Swan Lake (New Poems 2018-21) by Gopikrishnan Kottoor

SWAN LAKE (New Poems 2018-21) 

by Gopikrishnan Kottoor
Kavya Adisakrit, Chennai 2021. 

Review by Nandini Sahu

I just came across this unputdownable book of poems, Swan Lake, by Gopikrishnan Kottoor, a poet who I admire. The collection is massive; there is not a subject which the book hasn’t touched upon. A few pertinent questions came to my mind when I went through Gopikrishnan Kottoor’s poems. What are the basic reasons behind the Indian poets’ invariable, immense love of the past? Is it because they find the contemporary society corrupt, unjust, distancing itself from the values upheld by tradition? Is it because of their consciousness of the fleeting nature of time? For anxiety of death? Familial glitches in the present? Or is it because they have chosen to write in a language that is not their own? It is because they meet an identity crisis because of the loss of the virtue of childhood? Or for their wont to dissent gender discrimination? A close study of the poetry collection Swan Lake of Kottoor would certainly answer such baffling questions of any reader of literature.


I would start by quoting a simple yet meaningful poem where the poet talks about the existential issues of life.


“Looking at My Father’s Photograph on Father’s Day”

That calm gaze on his face,
That awaits
the wuthering moor.
The valleys made fonder with sorrow where
Those shivering lights hung,
a night’s sad waters.
I look at him,
stopping to think what thought must have been in his mind.
(Kottoor 24) 

The manifestation of such a foundation of the self vis-à-vis his father makes it imperative that we acknowledge the implication of plurality of identity in Kottoor’s poetry. Being phenomenal, the self assumes a number of identities in time and finds self-identity in the past, in recollection of his antiquity.

Kottoor’s historical sensibility is strident and acute. His awareness of history, which is hinted at in this anthology of poems gets powerfully predictable in several of the family poems in Swan Lake. The consciousness of the tragedy of India, and of being an Indian comes through a few poems. Kottoor, with his tragic vision, is able to evoke the recurring pattern of historical catastrophe and individual suffering. The strong nostalgic note, which is a prominent feature of Kottoor’s poetry, does not portray the nostalgia of a whole society which looks back, rather he has the attitude of love-hate to the past, at once drawn towards and deterred by it.

From personal narratives, the poet constantly passes on to a depiction of shared or collective experience. He seeks relief in a collective past, continuously goes back to India’s shared heritage of myth and tradition. The despair of the life of the sophisticated Indian today, torn by conflicting pulls and conflicts, attains a tragic dimension in Kottoor’s hands. He is active to the debauched social milieu of modern India. His poetry echoes the dilemma of one who, while cerebrally convinced of the need for relating himself to history through tradition, is unprotected to a milieu, the contemporary Indian one, in which the main models are that of tradition, myth, literature, domesticity. There is, in short, an intensely discomforting perception of the near complete demythified certainty of the present.

Here is a poem that is pertinent to the theme:

“Tiger Skin”

I still remember the tiger skin
Halcyon on the wall in our Pooja room
Vying with the great Gods, Lord Krishna, Shiva,
And the little Elephant-God.
Its snowing lamb-fleece from under,
Rising aurous
Across looped black-rock lashes;
That scoop of one lone curved claw, faded jewel,
A resting fang.
Mother would spread it upon the floor
Revering there the Bhagavad-Gita
as she lit the sacred oil lamp;
And then, Om Nama Shivaya
Transcendent, rocked all eyes
shut in nirvana,
And I forgot
the homebound birds’ pecking lullaby
Outside our window,
While rising acrophilic
In a rendezvous of razoring sabre
That cut through the rhythm
of our night bells pealing,
The curved claw a lit ruby,
Pincing muted terror
There he stood
By the misted water’s edge,
the last red drops on his tongue,
a quiet mantra,
Trickling down his dripping avalanche.
(Kottoor 35)

It is in his love poems that one can impeccably trace the poet’s love for the past. As we move from Kottoor’s early poetry to later, a subtle transformation in his attitude to the past is discernible. The poet comes out of his cloistered tower and recognizes himself with the grand tradition that flows behind him. This deliberate removal of the self from the remote past, and the necessity to identify himself with the racial past is not only symptomatic of growth but also of a continuity with the present. Desire to encompass multitudes and a desire to involve himself in the matters of contemporary living make Kottoor’s poetry more universal. Personal or even racial past is a redeemer, a giver of joy to Kottoor. He not only idealises the past, but watches an involution of the present-day out of the historical existence through his poetry. He bridges the gap between the past, present and future which authorizes him a timeless existence where the self-ego melts away giving way to self-humility.

Emotional experiences of Kottoor collide with a callous self-analysis, and a tone of utter sincerity thereof. The most obvious feature of Kottoor’s poetry is the uninhibited forthrightness with which he talks about gender, refer non-chalantly to body politics and body-processes. Kottoor uses memory as a theoretical tool to seek reclamation. It is a cosmic effect to recover the happinesses of this living. His ambitions are restricted. He does not make those vast, larger-than-life motions in the manner of South American or Central American poets. There is no redundant dialogue of death and frenzied despair, no designs of despair. Ecstasies, when they break through to the exterior world, are submissive. Poetry is a personal rather than a social gesture with Kottoor. He tries to give shape, order, clarity to his knowledge and extract some harmony out of the chaos around him. And above all, Kottoor is never an escapist. He never escapes from the solidity of time. The past is a method to transform him; hence he lives in the past, loves it, nurtures it. He tries to give a new meaning to the present through the past.

Here is a poem keeping to the standpoint:



A light brown heifer
tethered to a stump
rises in circles; and sensing it cannot
get off its rope-hold
calls out to its mother, perhaps dreaming of her udder.
Upon the red-brown mossed laterite hill,
the serpent-twined Radhamadhavam puts forth its arduous red
like Radha’s fingers playing upon Krishna’s lute upon
his lips;
The rice fields ripple their green milk into the river
as the few mynahs and parakeets
trim the dragon-fly air, a lonely blood eyed koel cowering
among the low branches of the yellow red fruiting cashew blossoms
with juicy smells of arousal
of calf-love wedded to love’s nudity among haystacks.
(Kottoor 54)

Kottoor is a distinct voice; he belongs to the historiography of Indian poetry of the great masters, and seamlessly creates a tradition for the progeny to emulate. He ‘sweeps with many coloured brooms’, he is proficient of being the rich pedigree of Indian poetry.  

It would be apt to conclude by quoting one of the poems from the anthology:


“Bring Them to Me”

Bring them to me
Such beautiful poems
That coral your smile
Allow me to pluck them
Without hurting them.
And let me have them
Just to show you how
You are a maker
Of love’s colours.
Next time you come
Bring some more beautiful poems
That dolphin your eyes
Whenever you give me
That wide look of the sea.
I’ll be waiting
Watching you go
Where you take me
Where such beautiful poems
Become eternity.
(Kottoor 236)



Prof. Nandini Sahu, Professor of English and Former Director, School of Foreign Languages, IGNOU, New Delhi, India, is an established Indian English poet, creative writer and folklorist. She is the author/editor of fifteen books. She is the recipient of the Literary Award/Gold Medal from the hon’ble Vice President of India for her contribution to English Studies. Her areas of research interest cover New Literatures, Critical Theory, Folklore and Culture Studies, Children’s Literature and American Literature.


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