s Old Man’) and being enmeshed in familial and personal histories. There is also an almost fetishistic delight in stripping down material objects and possessions to the often-painful significance they have accumulated.
And there is a touch of the theatrical. Indeed, the narrator of ‘What I Can Get Away With’ winkingly confesses: ‘I’m a performing seal without a soul.’ But though soulless, this seal is always artful, rarely insincere. And its bark bites:
No hope of redemption beyond bone and flesh,
Of benediction from the blue vaults
Of the compassionate dead; nothing
that does not lie here, naked, before the eye,
Not even the thought of it –
Sight ends with seeing – only vision survives, to screen
The hurt eye from the hard stare of the visible –
Yet is that peace – to live and look and long for
No meaning in what the eye sees – the random
delight of a selfless eye?
(‘The Thing Itself’)
The ‘unvictorious and unvanquished soliloquiser[s]’ (‘Punching Bag’) who inhabit the pages of this book zoom in on a curious assortment of objects, both as potential models of instruction and sparring partners: a punching bag, a dreamcatcher, a wind chime, a fondue pot, an ostrich egg, a kaleidoscope, and even domestic plants. But, in the end, none proves to be a satisfactory guide. Or worse, they are too difficult to emulate, or, are not what they seem to be, or even no more than just that. For instance, a noose chidingly announces that it is ‘[n]o more or less than I have always been…[n]either space nor circumference, god nor cipher’ (‘Hangman’s Knot’), while the ‘dome-shaped’ bird-egg becomes a poignant symbol for its doomed inheritor, with ‘stride, squawk, charge and leap…ineffable flightless plumage…that must stay unalterably unborn’ (‘Ostrich Egg’).
Yet the punching bag’s smug insulation does not provoke further physical assault; what ensue, instead, are verbal blows, capped by this candid admission:
For I have wanted little more, all this while,
Than to become like you,
Sealed, as you are,
Beyond taking offence or feeling abused,
Not caring to be loved,
And the ‘swirling welter of splintered thoughts’ the wind chime sparks off in its owner plunges him into an almost-Shakespearean dilemma: ‘To be able at last to give myself to the wind,/Or to simply have no self to give’ (‘Wind Chime’).
In contrast, the non-human speakers of ‘Tidal Wave’ (‘Hear me when I say I had no will in this matter’) and ‘Tusker Kills Mahout at Religious Festival’ (‘A minute’s raw lust for a dead mate,/…tore me from my senses’) have better luck, thrashing about in their respective poem-enclosures until they achieve a certain degree of closure.
It is a pitiless landscape, but the ‘half-dark of words’ offers succour and refuge: ‘friendlier, and easier to trust’ (‘The Thing Itself’), words draw us ‘briefly out of ourselves’, if not always ‘closer to those outside us’ (‘Apostrophe to a Fondue Pot’), yet they are the perfect tools with which to construct ‘tenebrous spaces in which to brood’ (‘Kunti Reminisces’) and ‘[a] secret carapace…in which to live’ (‘Lines to an Ex-Lover’s Pet Tortoise’). The poems become a sheltering sky.
Side note: Wine is a recurring motif in these poems – a glass of the fermented beverage ‘makes surfaces more bearable’ (‘Words to an Aspiring Surrealist’) – and wine-making itself becomes a potent metaphor for the writing of poetry in ‘Study’ (‘[t]he heart’s a glass jar with an air-lock’).
Home and away
A key animating tension in Thakore’s poems springs from the conflicting impulses to burrow within domestic interiors and connect with the outside world; a deep-seated restlessness that stems from being ‘at home neither in body nor room’ (‘Waking in December’). Growing in the liminal space of the window, the fern with its ‘many-fingered grief…plucked from the drenched forests of the heart’ hesitates shyly, wary of invading the narrator’s privacy, who, inviting it in, asks that it, ‘with the touch of a leaf’, lead him to ‘where no ends begin’ (‘Window Fern’).
A similar reticence and hesitation characterise the creepers sprouting along a grille door – the ‘half-open’ border between interior and exterior. ‘Space must have its bounds, I suppose,’ the trapped speaker muses, ‘Though the heart’s first impulse be to leap.’ It is the chilling realisation that ‘looking in can kill’ that appears to keep the plants at bay (‘Creepers on a Steel Door’).
In ‘Living Room’, however, musty quarters issued the following call to action: ‘Fill your armchairs with guests, your decanters with gin,/Unhinge your doors and let the world in.’ Yet faced with a choice between entrapment and escape, imagined voyages are the better ones, the narrator of ‘Ithaca’ concludes, abandoning epic adventure in favour of staying put where he is (where ‘[t]here is more to listen for than what cannot be heard’), that he may ‘outlive the lure of…unseen shores’.
Close encounters of the eerie kind
Many of the poems in the book detail unnerving brushes with another whose identity often remains uncertain: a ghost, a doppelgänger, a past or split self, or an ex-lover. In the opening poem, ‘Bitter Gourd’, the visitor is someone whose eyes the narrator has longed to be surprised by, ‘looking over [his] shoulder’ as he inspects his reflection in ‘certain mirrors, searching for self-love’. Face-to-face now, at their eventual reunion, he presents a simple offering of thinly sliced bitter gourd, ‘[s]tir-fried, with just enough salt/Over a slow fire’. ‘Steam Bath’ describes a sensual meeting with ‘[t]he man I have longed to sweat out for years’; in ‘Toystore Window’, the narrator grapples with memories of childhood games and his reflection, as also the ‘unlooked-for man into whom I have grown’; and ‘Chandri Villa’ recounts the perpetually unfulfilled sighting of its eponymous ill-fated original proprietor, amid the murderous veiny roots of the banyan grove.
Other poems are still more specific: in ‘Ablutions’, doubt assumes demonic form, though it remains afraid of ‘being drenched in something more tactile’ than it is capable of becoming, permitting the narrator, its self-admittedly vocal inferior, a ‘minute’s reprieve’ in the shower. In ‘Waking in December’, grief is mistress, ‘a nymph, a midwife, or a beast’, romping with the poet ‘on the couch or upon the rack’. Finally, in ‘Babur, after the Victory at Khanua’, the penultimate and longest piece in Mughal Sequence, the first emperor of that legendary dynasty finds himself overpowered in a tussle with the boldest of the spirits fleeing shattered wine casks.
Mughal Sequence is the centrepiece of Thakore’s Selected Poems. In it, he deftly slips on various masks, bringing to life figures from the era in all their glory and folly, their extravagance and solitude, their self-absorption and complexity. Reminiscent of prior acts of ventriloquism by Dom Moraes and Keki N. Daruwalla in Indian poetry in English, Thakore’s dramatic monologues deserve to be recognised as a singular achievement in his oeuvre. These poems also function as an illuminating extension and building up of his major thematic preoccupations; indeed, ‘Monologue of a Piece of Coal’ is as a veritable companion piece to ‘The Koh-i-Noor’. And Babur’s poem, referenced above, contains the following dazzling ars poetica:
I throw out my nets against the wind,
When my heart’s like the Oxus in flood,
Listening for the gap between croon and cry,
As I leap upstream for its rhythms like a mountain trout,
Then grope through clouds for the turn of a line,
Seeking, like an inconsolable ghost,
To wring from the noondry debris of an outlived life,
Young tones of praise.
(‘Babur, After the Victory at Khanua’)
But Thakore’s verse all too frequently is formal, and it is stronger for it. A form he keeps returning to is the villanelle, and many poems unfold in rhyming quartets or couplets. The formal tightness and adeptness enriches the musicality of the lines (Thakore is an accomplished Hindustani classical vocalist), providing us an abundance of memorable refrains. The constraints Thakore sets himself are also perfectly suited to untangling intriguing moral and philosophical conundrums. It is also in the villanelles that Thakore’s wit and verbal craftsmanship shine through brightly. Consider:
The bet unmade, the truth unsaid, the unpaid debt,
And the same black lies blanched by new moons –
What I can get away with you can never get.
The rent I could not pay, the heart I would not let,
The lines I do not mean but think it fine to say –
What I can get away with you can never get.
(‘What I Can Get Away With’)
Who rends this mesh, ends this myth of me and you?
The long tail reaches back for the mouth of its snake;
And the master has sliced our cat in two.
(‘Duet on the Death of a Cat’)
The long and short of it
For me as a reader, Thakore’s shorter lyrics and poems work better than the longer ones. While the long poem offers the poet a wider canvas in which to probe in depth a chosen subject, in the absence of a strong narrative skeleton, the tight focus and control of, for instance, the villanelles or a crisp poem like ‘Water Cabbages’ can be lost. This is not to say that the long poems are lacking in moments of pure magic. Yet poems like ‘Waking in December’, which is a culmination and tying together of the various strands in that book, and ‘Babur, After the Victory at Khanua’, with its manifold visions of ruin and grandeur, do tend to go on.
Also, at times, we are served too much information, or served it too plainly. The origin story of the destruction-wreaking ‘Tidal Wave’, for instance, would have benefited from some compression. Similarly, some of the contextual details in ‘Gulbadan Begum at Surat, En Route Mecca’ could be easily dropped or woven in in a more interesting manner. Certain words voiced by Akbar’s aunt, in this case, have meta-textual import: ‘But you know these things, ofcourse, /I only say them because I need to.’
But these are small quibbles, and it is never without delight that one returns to the dark mines and ‘cricket-choired’ forests of Thakore’s poetry, stunned and stilled by one’s (re)discoveries, such as this exquisite metaphor inlaid with metaphor:
And yet the thought of getting there is not unlike
A great lone tusker taking the plunge,
His vast grey bulk sinking below the river line
Against a clear black sky,
Till there is no more of him to see
Than a single tusk,
White as a quarter-moon mid-July,
Before the coming of a cloud.
Dion D’Souza is the author of Three Doors (Poetrywala, 2016), a collection of poems. He lives in Mumbai.
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