By Sandhya Pai
(Originally published in Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts)
“The age demanded an image / Of its accelerated grimace / Something for the modern stage. . .” stated Ezra Pound categorically in Hugh Selwyn Mauberly about the direction poetry should take in the modern world. Dr. Prathap Kamath’s second collection of poems Tableaux: Poems of life and creatures which has been published five years after his first collection Ekalavya: a book of poems (2012), captures the accelerated grimace of the present day quotidian realities by drawing our attention to a copulae of images and themes forming a staged tableau in a dense collage, as the front cover figuring Max Ernst’s Oedipus Rex signifies. Reading Dr. Prathap Kamath’s poems, one recognizes a talent that is validly contemporaneous and justly polemic and yet retaining its universality and piquant popularity by not forfeiting fully “the obscure reveries of the inward gaze” for being just politically correct: the reason why he is considered one of the promising young poets of India writing now in English.
If Ekalavya had hitched his wagon to the poetic skies, Tableaux helps him find a more solid terrain of rootedness and stability in the realm of poetry. Subtitled ‘Poems of life and creatures’, the book containing 58 poems is divided into two parts titled Ex Nihilo and Anima, the first one dealing with the vignettes of contemporary world of agon and angst, polemics and poetics, while the latter explores the mysterious entelechies of the world of fauna. Human life – its interiority and exteriority – and the world of animals, present the complementary duality of life.
Poetic creation is ever a wonder, its exact point of origin and the manner of its efflorescence baffling even the creator. It seems to come ex nihilo, to the perplexed soul who suddenly sees himself a votary of words, pouring poetry from “a word-vessel”, emerging “a surfer on glassy seas bearing /a thousand suns in their bellies”. There are several poems on the act of writing poetry in the collection, of being a poet, where he traces the trajectory from the genesis of a poem in a poet (‘The Lizard’) to his metamorphosis in the world of enticements and temptations (‘Tabloid becomes a Poet’) to his failings (‘Water’) and his savage attempts to scrounge for subject matter for poetry (‘Devil at Large’) and his insistence that poets remain on the solid ground of reality (‘Poets don’t allow poems to take an aeroplane’). Even the dog is a poet, in his stillness, “musing only about barking, talking to the sea”. Gone are the days when the poet remained “hidden in the light of thought, singing hymns unbidden”, of blithe, unseen skylarks, but now stands with his paws dug deep into the wet sand, carrying an ache for the vanished boats which have crept underneath his skin, even in his wakeless sleep. Interestingly, the section begins and ends with poems on poets: the opening poem ‘Tabloid Becomes Poet’ setting the tone and the last poem ‘Poets don’t allow poems to take an aeroplane’ making a statement that poets “believe that poetry should stand firmly on firm ground”.
The poet may think that the poems come ex nihilo but there are several which are rooted in the contemporary Indian reality. It seems as if mad India has hurt him into poetry. The new India – of rape victims and rapists, beggars and waifs, squalor of suburbia, mindless accidents, and environmental issues: bursting dams, places denuded of trees in the name of development – sprawls monstrously cancerous in several poems. “Visibility: an Indian Poem” showcases the three month old daughter of a seller of sea-shells on the beach, smiling toothlessly, throwing her limbs to the air. Her mother knows that “the future will hold brine in her cup” and covers her thighs and vagina with a rag. The poet avers: “For visibility is dangerous to them / Who are on the streets and behind / Doors on rusty hinges and shaky walls.” The short poem ‘Carpe Diem: very Indian’ reels in verbal montages of day-to-day tragedies which are fodder for the newspapers: endosulfan victims, children mauled by street-dogs, hanging of rape victims, farmers’ suicides. The poet states: “It is cruel to flaunt your happiness, / in a world scrounging to hide its wounds”. ‘Driven’ and ‘Of Chores and other Things’ distil the sorrow of rape victims. They project the calloused social mindset that accuses and alienates them, driving them to attempted suicide. ‘The Tree’ that the poet has in mind is not the tree bearing trunk, bark, root, and other adjuncts, but one which is “a slogan that stood on railways to be”; which is “a question with an upright spine on highways to be”. . . thus the poet identifies the trees which have been destroyed in the name of mindless development. Often the realities of the world around are presented vis à vis the workings of the inner mind, as in ‘Carpe Diem: very Indian’ and ‘Spiral Dance’ both calling to question, the workings of the conscience. If the outer world of stark realities is portrayed graphically, the poems depicting a world within present a greater convoluted reality. “On Dying” states that “I” shall regret only one thing, and goes on to unfurl a series of regrets. But amidst these tragedies and regrets are some poems which demonstrate tenderness and nostalgia, respect and affection as in the poems courting Neruda-like titles, “To the very little one walking beside me on the beach road” and “I thank you for the five minutes.”
The second section Anima has several species meandering at will through its pages. Marked for its condensed presentation, the animal poems remind one of the Movement poets, but the poet stamps the members of his poetic ark with his specific touch, as in the case of the ‘Cuckoo’ which reads like a riddle. Paraded methodically in alphabetical order, the ant, the bull, the cat, the cockroach, the cow, the crow, the cuckoo, the dog (making a dual appearance), the duck, the elephant, the eagle, the fish, the kingfisher, the lizard, the snake, the spider, the termites and the tiger – critters ranging from the infinitesimal ants and termites to the gigantic pachyderm have something in them that fascinates the poet. The bull, the poet’s own birth sign, shows the polar ways of his living: “The first with balls / And the second without it”. The tiger is a museum animal, a comic figure denuded of its ferocity. Prathap Kamath’s animal world throws open eschatological questions, ascend symbolic and mystical heights, becomes vehicle of satire and concern, and offers tough conundrums to crack. In these poems, myths are created, preconceptions are dismantled, and realities are plumbed. The elephant is a majestic animal that provides tail hairs to ward off the evil eye; it is the caparisoned chariot to the ‘proxy’ gods; but its “majesty of black curvaceous geometry” gives way to the gruesome spectacle of festering wounds under the rusty chains – the quotidian reality is never far away from the allure of the animal, and it is this element of contemporary concerns that riddle his thoughts that makes his poems significant and haunting. An observant eye which goes on to capture the haecceity of the animal is evident in the poem ‘The Kingfisher’, where “the still blue flame . . . burning on pink claws”, a “practitioner of Tao”, hooks “the fish with no bait other than / the speed of landing and nature”. At times the animal world forms a backdrop to the human world (“The Termites”) and vice versa (“The Cat”). The variety and condensation in Anima is Hopkinsian, the tone is Dickinsonian, and the metaphorical rendering of the animals often Hughes-like. The ultimate effect transcends the influences to create a uniquely ‘Prathapian’ feel, much rooted in the terra firma of commonplace Indian experiences.
Irony, satire, whimsy, nostalgia, tenderness, sorrow, melancholy, morbidity, humour, awe and appreciation parade in variation throughout the collection. The language parades chic and debonair in a top hat in certain places, suddenly appearing desi in a rakish turban knotted round the head: “whoknowswhat” (‘Tabloid becomes Poet’), “vrooms the animal” (‘Vroom’), “Chi chi” “‘Her man is her god’ we all know” (‘Ceiling fans on long stalks’). To convey the ‘unconveyable’ precise nuance or meaning, he plays with the language in mad abandon: “The tree is a was that has left its abode in the mind” (‘The Tree’) says the poet trying to convey the absence of the tree; similarly, he is envious of the spider’s “world wide web-ability” (‘The Spider’). Coined compounds such as “fang-titillating”, “boulder-shooting” (‘The Dam’), “mind-earth”, “mind-sky” (‘The Tree’), “rain-petal touch”, “my sky-face” “ensign-large fingers” (‘To the very little one. . . ‘), “gleeful walk-ons, dark thought-scowlers” (‘Bibliophilus’) create graphic pictures in the mind of the reader. Clichés are kept in abeyance, and certain statements convey profound truths in the most novel manner as in, “You are a definite article / In my sentences of truth” (‘The Spider’). Images litter the poems variously and abundantly, but leaving a modernist mark in his poems are medical images of diseases, medical procedures and human physiology, rendering a starkness and contemporaneity to his poems.
It rests upon the writer to make sense out of the world he inhabits. As the bard of the times, he tries to make vineyards of the innumerable curses that this land is heir to. He has to find his idiom, image and language to convey this contemporary reality that eludes elucidation. But for those to whom poetic impulse is irrepressible, they will find a way to forge a poetic vehicle of their own. And so like Jaroslav Seifert, our poet too cries, “Flare up, flame of words, /and soar, / even if my fingers get burned!” What Prathap Kamath says in his poem ‘That Dog is a Poet’, fits him to a tee: “He’s a poet out and out”. For truly, Poetry becomes Prathap.
Book: Tableaux: Poems of life and creatures
Author: Prathap Kamath
Publishers: Cyberwit.net, Allahabad
First Edition: 2017
Price: INR Rs. 200/- ; US $15