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Is Ranjit Hoskote the most interesting Indian poet writing about women?

Re-reading the poet’s collections 'Vanishing Acts' and 'Central Time'.

Vladimir Nabakov said that a good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader, is a re-reader. A poem read once is never fully read. I find myself returning and summoning poems that beg to be re-read; ones that demand an intimate contemplation.

While re-reading Ranjit Hoskote’s Vanishing Acts (2006), I realised that Hoskote writes exquisitely well about women. His poems have an acutely keen, lynx-eyed vision, coupled with an attentiveness to the minutiae of their mystical inner lives, often addressing metaphysical questions with an intuitive, precise timbre. I found a substantial miscellany of beautiful women existing in his poems: the scarred child, voyeur, clairvoyante, a grandmother who once was a fever tree.

In his poem Portrait of a Lady, he compels us to look at inanimate objects with the artful vigilance of a Zbigniew Herbert poem.

Objects are lesson: from bowls, hairpins, brooches,
you learn of forgotten lives.

This poem is evocative of the pictorial subtlety of forgotten women in Dutch paintings. The poet casts a sympathetic gaze, exploring the domestic interior and the act of staring at the window as a metaphor for their own interiority. The last three lines of the quintain quoted below are haunting, and the sudden contrast brings to mind Donne’s lines from The Relic: “a bracelet of bright hair about the bone”.

The urchin-cut waif in the vignette above
is the child she was. Voyeur, clairvoyant,
she stares in at windows, her head a gourd
hollowed by the age she never reached
in life, her hair a silver floss.

It’s uncanny how little attention we pay, as readers, to the subliminal reasons for reading a bunch of poems together. It’s not always the thematic geniality that compels such a selection; these are poems that are spousal – bound together by a familial felicity, a rapturous proximity that is unmistakably intimate.

In my head, I read the following poems together: Effects of Distance on page 63 and Apollo and Daphne on page 143. Let’s look at the opening lines of Apollo and Daphne:

My love was simple:
savage possession of the fleeting other

These lines brilliantly capture the notion of fluidity and stasis and juxtapose it with Bernini’s notion of motion and stability. Now compare this frenzied delirium with the notion of desire in the lines from Effects of Distance:

Never journey far from me; and if you must,
find towpaths, trails; follow the portents fugitives trust
to guide them out and back.

When the “unanswered wilderness” of one poem begins to seamlessly cohabit with “pythons” in another, then two poems start speaking to each other, reading becomes a tactile journey, a conversation, and divergent messages emerge: visual, olfactory, sensual all at once.

Emerson once said that it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem – a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing. Some of Hoskote’s poems warrant a similar locomotion of silence: passionate and alive. A pulsating, living silence. Pavement is one such poem:

Don’t walk on sharp stones, my love.
We should not die
of the necessities we invent.

The sibling poem to Pavement is in Central Time (2014) – a poem titled Incision.

Cut quickly. There’s sky behind the flesh.
Prise up the fold. The atlas of the body is never complete.

Think Hypnos and Thanatos. Both poems are understated, minimalistic. Both have a primal immediacy spurred by a verb-driven velocity, a fervid urgency that is seductively staccato. Note how he deploys simple verbs – “walk”, “cut”, “die”, “invent” – and allows the poem to accelerate, gain momentum.

The poems Trying to Fly and Pilot seem to collectively examine past histories, hungry for the formal indifference of scale, segueing from a nostalgic memory: the nose of a cardboard MiG taking off from an Air Force hoarding to landing on page 165, where the narrator is on autopilot, becoming a sum of all the places he’s hated.

I was transfixed by the notion of time travel from the flat roof of a house to a bolt-action hero, belted in his cockpit, flying blindly into the rain. The simultaneous reading of both these poems became a study of temporality and human movement. One felt placed in the middle of a Futurist painting – a Boccioni, trying to find the dynamics of movement on the page. Reading the two poems felt like watching a boy grow up, go from adolescence to adulthood, from innocence to nomadism in a span of two poems separated by 85 pages.

Hoskote scrutinises tragic women with paradoxical finesse. Annunciation, his account of Mary Nazareth, and Fulcrum, his poem dedicated to Camille Claudel, were rewarding for me as a reader, especially to evaluate the “act of giving” as outlined fantastically in both seemingly disparate poems. In another poem for his grandmother, he writes: ‘do not give,/ Giving spites the flesh, corrodes intention’.

Now, compare the lines from his poem Annunciation to the lines in Fulcrum:

the act of giving is a revenge:
it stings you

He lets you go only after years he’s pulled you apart,
wounded you where it glories the most.

Through his poetry Hoskote highlights the pitfalls “giving” brings; contrasts the greatness that resides in both women; often exalted, often repressed: making one the mother of god and the other, a tormented genius artist. The inscription of the feminine is writ large in Ranjit Hoskote’s oeuvre.

Could this be a langue maternelle, a gender-neutral perspective about the marginalised position of women? Should she constantly be a giver? What would Helene Cixous make of these poems? She’d probably want Hoskote to write poems about Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivienne Eliot and all other the women who come and go.

Re-read Ranjit Hoskote’s poems because they represent everything that returns: the archivist to his first draft; prodigal ghosts and dismissed epiphanies; red-eyed sleepy parrots and forbidden cities; rain-hit eyelids and flowers that fall in pairs. Hoskote’s poetry is a child inside a sea-womb learning the sail-maker’s art.

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