In the Indian subcontinental context as I have experienced it – the contemporary, international art world as it locates itself in Kochi and Mumbai as well as the familial conversations in my ancestral village in Kerala – Kabir looms as a particularly important figure. He is, perhaps, the most cited poet even as there are many references to Tamil Sangam poetry as well. I would hazard a guess that Arvind Krishna Mahrotra is better known as one of Kabir’s translators rather than as a poet in his own right. His work to bring Kabir more fully into the present frame, especially with New York Review Books, has meant greater exposure to readers like me than his creative expressions. That was how I came to know his name. The volume under review here acts as a corrective to such a view, which is a welcome relief, and one that opens itself out to a fecund reality of poetic possibility.
And yet, one must surely acknowledge the deep-seated traditions that Mehrotra participates in, of which Kabir is simply one part. Kabir then is a sort of influence on the poetry in Collected Poems and when read in this way, one notices faultlines and tendencies that would not be out of place in the older poet’s work, and which firmly situate Mehrotra in a pre-national "Indian" tradition concerned with daily life, family, commerce, work, and love. To make Mehrotra intelligible to a local audience however, Giramondo state on their website that his influences have been William Carlos Williams and the Beats, also making sure to suggest that he is similar to local poets here in Australia from the 1970s and 80s. This connective tissue will hopefully help expand the readership for Mehrotra’s fine work, which is itself an opening to other poets (Pavankumar Jain, Mangalesh Dabral and others who are also represented here).
Collected Poems is a handsome volume and presents work from 1972 to the present, including translations and new poems. The translations make up almost one third of the 300 or so pages, and poets and publishers in Australia could learn from this example. Translation is not a common enough practice to my mind, nor is the Australian publication of international poetries. Mehrotra helps us with that. And yet, this is only one of the reasons that Collected Poems appealed to me.
I particularly enjoyed reading through the movements that see Mehrotra change over time, even as there are common motifs, forms and content. We notice a curious eye concerned with the quotidian and the political. There is work that is imagistic ("January", 56), direct ("In Switch Licour", 106), parable-like ("Bhojpuri Descant", 81), moral ("Summer Notes", 123), and always engaged. In terms of Mehrotra’s arc there is a refining of his earlier poems even as the concerns remain similar – for example "India" matters in 1974 ("Ballad of the Black Feringhee", 5) and today’s new poems ("A Hindu Panegyrist Remembers Sultan Mahmud", 161, and "Our Generation", 165).
For a specific way in which Mehrotra’s work has become more focused, one can turn to the first poem in the volume and the last prior to the translations. The first – "Fantomas" – reads:
She went never to return She went and her twisted arm entered A length of intestine came in through the skylight She sent a steaming cauldron in which she’d cooked her nails Her toe whizzed past Then her button with a piece of thread attached like a tail Then a whole eyelash Her short hair bounced into the room, a black rabbit Her nose hopped erratically, looking for its twin Greetings from her armpits’ two tiny hedgehogs Her leg beams from outer space.
The first and last stanzas of the final poem, ‘The Nulla-Nulla in Nullah’, which was written forty four years later, read:
There’s ire in fire, a ban in turban, A rind in tamarind, a listen in glisten, A reed in greedy, umber in lumber, And the other way round. … … There’s tawny in mulligatawny, a ling in lingerie, An end in endoscopy, an Abba in Abbot, A squirr in squirrel, a devi in devil, And the other way round, and the other way round.
The playfulness of the content has given way to a playfulness with language itself, and the setting has been relocated from a domestic dystopia to the surface of the poem. And yet, there is a continued attentiveness to details, the body, and a charged, dynamic sensibility. The last poem struck me as particularly illustrative of Collected Poems’ new poems for they often reach from one type of India (mainly Northern) to another type of Australia (slightly kitsch). After all, a "nulla-nulla" is a "club" for Indigenous people here, and "nullah" is Urdu for a "watercourse". But then tawny is like a tawny frogmouth owl and mulligatawny is an English soup with origins in Madras (Chennai). It is this final link that so firmly enmeshes India with Australia, for both of them share in a colonial understanding of the English language and culture that is also on display in this book. Where we might learn more deeply from Mehrotra is to have a local tradition (our own Kabir for example) as part of an ongoing network (other translated poets) that nevertheless reflects on history and personal experience with a sense of language’s contingency, potential, beauty, fun and depth. And that, surely, is more than enough to make this volume of poetry worth reading and investing in.
Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Collected Poems. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo Publishing, 2016. ISBN 9781925336078