Book Review: Jharna Sanyal’s ‘The Nomadic Trail’

The Nomadic Trail
Author: Jharna Sanyal
Rubric, New Delhi, 
₹ 300/-

Reviewed by Gopal Lahiri, Poet and Critic

On the Trail of Sculpting Poems

Poetry, often said, offers us insight and truth that feels like the poet working in this place that’s sort of beyond knowing or beyond explanation, and yet it rings the deepest bell of truth within the mind of readers. ‘The Nomadic Trail’, the captivating debut collection of poems, written by Jharna Sanyal, delivers a big knock of meaning and connection, rich space to explore the human experience if we are equal to the challenge of unearthing the truth, if we will take the time to pause and ponder with the surroundings. There is a strikingly contemporary voice in her poems conflating the mythical and the real to the unnerving effect.

Jharna Sanyal is a reputed academician, translator and poet. In her ‘Postface’, she wrote, ’Poetry, reading or writing, is a journey through thoughts, ideas, words, sounds and images. Walking in and out of poems, following the trails, taking a sudden turn, or may be revisiting old sites, or, unexpectedly discovering our own selves are some of the pleasures of poetry.’ In ‘The Nomadic Trail’ the readers also move with the poet in this poetic trail, crossing different nodes of locales and cultures.

Her poems bring easy charm to candid reflections on travel, unattended love, loss and human frailty, the results are moving and thought provoking. In this stirring, witty and emotive collection, there are seventy poems that focus on the working of the images, memory, literature, myth and history and also on the physical world around us.

What is all the more remarkable is that her engaging poems explore life in all its forms, from “A Dutch Cemetery” at “Bheemunipatnam”, to the ‘Wizened woman of Aizawl’, tenderly slicing pineapples. The poet has an eye for the vivid image (read snake especially) and her poetic canvas is effortlessly wide and resplendent. She records the human experience in poetry alive with beauty and wisdom.  Her poems seek out new and revealing perspectives on the human condition and gives context to them so that they can work within a system that highlights the nuances of living.

From monographs of a ‘A Barbecue Evening at Long Island, NY’ to elicitations of ‘Matsyagandha and Parasar’ the poet is intensely receptive to questions of learning bubble and the ephemeral state of life. The openness, optimism and spirits shared through the verse, each with a different alignment, portray a bigger picture of the innermost corner, yet at the same time her poems can be touching and thoughtful addressing history and culture that combine rich diction and deft use of form.

The following poem offers forthright presence: a personal voice making honest admissions. It’s a poem that opens hands and heart to a reader — no double talk or cryptic shadings which has become easier to tune into the core. The images don’t inhabit a world- they are the world.

My monsoon in Kolkata I carry with me
to the fields of slaughter and vengeance
Let there be rain. (A Prayer for Rain)

In a series of exquisitely appealing, nostalgic poems, the poet returns from her past to a changed world where ‘memory is overtaken by memory: frame replaces frame’, where perhaps everything has been rewelded forever.

In this lonely Manhattan cell,
On a white Christmas night, I sit under a lime tree
And watch snowflakes covering A Rangpur ground. (Rangpur Gin).

Her poetry and to what many other important modern poets are trying to teach us – not always through fear and guilt, but through appealing to our senses, including the sense of beauty. The poet knows that oddness can make for great storytelling — better even if it’s infused with irony. 

The missing soldiers are logged on to portals
of recapitulation and retrieval.

Like a waylaid love song
the gentle breeze falters among the artful aliens. (Ceramic Poppies)

A poem has to be more than its surface message, however discerning, however wise. And there is that sense of sharing and compassion that moves through then at those moments or when you’re writing a poem. Her unusual impulses with language channel a deep sense of loss. 

Overexposed shots
tamper with the ecology of images.

War photographs never tell the truth. (Battlefields).

What I admire most about this collection is that the poet demonstrates her genius with language in a simple way. She is relatable, never writing from the lofty heights of the dream tower, but walking alongside us, inviting us to play, to riddle out the oddness of language with her.

Sometimes her poems can feel distracting, but she also approaches these issues with mordant, wit and moving sentiment. There is, for a long time after, the shock of the new reality and the difficulty applying the fact of the change to each moment that comes next. Have we ever seen a better image than these snippets?

‘The knife pierced through the flesh
Juice oozed out drenching her palms:
Revealing the secrets of birth and deliverance. (Pineapples)’.

Poetry is actually making a story out of a moment and here is a poet who can empty that moment in many different forms and ways. In creating a kind of word disorder, quivers in the mosaic of language, she shakes us into a new zone of attention.

‘The gull is poised to fly.
It spread its wings
To shut out the sun
And hold the world
In the circle of its wings. (Flight).

She is a natural poet with a lightness of touch and resilience, not overlooking to see her state within a broader cultural and historical context. In the tighter confines of short poem, the poet finds a more surgical way to register how moments may speak with a cryptic tongue in the following poem.

‘When I can’t find the butter-knife
I use the mutton-chopper,
When I can’t find my slippers
I walk barefoot.
When I can’t find time
Waiting waits for me. (Default Setting)

Some of her poems are sharp, concise and succinct and have a tended quality. The following poem is amusing and abstruse-stands apart for its recompense. The poet travels light, irradiated yet never chained by scholarship, and investigates the way life does.

‘Someone had photoshopped a cat
in Monalisa’s arms, -not that she
could do anything about it just as
she could do nothing about her smile. (Photoshop)

Her poems often teach us to look again and beckon us to find the enigmatic wisdom in the highs and lows of living. The poet appreciates the worth of delicacy and frailty, exploring the struggle and suffering of our lives through poems that speak eloquently of insight and alertness.

i wasn’t aware
i was in love with you,
your eyes told me
Please don’t wear kajal
i hate it underlined. (Ctrl+u)

The love of wildness, especially snake, is palpable in the signature poem – in a literary sense, too. In particular, she borrows light from the nature that quivers between ominous and fresh resolve to conserve ‘as is the strategy of the survival game’. She is a sensual illusionist of nature. 

Like a skein of silk weaving
itself into the green fringe of
the winding uphill asphalt road
it glided: a cursive script
magically writing itself
only to disappear without a trace (The Snake)

The poet excels in adopting the conventional form- its imagery, is metaphor, its language- makes it her own, cantering the experience of the unchartered territories. Poetry is a sublime song, and astonishing art form, a linguistic feat and its rhymes and charms surprise the reader. At the same time, it tickles curiosity, inspires awe and pulls your heart strings by her poems.

‘Waiting lingered
like a slippery shawl
till the chair fell fast asleep. (The Chair by the Window)

The following poem stares straight into grief’s paralysis and the continual climbing out — simply to do whatever small things follow It’s true that the splendour of language (read chair) is as much a matter of sound as of meaning but not the empty cannons of rhetoric.

‘Two white chairs
in darkness
tore up each other
in ferocious silence,
-flesh, blood and bones. (Two White Chairs)

Jharna Sanyal has always had a gift for restabilising the personal universe in her poems. “The Nomadic Trail,” is strong, deep as gravity and provides integral insights into the personal and intellectual experiences, portraying an urgent account of life and the surroundings.

This is a border book, rural and urban at once, for all human beings who embrace one another, or think they relate to them in a seamless manner. This is a major book for our time. One will keep returning to her poems for the sheer pleasure of them. 

The cover design is artistic. This book stands out from the pack and is definitely a worth buy.

Gopal Lahiri
Bio: Gopal Lahiri is a Kolkata-based bilingual poet, critic, editor, writer and translator with 21 books published, 13 in English and 8 in Bengali, including three joint books. His poetry is also published across various anthologies as well as in eminent journals of India and abroad. He has been invited in various poetry festivals including World Congress of Poets recently held in India. He works have been published in 12 countries and in 10 languages.


  1. CONGRATS, Gopal ji. Interesting book review; pampered the reader with inviting clips of the author's poems.Enjoy the read. Thank you.


We welcome your comments related to the article and the topic being discussed. We expect the comments to be courteous, and respectful of the author and other commenters. Setu reserves the right to moderate, remove or reject comments that contain foul language, insult, hatred, personal information or indicate bad intention. The views expressed in comments reflect those of the commenter, not the official views of the Setu editorial board. प्रकाशित रचना से सम्बंधित शालीन सम्वाद का स्वागत है।