When I read Naveen Kishore’s first book of poetry, Knotted Grief, I was struck by the realisation that grief need not always be debilitating – that after its initial tremendousness, it can actually become an essential life force. Therefore, grief is not just love that has nowhere to go but also a creative fuel. Think of all the beautiful sad songs, stories, and poetry around you or when a person recalls the memories of a loved one who is no longer around. Even though this creative energy is rooted in grief, the art it has given birth to is still beautiful.

Kishore revisits grief’s familiar rooms in his second (and just published) book of poetry, Mother Muse Quintet. When I first heard the title from the poet sometime in 2022, I wondered what it could possibly mean. I did not ask then – after all, just like a magician, it’s best not to know what a poet is up to. When Kishore shared the first draft of the manuscript to read, I jumped into the text with a simple curiosity to find out what these poems were about. In a display of sheer brazenness – not caring for Kishore’s seniority or the respect he commands in the industry – I texted him to say that his new book was far superior to his first and that he had come a long way as a poet. Typical of Kishore, he took the comments in his stride and thanked me generously.

Personal memories and grief

In the course of the next few months, I revisited the poems every and now then. Especially when one is forced to confront the passage of time and its ruins – old age, losing and forgetting, remembering, going on living. That’s the magic of a poet’s words, they offer comfort and courage without perhaps intending to.

In Knotted Grief, Kishore probes both public and private griefs. The conflicts in Kashmir bleed into his own life as he remembers his childhood and wonders about old age. Meanwhile, Mother Muse Quintet is entirely an exploration of his personal memories, loss, and love, at the centre of which is the poet’s mother. The Mother Muse. He is a mere observer of his mother’s life as she listens to Kishore Kumar and Manna Dey as a child, a 20-year-old who enacts scenes from the movies after returning from the cinemas, and finally, as an elderly woman making sense of the world as the “mist” of Alzheimer’s sets in. This is not an unfamiliar reality. Perhaps there are few things as cruel as old age – and the physical and mental failings it brings with itself. But we are not unarmed, we have cherished memories of the past and a hopeful future to carry us along on the currents of time. In fact, these memories are our most treasured inheritance.

You gifted me my memory.
We did not know then
that one day you would lose yours.  

The prose poem inspired by his mother’s 75th birthday is perhaps the most profound, and heartbreaking, writing in the collection. He recalls buying her flowers and gifts (a piece of fabric, a pair of slippers, a watch – daily essentials), an eggless chocolate cake, and a large mirror that was eventually hung in her room. Speaking of the mirror, the poet recalls how his mother “never looked into it”. She died soon after but as is true of inanimate objects, the mirror lived on. A person’s relationship with their possessions not just transcends life but becomes a repository of memories of their loved ones. Kishore sums this us in a sparse line: “The mirror is still there. On the nail. On the wall. In the room we still think of as hers.”

A life in love

As if returning to the beginning of time, on the very next page, Kishore conjures up the images of his mother as a four-year-old child and the loving relationship she shared with her father who had named her Prem. From an active participant in his mother’s life, the poet relegates himself to simply observing her as a child – untouched by age and responsibilities. The poet quietly adds: “I decided to call her by her name. Prem. With a ji. So Prem-ji. The loved one.” A life that has come full circle in love – first by Prem’s father and later by Prem’s son.

After her ashes are scattered in the river and she flows away with the water “charting her own course”, each prose poem here onwards is followed by a poem written in fragments. As though mirroring the disorientation one is bound to feel in the absence of the maternal or paternal figure. It’s a universal grief that spares no one:

people die
fathers too

In Section II, he revisits his mother’s illness. The poet refrains from punctuating his thoughts – the sentences run breathlessly as the son tries to make sense of his mother’s fading reality. “Clear then your throat. She said. Sing. She said. Sing the end of the world to me”, she says to him as everything around her remains “deathly still”.

The following section is an ode to the mother tongue and the often confusing yet deep relationship we form with our adopted tongues and the sounds around us. And what of images that speak to us? Images that survive in memories, photographs, and dreams and nightmares. There are truly endless possibilities in the human language and surprisingly, they are not confined to speech.

Section IV is called “A Meditation on Time Passing”. The words, untethered on the page, flow freely like time itself. Time is a “malicious god” that “swirls in circles”. Time is “uncertain”, it “gathers dust”, and despite everything, time goes on:

broken time
after time
somewhere a clock
keeping what else

Time goes on, that is certain. Death will come, that is for certain:

death deposited
at my doorstep
with the smell of yesterday’s love  

And what do we do in the face of these certainties? We too go on. In love, in memories, in hope. Eternal hope:

been a while since I saw the moon at dawn
but it is known to happen  

Kishore’s Mother Muse Quintet is not just an ode to the memory of the birth mother and the mother tongue, but a heartbreaking, uplifting, lyrical gratitude to our memories. Memories that with time become a crutch to lean on and an empty room to keep our love and grief after much is lost.

it’s memory’s turn to find its way
through the house that
is no longer yours to explore  

Mother Muse Quintet, Naveen Kishore, Speaking Tiger Books.