poetry picks

Eleven books of poetry you should read this year

Some of the finest Indian writing in English is in the form of poetry. A poet and editor offers his recommendations.

Indian poetry in English (and in English translation) continues to delight readers. Last week we looked back at the best of Indian poetry in 2014. Now, we consider poetry books that are due out in 2015, including a few books that came out at the tail end of last year and were not noticed adequately, and some others that had slipped under the radar.

All One’s Blue, Kazim Ali
Kazim Ali’s All One’s Blue (HarperCollins) is a marvellous collection that showcases the best poetry from all his previous collections, including new poems. His work is marked with a finely concentrated use of language that pushes the understated lyric mode to its limit. Beautiful, intelligent, moving, wide-ranging and finely wrought ‒ this is poetry not just for poetry and literature lovers, but everyone. Kazim Ali is an outstanding poet, and you will be fundamentally changed after immersing in his verse.

Time’s Barter, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih
Employing a variety of forms ranging from the narrative free verse to the succinct oriental structures, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih’s poetry is observational, descriptive, political, and by turns tender, sincere and uncompromising ‒ using a wide palette and the largely untapped canvas of India’s North East. His new book, Time’s Barter (HarperCollins), a collection of two prominent waka forms ‒ haiku and senryu ‒ transports us to the same kind of metaphorical spaces as these classical verse-forms would have in ancient Japan. Only here, the poet plays with the original structure to cleverly localise the content, injecting new meaning and texture, adding an Indian fabric. Enjoy these verses for their evanescence, packed lyricism, wistfulness, and meditation.

The Seductions of Delhi, Abhay K
The Seductions of Delhi (Bloomsbury India) by Abhay K is a gentle look at Delhi’s edifices, its people, and reflections on the city’s seven capitals. The book contains beautiful black-and-white drawings with layered gold-leaf and red watercolour washes by the Italian architect and artist, Tarshito Nicola Strippoli. The visuals are almost zen-like, spiritual and minimalist in nature. Complementing the art, the poetry is spare and pointed too. Take for example the poem Delhi:

My smell,
my nakedness
hordes of human flesh
from faraway lands.

up on the hill.
a feast of eagles —

This small-format hardback edition is beautifully designed and a joy to hold. As Pavan Varma in the Preface says, “Delhi needs its own balladeers. In Abhay K., it has found one.”

Eidolon, Sandeep Parmar
Sandeep Parmar’s superb first collection was The Marble Orchard. Her second, Eidolon (Shearsman UK), is “partly a modern revision of the Helen myth. Eidolon meditates on the visible and invisible forces of Western civilisation from classical antiquity to present-day America. An Eidolon is an image, a ghost, a spectre, a scapegoat. It is a device, like deus ex machina, to deal with the problem of narrative, specifically Helen’s supposed deceit and infidelity. The Eidolon, as a device, is something beauteous and beguiling ‒ as a thing, or as a preoccupation, it is the siren song to the poet who listens for silence. Who gives Helen her voice and what need unites it into a single, constant loathsome creature? Helen is as much the city of Troy as its famed plains and high walls. It might as well be Helen smouldering on the great pyre of defeat, even though she escapes unscathed in Homer’s Odyssey and is restored to her husband’s side by the eidolon’s unique guarantee of her chastity”.  Here is an excerpt:

Helen denuded                              Helen
a place of palor where
silk shrinks around her throat
exits the office

mindless purposeless walking
into and out of
through and over
up and around
into and out of
hands waving mindless purpose

metal tint to everything               Stesichoros blinded
for watching her
cross the street
outside and into
the car, horn blaring

Sita of the Earth and Forests, Athena Kashyap
In her second book of poems, Sita of the Earth and Forests (Stephen F Austin State University Press, USA), Athena Kashyap takes on many of the familiar Indian myths, and reinterprets and contextualizes them in a contemporary way. There is lyricism, questioning, pleading, worship, evocation and watercolour-like painting of scenes with words. There is also a beautiful clash and confluence of tradition in this book ‒ all felt intensely with oblique vividness.

Fuse, Bina Sarkar Ellias
Bina Sarkar Ellias’s haiku-like poetry invokes the same qualities that are inherent in that Japanese form - wonder, wistfulness, sparseness and evanescence. As in her chapbook, The Room (Aark Arts), Bina’s poetry arises out of her travels and encounters with people during various sojourns ‒ an atmosphere further enhanced by her longings and feelings for humanity.

in the still night
of Santiniketan,
a red road rolls out,
astonished –
like Kali’s tongue.
(— Santiniketan 1)

Fuse (Poetrywala) is a deeply felt and beautifully produced first full-length collection to be savoured in the quiet.

Safe House, Menka Shivdasani
Menka Shivdasani’s third book of poetry, Safe House (Poetrywala), has nothing safe in its poetic home. It is a volume of much daring anchored by a personalised woman’s point of view. With much the same energy of her first two books ‒ Nirvana at Ten Rupees and Stet - this volume explores with a mature vigour, her acute eye for every day detail with startling turns of phrase-making:

On one of those days
when the key refused
to fit the padlock,
I turned myself to air
and squeezed through
the keyhole
(— Bird Woman)

Virus Alert, Hemant Divate
The new edition of Virus Alert (Poetrywala) by Hemant Divate is more like a virus jolt ‒ visceral, raw, pungent, and with an in-your-face politically aware attitude. Translated with an easy everyday sense of diction by the late Dilip Chitre from the Marathi, it heralds an alternative voice in Indian poetry by younger practitioners.

Digital Monsoon, Siddhartha Bose
Siddhartha Bose’s poems rely as much on the visual presentation of their words as on their enunciated sonar quality. Traversing and bridging continents, juxtaposing unusual syntactical relationships, Bose in Kalagora (Penned in the Margins, UK) , his first book, had cleverly interwoven the politics of colour ‒ black, white, brown ‒ where race was both a metaphor of separateness and metropolitan co-existential chic. There was multiculturalism, romanticism, orientalism ‒ travel, rebellion, jazz ‒ fantasy, love, sex. His poetry had spunk as “galaxies sweat pus”, gritty lyricism as “a dog licks the honey of a courtesan”, while “fugues of blood” congealed a varied cast where Krishna, Dickens, Basho, Beethoven, Tom Waits and others enacted their roles in oblique pointed narratives. Ultimately, Bose’s poems packed an oratorical punch “instinctive as a nitrate”, “fitted perfect like a bride’s sari”, the baritone deeply resonant and theatrical.  I would rate Kalagora is one of the most impressive debut volumes I have read in recent years.

None of this is the city. All of it is you.

So Bose writes in Digital Monsoon (Penned in the Margins, UK), his new book of experimental poetry. In this follow-up to the fine debut, “Bose proposes the poet as a twenty-first century beatnik, a ravenous language machine eating up the margins of the city. Dreams trigger extraordinary visions of an apocalyptic London populated by technologised bodies; beat-boxers and graffiti writers as urban oracles; the ghosts of a multicultural city moving through banks and brothels, kebab shops and squat parties. Dispatches from the post-industrial landscapes of the North, and from the poet’s hometowns of Mumbai and Kolkata, complete this raw and uncompromisingly modern collection of poems and texts. Composed in Bose’s trademark rhythmical, open field style, Digital Monsoon celebrates the dynamism of the urban edgeland in an updated Jazz Age poetic”.

Into the Migrant City, Nabina Das
Nabina Das’s poems emerge largely out of travel ‒ they are at the same time, real and imagined, external and internal, borderless and border-defined. Her questionings of politics, gender, sexuality, art and life are - in part - a subtle by-product of her understated feminist leanings. Das's imagery and phrase making are by turns, tactile, imagistic, concrete, thought-through and fleshed-out. Into the Migrant City (Writers Workshop) is a promising debut of a poet to watch out for in the near future.

Geography of Tongues, Shikha Malaviya
In Geography of Tongues, as is evident from the book’s title and further reinforced by its contents, Shikha Malaviya’s poetry relies on the shape-shifting terrain she has occupied in various phases of her life; and the crossing of different linguist tenors and languages which reside exclusively and simultaneously in her repertoire. Whether it is free verse, prose poetry or somewhere in-between, she relies largely on personalized narratives, myths and histories. I’d be interested in seeing how the poet grows in the future - this collection is a whole-heartedly enthusiastic debut.

Other notable books include: Nabanita Kanungo’s excellent debut volume, A Map of Ruins (Sahitya Akademi); Exchanges with the Thinker (Gnosis) by Rizio Yohannan Raj; K Srilata’s Writing Octopus (Authorspress); Nimmah’s Lonely Man (Crabwise) by Sanjiv Bhatla; Alka Tyagi’s Whispers at the Ganga Ghat and other poems (Mark Media); Goddess & Whore (Bookwise) by Madhurima Duttagupta; Ashwani Kumar’s My Grandfather’s Imaginary Typewriter (Yeti); Mofussil Notebook (Brown Critique & Sampark) by Smita Agarwal; and finally, Mother’s Veena and other poems (AuthorsPress) by Anna Sujatha Mathai, a fifth book by one of our senior veteran poets.

Sudeep Sen’s award-winning books include: Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems (HarperCollins)Aria (A K Ramanujan Translations Award), and The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (editor). His latest book is Fractals: New & Selected Poems|Translations 1980-2015.

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