Dreams of the Sacred and Ephemeral
Kolkata: Hawakal Publishers. 2017
Pp 202 | ? 350
"Vision or a waking dream?"
It is really immemorial since when critics of poetry came to be loosely considered as clinical people, who actually dissect poetry and try to wittingly pry into the poetic psyche, or into the poet’s persona. We cannot always blame the Freudian schools for such modernistic levity, nor can we fully agree with Derrida’s observation "Il n'y a rien en dehors du texte," in a deconstructionist’s manner, irrespective of whether it means “There is no outside-text,” or, is mistranslated as: “There is nothing outside the text.” Thankfully, myself a poet, though doubling up as a critic of Kiriti Sengupta’s ‘Trilogy’ at the moment, I do honestly believe that all texts have an “Ephemeral” beyond (or ‘outside’ to) themselves. And for such belief we do not require authorial permission, nor theoretical scaffolds for piling up criticisms with ease. Kiriti Sengupta’s Dreams of the Sacred and Ephemeral is the text I shift the critical onus to, and this essay will unravel by and by the necessity for such an introduction.
I really do not know if CP Surendran’s stand-alone books Canaries on the Moon, Portraits of the Space We Occupy and Posthumous Poems can be roped into the pattern of trilogy, or, for that matter, Kamala Das’ well-known volumes, but here we have Kiriti Sengupta who is bold enough to make a clean breast of his three books, viz., My Glass of Wine, The Reverse Tree, and Healing Waters Floating Lamps as a trilogy titled Dreams of the Sacred and Ephemeral. Trilogies in Indian English novels are common, we can foremost thank Amitav Ghosh for that, but for a trilogy in Indian English poetry, Kiriti Sengupta deserves mention, and also my extended hand for a warm handshake. Hailing from the Dionysia festivals of ancient Greece, a trilogy (from “Greek τρι- tri-, “three” and -λογiα -logia, “discourse”) is a set of three works of art that are connected. And the manner in which Kiriti establishes his connections in the three books is essentially romantic. A very subjective Kiriti upholds his trilogy with a perfect combination of mimesis, pragmatism, expression and objectivity. It becomes indeed necessary to state that we found such romantic balance earlier only in Keats. But here, Kiriti is an Indian; and can Indians come anywhere close to Keats? Well, let it remain unanswered, for such magic questions may conjure up debates of counter-orientalist natures. But I suddenly feel the need to mention MH Abrams’ The Mirror and the Lamp in this context, where the critic shows how “until the Romantics, literature was typically understood as a mirror reflecting the real world in some kind of mimesis; whereas for the Romantics, writing was more like a lamp: the light of the writer's inner soul spilled out to illuminate the world.” Kiriti does just that, in the Indian context, but with his defined Indian ethos.
Apart from Keats’ other Odes, when I first read “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to Autumn” at the graduation level of the University of Calcutta, I felt that in a romantic bid Keats was as if walking into different studios — of music, sculpture, and nature respectively — in a quest for the ideal. And I felt that he stood refuted by the “deceiving elf” of a Nightingale and the “Cold Pastoral” of a Grecian Urn as he sought for the ideal of their peripheries. But the ephemeral Autumn (through its Autumnal decay) offered him solace by stripping off his notions of the conventional ideal, by giving an ‘outside / beyond’ meaning to his transcendental moment of poetry by saying, “Think not of them, thou hast thy music too—” I shall relate how Kiriti does just this in his trilogy Dreams of the Sacred and Ephemeral and create a graph of his essentially ‘Indian’ romantic triad. Just as the Nightingale and the Grecian Urn flung Keats back to his prosaic and mundane reality after allowing momentary participation with the fleeting ‘ideal,’ so is it with Kiriti’s My Glass of Wine which he gets sentimentally spongy on, and The Reverse Tree which allows him a momentary glimpse of the ideal’s obliqueness and ‘otherness.’ They are more prose than poetry, and they define for him the prosaic. Finally, Healing Waters Floating Lamps allows him his share of the ideal that can be realized from earth-bound reality’s fold, much like Keats’ Autumn, and also keeps ajar for him the doors of the ephemeral and the beyond (the ‘outside’ to).
Over the years expressions have changed their forms, and we can anticipate a postmodern author to reflect the Keatsian psyche but with a new expression altogether. For him, Keatsian versification might recede to the backdrop and he might refrain from stating his poetic anxiety by not beginning with “My heart aches…” (c.f. “Ode to a Nightingale”). He might reinstate his faith on “Bacchus and his pards” (Ibid.) but in an altogether new “glass of wine.” That is what Kiriti does in My Glass of Wine, in fine prose and verse well-knit to bring about a profound effect on the minds of the readers. Spurred by his unbranded “homemade wine” he feels “spiritually baptized” and craves for his “olden golden days” in the poem titled “Blood Related.” He flouts religions and territories but not divinity, and thereby banks upon a “blood relation” which for him is “impeccable” as the “legacy goes on” between “Father and son,” — time past and time present. Interestingly, he chooses for his Dreams of the Sacred and Ephemeral, the iconic kingfisher instead of the nightingale to don the cover page with. It is a speckled and barred black and white kingfisher, or in common terms, the Asian ‘Pied Kingfisher’ of the species Ceryle Rudis. Here Kiriti retains his Asiatic ethos. “Its black and white plumage, crest and the habit of hovering over clear lakes and rivers before diving for fish make it distinctive,” says Linnaeus in the landmark 10th edition of his Systema Naturae (1758). Kiriti deliberately chooses the bird over the Keatsian nightingale to define his pursuit for truth all the better, instead of leaving it in the mould of the Grecian Urn’s paradox of “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” He dives into remembrance and comes out with “the story of his watching movies” in his beak, in the poem titled “Namesake.” Emotions flood his brain as “Rains.” His first book clearly projects how the “rains” ‘dampen’ “the (poetic) interior and cannot be seen.” Such agony received by him from his “glass of wine” prepares the poet to try his situation under The Reverse Tree.
It is evident that Kiriti’s pathos of poetic anxiety and poetic predicament heighten and worsen in The Reverse Tree. He finds himself “In Others’ Shoes” and starts reflecting on the lopsidedness of it. He perhaps finds himself in, and is all too scared by, poetic stasis and tries to pathetically justify ‘mimicry’ saying— “Mimicry is an art, if practiced wisely (to) … entertain others and uplift the mood of … acquaintances. Not … injuring anyone’s sentiments … (by showcasing) your performer spirit.” It is evident that Kiriti is using something of a near-sarcasm on his own poetic, creative persona which urgently requires flinging off borrowed garbs. He posits the very essential question of the creative process of ‘unlearning to re-learn’ in order to be able to create afresh instead of mimicking anyone or anything. He addresses this issue through “Long … A Metaphor” where he urges an everyman thus — “Please spend a little more from your wallet, and ask your stylist if the wig you intend to buy resembles the texture and style of your lost hair. If you aren’t careful, your audience will soon locate your fake affair with the hair.” He admits it point-blank a few lines later where he states, “As I wrote these lines I visualized a poet with long hair that was kept tied by an elastic band.” Kiriti has a fine semi-bald middle and wears his hears short-cropped on the sides till the tips of the sideburns. So the poet in question is not Kiriti himself, but Kiriti upholds the plight of mimics in general, and keeps his fingers crossed lest he too has to bask in such poetic stasis. He is introspective throughout and in a later line humbly admits to himself— “I have failed to become a poet.” He address this ‘crisis’ of the self and the anti-self in “Crisis” itself and reiterates the probable existence of ‘the other’ in the very poetic psyche of the creative persona where, for the poet, “the sun has dared to surface / … playing both / as she, and a he toy.” Again, he experiences a “Jet Lag” in his “flight poetry,” is not himself appreciative of it, but he thanks his readers for “flying with The Reverse Tree”.
The projected differences of sentiments, introspection and sarcasms between My Glass of Wine and The Reverse Tree reach profundity and spiritual-ethereal calm in Healing Waters Floating Lamps. As the title suggests, it conjures up in the Indian mind the very essence of the sacred evenings of “Har ki Pauri” in Haridwar, or, for that matter, the Dasashwamedha Ghat in Varanasi, where believers float prayer-lamps on the sacred Ganga to illumine the later-lives of their loved ones who have reached the ideal land of the spirit, where bodies do not matter, and body-banes automatically stand healed. Kiriti gives the glimpse of the ideal in a frame of eternal flux, just as Keats had done in “Ode to Autumn” upholding the powers of flux, decay, natural order of seasons and the promise of a new awakening in spiritual regeneration. He dedicates the book to Tagore and sees “Beyond the Eyes” to “draw a circle in the water.” This circle is as much seen as it is unseen. It is there as much as it is not. It is present in its absence and absent in its presence. This circle is matter and anti-matter alike. Here Kiriti takes “a dip,” just as Keats had come to terms with, or had compromised with, nature’s studio in “Ode to Autumn.” And in “After Bath,” he has already paid his “first obeisance.” His “Evening Varanasi” clearly reaches the fire of his Hindu ethos and philosophy (and the fire of his verses) to the ethereal through water; but fire and water are contraries. In defense of his poesy he sums up saying, “Water here is not the fire-extinguisher, but / The flames ascend through water // Prayers reach the meditating Lord.” The poet deliberately retains an oscillation between a dream of the ideal-spiritual and the reality of existence. And, he leaves this collection open ended with a searching take on what ‘should be,’ and thereby refutes mere earth-bound spirituality in “In Dusty Feet” saying — “God remained thumb-sized with dusty feet.”
The heading "Vision or a waking dream?" preceding the text of the review has been taken from the last line of John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale.”