Poetry can bring you dreams and sighs, whispers and raindrops, longing and angst. It also brings to your door step a crocodile, a snake in your garden, and birds and bees without their usual symbolism. What poetry mostly strives is to lay bare the doors and windows of the house that is human civilisation. The millennium brought us freedom from Y2K, supercomputers, hyper malls, faster cars, digital hopes, but also ushered in larger slums, diseases new and old, and ever so depressing human development indices.
Well into the first quarter of the millennium, most poetry we read still harks back to the past. Even new and emerging bright practitioners cannot avoid the trap of remembering what was so “good” or “glorious” in a fabled past – whether in small towns, backwaters, or in generational tales. But, coming back after three decades, Manohar Shetty reads pretty much like a time machine that knows how to use its own mind better than just for imagining the past.
What kind of a present does he dwell in, one might ask. Ironically, exactly the kind that bemoans the loss of the pastoral and the decimation of the animal world around us. Shetty uses his poetry as a searchlight along the nooks, or a scientist’s magnifying glass to spot some movement in the grass, or even a Nabokov following a butterfly, stealth-footed. Finders are keepers here.
And full-throated birds I can’t identify.— Find
But this porcupine was a find,
Neither tame nor wild; trapped between
Root, rock and lit verandahs
Another plinth, another façade
Rises from the ground.
Giant caterpillars rumble down.
The roads are newly tarred.
Looking outside from my own terrace on to the green monsoon foliage blocking the terribly busy arterial road which is actually just outside my gated housing complex, I see swarms (“flock” somehow doesn’t do justice) of spotless white cattle egrets dotting the trees. They shine like flowers in an otherwise dull cloudy day in the Deccan. Who can count them and tell us if the number is right for the season? Or whether, with their presence, our ecology still stands a chance? Shadows foreshadow all that is to come. We imagine a deep refuge where the foliage is speckled bright.
Waiting for the shy click of heels— Foreshadows
on the stairs, I watch a deep
forest rise from my hands:
A billiard-ball-like honeybee, or the deft work of termites, can circumvent what poetry has meant so far for us. In the new millennium – still new and full of at least digital as well as human index surprises – reading Shetty seems to connect ecological wonders firmly to one’s personal effects, one’s urban bearings, as well as one’s capacity for getting surprised. This signifies a shift from mere memory…
Open the lid, he tumbles out— Cockroach
Like a family secret
…to an overhaul of the new, whether as information…
And standing woodenly,— The Elephants
Inlaid with their own ivory.
…or as introspection.
…The monastic— Termite
Forehead is yours and the lofty
But we were waxing eloquent about bird and bees. In our post post-modern world, the hallmarks of a thriving ecology are now pall-bearers of civilisation. The way Shetty speaks to these entities in nature, with soft words and graceful metaphors, is a lesson in mapping poetic devices. Memories and experiences become personal effects:
All territories are shaped like shrapnel— Reflections of a Cartographer
As nations rewrite themselves
With torn nerve-ends.
Some day the meridians will totter
To permanent moonless night, the stench
Of tigerpiss gas the hemispheres.
In Shetty’s case, in this geography new means foregoing known comforts.
And clothes worn thin – he— Personal Effects
Loved the comfort of old
Things; old letters, stopped clocks,
The patina in sideboards,
Fading photographs and paintings;
Somewhere Shetty reminds us of Seamus Heaney, the careful and anguished poet. The environment, politics and human compassion are located in his lines. The latter have humour as well as the sharpness of image.
My daughter brings a crocodile— Survivor
Home, its snout bound tight
With rope, its buckteeth clenched.
His politics is seen in the way he lets go of languages like a discomfiting pest.
Dogged, deep, it’s an itch— Lice
That invades both
Indigent and chic.
Coiffure or mop,…
Shetty’s concern for modern life is not exactly similar to Heaney’s Bogland, alluding to Irish nationalism, but one can detect a similarity in the halting quality of his stanzas here. The natural world of Shetty, who lives in Goa, is a tapestry of strong truths.
There was no exaltation of larks
Or a shrewdness of apes.
Instead, a destruction
Of wild cats, an obstinacy
Of buffalo and a skulk
No zeal of zebras
Or a charm of finches.
More a piteousness
Of doves, a glaring
Of cats and an— Group Therapy
Unkindness of ravens.
The familial and the civic, to borrow a phrase from somewhere, are very much a conjoined entity in Shetty’s poetry, the way one sees it in Heaney’s Glanmore Sonnets. Irony has never seemed to instigate mirth in his work, but only a tool for truth-telling.
Shackled from a crime framed— Drawings on the Wall
In some wasted forest, you’ve
Lost our visitation rights,
Your one acre to the feudal
Clan and the assembly line.
Now guards with mutton chop
Whiskers rattle the prison doors
With their phallic buttons.
And when the present catches up with him, Shetty is bubbling with a numinous wit:
Here I am again with a fat
Cuban cigar, a cowpoke
In a sombrero, my teeth
The keys of a grand piano.
And here’s a tribal with brass
Bangles caught in the frame.
Her mirror-spangled blouse
Reflects me at the right angles.
It’s all there to be shared on— Selfies from Calangute
WhatsApp and Facebook till
Minus our far better halves,
We’re back again next Christmas.
Books in this article: Creatures Great and Small; Personal Effects; Morning Light.