Book Review: Crimson Corset (Naina Dey)

Author: Naina Dey
Book: Crimson Corset (Poems)
Year of Publication: 2022
Pages: 85
Price: ₹ 295.00 / $ 25.00

Book Review by Aparna Singh

There is something about love poems that stays with us long after the initial feel-good, that keeps the readers on hold, fades. Amidst turmoil love is the one certain thing that remains; fighting all odds as it were. We may or may not have fallen in love but love poems while tugging at our heartstrings can propel us through the labyrinth of love and life. Naina Dey’s Crimson Corset a collection of 53 love poems is a fitting (re)presentation of and response to these aspects and many more. The epigraph by the author sets the tone for the journey these poems embark on as they speak through the poet’s “beautiful battered body”.

Naina Dey

The first poem ‘My Heart is a Lyre’ coaxes the reader out of “sodden mud” the very purpose that the poems in Dey’s collection set out to achieve. We wait in anticipation for the gentle yet impactive images to entice us into an alluring miasma of love, loss and longing. The poems emerge from the “womb of time” as Dey delves deep into the recesses of memory carrying the remnants of a past that is indelibly intertwined with the present. At times the mundane is reassuring as long as it does not induce a painful stock taking of memories: 

I drop the potatoes one by one into the filigreed basket

Myself into the well of depression for the hundredth thousandth time

The title poem ‘Crimson Corset’ surprises us with its honest voyeurism. We are suddenly left gazing at the women’s cubicle “smelling faintly of phenyl and pee” filtered through the shocked and stupefied gaze of the poet. ‘Happy Birthday’, ‘Shopping’ and ‘A Poem on Love’ traverse through the bitter-sweet deceptions of love as the lovers “settle for Kati rolls and false promises”. The lover as a faceless disembodied projection of love is much more promising than the one seen through the conventional, socially approved lenses in ‘Faceless’:

Aparna Singh

I will love you
as long
as you stand faceless
at the edge of my desires

The act of writing is also an act of inscribing one’s identity as much as one’s perception of love. Expressing love is akin to being who you want to be, to “mould my heart the way I want like a child’s clay pressed and squeezed into a leaf, a bud, a star that will delight not bleed…” One can only pause and ponder over the remarkable yet subtle beauty of the poet’s imagination when she fathoms the lover’s written messages as harbingers of fertility in ‘When You Write to Me’. One cannot however miss the strong undercurrent of ambivalence as the poet contemplatively unveils her vulnerable self behind the “wall of silence”. The different conflicting facets of love have been poignantly woven into a rich tapestry of self-realisation and resilience, sometimes tacit sometimes ebullient. Love is about waiting patiently and quietly in ‘One Day’ a marked detour from her exploration of infidelity and the carnal in ‘Killing a Man’ and ‘As You Scatter Your Poems’. To bring something for the lady love has been a longstanding litmus test for proving love’s validity. In ‘“For You” Says He to Her’ Dey playfully toys with such modalities:


For you oh love
I will fetch
Aladdin’s magic lamp
crossing the seven seas
For you I will dive below the waves
for the life-restoring wand
that makes the dead branch sprout new leaves

Dey readjusts her critical lens to those very expressions of love that could have been mistaken for crude sensuality. There is an astute handling of emotions, words, and the body when she smoothly transits from the primal desire for survival to the desire for immortality. The wish to hope as long as one breathes imbues most of these verses; “dum spiro spero”. Though the poems stand out as self-sustaining images of love they often seamlessly blend into a continuing narrative strain, a touching enunciation that crosses boundaries of time and space as we are left expecting for “someone to come one day”. Two poems on friendship (‘Friend’ and ‘Old Friends’) mine the link between love that is steeped in longing and desire and love as a reflection of nostalgia and remembering.

In Erakà the mythical reference to the grass that refuses to be uprooted and grows as a destructive force celebrates real feminism (in contrast to pseudo feminism) as a powerful tool of resistance and reaffirmation of self:

I will become

many many me
who will laugh
at your tireless foolish striving
as you uproot and self-destruct
over and over again

Irony is not one of the most sought-after literary devices when it comes to poetry on love. But Dey has a quirky sense of humour that borders on the scathing. In ‘Allergy’ for example, the sharp visuals of a woman visibly flustered and discomfited segues into a trenchant feminist statement; “For what is a woman who cannot seduce with her helplessness?” When an affair lasts as long as the smell of perfume “love” takes backseat in the poem aptly called ‘Perfume’. Her ability to see behind the veil of normative impositions comes across strongly in a poem like ‘Tongue Talk’.

Silence looms, almost formidably, when the poet cannot tell what she really wants to tell. We are gripped by the fear of age, loneliness and death and realise that it was always there even when Dey was brooding rapturously about love and lovelessness, faith and faithlessness.

Love and devotion are nothing
At least not for us women
Love one, covet another
Revere one, fuck another
And we play along with our bodies and our minds

Dr Peter Schulman, in his articulate introduction to the poems appositely titled ‘Definitions of Love and Memory’ delves into the multicoloured definitions of love explored by Dey. According to Schulman Crimson Corset, is a beautiful and sensual collection where “love is indeed defined by a plethora of images of dissolving time, erupted memory, perfumes, gazes, music and metaphors. Similar to Marcel Proust’s famous madeleine that is able to resurrect pages of memory from its simple dunking into a cup of tea, and to, as T.S. Eliot might say, Dey mixes “memory and desire” with cruelty, intensity and joy.” The intensity and joy that Schulman mentions is quite in sync with poetic expressions of love that have withstood the ravages of time but it is the cruelty – stark and poignant - that we must brace ourselves for in Dey’s collection. It unsettles us with its raw honesty.


My tongue that gives me words
My tongue that wags at you
like a cocky forefinger
Your contempt for beauty,
for truth
makes you distort my words
to want to tear out my tongue
But it doesn’t matter
I will pick up my severed tongue
and put it in a shredder
till it turns into minced meat


Escaping into buried memories, shrouded in the unspoken, is Dey’s way of sustaining love even when she is torn apart by its incompatible demands. But it is also her acute sense of space that harbours the reader’s attention. Be it in ‘Inis Mor’ or in the ‘National Gallery, London’, memories wait to be relived and remade. Dey is equally aware of love in troubled times (‘Love During Covid-19’). Ensconced in her deliberately devised unapologetic stance she rues “Love is for TV in good times and fake apocalypses”. While commenting on them Schulman pertinently says: “Yet, within a kaleidoscope of vivid colours, perfumes and intense desires, it is only fitting that a world-wide lockdown be included in this collection as well as Dey is not afraid to confront reality and truth since the quotidian infuses and is at the heart of Dey’s poetry.” The poems may not consciously grasp toward the universal but the universal is there nevertheless. It is this very artful artlessness that throws the readers off guard.

Her poems become coping mechanisms as they manufacture new worlds animated with desire, love, heartbreaks and a craving for beauty. Distilled with the possibilities that life has to offer the lover is ready to wait over a “half-empty glass of juice till it is time to reach where the sea meets the sky.”



Author’s Bio-note: Naina Dey is a critic, translator and a widely anthologised creative writer. She has authored several books on critical studies, translations and three volumes of poetry. She was member of the jury for the International Poetry Chapbook Contest 2018 organised by Rhythm Divine Poets, Kolkata and a festival elegate representing Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library at the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival 2019. She was awarded the “Excellence in World Poetry Award, 2009” by the International Poets Academy, Chennai and was among a team of young Indian writers to be felicitated jointly by Sahitya Akademi and Visva-Bharati University in 2010. Of her latest publications are a translation of Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s “Gupi Gain O Bagha Bain” and One Dozen Stories, a book of short story translations. She is Eastern Zonal Secretary of The Shakespeare Society of India, New Delhi, and regularly conducts Shakespeare events on behalf of the Society. She is concept creator of literary and artistic organ Chamunda’s Dream.



Reviewer’s Bio-note: Aparna Singh is an Assistant Professor of English at Diamond Harbour Women’s University. She is a poet, critic and short story writer. She has worked as a copyeditor with Sahitya Akademi. Her area of interest includes Dalit literature and Indian Writing in English.

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