Jhilmil Breckenridge’s poems are strikingly prophetic about the current Covid crisis; Jonaki Ray Reviews

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Jhilmil Breckenridge’s poems are strikingly prophetic about the current Covid crisis; Jonaki Ray Reviews

Jonaki Ray reviews Jhilmil Breckenridge's collection of poems, Reclamation Song.

When I first read poet, editor, and mental health activist Jhilmil Breckenridge’s book, Reclamation Song, I was struck by the confessional tenor of her work, especially in the poems from the book’s first two parts, Overtures and Chorus. Weaving in her experiences as a mother and daughter along with her mental health issues into the resultant difficult times of the ‘treatment’ at the hands of doctors, she has managed to turn her pain into poetry, and through this reclamation converted that pain into an anthem. Her writing reminds one of the popular poets from mid-twentieth-century America such as Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. For instance, consider the poem, Respectable Woman’s first few lines:

“On winter nights outside AIIMS, / past bodies on pavements, / covered in thin sheets and lamplight, /…A woman like that is not respectable/ But I have been her…”

Now consider, Sexton’s poem, Her Kind: “I have gone out a possessed witch, / haunting the black air/ braver at night/ …A woman like her is not a woman, quite. / I have been her kind.”

Just as Erica Jong wrote about Sexton, the poems in this collection also describe subjects that are usually forbidden, using language that is simultaneously lyrical and pain-ridden at the same time.

Another poet who seems to have influenced this collection is George Trakl about whose writing Rilke had stated, “For me, the Trakl poem is an object of sublime existence…”. Consider the lines below from Trakl’s poem, Psalm, that encapsulate despair within startling visions.

“…There is an empty boat, which drifts down the black canal at evening.
In the gloom of the old asylum human ruins decay…”

There is a similar capture of the depths of human unhappiness and vivid contrasting images (and in fact, the poet has a dedication to Trakl at the beginning) in the poem, Awake:

“…In a graveyard far away, / a corpse keens softly in the night— / a broken pitcher of grief in her heart; / a child they buried this morning/ still sobs, dogs needed to keep him quiet. / And nobody is awake on earth. / Nobody, nobody. / Nobody is awake.”

Subsequent to this book’s publication, the poet has become well-known for her activism in the area of mental health, and co-edited another book centered around the issue. She is also the founder of Bhor Foundation, a charity dedicated to helping people with mental health and psychosocial disability issues.

Reading Reclamation Song again recently during the lockdown, I am also affected by the poems that are about the poet’s concerns about the world around us. In fact, some of the poems are strikingly prescient about the current crisis.

For instance, the streets lying empty due to the lockdown, the friends unable to meet, the riverboats silent by its bed are all evoked in the opening poem of the book, Today I Call You, Waris Shah (a translation of the poem by Amrita Pritam) that has the lines, “…Poison spreads through forests; / screaming like widows at a funeral…Streets no longer ring with voices singing, / cotton threads have snapped. / Spinning wheels lie silent, / as friends scatter, lost. / Unmoored boats float/ rudderless on the river; / swings on peepul trees sway empty, / clattering onto bark.”

And when one thinks of the devastations to the livelihoods of the daily wagers and the scenes of migrant laborers’ suffering, the following lines from the poem, India, seem to say it all:

“India, am I not your child?
Brown, raised on your land –
Saffron, basmati, mustard fields
My mouth teeming with pins
and a hundred silences,
tongue bloated…”

While some of the poems do not have the same impact as the ones where the poet describes the losses in her lives, overall the collection is important for its central theme as well its spirit. After all, one must admire the rare honesty of a book that confronts the fears and depths of miseries in a human life, and yet teaches one to keep going on.

As I am writing this review, the news is full of the violence in the USA, the increasing number of COVID cases and the resulting increasing loss of lives across the globe, and the complete change of life as we knew it. One can only hope that the future will have better times as described, appropriately by the poet:

Better Times
“Will you come when I sign about better times?
Will the world be much brighter in better times?

They say everything passes, but they are wrong
Sometimes it gets much worse before better times…”

***

Jonaki Ray was educated in India (Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur) and the USA (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign). After a short stint as a software engineer, she decided to return to her first love, writing. She is a Pushcart and Forward Prize for Best Single Poem nominee. Her work has been published in Southword Journal, Cha, So to Speak Journal, Lunch Ticket, Indian Literature, Wire India, Indian Express, and elsewhere. She can be found on social media at : FB (Jona Ray), twitter (Jona_writes), and Instagram (@Jonaki_stories).

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