When poetry documents truth with a sharper eye to detail than history; A review of 'Stick No Bills'

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When poetry documents truth with a sharper eye to detail than history; A review of 'Stick No Bills'

Paresh Tiwari reviews Madhu Raghavendra’s second collection of poems ‘Stick No Bills’.

I pick up Madhu Raghavendra’s slim volume of poetry, ‘Stick No Bills’ (Red River Publications), during one of the worst crises we have seen on a global level. I pick it up in a moment of desperation, seeking comfort in the familiarity and cadence of poetry. I pick up the book, flip to the back cover, and read out loud.

I write about little things so that every time
I sit by the fire in some unknown village
to share their food, and their children ask me
to read poems, I don't want to tell them that
they will not be able to understand what I write.

– River

As I read these lines, an epiphany knocks at my door. It tells me that activism isn’t necessarily loud, or visible. It takes shapes and forms beyond the accepted criterion. True you can fight for the things you believe in by coming out on the road, by japing slogans in the face of authority. But it also is, equally, those small acts that we choose knowingly or unknowingly. Those that are lost on most since they do not make it to the ‘breaking news’ or the ‘Instagram feed’. The cover of the book is one such noticeable choice. The poet chooses his portrait photo holding his baby, and complements it with a few lines about the things he chooses to write about. On a 7” by 5” red paper, the poet hits at the roots of a patriarchal society, the accepted and expected role of a father, and raises his voice for the disenfranchised. Something that MFA poetry would fail repeatedly at.

It is possible that Madhu's move to North-East India or the manifestation of a stay at home father is beginning to reflect in his work. But I believe, it has to do with how he approaches poetry as sustenance for his bones.

Stick No Bills, is a collection of 38 poems divided into three separate sections. The first section ‘Us’ opens with the poem, ‘Holding You’ and with the lines that brought me goosebumps, ‘I wear you/ like rivers wear thirst’. If ever there a line, I wished I had written, it has to be this. From here Madhu’s poetry is the torrential mountain rain, pouring incessantly into images that jolt, delight, surprise, and cut deep. He explores a plethora of complicated subjects and themes - love, a new marriage, longing in togetherness, and identity. All in a span of eight poems. These poems are explorers, journeying into the self of the poet, converting the reader into an ardent voyeur.

Madhu’s work strengthens my belief that poetry documents vital truth with a sharper eye to detail than history. Poetry expresses the universal inhabiting the personal. This book is a paper boat for the universal where every poem brims with life in all its raw, urgent, messy glory.

Madhu’s initiative, Poetry Couture, which curates poetry events for many different audiences across India, wishes to make poetry accessible to all, which comes out in the poems in the second section of the book, ‘Somewhwere close to the heart’.

I write a poem
Wrap it around a stone
Place it on a slingshot
Aim at an empty sky and shoot
- Rainmaker

This is a poet offering his ink to the clouds, willing them to rain over a parched land. Rainmaker is a short poem, and exceedingly simple in the first read. But peel the layers and you will find vacant-eyed farmers gazing at the sky. Madhu in his works painstakingly archives the grief, struggle, and despair of the marginalised. And he does so like he is an insider. Someone who has lived that grief, that struggle, and that despair, even if for one dark evening.

Sample this:-

She meditates like a mountain
On one end of the loom, tied to the window,
An antelope of light leaps looking for a companion;
The other end is tied to her spine.
Her nerves run through the universe.
- Gale

for Poge Karso

Madhu's extensive work in the field of public health, adolescent programs, and women empowerment, reflects in the poems such as Bastariya Beer and Salt. And this brings me to the third and last section of the book, ‘There are no Others’.

In the fifteen poems of this section, the poet fixes his gaze, delicately, on homes, rivers, deserts, and locusts.

There’s no ‘free the nipples’ campaign, they’re free.
Their eyes, hollow from the sounds of the rounds
of gun-fires in neighbouring villages
tell us more than their mid-upper arm circumference.
The measuring tapes go green, go yellow,
the red ones look better than urban anorexic models.
- Bastariya Beer

The tea drum boils, the tea woman is tired of trials
Her back is poisoned with iron and arsenic;
She wraps salt in torn paper, ties it to the end
Of her sari, and secretly slips it into the tea.
All she has is salt.
- Salt

Madhu’s second collection of poetry doesn’t shy away from tipping the lamp over joys and the ironies of human existence. Some of his best poems are those that talk of love – of his child, of mountains, rivers, wildflowers, and also those who have largely remained unloved.

In this slim collection of poetry, I have found an important slice of history rarely considered important enough to be archived before.

***

Poet, artist, and editor Paresh Tiwari has been widely published, especially in the sub-genre of Japanese poetry. A Pushcart Prize nominee, his work has appeared in several publications, including the anthology by Sahitya Akademi, ‘Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians’ released to celebrate 200 years of Indian English Poetry. ‘Raindrops chasing Raindrops’, his second haibun collection was awarded the Touchstone Distinguished Books Award in the year 2017. Paresh has co-edited the landmark International Haibun Anthology, Red River Book of Haibun, Vol 1 which was published by Red River Publications in 2019. He is also the serving haibun editor of the online literary magazine Narrow Road.

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