Book Review: Hibiscus – Poems that heal and empower

U Atreya Sarma
Anthology of Poems
Ed: Kiriti Sengupta, Anu Majumdar, Dustin Pickering
Hawakal Publishers, May 2020 | pp 205
ISBN 978-81-945273-0-5 | ₹ 500 / US $ 16.99

Reviewed by: U Atreya Sarma
Poetic power against the pandemic
Anything that can allay the unease due to the ongoing eerie pandemic is welcome, and so should be the poetry anthology Hibiscus aimed at “Healing and Empowerment,” which its chief editor Kiriti Sengupta assures, “will comfort and rejuvenate the readers to step into a world that might not allow reckless lifestyles we were used to,” and wisely cautions, “Self-restraint comes with a price,” and that the Covid-10 “has cautioned us to become sensible and diligent” (p ii).
The dynamic Kiriti, teamed up with two associate editors, says they have received poems from 153 poets from across the world, but that they have retained only the best. Finally, 160 poems by 104 poets (including 28 from outside India) with some of them contributing more than one, makes up the anthology.
The editors stipulate a 14 line cap on each poem for the sake of “concision” – based on Kiriti’s “experience of reading poetry by a wide variety of poets both young and veteran, and from various demography” for “the lack of brevity gives me endless agony” (p i) – but ultimately, they end up accepting quite a few poems that have shot up to 24 lines. And Anu Majumdar admits that they “have made an exception” in some cases and also that “Some poems have veered off the theme” as well (p vii). This judicious flexibility proves that the length of a poem, unless it is a metrical one, can’t be stymied for it depends upon the magnitude and intensity of the matter to be expressed, even as verbosity per se can’t be justified.
The editorial trio, instead of introducing the book through a joint preface, choose to mirror their respective reflections separately under the heading ‘The Silver Lining,’ in addition to Kiriti Sengupta’s exclusive ‘Hibiscus – a palliative measure.’ Thus there are four intros to the book.
The pandemic, despite the social distancing norms, should bring people emotionally and spiritually together with a unity of purpose, and that spirit of bonhomie – for charity should begin at home – infuses the three editors, Kiriti Sengupta, Anu Majumdar and Dustin Pickering who mutually quote from their poems with complaisance. And it is seen that the title ‘Hibiscus’ of the anthology is an eponym of a poem by Kiriti Sengupta quoted by Dustin.
“As the Coronavirus continues to take lives, our mission as poets and artists is to think, to heal and to dream,” envisions Dustin Pickering (from Houston), and also to “imagine what may come next” (x). And he doesn’t mind digressing into political waters by hurling innuendos at President Donald Trump in a scenario where divergent opinions could prevail.
The poems in the anthology are varied in conception, presentation and diction; in conveyance of import – from explicit to cryptic. So also the measure of healing and empowering varies. Of course, these appraisals could differ from reader to reader. While the punctuation is irregular in many poems, the font size of the text of the poems could have been slightly bigger. And the bio of Anupama Raju, one of the poets, is missing.
“These days, Corona rules and inspires dread – like an ageing dictator, unsure of public mood and friendly reactions towards his decrees. Everybody talks of Corona only; this transnational virus stalks, maims and kills, often in the arbitrary style of a mythical monster. It is grim scene!” Sunil Sharma sums up the situation in his prose poem ‘Covid-19 and the Art of Paper-Boat-Making.
Now that the gravity of the situation is clear, let’s us get to assess a cross-section of the contents, and begin on an auspicious note of sagely wisdom of benevolence to everyone and malevolence to none, via a sublime story, narrated by Onkar Sharma. A peripatetic sage is waylaid, manhandled and robbed of whatever little he has by a gang of thieves, and the leader challenges him “to curse him to hell” –
but the saint radiates a smile and blesses him to dwell
in a prosperous land where he doesn’t have to steal
and where he doesn’t inflict anyone for food but can heal.
(The Muni Of The Desert)
And the story ends in the cathartic remorse of the thug.
Necessity is the mother of invention. The pandemic while unsettling all of us has also brought out some of our latent talents and powers. And Levi Marinucci invokes such a strength –
I remember our resilience,
our ability to endure the most difficult.
... ... ... ...
I call upon strength I didn’t know I had,
I go through feeling the pain,
all the way into healing and renewal.
(All The Way Through)
And there are situations where people can’t contain their pent-up negative emotions, as in the poem by Gerard Sarnat  –
So bad news aside,
silver lining’s southern fat
white racists may die
(Smoke This Sickness)
Perhaps the reason for this negativity can be traced to his earlier poem ‘Inner Climate Change’ –
Being human is
a bit more intense than most
of us can handle
The prolonged lockdown has made us all homebound and in most cases, the familial bond has got further cemented, as in Nabanita Sengupta’s poem –
In the open kitchen un-modular
conversation locked down for years
broke open sluice gates

Recipes of world
exotic spices
homegrown love
sautéed melodies
healed some long time bruised hearts.
While on the home front, we need to inculcate values in our children by living them ourselves. And we need to be introspective with an attitude of ‘Stop, look and proceed,’ as Usha Akella suggests –
Let us offer our children our wisdom not our greed.
Let us ask today, tomorrow and every day,
“Have I thawed at least one hard sinew in my heart?
Am I lighter when I reach the other side?”
What’s empowerment as a means to healing in the current viral crisis? In my view, it’s empowering ourselves with a matrix of mental makeup and executing an action plan – uncompromisingly observing all the precautions prescribed by the state as advised by health experts; keeping physically and mentally fit;  being particular about our dietary regimen to exorcise the claustrophobic devil; increasing our levels of immunity; knowing about and emulating the gestures of the kind-hearted toward the needy & hapless; being good neighbours; loving and protecting Mother Nature with her flora and fauna; following the time tested soul-elevating practices in our respective faiths; and cultivating a broader, eclectic, holistic, spiritual, and philosophical view of things.
Coming to the Nature part of the healing matrix, let’s hear what Shernaz Wadia says –
We need to bear a solemn, sobering responsibility
towards the vague future of a metamorphosing world
Can we return to nature? At least turn to it
while we battle an invisible, till now unconquered force?
Nature’s cathartic beauty will help us retain our sanity
(Nature Our Teacher)
Despite all the precautions we observe and the grit with which we live, there could still be some casualties, as Steve Denehan apprehends –
People are candles now
twilight flickering
some will blaze again
some will burn out
long before dawn
(The Virus, April 2020)
But let’s bear in mind that none of us is immortal and it’s the way of life. We have to accept life as it comes, with a stoic moxie. What matters is not mere longevity but the salubrious quality of life that we enjoy. Hasn’t Ben Jonson put it succinctly, as under?
It is not growing like a tree 
In bulk, doth make man better be;
Or standing long an oak, three hundred year,
To fall a log at last, dry, bald, and sere:
A lily of a day 

Is fairer far in May,
Although it fall and die that night—
It was the plant and flower of Light.”
So now, let’s sign off on a robustly optimistic note with Sanjna Plawat’s lyrics –
That day will come when hugs are warmer
That day will come when paths are full of laughter
That day will come when each day is a new chapter
That day will come [sic] no one is battling hunger
That day will come when home becomes a place to gather
That day will come when we live as brother and sister

(That Day Will Come)


  1. Thank you, sir, for such a wonderful review. I'm thrilled to see the mention of my poem 'The Muni of the Desert'.


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