In the foreword to The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry by Indians that I edited in 2012, I’d written that “taking into consideration the quality of the contents in this anthology, I would provocatively assert that the best English poetry written by Indians in the contemporary national and international literary arena is perhaps as good or superior to Indian fiction in English as a whole”.

Now, as if in corroboration and celebration of that, we have the recent announcement of The Khushwant Singh Memorial Poetry Prize ‒ Rs 2 lakh for the “Best Book of the Year” and Rs 5 lakh for the “Lifetime Award” for poetry in English (or in English translation from any Indian language) by an Indian poet.

Suhel Seth, who has funded both the prizes in perpetuity, said that the winner of the first category would be announced at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January 2015. The inaugural year’s shortlist (for 2014 year-cycle) is very strong: Ranjit Hoskote’s Central Time (Penguin), Keki Daruwalla’s Fire Altar (HarperCollins), Arundhati Subramaniam’s When God is a Traveller (HarperCollins), Sridala Swami’s Escape Artist (Aleph), and Joy Goswami’s Selected Poems (Harper Perennial). Let me dwell on these books in some detail.

Central Time, Ranjit Hoskote

Ranjit Hoskote’s book title, Central Time, is both an allusion to his mid-life output and to how the idea of time is so obliquely central to his work. This volume contains a hundred poems written between 2006 and 2014, and serves a perfect sequel to his Vanishing Acts: New & Selected Poems 1985-2005.

The anthology is divided into a quintet of enigmatically titled sections: Zoetrope, The Pilot’s Almanac, Gravity Leaps to the Eye, The Existence Certificate, and The Institute of Silence ‒ each section, like a variation, containing movements that shift subtly in pitch and register.

Hoskote expands his formal space in this new book. I particularly like his explorations of the prose-poem form and poems that highlight the powerful sense of understated minimalism.

Hoskote acts as a sutradhar in his poems, a storyteller weaving in characters and landscapes as varied as Ovid, Ghalib, Bihzad, Magritte, Fujihata, Kaleka, Claudel, Brocan, Lannoy, Turner, Srinagar, Goa, Indore, Bombay, Berlin, Dortmund, Utrecht, Kabul, and many others.

There are beautifully touching verses to his beloved and wife, Nancy: Nazm, and In the Margin of an Autumn Folio. These two pieces are overtly for her, and there are others that feature her in an askance-veiled manner. These poems provide a strong emotional and lyrical underpinning to his otherwise largely educated and sophisticated tonality. Here are the first and last nazms from the eponymous poem quartet:

Our lives are voices in two heads.
The rest is background music.

* * *

We lie embroidered on the mimosa.
I need no gauge of motives to tell me
why it has rained.

A lot of poems in this book are dedicated to his friends. Some of the specific dedications I find limiting and distracting as the content of the poetry get pulled away in a specific kind of narrative stream with the personality’s reference. Otherwise the same poems, without the dedication “for” anchoring the titles, would have a much wider resonance.

Unsurprisingly, Hoskote’s engagement with the fine arts is supremely evident in many of his poems. There are direct and indirect allusions to poets, painters and paintings, their palette hue-washed with vital parenthetical details. So you will find eulogies to Dom Moraes (Conspiracies), Adil Jussawalla (Chimera), and Charles Simic (The Reading); references to Bhupen Khakhar (Painter Talking to Flowers), Atul Dodiya (The Guide Recalls the Mountains), JMW Turner (The Landscapist’s Advice to His Apprentice), and many more.

Hoskote brings an astute curatorial eye even in the way the entire volume is constructed ‒ its placement and architecture ‒ the way the book is balanced in five sections, each with its own circulatory and respiratory system. Sensuousness abounds, as does tactility and texture, and the way he handles “the roughness of stone, the dance of light, the flowering of touch and the taste of salt and cinnamon”.

His work as an art critic and curator has a direct bearing on his writing and his poetic aesthetics. In fact, he traverses the dual path with an easy sense of parallelism ‒ the only exception to the geometric axiom being that here the parallel lines meet, not at infinity but in the penumbra zone of the finite. The specific, the exactitude of language and the framing ultimately gives his poetry an enormous and subtle weight.

Much of the above can be seen in the poem titled Incision that is dedicated to Lucio Fontana (1899-1968), set in a single couplet

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

Central Time contains powerfully built poems that are at the same time clever, vulnerable, lyrical, stoical, intelligent, wise and moving. Savour the irony in the opening gambit of the prose poem, For Example: “The saint maintains his piety through the graphic imagination of other people’s vices. We thank him for it.”

Ultimately, Hoskote is whole-heartedly a Mumbaiah, a Bombay poet deeply rooted in its ethos. The poem, Tidemark, bear all the watermarks of this.

Water draws a line around the things we loved.
I pluck dead birds from the wash and burn their feathers.

This is where I belong, in tidal water
drawn up over my feet like a shell blanket.

I hate this city on the sea, but I will die here.” 

Fire Altar, Keki Daruwalla

Keki Daruwalla, an accomplished senior practitioner of English poetry, is someone whose work I have admired for many decades ‒ especially the three books, Crossing of Rivers, The Keeper of the Dead and Landscapes, which rank among my favourites of his oeuvre. His latest volume, Fire Altar, “a journey in search of roots, meaning and religious and social understanding”, contains poems written over a two-year period between 1991-'93, inspired by the Persians and the Greeks. A Rs 10 volume of Herodotus’s poetry was the chief accidental instigator behind these verses. Unsurprisingly, characters and places such as Pasargadae, Euphrates, Tomyris, Delphi, Persepolis, Cambyses, Firdausi, Arbela and many others richly populate this layered volume.

The five Persepolis Sonnets spring with subtle litheness.

The aura fogged, air ether-clean
and lightly breathed the planet’s lungs...

In a complete shift of tonality and texture in the poem The Arab Grammarian Ruminates on the Fate of Bokhara, Daruwalla writes:

Apostatize is not a verb I am happy with.
Yet I must use it here.
The desserts of apostasy are well known and just -
the scimitar descending on the accursed neck.

It is ordinarily rather difficult to render old histories and geographies in a contemporary idiom and to make them come alive ‒ Daruwalla does this with panache and elegance.

Escape Artist, Sridala Swami

Escape Artist by Sridala Swami was described by the jury as “a diviner’s eloquent testimony to survival in a world of dissolving certitudes, precarious relationships, transcontinental mobility and political cataclysm.” Her first book of poems, A Reluctant Survivor, was published under the Sahitya Akademi’s Navodaya Series (selected and prefaced by Keki Daruwalla). Her new volume, Escape Artist, containing nearly fifty poems is a leap forward ‒ both in terms of maturity of outlook and enterprise, as well as her nuanced handling of the craft.

Her experimental poem, h_ngw_m_n, with lines from Paul Celan, is set up in two columns. It works at various levels and in multifarious ways ‒ as a dialogue between the two poets, as two separate poems, as one poem with two echoing voices, and more ‒ setting up a beautiful interplay between the italicised and the antithesis, the black-inked and white spaces.

Another poem, The Evidence of Eyes, plays with the duality of “upstairs” and “downstairs”, and the inherent tension that arise when hierarchies collide and collude. As the volume’s opening burst, here is a clever poem in full, Hypersomnia:

This is where
everything means
the thin thought
only at day break.

You can’t make omelettes
withought breaking eggs.

When God is a Traveller, Arundhati Subramaniam

When God is a Traveller, a collection by Arundhati Subramaniam, contains “poems of wonder and precarious elation, about learning to embrace the seemingly disparate landscapes of hermitage and court, the seemingly diverse addresses of mystery and clarity, disruption and stillness.” This is her fourth volume of poetry, the first three being: On Cleaning Bookshelves, Where I Live, and New & Selected Poems.

Her work is marked by the clever way she brings alive the quotidian with wit and wry humour in a language that is lucid and unpretentious. An understated feminism underpins much of her poetry. Subtle turns of phrase and immediacy in her verse draw the unsuspecting readers into her intimate world-view.

Her poem Sharecropping is a good example of the above. Here are the opening two stanzas:

I’m wearing my mother’s sari
her blood group
her osteo-arthritic knee.

We’ve voted
for different men
same governments.

In the poem, Bhakti (with some adulteration), she declares in a bold, empowered tone:

Allow me
some deluxe delusions.
Allow me to uncork you

so I can steal a whiff,
a whiff, no more,
of your crazy liquor.

Decant into my hipflask. Settle down into my pocket. Stay illicit.

Selected Poems, Joy Goswami

Selected Poems by Joy Goswami, wonderfully and deftly translated from Bengali into English by Sampurna Chattarji, introduces the English reader to a major contemporary poet of the Bangla language who uses a linguistic tenor “that is powerful, inventive and often enigmatic”. Apart from extensive selections from three volumes: Surjo-Pora Chhai / Ashes, Burnt by the Sun (1999), Moutat Moheswar / Shiva, My High (2005), and Du Dondo Phowara Matro / No More Than a Spurt of Time (2011); the book also contains in its colophon section two formal interviews done between 2005-13 and extracts from Goswami’s essays from 1994-2008.

Goswami’s poetry is wide-ranging and politically engaged, but his verse can also be surreal:

What fraction of my blue book will you read?
Each page tightly stuck with dry venom
The only way to open it is to lick your finger repeatedly
People will come and see a half-open book on the table.
You’re sitting next to it. You died sitting there. Who knows when!

In the poem Relationships, a bare and pragmatic scene is painted, almost like documentary reportage, with no hint of overt emotionality (perhaps the latter is couched for the private).

Relationships don’t last. Gradually they drown.
When the water recedes, what remains is silt. Grass rises in it.

Leaves, creepers, weeds are born.
A stray dog brings a dead crow from who knows where
Hides it in a jungle of weeds.

Another dog comes chasing after him –
Snatches it from its jaws.

That’s what has happened between us –
What choice do we have but to accept it!

This book is a brilliant compendium of the best of Joy Goswami’s work.

Other Notables

Imtiaz Dharker’s wonderfully conceived fifth book, Over the Moon (Bloodaxe) won her the prestigious 2014 Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in the UK ‒ a real honour and achievement. Past winner’s fabulously distinguished lineage include poets like W H Auden, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, and others.

Adil Jussawalla’s excellent book of poems, Trying to Say Goodbye (Almost Island Books), deservedly won this year’s Sahitya Akademi Award in the English language category.

K Satchidanandan’s Misplaced Objects and Other Poems (Sahitya Akademi) is marked by an acutely conscious political and poetic sensibility that uses deft play of language. One of India’s best poets, his verse includes a strong selection in English translation from the original Malayalam.

Arivind Krishna Mehrotra’s Collected Poems (Penguin Modern Classics) is an important book that brings together his tightly wrought poetry and finely translated works back into print. Kamala Das’s Selected Poems is the newest and a vital addition to the Classics list.

Other must reads from 2014 are: Kazim Ali’s Sky Ward (Wesleyen University Press); Vandana Khanna’s Afternoon Masala (University of Arkansas); Manohar Shetty’s Living Room (HarperCollins); The Fingers Remember by Aditi Rao (Yoda); First Will and Testament by Debasish Lahiri (Writers Workshop); Grills and other poems by Mohan Ramanan (Writers Workshop); Ghalib’s Tomb and other poems by Manash Bhattacharjee (London Magazine);  two AuthorsPress titles: Painting that Red Circle White by Mihir Vatsa and Green Tin Trunk by Uddipana Goswami; and three from Poetrywala: Mani Rao’s New & Selected Poems, Menka Shivdasani’s Safe House, Bina Sarkar Ellias’s Fuse, and In Other Words: Selected Poems 1975-2006 by H S Shiva Prakash.

In translation

Three excitingly varied translations of Kalidasa appeared last year. Kalidasa for the 21st Century Reader: Selected Poetry & Drama (Aleph) is an innovative and excellent modern rendition of the original Sanskrit by Mani Rao (she had also done a fine post-modernist translation of the Gita earlier); Kalidasa’s long poem, Kumarasambhavam (The Origin of the Young God) translated by Hank Heifetz; and the play, Malavikagnimitram (The Dancer and the King) translated by Srinivas Reddy. The last two important contributions to Kalidasa’s translated oeuvre under the Penguin Classics series.

Eating God: A Book of Bhakti Poetry (Penguin) edited by Arundhati Subramaniam,  translated wonderfully by various hands; This Number Does Not Exist: Selected Poems 1981-2013 (Poetrywala) by Mangalesh Dabral, translated superbly by various hands from Hindi; and Struggles with Imagined Gods (Poetrywala) by Hemant Divate translated from Marathi by Mustansir Dalvi; Selected Poems (Kadalu) by Mamta Sagar, translated from Kannada by Chitra Paniikkar and the poet; and Magadh (Almost Island) by Srikant Verma, translated from Hindi by Rahul Soni,  round my translations list for last year.


Finally, some fine and important anthologies appeared in 2014. My best picks are: Another English: Anglophone Poems from Around the World (Tupelo Press, USA) edited by Catherine Barnett and Tiphane Yanique; Becoming Poets: The Asian English Experience (Peter Lang, Bern) edited by Agnes Lam; Wings Over the Mahanadi: Eight Odia-English Poets (Poetrywala) edited by Manu Dash; Parallel Speech: Fifteen Younger Contemporary Oriya Poets (AuthorsPress) edited by Meenakshi & Bibhu Padhi; and The Taste of Words: An Introduction to Urdu Poetry (Penguin), edited and translated by Raza Mir with a foreword by Gulzar.

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