Prithvi Varatharajan Reviews Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

22 November 2017

‘Songs of the Good Surrealist’ from Nine Enclosures neatly encapsulates the poet’s surrealism, and contains purely surrealist images (as opposed to those also grounded in Hindu mythology):

Clouds cannot always be trusted
This one broke into my house
Went behind the cupboard, barked

A prevalent theme that emerges in this section and continues throughout the rest of the collection is travel, which, besides being of interest to Mehrotra in itself, may also be inspired by the itinerant lives of the Beat poets. Distance in Statute Miles explicitly sets out travel as the theme, exploring it in poems such as ‘To a T’ang Poet’, and ‘River Stop’. In ‘River Stop’ travel is coloured by dreamscape:

Travelling alone
In the northern mountains,
I see the river
Rise along the banks,
Pick up a road or two.
Once or twice a year
It steps ashore
And looks back on the bridges
It missed.
The boats watch
From high ground.

Of Mehrotra’s dreamy poems, I was particularly captivated by those on the subject of family, including ‘Genealogies’ and ‘Continuities.’ There is a tenderness to these poems, where the gaze of the itinerant surrealist is turned inward to his own circumstances and lineage. ‘Continuities’ begins:

This is about the green miraculous trees,
And old clocks on stone towers,
And playgrounds full of light
And dark blue uniforms.

The poem takes us through Mehrotra’s experiences in childhood and adolescence – in the Boy Scouts, for instance: ‘I know half-a-dozen knots and drink / Tea out of enamel mugs’. It ends with a gentle drift into the surreal:

I grow up on a guava tree,
Wondering where the servants vanish
After dinner, at the magic of the bearded tailor
Who can change the shape of my ancestors.
I bend down from the swaying bridge
And pick up the river
That once tried to drown me. 
The dance of the torn skin
Is for much later.

It is not entirely clear which experiences were lived, and which invented, in the first half of this passage [or section]; perhaps the young Mehrotra did spend a lot of time on a guava tree. The mention of servants places the child in the Indian middle class or upper class. The poem becomes surreal when the child exerts power over his environment, as a god might, ‘[picking] up the river / That once tried to drown me.’ In the penultimate line, ‘the dance of the torn skin’ alludes to carnality, and to a time following the period this poem covers. I’ve heard Mehrotra read this poem in a recording made by Chris Mooney-Singh, for an ABC Radio National program on Indian poetry called ‘Searching for the Lost Rabab’ (1999); the recording brought home to me the magical aspects of his verse. Here is another side to the surreal in Mehrotra’s poetry, besides the mythological: the everyday magic of childhood, in which objects and actions are imbued with extraordinary significance.

Mehrotra’s poems lose some of their vitality as they drift away from the surrealism that informed his writing in the early and middle part of his career. The poet seems acutely aware of this, as there is a recurrent lament over this retreat from surrealism. The uncollected poem ‘Bad for Verse’ tells us:

Middle age is bad for verse,
Specially for a surrealist.
A loss of vision is a loss of words.

There are many poems about the creative act. These are melancholy when they chart a diminishing imaginative capacity, which for Mehrotra equals a retreat to pure lyricism. Take for instance ‘Cartographer’:

Now he draws less […]
Tributaries that fall short of rivers
That fall short of the sea […]
The yellows and reds
Of internal boundaries.

The ‘yellows and reds / Of internal boundaries’ represent the purely personal, as opposed to all the other wonders of the world (of the sea, rather than of rivers and tributaries) that may be drawn by the cartographer / poet. It is apparent that Mehrotra prizes imaginative expansiveness, and when he senses this waning a pensive, self-reflexive voice creeps in.

The penultimate section of the Collected Poems is composed of new poems, some of which (‘Fears at Seventy’, ‘Washing Tub’, ‘The Meal’) continue to probe the subject of ageing and the dulling of one’s mental faculties. The surrealist aesthetic is diminished here: consequently the poet as person is more present than in the previous sections, although there are still an impressive number of poems from other points of view. One poem that struck me was ‘Koala Bear.’ It should not be surprising that Mehrotra’s poetic imagination encompasses Australia, particularly as, in his Author’s Note, he mentions that by the time he was 20 (in 1967), he’d had a poem, ‘Dadar, bombay’, published by Grace Perry in Poetry Australia. But perhaps it’s due to the absence of references to Australia in the rest of the Collected Poems that I was surprised when I came upon ‘Koala Bear’ (there is also another new poem, the sonically playful ‘The Nulla-Nulla in Nullah,’ which incorporates two indigenous Australian hunting references: the nulla nulla and the boomerang). ‘Koala Bear’ has the shifting dreaminess of his earlier work, together with a vague disquiet. In it, the land of the koala ‘bear’ seems unreal (my quotation marks denote the fact that Australia has no bears, adding to the poem’s unreality), and like something a young boy has invented:

It disappeared between
one birthday and the next,
the koala with brown glass eyes

that felt cold when touched.
I touched them often.
Its fur smelt of talcum.

All this was before
I drew the map freehand
and marked the rail-line

from Sydney to Perth.
A sucked thumb
is all that remains from that time.

‘Koala Bear’ reminded me of the year I spent in a school in Chennai when I was eleven, after we’d lived in Australia for five years. My Tamil schoolmates didn’t believe I’d actually been to Australia. Their sole point of reference to Australia – which they promptly dropped at any mention of the country – was the kangaroo, which they pronounced in their Tamil-English accents as ‘gungahroo’.

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