Review by: Bhaswati Ghosh
First published at http://www.citrusmag.com/#!bookwarm/ddvnt
It’s a sobering morning as I write this. My Facebook feed is flushed with faces wearing the French flag, quotes denouncing horrific events that shook the world, and raging debates on selective outrage. The world is reacting to the violence that has Beirut and Paris mourning hundreds of people — denizens and tourists — who lost their lives in serial bomb blasts.
Tired and benumbed, I turn to a different window on my computer screen — to read Sabyasachi Nag’s poems from his latest collection, Could You Please, Please Stop Singing?
When words — even prayers — do little to palliate the mind, “Mamuda’s Fries,” Nag’s first poem in the collection, brings me warmth with its textual imagery. It’s a simple poem on the face of it — about a father returning home with fries for his family at the end of a draining work day. The batter singes like the rest/of his walk. Yet, as he closes it off, Nag manages to frame in the poem an everyday family portrait that transports you to a comforting spot.
When the fries come,/they let them sit a while, radiant/on the puffed rice, then the stories/roll, greased, like the wheels/of a worn ritual.
What it is that we really mourn when mass attacks happen? The loss of life and innocence, for sure, but do we not also feel aggrieved for all the possibilities of “worn rituals” that are thwarted by the untimely ceasing of the rolling of stories Nag talks about? In trying to grapple with brutalities, somewhere we probably also feel the loss of the mundane sinews that bind the core of our daily lives – the smile that brings us home, the bric-a-bracs that feed our memory as comfort food does our palate.
This soft pulse of relationships throbs throughout Nag’s poetry. The book is dedicated to his father, and it isn’t difficult to see why. The bond between a father and his son echo in many a poem. In “Sweat”, a father’s homecoming is celebrated by his son with games even as his departure is etched in sensory notifications – duffle bags, polished shoes, but also “Chewed betel from his breath.” And, of course, there’s his sweat.
The air will be naked soon./For one more day, his sweat/will linger in the wardrobe /and the laundry room.
In “Wheels”, a prose poem that reads like a journal signposting a father’s life cycle through five decades, from a hardworking man whose square shoulders evenly stretched under the weight of fish and produce he routinely brought home to compensate for long absences … to someone pulled down by gravity, stooped over the curved, steel handle bars of the red rollator, leaving nothing to chance, as always, trying his hardest to make the wheels turn, turn… Here, Nag at once encapsulates the mechanics of middle class life with a child’s exhilaration of having
him (the father) back from the trains and morbid news as well as the works of physiological aging, which, despite all denial or resistance, pulls one into its inevitability.
The wheel of bonding between the poet and his father keeps turning as Nag chronicles the growing up of his own son. The same wisp of endearment marks these poems, as also perhaps, the same yearnings and the gaps that separate them. Nine and he keeps his laces flailing./Is that an attitude thing? Nag asks in “Absent”, then answers, He thinks them– laces, have needs/to write on puddles, tangle with weeds/drag the dirt, sometimes swallow/pollen, ragweed, dander – be out of sorts. The father’s wonder and happiness on his son entering his teen years is poised by steady genealogical conviction. he leapt like a lemming almost into his own/
and all that hair on his legs and underarms/cannot convince me yet,/he will grow up to be much taller than me.
Like relationships, a number of motivations inform and bear upon Nag’s thematic range and expression. Food is a prominent trigger, and while reading some of the poems in this collection, I couldn’t help but admire the poet’s facility with cooking and the secrets the kitchen can reveal about life in general. How else could he know this about the “Fine Art of Chapattis”? Roll them to the shape of moon,/Mars, continents, faces of gods,/feelings, fear... and Serve hot and buttered, just when hunger/is in the same room as lust. In “Reasoning”, which sounds curiously similar to “seasoning,” Nag blurs the line between gods and devils, even to the extent of provoking one to examine whether there’s a line that distinguishes the two entities at all. Asafoetida is at once god’s flavour/and devil’s shit – attractive to moths/wolves, believers//There must be a reason –//why dharma and pot mix without particle blenders/temples polish stairwells with milk/and silver is smoked in myrrh.
Coming from Calcutta, where the urban poor share the cityscape with the richest of the rich, Nag writes about the subaltern often in Could You Please, Please Stop Singing? Even as he contextualizes the lives of the underdog, he remains sensitive not to smudge the dignity that is mostly denied to them. A poem I haven’t been able to shake out of me is “A City House Help Returns Home”. Self-explanatory as the title is, the poem reminds one of the many young house helps in India and the blank, tear-wiped look one sees on their faces. Nag doesn’t stop with mere observation, though. He seems to penetrate that vacuous look as he talks about a young boy returning home on a break from his city job. Between servings of gruel and green/chili, salt and a splash of mustard oil –/he’s scared someone will ask:/what brings ya back? Having posed the little boy’s dilemma — sad as it is — Nag answers it with words that strike like a whiplash: His little brother who/ works in the pickle farm,/his cousin who climbs coconut trees,/his friends who smoke the berry hives –/they know.
Could You Please, Please Stop Singing? is a very urban collection. The stress, grime and anxieties of city life are palpable, even viscerally felt in a number of poems. In “Through Uneven Slats — a Riot” Nag says, Rush for news, rush for bread,/rush around clots, rush past mangled hair,/rush through smoke, and smoke. “The New Enemy” speaks about the contempt for the urban poor in a language so raw, it hurts you with its force. Nag plays on Robert Pinksy’s line “A country is the things it wants to see” when he says A country is the things it wants you to not see./So a finger snaps crying out for a sledge hammer/itching to drive a nail into her bulbous head, smash her chiseled rib cage,/Whac–a–mole her deep into the shit hole/so she doesn’t slime back out again –
The spectre of violence – riots, terror attacks, even break-ins – punctuates the collection with uneasy periodicity, compelling one to acknowledge the political thrust that drives the poet. He draws this thrust from diverse sources – Badal Sarkar’s play “Ebong Indrajit,” the Indian mythology, world literature and more. The violence he talks about isn’t just external. In the poem that bears the book’s title, which, in turn is inspired by a line in Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “Hills Like White Elephants”, Nag denudes the violence that often rages inside the human mind. The poem, reflecting on the impact of the singing of a busker woman in a train has on the narrator, verbalizes the voices that speak within us – in turmoil and clamouring disquiet. In a train you are alone with a young busker./She sings of loveless nights, an endless moon–washed/river on the other side of the planet./ On hunches, supine/she touches her scummy finger nails to your knees,/shocks you with static.
Nag ends the poem with words that reverberate like the plunk of a train rolling on a track. Why does the train abruptly stop?/Why is the revolutionary walking out the door? The honesty of Nag’s poem lies in his not offering an answer. In its vulnerability.
And although it might sound sweeping, those very attributes – honesty and vulnerability – define the collection as a whole and make Nag’s a voice worth returning to.