Alleys are Filled with Future Alphabets – Selected Poems by Gopal Lahiri

A Review by Dr. Ajanta Paul

Gopal Lahiri’s latest literary offering – Alleys are Filled with Future Alphabets – Selected Poems published by Rubric Publishing (2021) is a collection full of teasing surprises and prizes. The sudden turns in thought and feeling in the poems leading to fine existential ironies and poignant epiphanies are rewarding, to say the least. Divided into seven sections – “Voyages In,” “Voyages Out,” “Cityscape Silhouettes,” “Macrocosm,” “Haiku Series and Micro Poems,” “Travel Diaries,” and “Pandemic and Resilience,” the book sets out to explore lyrically worlds which co-exist and collide in fascinating formations.

If there is a single dominant theme that emerges from the welter of subjects featured in the said volume it appears to me to be that of ‘place,’ resonantly recuperated throughout the work and incremented upon, in the manner of a musical composition, with the related motifs of the journey and quest extending and embellishing it. The titles of the sections “Cityscape Silhouettes” and “Macrocosm” amply illustrate this contention evoking as they do, the notion of place, moving from the metropolitan mystique of beloved city Kolkata in the former to the larger apprehension of a national and elemental cosmos in the latter.

Ajanta Paul

Kolkata, the poet’s Muse by his own admission, is repeatedly and hauntingly recreated as the “earthly paradise” through the charismatic, though conventional icons of the Monument, the Maidan, the river Hooghly, tramlines, Kalighat pat paintings and “roadside shops decked in garlands of light.” Yet, through it all the narrator is curiously aware of the “smoke-swathed face of the city/bends and corners of the alley ways,” the “grim sky,” “the discoloured apartments,” and “cheap cigarettes” which depict effortlessly the sordid aspect of the city, attaining a sombre concatenation of effects in his reference to “dust, debris, hollow bones and living skeletons” in the poem “City Underbelly.”

Gopal Lahiri

Place is also “the landscape and the farmland” as it exists in the child’s memory in “My Freedom,” both pastoral idyll and maternal apotheosis rhapsodized by the speaker as “that refuge, that sanctuary.” In “Grandma’s Mirror” place comes to rest like an oxbow lake in the “forgotten, isolated paradise” of Grandma’s “private heaven” where she is “blissfully cut off from the rest/of the world,” mirroring or reflecting the frozen past in her “crisp white saree/with red border.”

Travel and transfer, comings and goings, and the search for new horizons as captured primarily in “Voyages In,” “Voyages Out,” and “Travel Diaries,” along with certain poems in some of the other sections, as well, explore the reality and romance of journeys, both actual and figurative. In several poems the distinctions between naturalistic and philosophical categories of space and travel are collapsed leaving them open to multiple interpretations. In “Departure,” for instance, while the train is “just one goodbye away from/the platform and the speaker gives “the stars a call/for the undestined travel,” to embark on a “parallel path of lights” which are “fresh from the other world” the actual and aspired movements are symbolically interposed to good poetic effect.

Journeys in time, complementing those in space appear in poems such as “Migration Camp,” which conjure up the horrors of refugee camps through a preponderance of graphic images. “Somewhere between my past and present/the life has frozen,” rues the narrator of the said poem in his perceptive recapitulation of history. The “nomadic trail” in the poem “Transit,” invoking police violence and judicial hearings among related procedures, and seeking “to attain life without boundaries,” evokes the forced migrations of people caught in the crossfire of political differences longing for a safe destination/homeland. The image of “life without boundaries,” becomes, in the context of spatial dispossession and subsequent itinerancy explored almost compulsively in Lahiri’s poems the quintessential trope for freedom.

The search for the other self, the ideal or the alter-ego, undertaken in “The Other1” and other similar poems presupposes another type of journey, subtle and subliminal in its effect as it unfolds in the reaches of the subconscious. Then, there is the journey within and between relationships as the speaker so adroitly expresses in “Time Capsule” where he maintains, “Between you and me, unspoken memories swirl/in the hovering time capsule,” or in “I Still Love,” where he promises his beloved that he would return to her “again and again.” From inward, spiritual forays to outward projections, journeys in Lahiri’s poetry unfold on various levels, not excepting the cosmic one as when the speaker in “City Lights” sees “imaginary ships sailing between clouds and stars.”

Place and time are beautifully intermingled in the poem “Dreamland,” and journeys are informed with nuances of nostalgia: “My journeys across the distant lands hum sad songs/memories are like unreliable confessions resting/under the mango tree.” This is one of those rewarding surprises mentioned at the outset of the piece. Heroic outward trajectories are unexpectedly undercut by a simile intensely local, even rustic in its simple but arresting associations, investing the utterance with the sense of a felt reality difficult to achieve. Intricately wrought with detail, and fraught with a fine fervour of feeling, (what the poet possibly describes as “latent fire” in an eponymous poem) the poems in this collection display a rare sensitivity to the world in all its manifold and mutating manifestations.  

Lahiri’s poems tremble on the seismic fault-lines of rupture and rapture; sometimes shattering into shards of loss and loneliness, and gathering, at others, into an awareness of bliss. In “New Script,” for instance, he moves from “the smoke of old factories” and “poverty segregation” of “a modern nightmare” to scripting his “unforgettable dream.” Such a movement from crises to oases is what sets apart Lahiri’s collection of poems as he negotiates the binaries of reality and illusion, past and present and darkness and light in plangent parables of loss, search, frustration and fulfilment.

In addition to the themes of place, travel and quest is a concern for creativity, so crucial to the experience and development of a poet. Time and again Lahiri returns to this extraordinary passion, celebrating “the splash of (his) buried alphabets” in “Picasso’s Guitar;” the “moon channel passing through” every “sentence” in “Diary Page;” and the “hidden stories (which) draw on a cache of scripted letters” in “Stagecraft,” to mention just a few instances. Words, to the poet are the keys which open magic portals; the talismans of truth which spur him on, and also, a synergising semantics which merges sapience with sensuousness.

A precise sense of observation coupled with a synaesthetic imagination which constantly challenges the edges and borders of experience enables Lahiri to re-invent the old verities of objects and ideas into new projections of poetic truth. His forte lies in imagery, at once translucent and transformative that fuses together different orders of sensory perception in the crucible of the imagination so as to create an authenticity of mood and moment which carries the poem along its inspired impetus. In “Coorg Concerto” in the “Travel Diaries” section, for instance, the simile, “tiny birds in flight (are) like/forgotten punctuation marks,” illustrates my point even as a metaphor like “my guitar/weaves raindrops” in Haiku Series -5 is appealing in its limpid simplicity. Another image, “mother earth/bleeding/molten lavas,” in the same poem further shows the raw immediacy and pointed pithiness of his imagery.

A handsome production, with an attractive cover design by Jharna Sanyal, the book merits a place in every collector’s list. On the whole Alleys are Filled with Future Alphabets by Gopal Lahiri is a delightful and thought-provoking read, and I sincerely hope that the poet will continue to tune “the unknown scale,” as he so memorably mentions in “Picasso’s Guitar.”

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