"In Chattaraj’s collection, poetry is photograph through language of states of mind occurring and recurring throughout one’s journey," writes Dustin Pickering.
As a poet, I frequently quote Milton: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” It seems this quotation from Paradise Lost reflects on more than the apparent mood or state of mind. Hell is a state of continuous change, of flux beyond comprehension. Heaven is a place of order and consistency.
In When Lovers Leave and Poetry Stays, poet Jhilam Chattaraj enacts this truth through confessional poems designed to express grief, love, and constancy. She establishes her identity in the world as a poet amongst married women, mothers, and the hustle of the everyday. The progress life takes uproots the integrity of mind established within it. As Kierkegaard wrote, “Life is lived forward, but understood backwards.” The conflict within the mind is one of keeping the integrity of one’s emotions intact as life transforms from one state into another.
In a review of Robert Jay Lifton’s The Protean Self the New York Times writes, “A person with a protean self is a "willful eclectic" who draws strength from the variety and disorderliness of historical change and upheaval. His or her integrity is defined by an ability to stay on the move between partial, incomplete and irreconcilable realities.” In Chattaraj’s collection, poetry is the force that maintains such integrity. Poetry is photograph through language of states of mind occurring and recurring throughout one’s journey. As she writes in “Lovers Leave, Poetry Stays”, “Lovers leave, / Poetry stays.” Lovers can also symbolize specific moments in one’s own development in time. “The seed once planted by a kiss / now grows in words, / spreading in sheets / and scribbles.”
In “Park Street Cemetery, Kolkata”, “We are needles weaving life out of / time and / those worded stones merely chaperone / our icy bodies.” These lines of carefully considered verse speak on behalf of what we referred to as the protean self. Although this concept is taken by Lifton as psychological, the actual nature of Proteus’ changing forms was an assurance against the truth being understood. He changed selves to keep secrets. “Bodies, sceneries, gods. Nothing can contain them.” Chattaraj writes these words in “Creation” where she also compares her artistic urges to the desire to make love, essentially equating the urgency of the two. The line tells a story of life’s immeasurability, its succinct possibilities.
How can she say at once that poetry stays as lovers leave if the urge is of the same impulse? Perhaps we should separate worlds here. Poetry is of the self—not the sort of reliance on others for gratification that sex requires. In some ways, these poems renounce sexual pleasure and its consequences. They aren’t as demanding as forces from the inner regions of the heart. Poetry is compulsion in those whom it finds. Many of Chattaraj’s poems in this collection trace this need within the desire to construct a self from the ashes of time. Each lover leaves the home. Poetry remains in the home, often achieving a metamorphosis from one kind of beast into another as one’s understanding develops.
Life is a journey through a thicket. Poems are signposts written for memory and the stability of one’s self.
Dustin Pickering is a publisher, editor, poet, and reviewer based in the United States. He has strong connections with India, with his writings published by the Sahitya Akademi. He also has books published with Hawakal Publishers and Chitrangi.