The Disorder of Things: A Review of Kushal Poddar’s A Place for Your Ghost Animals (Colorado Springs: Ripple Effect Publishing LLC, 2015)and Understanding the Neighborhood (Melbourne: Blank Rune Press, 2015) by Dr. Amit Shankar Saha
Michel Foucault in the first chapter of his book The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences describes at length Diego Velasquez’s painting Las Meninas. He explains how the artist has brought the focus by juxtaposing various elements depicted in the scene, including the usage of the mirror and the reflection cast on it. The fulcrum, the punctum and the hint of a narrative all come alive in the painting. A hundred or so pages later Foucault writes about how true writing began:
True writing began when the attempt was made to represent, no longer the thing itself, but one of its constituent elements, or one of the circumstances that habitually attend it, or gain some other thing that it resembles. These three methods produced three techniques: the curiological writing of the Egyptians – the crudest of the three – which employs ‘the principal circumstance of a subject in lieu of the whole’ (a bow for a battle, a ladder for a siege); then the ‘tropal’ hieroglyphics – somewhat more perfected – which employ some notable circumstance (since God is all-powerful he knows everything and sees all that men do: he is therefore represented by an eye); finally, symbolic writing, which makes use of more of less concealed resemblances (the rising sun is expressed by the head of a crocodile whose round eyes are just level with the surface of the water). We can recognize here the three great figures of rhetoric: synecdoche, metonymy, catachresis.
Although writing is very different from painting, at a certain point in the history of civilizations they were the same. The development of language brought an end to figurative representation in writing and led it to the path of linguistic tradition. But the deep-seated homology between painting and writing is sometimes depicted in poetry. Kushal Poddar’s writing has such a primitivism and yet they are utterly modern. It is the coexistence of contradictions that make Poddar’s work poetry. Cleanth Brooks in “The Language of Paradox” writes that “paradoxes spring from the very nature of the poet’s language” and quotes T. S. Eliot on poetry: “that perpetual slight alteration of language, words perpetually juxtaposed in new and sudden combinations.” This is the hallmark of modernity and Kushal Poddar’s poetry is seeped in it: a poem of his is titled “Violent Calm”, poems begin with sentences and phrases like “Bleed the trees, branches”, “The sharks fall into lazy deaths”, poems end with the phrases like “serve me/ my sleep”, “numbing satisfaction”, or in the middle of a poem a combination occurs like the lines“A grain of salt rubs/ its soul on my eyes.” But what comes out from all of these, quite prominently, is the imagist aspect of Poddar’s poems for he paints with words what Velasquez did with strokes in Las Meninas. Take for example Poddar’s short poem “Stairs” from his book A Place for Your Ghost Animals,where a brilliant display of light and shadow occurs, created through words and where the visual and the lexical combine in a harmony of its own:
These stairs have
vertical dark sides
parallels of light
and two unseen angles
where they meet
and discuss our feet.
Poddar first depicts the vertical dark sides and then brings in the parallels of light, which are both visual as well as verbal because the readers too are in the dark until they are made aware of the picture that is gradually being revealed. Yet, the picture that is revealed is not an unqualified one but given configurations through words “vertical” and “parallels.” Once the image is established in the mind of the reader, immediately a paradox is created of something that is being made aware of but not visually revealed: “two unseen angles.” It creates suspense, which is utilized is the last couplet where the light and the dark meet to “discuss our feet.” The fulcrum of the poem occurs after the first four lines and the focus pivots on to “our feet.” The imagery is very visual depicting two people standing unseen at the stairs but the punctum is deliberately kept outside the frame of view since we don’t know what is being transpired between the two. Yet there is a hint of a narrative even in this staccato imagery. The very word “feet” resounds of “fate.” The word association is not of anything other than mere sound, which is the peculiar characteristic of poetry. It almost makes us read “unseen” as “unknown” – the unknown fate of two people standing on the stairs. Kushal Poddar’s poems yield effortlessly to the language of painting.
Poddar always starts with an image in his mind which he transfers into the mind of the readers through words that reveal apparently concealed resemblances. This imagist aspect of his poetry is evident in almost all of his poems. Often modernists are accused of distorting reality but the modernism that Poddar displays in his poems is a matter of perspective and subtly mediated by emotions. Even though poetry has imagist qualities, it does not find analogy with painting because a painting can be perceived at once as a whole but a poem cannot be read all the lines at the same time. Poetry, or for that matter any form of literature, reveals gradually, as one goes further into reading it. Thus it is more comparable to music, which has this akin characteristic. But what if the canvas is not a flat one? The topography of Poddar’s canvas is not flat but, rather, a globular one. Poddar paints his word pictures on a round urn, which on turning reveals gradually with a latent surprise at every turn. Let us take one more example of Poddar’s poems, this time from his book Understanding the Neighborhood, “Reading In-between.”
This must be about your mother,
I say reading a sad piece.
No, the poet shakes his head, I
wrote about the day I first
visited the circus. I nod.
The same thing. A lioness
leaps through a flaming ring into
my mind. They kept her hungry
all day, promised to let her see
her cub after she marvels
at this trick, and they whispered
in my ear – Be her cub, she won’t
know the difference. This, a sad
song, I say. No, about
a fun day, says the poet.
Every line of this poem reveals something new, constantly surprising the reader. It seems the conversation between the narrator and the poet in the poem is done in anticipation of the reader’s emotional response and modifying the perceptions at every turn. The poem talks about a poem within the poem, which the narrator assumes to be about the poet’s mother. Immediately this is negated by giving a picture of a circus. But as soon as the reader eases into a different perception, the idea of the mother is again brought back in the form of the lioness. An emotion of pathos is expressed regarding the lion but there is a further twist when it is revealed that the poet is asked to be her cub. Thereby the emotion is shifted and heightened at the same time. The reader’s feelings of sadness is anticipated and put in the words of the narrator but then the poet again gives a satirical twist by mentioning it to be a fun day and not a sad one. It almost veers on the side of bathos but with a sense of acute irony. This too is a visual poem with the imagery of the lioness leaping through the flame into none other than the reader’s mind. And there is musicality too in the usage of the words “sad”, “day”, “say”, etc. The question that naturally arises is whether this is Poddar’s trick or art? Sartre has said that poets have the capacity to perceive things in their bare particularity. John Foster in his book The Nature of Perception says that “our perceptual contact with things in the physical world becomes direct at the point where there is no further perceptual mediation within the physical domain.” It is the raw sensation of sights and sounds, called qualia, which Poddar has the ability to perceive directly without any intermediary. Jean-Francois Lyotard has called “modern the art which devotes its ‘little technical expertise’ … to present the fact that the unpresentable exists.” Poddar’s ability is that technical expertise. By making visible what was conceivably invisible is what makes Poddar’s poetry a work of modern art.
Kushal Poddar’s poems very often create enigmas and leave the readers in a state of flux, in a state of multiplicity of possibilities and sometimes in a shock of recognition. In “The Invertebrate” he writes about a moth:
I shall release you, moth. I shall
stand on my peeling-away porch
and see you wave back. Oh such joy.
Can I afford to bear it? Your
freedom depends on the answer.
He leaves the poem open-ended and introduces a degree of undecidability in the mind of the reader after speaking of “joy”and raising the spirit because he transfers his state of mind into the mind of the reader without giving any access to finality. The reader is kept in a suspended state, in a somber mood, in a moment of flux. In poems like “About the Black Cat” and “The Prismic” he shows us things that apparently do not exist. In the former poem there is no black cat and yet the entire scene becomes a black cat. In the latter poem he pictures an imaginary and yet a tangible triangle formed by the lover, the winter outside and the glass. His imagery is inventive – “spikes of rain on your head”, “nails of water on your feet” – and yet not difficult to perceive once pointed out. He does not philosophize but only rarely in a way that a magician does with a sleight of his hand. “The Faithful Faithless” is a prime example of that. Sometimes he comes with a wry humor as in “The Old Goat.” Sometimes he is sensuous as in “Moaning a Prayer.” It is not only his technique that is inventive but equally his diction: “fossick”, “gloaming”, “nolition”, “friable”, “maws”form the vocabulary of his tangential thinking. Sometimes he comes with such inventiveness, which by virtue of being applied in a particular manner skirts away from being banal and stand out as a literary device: “a tractor/ rests on a bag of hybrid seeds” (“Fields”). Images of the dog, the cat, the lover, the shark, the mother, the father, the brother, the neighbor, and others populate his poems. These imageries are very much impressionistic like transitory mental manifestations. His refined ability to concatenate words in a particular order that brings out a hidden meaning is exceptional. His poems are both personal as well as social but never any one strand leaves its subterranean lair. His poems arouse a synesthetic response from the readers because they appeal to the senses at an awkward angle. He can call the borrowed sugar from a neighbor’s house, can make auto lights yelp, can cause songs to tumble and roll and can pour good luck in a madman’s ear. He can make poems speak to your eyes. He brings about a disorder in things and then shows you the hidden order of beauty.
Kushal Poddar: Born in a warm corner of India, a lone child brought up with his shadow mates, Kushal Poddar (1977- ) began writing verse at the age of six. He adopted his second tongue as the language to dream on. Widely published in several countries; prestigious anthologies include Men In The Company of Women, Penn International MK, Van Gogh’s Ear; been featured amongst the poets for the month December by Tupelo Press, Vine Leaves Literary Journal’s Best of 2014 and in various radio programs in Canada and USA; and collaborated with photographers for an exhibition in Venice and with performers for several audio publications. He once gave this answer to a question posed in an interview- “This morning a stranger on his seat next to mine in a public bus pointed out toward the sky and asked, ‘Does not the blue look like a child in a cradle?’This is the role of poetry in our society. Poetry is a tool to arrest the vast beyond within the canvas of personal experience. To limit the limitless so our thirst and longing for it remains unquenched. And hence I write.”He presently lives in Kolkata and writes poetry, fiction and scripts for short films when not engaged in his day job as a lawyer in the Calcutta High Court. He has previously authored a collection of poems titled The Circus Came to My Island.
Dr. Amit Shankar Saha, is a researcher, reviewer, editor, story writer and a poet. In a previous avatar he was also a guest lecturer. His love for literature led him to obtain a PhD in English from Calcutta University. His research articles have appeared in anthologies and journals internationally such as those published from Purdue University (USA), Drew University (USA), Bordeaux University (France), etc. His short stories and poems have been published in books and periodicals both in India and abroad. He is also the co-founder and coordinator of Rhythm Divine Poets group. His website is http://sites.google.com/site/amitshankarsaha and he blogs at http://amitss6.blogspot.com