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Semeen Ali
“The Coordinates of Us”
Semeen Ali

The Coordinates of Us | Poetry Collection | Sanket Mhatre & Rochelle Potkar |
Varna Mudra Publishers (2021) | ISBN:  978-81-950611-3-6 | pp 292 | 280

“When I said that the only language I speak is not mine, I did not say it was foreign to me.”  
– Jacques Derrida


A beautiful jugalbandi between two languages in the Indian context

Identity is defined in varied ways and one of the strongest qualifiers for it has been the language one speaks. But who actually “owns” the language they speak? Is it the inheritance of it or is it a gradual process wherein a language learnt brings along with it the baggage that it carries with it for an individual to be familiar with? The phonetics that plays an important role in getting under the skin of a language is amongst the many aspects that I, while studying linguistics as a student of literature had come across. I have hardly come across poetry books that have created a jugalbandi between two languages, in the Indian context. The book in question is one of those rare examples.

I want to knead new words into new soils
…to bridge the gap between two planets
So no one should be made to feel left alone!

I want to gather up the entire sky
staple it and keep to file
…to release new spaceships of alphabets everyday.
Everywhere. Very far. In other galaxies. Multiverses.

Language is no longer segregated into private and public spaces in this book, rather, it turns into a nexus between memories including cultural memories, and how one’s identity is tied up with it. It becomes an essential domain for an individual to express a world that hides between the folds of words and a persona that one needs to project. What this particular collection of poetry does is bring in two poets who are writing/translating in two languages – Marathi and English. I could understand/pick up words in Marathi as the Devanagari script has been used for Marathi, bringing in a third language into this beautiful synthesis of languages. When you read a poem in Marathi translated into English, it is interesting to note that it can be the other way round too; that a poem in the English language can be translated into Marathi.

A moon-filled ghazal trickles over my pillow.
I read her the whole night as she reads me.

Talking to her I am disgorged.
I perceive unspoken sentences left to crevices
and keep gathering them.

Thematically, the book veers strongly towards questions on identity. Identity that is tied up to the place one comes from, the voices and faces one hears/perceives as one grows up. How the borders between the andar-bahir worlds keep getting dissolving and re-creating themselves as one entity assimilating the environment around itself. Dismantling and reassembling parts of one’s self as one grows older and possibly more experienced as years roll by. But what are these borders but those invisible lines that run across time and space and makes one put up barriers around oneself? It is the breaking down of them that one witnesses in this book. The knowledge one gathers through life and through the written word starts to crumble in the face of what one goes through. The examination of the self in these works is a very powerful one and the two voices seamlessly weave into each other’s space but remain and retain their individual characteristics.

No damage to the environment.
So from this year onward, we will bring home an idol of pipeclay.
Pipeclay dissolves tamely into water and consciousness.

With new mud, we’ll play a new game.
We’ll buy mud. We’ll let it dissolve in water.

There are echoes of modernist poetry in these pages and at times a familiar feeling of coming across voices that resemble TS Eliot’s stream of consciousness depicting the chaotic world that an individual occupies and the fragmentation that it results in, to Ezra Pound’s style of creating imageries that connects the words to a lyrical quality that a variety of moods can bring with it. But the book also brings with it a bit of philosophy of Sufism where the mind transcends the ideas of the material world and longs to rise above the maya jaal that one is trapped in.

Let’s meet there, my friend.
Where…kindred others come searching for us
and as a motif to our assemblage
a firefly burnishes
through the trees.

After this, and before the next lifetime
The landmarks and wayposts we should reach…

Let’s meet there my friend…

Over the years and since times immemorial, translation has occupied an important place when it comes to communicating with one another. As Prof Harish Trivedi has strongly put forward in one of his writings that translation is the need of the hour as within a nation there are several languages and several contexts that come along with the languages, that require a communication with one another rather than remain in a monolingual world. As Mini Chandran explains – “The translated text in a multilingual India is thus a dancer in a hall of mirrors; the multiple images make it difficult to distinguish the reflection from the original.”

Now textbooks have disturbed memories,
not white and dark histories.

There is a constant preoccupation with language and how that has created/destroyed the various synergies that arise because of contact of a language with the outside world.

Water graves that unite the logic of logging off, in a soundless lap of
a new language. The diver himself going deaf from staying too long
underwater, hearing all those secrets.

Cities have a way of familiarizing and de-familiarizing relationships that people have with their surroundings. The complexities that arise from such a dynamic have been captured well in this book. It reminds one of Mary Louis Pratt’s concept of contact zone wherein disparate cultures must come in contact with each other and at times clash with each other. It is here that translation turns into an important mediator. The cultural life of a city lies in the hands of a language that captures the breathing rhythm of that place. One needs to remember that a city is created by a coming together of different people who bring with them their different experiences and their views on particular things. Likewise, one can look at the book where two poets are coming together and creating a city of poetry with words and phrases that are not only indigenous to them but also bring to the table a plethora of experiences.

She is the nayikas
of the natya shastra of the jungle
in one word: integral.

The poems have been divided by the various ages of history – beginning with the Palaeolithic Age right up to the Iron Age. In the end, these ages are an indicator of the stages of a man/woman who have undergone various seasons of life. To chronicle an age or a life, one requires the ability to speak or write about it/regarding it. This collection of poems does exactly that and I cannot help but remember Mikhail Bakhtin’s observation written in his work Dialogic Imagination – “…languages do not exclude each other, but rather intersect with each other in many different ways.” The book is a beautiful example of the thought process that Bakhtin talks about.


Issue 100 (Nov-Dec 2021)

Book Reviews
  • Atreya Sarma U: ‘India – A Love Story’ by Robert McGahey
  • Chaitali Sengupta: “Bakul Katha – Tale of the Emancipated Woman”
  • Chetan: “Living Ghosts and Other Uncanny Stories”
  • Ketaki Dutta: “Forgotten Kaleidoscopes”
  • Naqui Ahmad John: “Golden Anthology of Poetry 2020 – A Sufi World Initiative”
  • Revathi Raj Iyer: “Women who wear only themselves”
  • Sapna Dogra: “God Particle and Other Poems”
  • Semeen Ali: “The Coordinates of Us”