Book Review – Something that cares, cultivates : Alleys are Filled with Future Alphabets / Neera Kashyap

Book: Alleys are filled with future alphabets: selected poems

Author: Gopal Lahiri

Publisher: Rubric Publishing

Year of Publication: 2021

ISBN: 978-81-945865-8-6

Pages 137

Price: Rs 275/$25

Gopal Lahiri is a prolific poet. As a bilingual poet, writer, editor, critic and translator, his work has been widely published in both Bengali and English. With nine volumes of poems in English and eight in Bengali, he has also jointly edited three anthologies of poetry, including ‘Selected Songs – Rabindranath Tagore’. Published in twelve countries and in twelve languages, he is a well awarded poet having received the Poet of the Year Award in Destiny Poets, UK, 2016; Setu Excellence Award, USA, 2020 and the Indology Lifetime Achievement Award, West Bengal.

Regularly published in well reputed journals and poetry anthologies, this current volume, ‘Alleys are filled with future alphabets’ is a selection of 102 poems written in the last four years, many of which have appeared in these journals and anthologies, both national and international. Divided into five sections titled Voyage In, Voyage Out, Cityscape Silhouettes, Macrocosm, Haiku Series, Travel Diaries and Pandemic & Resilience, the titles themselves indicate the poet’s own journey of self-exploration, both internal and external, and his engagement with both the microcosm and macrocosm.

The most dominant theme in this collection of poems is the poet’s engagement with Nature. Lahiri uses nature images in ways that indicate his own relationship with Nature. Additionally, these images also symbolise the movements of the mind, the politics of our times, how landscapes appear to an avid traveller and how Nature invokes both memory and spiritual aspiration.

In the first segment, Voyage 1, the very second poem is called, ‘The other I’. In its first line, the poet states categorically: ‘I am in search of the other I’ and ends with the lines: ‘You are here but far beyond/real and more real!’ When membranes are pierced, there is knowledge that wounds come from the same source, and all words sink in the quietness. This is sensed but not experienced. In this segment there are other poems that are thoroughly honest in what is still unknown. ‘God’s room’ describes idol worship on a full moon night at a temple courtyard, where mantras reverberate and a cold wind blows. The poet stands motionless, taking it all in, yet ‘not knowing these calls and answers’. In ‘Holy Water’, it’s the clouds and night birds who note and answer God’s call, while the poet closes his eyes and feels the ‘eerie silence’ within as ‘Holy water wets my feet’. In one of my favourite poems in this segment, ‘Departure’, while references to nature abound, there is a confidence in the poet’s voice:

‘I am going to give the stars a call

for the undestined travel.

A parallel path of lights,

they are fresh from the other world,’

they carry that beauty; they remember that magic.’

In ‘Invisible target’, the macrocosm is reflected in ‘a diagonal swath of galaxy path’ where ‘the sea could push to the deep water with a light swell. What is sensed is this:

‘Half-presence and half-absence of the all mighty

wanted to steer me towards the invisible target’.

In Lahiri’s poetry, Nature is closely interwoven with childhood memories, nostalgia and maternal love. In the segment, Macrocosm, it’s the sight of the red silk cotton that brings back childhood memories in the poem ‘Simul tree’. Its flame burns in the poet’s thought – the colour red reinforced by the presence of the noisy rufous colored birds that stretch to a hazy skyline, into the wind, into his soul. The boundary walls dissolve in the elusive rain, dissolving dissent too.

In the segment ‘Voyages Out’ there is a poem, ‘Homecoming’ which has images that appear to bring the poet home after a long lapse: the windows are shut, there are heaps of snail shells, an outhouse draped in dense foliage, frozen shadows under the mango tree. Still the marble floor is bathed in sun light and ‘the aroma of flowers wafts in.’

In the segment, ‘Cityscape silhouettes’, the passage to ‘Childhood’ is buried under the debris of ‘mud, muck and silty path’, but invokes his mother’s voice that ‘…spoke rivers/meandering into soft words’ reminiscent of the comfort of mantras she chanted in the temple. In fact, in ‘Warmth’, amid the images of nature seen from his window – Rangan flowers, clouds assembling to greet the antelopes – the line that foreshadows the poet’s real need, ‘the sunbird is in search of nectar,’ is this: ‘all I need is mother’s warmth inside.’

Some of Lahiri’s most evocative poems relate to his travels in the segment, ‘Travel Diaries’. In ‘Sunderbans’, the rare atmosphere of this estuary forest is captured in details such as the names of local trees and ruins, the lives of locals who must live and earn amid storms, and the twin dangers of ‘crocodile in the water/and tiger on land’. In this ecologically rich terrain, the poet is aware of the human-animal conflict that creates a blend of ‘wonder and insecurity’, imagining himself ‘fighting with the elegant beast’. Even though just a tourist, there is a curious ‘stench of failure’ that engulfs him at the end.

In ‘Coorg Concerto’, while the blue hills and the tiny waterfall could be anywhere, what makes Coorg special is the aroma of pepper and cardamom, highlands washed by orange and fig trees, the ‘small leaves of Arabica coffee plant/record the mist of the surrounds’. Among the many minutiae of nature Lahiri uses such as breeze and birds, the mist is reminiscent of a haiku in a later segment: ‘siwaliks/rewrite/morning mist’.

In ‘Hikkaduwa’, Nature is impressive with its ‘Strong surf and beaches, palm dotted skyline/coral sanctuary and marine turtles, each ‘a layer beneath a layer of desire’. Even as the poet builds up an ambience, with Buddhist temple bells summoning up echoes resonant with meaning, there is a sudden and interesting juxtaposition in the end couplet:

‘On the roadside shacks, a sliver of dislodged faces –

injustice and inequality at every turn.’

Another kind of travel is of Death followed by rebirth. One of my favourite poems, ‘Dreams’ from the Pandemic & Resilience segment, deals with this through very effective use of imagery. There is a build up to this poem. First the evening casts quivering shadows on the clinic wall followed by the statement: ‘We are all perhaps going to die’ for a half-moon waiting for its unsuspecting prey remains suspended in mid-sky. The poet then makes an existential statement: ‘no one really knows why we are here’, and then re-writes death with renewal, even when the renewal is tiny, symbolised by the image of birds:

‘imagining the night birds carry breaths on their tiny lips,

filling up lungs, rewrite the death certificates.’

Nature images are also effectively transposed into the political. Autumn Muse (Kashmir valley) is a complete poem where tragedy interweaves with the beauty of nature. Beauty foreshadows bloodshed:

‘Behind the mountains the light is

spreading and the ageing valley is

baked into a libretto, red and purple flowers drink

the morning blood in mystic silence…

‘Every stone is a story teller in Lalchak

and stubborn enough to talk about

the empty nest of the birds, bullets

and unbelievable sobs’.

In ‘Black life’, it is fragmentation that communicates something of the night’s terrors:

Trying to find answers

the world does not see you

see only your race…

open the old register and you do not have a name..

blank pages…

police searchlight only screens the skin colour.’

In ‘Highstreet’, Lahiri decries the sinful playacting of the leaders who insist on ‘crowing over empty victories’. Ultimately, we have a powerful connection of the political with the cityscape – the shade of sodium vapour lamps where all bodies morph – from poor to rich, living to dead; even history represented by the marble of the palace and cenotaph are scratched and scrawled upon.

Among the most interesting poems are those where Nature communicates emotion. In ‘Time capsule’, Nature is used to communicate the restless movements of the mind: ‘..the hungry face of the wind/screams under the leafless tree’; ‘The sycamores and the floating vastness linger,/water lily is now in delirium’. In ‘Connection’, Nature is hope, as the poet searches for connection in the quiet surroundings and feels ‘surges of flow and strength’ in the knowledge that ‘..fresh leaves of the old tree will be/given a real chance to grow’. Emotion extends through Nature to the hungry and poor as well. In ‘Hungry walk’, as migrants walk alone day and night, ‘weary eyes widen, turn into a meandering river’:

‘the sky is tarnished by errant clouds,

a shadow of branches rewinds the past,

searching for the left-over roots.’

Yet when too many images are used, the intended effect of invoking pathos, for example, in poems such as ‘Leafy past’, Migration camp’ and ‘Mother Earth’ does not take place. Images, powerful in themselves, do not reach culmination. In ‘Needle’ a collection of images such as needle, shadows, curtains, light rain, critters rustling on the ivy, amber hall, night – don’t add up to unify or cohere the poem. Sometimes a culmination is reached without the required build-up such as in the poem, ‘Discourse’ in which the end lines are: ‘The moment of truth comes well after the dawn/without anybody’s knowledge’. The reader asks: What is this moment of truth? In ‘There are no stories’, a woman is‘tortured and tormented, violence in continuum/unresolved, uncorrected’ – but she reaches out to a new resistance, a new belief. The reader asks: What is her own story? What is her new belief?

While Lahiri makes effective use of juxtaposition and unresolved dualities, sometimes the shifts are too dramatic or don’t reach convincing culmination. For example, in ‘Seeking change’, the poem moves too swiftly from ‘pain that lies inside flickers through the bruised lip’ to ‘peneplane the uneven surfaces’, ‘to die for freedom and justice.’ In ‘Latent fire’ the poem starts with  effective images of nature to convey a sense of danger faced by students threatened by masked men carrying blood stained iron rods, sticks and stones. Though every person is not stirred by this danger to the young, the poet identifies with the students’ cause through the line: ‘I can be split into you, you and I’. Yet the end line appears as mere poetry when seen as a whole: ‘I can be split into you, you and I’/light up the sky with the latent fire.’ 

When one is steeped in a language, the language speaks to one, gives cues to its use. Hence, the need for better editing so the grammar and its sub-sets: punctuation, spelling, the use of articles and parts of speech run smooth for the reader.

I will end this review with the last and one of the most powerful poems in this book that comes from the final segment, Pandemic & Resilience. Titled ‘New World in the waiting’, the poem uses Lahiri’s favourite images: silence,night, birds, moon, cloud. In it, night birds spread their wings:

‘There is a thick silence you can lean against.

The city is laconic the way it was centuries ago’

‘The city is laconic the way it was centuries ago’ is a significant statement, for everything ultimately comes full circle. Characteristically hopeful, the poem ends using the beautiful title of this book:

‘The broken walls scribble: alleys are filled

with future alphabets.

A certain beauty is waiting on the street

with something that cares, that cultivates’.

This is very moving, very hopeful. It resurrects us from our wounds.

Neera Kashyap is an internationally published writer of poetry, short stories, young adult fiction and book reviews. Her book reviews have appeared in Kitaab, Café Dissensus and The Bangalore Review.

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