It is often, contended that poetry can be both abstract as well as a necessary vent. But it is the language, understated and inventive, that seeps through one’s defences. Questions from the Dea’, the latest collection of poems by K Satchidanandan, is all about decentering the subject, unmasking authority, and searching for kinship with nature to provoke a deep emotional response in an astonishingly moving way.

To read him is to encounter reality and its undulated terrain anchored in pain. Plain-speaking and laconic, Satchidanandan’s poems speak the truth, they are not a source of comfort. This fascinating collection explores the ecological balance in particular – intellectually stern, exposed, and yet never chained by doctrine and belief – asking disturbing questions.

Here the poet’s voice is biocentric, lively, and impassioned. And the emotional depth of the collection comes from working with the conventional narrative structure. We find unmistakable integrity, a thirst for knowledge, and language being taken seriously. Satchidanandan is a defining poet of our times, and his visionary poetry, self-translated in English from Malayalam, spans the borders between truth and reverie, light and shadow, augmenting his forceful words with sublimity and verve.

Questions from the Dead courts risk in both method and process. The German critic Wolfgang Kubin has rightly pointed out, “K Satchidanandan is definitely not a poet who keeps aloof from the world. He is a poet on a journey. Poetry for him is a cry against all walls… It is his cosmopolitanism that makes Satchidanandan interesting beyond India.”

What is remarkable about this collection is poet’s love for the common people and concern for the degradation of the environment. His short, declarative lines and induce reflection, even learning. The poet paints an urgent, often surreal portrait of inequalities in life. The dissonance between the windy rhetoric of modern times and the harsh realities of the world with their acceptance of the darkness are reflected in lines such as these:

Yakshis live on palm trees
Human beings live in houses
Those who live on the street
are not human.

— 'Those Who Live on the Streets'.

His poems are symphonic and moving, seeking to grasp the entirety of human life and time intimately. Like their subject, the poems are sombre, and yet sharp and insightful, sometimes all at once. They are anchored in the realms of nature and people. The disconnection between humans and nature is a threat to life and identity.

This time we won’t quarrel
I’ll exchange my fruits for your song
There won’t be humans
To see or hear it.
Only butterflies.

— 'On This Earth'.

For Satchidanandan, poetry has always been the place where he has looked for understanding and answers he can’t find elsewhere. In one of his recent collection of poems on love and longing, The Whispering Tree, he wrote, “How a bedsheet turns into / Vatsyayana in a single night / Love too is meditation / in twenty-four postures.”

In this collection, he combines an extraordinary literary lucidness with a visionary gaze that always questions reality without transforming or overturning it, and meditates on its constantly shifting methods, the tensions buried in it.

No one ceases to ask questions
just because one is dead 

— 'Questions from the Dead'.

The poet is more assured than lofty, not a believer in hyperboles. His poems get down to the core, the mantle, the crust, the bone, and the fossil as well.

The one without ‘I’
Knows oneself
The one who knows no ‘you’
knows others. 

— 'The Secret'.

For all the subtleties, there is urgency in tone and texture. The lines which follow are visually and aurally effective as the poet describes of the brutality of humans, pointing out that nature is a victim, not wrapped in beauty and romance.

I urgently need surgery
So that I can breathe the present

— 'The Placenta'.

This alternation between sharp essentials and substance, between spike and timber, between response and withdrawal, creates constant uncertainty in our mind. The poems reflect aftershock with austere and apocalyptic precision.

‘Your eyes carry not rage, but a winter
Your perched lips have no slogan left
Your bare hands hold no arms but an autumn
The world does not change.’

— 'The World Does Not Change'.

Satchidandan weaves together these themes, images, and narrative vantage points in this collection. His poems are always about returning to everyday life. The climate crisis is a failure of our system, and, confessing to being baffled by humanity, the poems sound ominous echoes of environmental destruction. The sense of flux and disorientation is conveyed powerfully, using the non-human as agents:

Before we took over,
Earth was ruled by humans.
They had flesh and blood and bones.
They thought they were sad
They laughed, sang and even wrote books.
One day humans, using their intelligence,
Killed one another,
Leaving earth to us.

— 'Before We Took Over'.

Moving adroitly between sensitivity and exasperation, expectation and anguish, acclaim and dirge, this is an intensely haunting collection that will remain in the reader’s mind. These are essential, finely carved poems that position us as prisoners of wicked plans.

The bullets you have consumed
have rusted inside your womb
and stained the colour of your blood.

Civilisation looks
as blank as a dry river
that doesn’t thirst for rain.

— 'Nobody Speaks of You, Syria'.

Satchidanandan explores in his poems the impact of extreme weather conditions on humanity as if they are embedded in his genetic code and challenge our innate anthropocentricity. And his subtle connection to nature and people emerges to appealing effect in his dextrous writing, in which the poet employs a diverse mix of styles and techniques.

I long to die, without
leaving a single footprint,
leaving just a few poems
that do not bear the poet’s name:
like our ancestral folk.

The language is stark, the images, appealing, the method, immaculate. The austereness is tastefully evocative of daily life. The poet looks back at pain and looks ahead to redemption, even as he grapples with the slippery nature of truth and misery.

Then I walked towards the light
I saw in front of me
but never abandoned my cart.
That light was a will of the wisp.
My wheel took me to a new place
before I was lost in the abysses.

— 'The Wheel'.

The dichotomy of union with and disunion from what is fundamental and restorative is already present in this collection. Satchidanandan’s is a cosmic view, which seeks to embrace the overarching continuities within which significant disruptions take place. Seeing this climatic apocalypse, he deftly rearranges the questions of humanity’s alienation from the surroundings, questions that are left hanging for years, unanswered.

Satchidanandan moves naturally and exhilaratingly from the personal to the political, and his poems find a voice without leaning on any rigid frame. A sense of surroundings and people anchor this volume. And with terse lines and formal play, the poems here make equal room for rage and tenderness. This warm and expansive volume illustrates that poetry is for Satchidanandan a practice of daily deliverance – a form of the sacramental.

Gopal Lahiri is a bilingual poet, writer, editor, critic and translator and has published in Bengali and in English.

Questions from the Dead, K Satchidanandan, Copper Coin.