Poems that court risk in both form and content

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Poems that court risk in both form and content

Gopal Lahiri reviews 'Karmic Chanting’, Sonnet Mondal's latest collection of poems.

"Sonnet's language is utterly simple, the images engaging, the technique immaculate, with a minimalism that is elegantly evocative of daily life," writes Gopal Lahiri.

Poetry can provide genuine solace, pleasure, and a sense of connection. But it is the language, subtle and ingenious, that slips beneath one’s defences and delivers the desired results. ‘Karmic Chanting’, the fifth collection of poems by Sonnet Mondal, is all about listening to the inner voice and searching for the unknown and unexpected delight that can magnify one whisper into many and provoke a deep emotional response.

This alluring collection explores many things in life that is extensively reworked, irradiated yet never chained by doctrine and belief, and investigates the way life does revise itself. It’s often a pure joy to read his mystic environs.

‘Karmic Chanting’ courts risk in both form and content, making itself up as it goes along shifting currents. As a work of poetry, it is refreshing, philosophical and painterly, charged with emotion and intelligence. It’s to be noted that the exquisiteness and alacrity with which he paints his world creating space for the readers to replicate on their own experience.

What is fascinating about this collection is Sonnet’s love for simile and metaphor, the pure spontaneity of life and the journey taken through consciousness. There are many windows in his poems, and many questions and perceptions are suffused in lingering and shifting light that swells with meaning and revelation where fancy and the identity can take wing in silence.

Thomas McCarthy, in his Foreword, has mentioned, ‘in Karmic Chanting he has assembled many of his most beautiful recent poems. His is a poetry of light and shadow, of shimmering childhood and reflective adulthood’ What is all the more remarkable is that the poet has the perfect balance, not too loud and not quietly elusive in his voice,

‘I remember her fondly
but not her face
her colloquy
but not her eyes
her laughter
but not her lips’ (I Never Had a Favourite Face)

His poems are not really about the exteriors but about the inner worlds they assemble. Not to grab you by the neck, his poems draw you inward by subtle suggestions. It’s true that the tight metrical forms of the free verse are not always present here but the observations in his poetry are amazing, whether he is describing “the smell of ashes” or noting that “light will always be a fallacy”.

Meena Alexander has rightly pointed out. ‘Gloom has not yet cast its dismal shadow on his verse. It comes across to me like a gust of breeze smeared with the fragrance of spring flowers.’ They are so stunning and rapturous, startling and familiar, ineffable quality in his work,

‘The walls in my room
Have been standing for yearsLooking at each other
But never have they talked
Or come together’ (Parallels)’.

His book is a quiet evocation that unfolds over time and always offer something fresh and inviting for the ‘secret desires’ that charges the poems with lyric forces

‘Your eyes filled with drunkenness
have limited my love to tacility.It is like sweet waters changing to salty.’ (Intentions).


Water sounds from falling
leaves and twigs whisperof an intercourse
between intangibles’ (On a Moonlit Night)

In K. Satchidanandan’s words, ‘The poems by Sonnet Mondal are characterised by a strong meditative vein that, as in poets like Walt Whitman or Robert Frost, keeps illuminating the journey of life and the abundance of our little planet’. He has rightly pointed out, ‘There is poetry here, but it goes beyond mere verbal play that seems to define a lot of contemporary poetry.’

The following poem reflects the intense, lucid, sharp mind which can surprise you with its sensitivity, but also with its snappy intelligence that flows through the poem. Here the poet bares his soul and the poignant portrayal deserves plaudits.

‘My solitary muse
reaping the need to find
the acute rhapsody
in these sinking dropssat as a meditating owl
hooting mantras in the zero hour..’ (Reaping the Need to Know)

Not that all his poems are unmediated or spontaneous, but sometimes Sonnet digs deep, speaks with renewed urgency, exposing the rawness in life, which presents inimitable ‘waste’ and delicate challenges of ‘dustbin of riches’ that are easy to underrate. For all its exuberance, there is something serious in tone and texture.

The world is
throwing less waste
it seems.Earlier ragpickers
were reticent
or perhaps I am
a dustbin of riches now. (The Ragpicker)

The poet at times rejects the obvious, applying a metaphysics of observation to aesthetics of smells and captivation. Here strangeness is darkened by nuanced expression ‘where air is the book of sojourns/and the nose the reader’ and the poet deftly and subtly deploys the word ‘smells’ to connect life in its purest form.

‘Without sight
smells dig deep
inside our psyche
chiselling the moss
around our subconscious’.’(Smells)

Here is a poet whose powerful voice and nuanced view often inspires and the poetic texture catches the pulse and latent quivering. All his poems incise into the page the dreams and desires of life. They push his thoughts in verse that is smart in its wording, tenor and emphasis.

When old leaves fall
trees celebrate the space
for the new’. (Asides)

Sonnet Mondal’s poems often interrogate the difference, debates the possibilities, and finally finds a personal voice without trading experiences. The following poem validates the poet’s powerful voice and the fineness of his words.

‘the bullets you have consumed
have rusted inside your womb
and stained the colour of your blood.Civilization looks
as blank as a dry river
that doesn’t thirst for rain.’ (Nobody Speaks of You, Syria).

There is no denying that Sonnet Mondal’s poems carry the beauty of intricate lyric movements, never far from the natural habitat and invite the reader into the precinct of inwardness. At the same time, his poems are about returning to everyday life.

His subtle connection to nature and people emerges to appealing effect in his dexterous writing and the poet employs a diverse mix of styles and techniques to achieve the objectives.

in every nook and cranny
from alleys to valleys
mountain tents to river boats.packed with responses
about places and passing time. (The Air Around Me)

His language is utterly simple, the images engaging, the technique immaculate, with a minimalism that is elegantly evocative of daily life. In the words of the noted poet Brian Turner, ‘Over the course of this collection, these poems unfold and explore the countless lines in my palms…like rivers into the unending’. The poems in this collection are at times of a different sort- sensitive, probing and as if deeply hurt.

I wish there were lessons onhow to regret
how to unite words
and how to embrace
a shooting anxiety. (Teach Me)

It is the frankness of the book that makes it very hard to ignore. His poems will earn praise for its contained energy and elegant metaphor. His work ranges in his work from the stirring to the discerning, from the expansive to the intimate.

In a world where poets are striving to write better, Sonnet Mondal’s verse stands out for its varied strength and admirable quality. Yet at first reading it’s hard to find out why, but slowly you realise that this is because of carefully weighed words, striking clarity and shining images.

The cover page is impressive. The book is a must for every bookshelf.


Gopal Lahiri lives in Kolkata, India. He is a bilingual poet, writer, editor, critic and translator and his works have been published in Bengali and English languages. He has authored seven volumes of poetry in Bengali and nine volumes in English and jointly edited one anthology of poems in English and published one translation work. His poetry is also published across various anthologies as well as in eminent journals. He is currently in the panel of reviewers of Indian Literature of Sahitya Akademi, (Print journal), Muse India and Setu online journals. He is the recipient of the Poet of the Year Award in Destiny Poets, UK, 2016.

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