On “Murmurs of Silence”

Review by: Pradipta Mukherjee 


Murmurs of Silence
by Ashoke Viswanathan
Priya Book House, Kolkata, 2022
72 Pages
Paperback, ₹ 200 INR

What I found absolutely intriguing is the title of this wonderful collection of poems. Ashoke Viswanathan calls it Murmurs of Silence. Silence is the source of the immense strength of this volume of poetry. The Silence that prevails over this collection is the ultimate weapon of power. It renders power and strength to Viswanathan’s verse. It is through silence that his evocative poems reveal the poet’s great art of conversation. Through silence they communicate more, they generate an interesting dialogue with the reader. Many of the poems are so open ended that they open themselves up to a variety of interpretations. As we delve deeper into his collection of verse, we realize that silence here is paradoxical because it is sometimes the poet’s best response and it helps him to nourish his mettle, his fortitude, his steadfastness and wisdom.
Witty, eloquent and epigrammatic in style, the collection is an artfully fabricated replica of day- to- day conversation. Mahatma Gandhi once stated “in the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness. Our life is a long and arduous quest after truth”.  Murmurs of Silence is the poet’s laborious quest for truth. Yet the labour is so very effortless. Poetry comes to Viswanathan spontaneously, effortlessly.  Combined with silence is patience, which makes him emerge stronger and more meaningful. Yet the poet is so quiet, we think we know him, but given his modernist sensibility, we only know what he allows us to know. 

Often, we find the poet describing his subjective impressions of the things around him. It is usually uncertain whether or not those impressions match reality, he may be sensing some unseen presence, or it could just be his imagination. These conversation poems escape being narrowly personal as they are combined with a vivid historical sense of the poet or speaker’s past experience. No flamboyant metaphors, no decorative imagery yet an evocative telling, defines his experience. It leads to the creation of subtle sensory impressions. Often he is an ancient watcher, a lone mourner, a flaneur figure, the cool, aloof observer-participant of urban city life. A complex dialectics is at work here. His poem “Vacillation” states: “To be or not to be; that is Hamlet. / The ice cubes withdraw, inside her gimlet. / I walk on regardless of my ennui—” (54).

And the last stanza reads “Quite often it’s best to try and forget. / Wrap up one’s dreams in lettuce leaves, just wet./ The moisture will dissolve disappointment/ And ready you for tonight’s appointment!” (54) 

Like T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” there is communication within the song, often a personal communication, the conflict with the self or the complex emotions of the speaking voice, where the romantic sensibility of the poet addresses just itself. 

The poet reminds me of Baudelaire’s essay “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863) and the flaneur was the dilettante observer. The flaneur carried a set of profuse associations: the man of leisure, the idler, the urban explorer, the connoisseur of the street. Such a figure was prominent in several impressionist paintings. Yet the paint patterns on the canvas of Murmurs of Silence are expressionist in articulation of ideas.  The impressionist canvas he paints in his poems lead to poems like “Memory” :

I have been in this place before,
And yet the region seems alien
It’s been just a few odd moments
And time’s become a chameleon
These roads are pointedly lonely; 
Full of solitary silence;
Who knows which are the memories
That add to their quiet violence!
When I return by the same paths
Leaving them out of my reverie
This place will seem to be just like
The memory of a memory. (48)

Not just the curious oxymoron of “quiet violence” but an impressionist canvas is wedded to an Eliotian modernist style.

His next poem on an impressionist canvas is the “Interlude”:

The train was silent for a while
Then strident in its warning cry;
Some dreams became as dry as dust
Forgive me; I didn’t mean to pry. 
It is very quiet time
Full of moisture and some smoke-rings
Why don’t I go and sit on the tracks
Questions the train amongst all things. (49)

Meditative and discursive in nature, the music in his verse opens our hearts when words cannot as in the Shakespeare poem “Failed Success”. Viswanathan sees poetry in everything: in nuances, in subtleties, in “denouncing the dissent”, in the mirror, in the “city full of blanks”, in the “city full of lies” or in the “city full of dread” as he opens up the city as a space for investigation, as a space for negotiation. He elevates the ordinary to the sublime, the mundane, commonplace to the transcendental.

An urban poet and a flaneur poet, he is aware that these are hard times to let go of fear and hatred. Poetry with its capacity to protest, witness, transform, inspire, unite – invites empathy and helps us to imagine a different vision of the world, “if only the birds sang/ Regardless of off days”.  His solitary mind, his sole musings achieve much more in isolation. The conversation tends to be digressive, abstract and includes philosophical speculation. The capacity to be both critical and empathetic, the willingness to be open to multiple perspectives, and the drive towards poiesis, are part of his artistic sensibility. It nurtures his creativity, his aesthetic sensibilities with a rigour and freshness. The leitmotif of the Great Banyan combined with recurrent images of crows and cats in some of his poems may be read allegorically for social upheavals and personal passions.

At times, the poet’s fantasy and superior imagination are at odds with each other. The poet here at work is recollecting either in sketches or simply putting forth in a personal diary the precise details of his experience. The reflection and the subtlety of his modulation, have taken the shape of recorded impressions. They evince that brilliant balance of irony, sadness, wit and humour. Each and every page is like turning the pages of a stream of consciousness album, consciousness as it flows from moment to moment. The beauty and poise of such photographic canvases are unmistakable. Such an enterprise of the imagination may sound complex, but it is as simple as any direct way of thinking and feeling about the world. They sound conversational but at every turn they remind us of poetry because of the accentual prosody of the lines and the prosody is neatly patterned. It sustains his musical artifice yet at its heart lies a contradiction, well negotiated by a speaking voice. The poems mark an absence of conspicuous musicality given the decorum of his conversational style.  Here is a poet who genuinely feels. The poet is sharing the same quotidian life as the reader and yet he feels so intensely as he brings into question fundamental notions of freedom and being.

A poet of distinction and refined sensibilities, Viswanathan is often subtle with the varied political implications his poems may have. It is the poet’s artistic sensibilities that helps this volume sail through. I have started believing that Ashok Viswanathan’s poetry is his favourite way to make peace, understand, respond, nurture and remember in such precarious times. No wonder the filmmaker in Ashok Viswanathan in “City of Death” states “My book of verse cannot be filmed” (27). But, who knows better than Ashok Viswanathan that poetry, with its self-reflexivity, self-referentiality and visual metaphors is at the heart of cinema.
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Pradipta Mukherjee
Pradipta Mukherjee, is a Film Critic and Associate Professor in the Department of English, Vidyasagar College for Women, University of Calcutta. Her published books include – Fluid Frame in Cinema: Collected Essays, published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing, UK, Studies in John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Shakespeare on the Celluloid: Global Perspectives.  She has co-authored a book titled Tragic Survivals: From the Hellenic to the Postmodern. She has three co-edited anthologies, Dodging Dystopia: Literary Routes: Global Circuits; The Diasporic Dilemma: Exile, Alienation and Belonging and Women’s Education in India: Past Predicaments and Future Possibilities. Mukherjee has presented her research at some of the most prestigious academic forums across the world at University of Paris 13, University of Amsterdam, University of London and Université of Grenoble Alpes. She is a regular columnist in The Statesman, one of India’s leading dailies.

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Ashoke Viswanathan
Ashoke Viswanathan, is a multiple national and international award winning filmmaker who is currently Professor and Dean at Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute, Kolkata. 

He has directed more than 150 film projects including feature films, documentaries, shorts and television shows. He has been the Chairman of the jury, National Film Awards on two occasions. Viswanathan has been a Visiting Professor at Tufts University, Boston and Monmouth University, New Jersey.

An active director, playwright and drama translator. His recent writings include Ikattar Ki Ladai and Shakespeare in Venice (both 2021).

Viswanathan writes regularly in mainstream media as well as in academic and literary journals (like LENSIGHT, LONDON MISCELLANY and TAKE ONE) on Film and Theatre. Murmurs of Silence (2022) is his first book of poems.

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