Towards a Composite Experience of Light

Book Review by: Malashri Lal


Shimmer Spring: Prose and Poetry
Presented by Kiriti Sengupta
Paintings by Pintu Biswas
Hawakal Publishers, November 2020
ISBN: 9788194853848
Pages 124
₹ 2500 INR / $ 31.99 USD 


Shimmer Spring is a paean to luminosity—to those mysterious half-lights that suggest a range of possibilities from romance to ruination. The forty poets included in this volume—I’d like to count the editor among them—have captured the effervescence of time, the almost invisible yet inevitable changes that mark the journey of emotions. Kiriti Sengupta is inspired by Rabindranath Tagore’s lines, “Light that emanates from the core of gloom is your glow. Goodness, wide-awake among all discord, is your truth,” and he recognizes the frequency with which the principle of light governs our daily engagements as well as the flights of poesy. It’s a remarkable configuration to organize a volume, but the result is impressive, especially as Pintu Biswas’s vibrant paintings in a semi-abstract mode capture the essence of words on a page. The editor’s preface, “Sublime Submissions,” sets the tone with teasing questions: “How do we perceive light? How do we intuit its source? It can be cockcrow, it can be the candle we float in the river, it can reasonably be the lantern Ma placed at my study...” The scope is vast. From Usha Kishore’s sonorous invocation of the Gayatri Mantra to the grief of final parting as in Ranu Uniyal’s “Benediction,” light leaves that fleeting yet indelible mark on our memories.

Here are a few striking examples. Sudeep Sen’s masterly lines express the impossibility of subduing light even when one is engulfed in darkness as, philosophically speaking, each suggests the other: “Late at night, light leaks — spilling / beyond the door’s rectangle edge — // a cleaving schism, its shape — / a partial crucifix, a new resurrection” (“Hope: Light Leaks”). Such images are trans-cultural, reaching into the depths of human experience for which, perhaps, only spiritual vocabulary can provide the strongest resonance. The writers in the volume come from different locations—India, USA, UK, Norway, Pakistan, Peru, among others—but as expected of the binding theme, they offer their perception of light in multiple manifestations. But turning to the second word in the title of the volume, “spring,” we are taken to another ungraspable phenomenon—the tangible expressions of Nature’s magical blossoming, yet so transient.

A stunning sequence about this ephemeral aspect comes from Usha Akella, the founder of Matwala Festival and collective, who remembers her father singing: “The petal of flame holds steady / in the cup of the lantern’s glass, / from his shy mouth, emerge winged things— / Hindi sings testing flight in the darkness...” (“My Father Sings”). It is very likely that the most poignant moments are remembered through the play of the sun’s rays—or their absence—because the passage of time and seasons halts not even for shifts in the diurnal cycle. I turn momentarily to Katacha Diaz, a Peruvian American writer, to check if cultural variations have an impact on how one reflects about shimmers by the sea, and I find these lines in her poem, “In the Pacific Northwest,” which demonstrate that raging floods are universal though couched in distinct expressions of location:

 

“Surreal river

mirage floating in the fog

tugboat sky castles.”

      

Riverine images juxtaposed with the cityscape emerge as a recurrent pattern in the poems. Some step out enticingly, as in the words of Rochelle Potkar, whose poetry collection Paper Asylum was shortlisted for the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize 2020.

 

“Smoking brainwaves of an unknown city

fish skins on paper

I recall skeletons of caper

amid scuffles on a wooden settee.” (“Loafer”)

 

Elsewhere, Jagari Mukherjee associates the glistening “nets of rain” with a lost romance. Basudhara Roy equates a broken relationship with the “lining ripped off love’s kantha work,” and Neera Kashyap wonders if she is a moth “spiraling towards the radiance.” The diversity of situations and voices bring endless topics to the quest for “shimmer spring,” some of the best poetry being strongly imagistic.

A part of the volume comprises prose pieces that are somewhat lost in their search of a genre. Often poetic, occasionally narrative, but always experimental, they are written as musings rather than chiseled pieces. On the other hand, one could say they are prose poems, which transits between various forms. This, in itself, might be a powerful quest for the correct format to contain the emotions.

Joan Kwon Glass, who is a second-generation American with roots in Korea, writes of motherhood in a diary format (“Paris, June 2017”) that could be either prose or poetry:

 

“What I remember most about Paris are the pigeons

beneath the Eiffel Tower. How when my daughter

chased them, they filled the esplanade like dandelion seeds.”

 

Raja Chakraborty’s “Joker,” Koushik Sen’s “Hands,” and Kanchan Dhar’s “Becoming the Himalayas” are bold, imagistic prose exploring the English language for its unexpected collocations, with that surprise at the end of a paragraph/stanza. Definitions break down in such writing, and Carl Sandburg comes to my mind with the words: “Poetry is a phantom script telling how rainbows are made and why they go away.” That too belongs to the drama of light.

This book is melting the boundary between poetry and prose and amalgamating painting in its endeavor towards a composite experience. The perfect blend of various elements is found in Mamang Dai’s poem “Oasis,” illustrated by Pintu Biswas.

 

“The oasis is a memory of rain.

Beloved of the sun, the long dune stretches

dreaming of a summer of splendid wilderness

chasing a river with eyes and limbs

and the visage of a god.”

 

The watercolor sketch shows a black, storm-tossed palm tree under which a woman is trying to stand but is buffeted by the high wind. Her arms outstretched, her hair streaming behind her, she is almost supplicating before the tree god. The trunk of the tree is almost in the form of another woman in earthy red as a contrast to the black fronds. Pintu’s sketches throughout the book are superb in style as well as interpretive quality.

Altogether Shimmer Spring is a joy to behold and keep. Priced on the expensive side, one may hesitate to buy, but it is worth every penny. It makes a lovely keepsake or an attractive gift.


Malashri Lal, Department of English (retd), Delhi University, is a writer, editor, and critic based in New Delhi. She is currently a Member of the English Advisory Board of the Sahitya Akademi.

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