poetry picks

Jonahwhale: Five poems from Ranjit Hoskote’s new book that listens to the histories of the seas

‘The ocean offers us an education in anamnesia, the struggle against forgetting…’

Archipelagos might have more to say to us than continents. They’ve witnessed catastrophe and survival at close quarters, are the first to register rising sea levels, the lash of unseasonal storms that are becoming part of the unsettled order of things. I have spent most of my life in an island-city, which has turned its back to the ocean from which increasingly erratic and powerful tides have begun to ride towards it. In Jonahwhale, I listen to the histories of the sea, which map the world in narratives different from those recorded along land routes.

“Territory” carries the spell of terra, earth. There can be no territory in water; the maritime defies fixed boundaries. Jonah, Ahab, and Glissant are the presiding spirits of Jonahwhale. These poems are peopled by mariners, castaways, refugees, slaves, explorers, mutineers, and pirates. The languages of the sea and the coast are montaged together from many tongues: they invite us to be polyglot, to be open to encounters and exchanges with the strange. The ocean offers us an education in anamnesia, the struggle against forgetting, as we collate its memories – our memories – from fragments of lost maps, snatches of songs, the driftwood of endeavour, enterprise, and the thrum of that perennial question, which sounds beneath the archipelagos of poems that we bring together in books, “What is this shore to which we have come?”

Open for Business

Newspaper bunched in hand,
you’re misting the door with Lysol,
wiping the glass panels in wide arcs.
But the man in the blue paisley bandana
who’s whistling the opening bars
of ‘Hanv saiba poltoddi voita
isn’t planning to get scrubbed off the menu.
He’s pushing through with a crate of eggs,
his hands itching for whisk and skillet,
the first Spanish omelette of the day.
He’s a dancer sweet-talking the boatman
into getting her across the river.
You’re a tightrope-walker with a limp, nursing
a sore throat. You spray the swinging air with soap.


Bombay-Liverpool-London, 1889

The lascar was always sallow. It didn’t help
that his name anagrammed rascal. He carried
a whiff of scurvy, a hint of rats in the hold,
hulls battered by typhoons.
He was never far from dirty work.
Here’s what the detective said:
There’s a trapdoor at the back of that opium den,
near the wharf, which could tell strange tales
of what passes through it on moonless nights.
Here’s what the good wife said:
At the foot of the stairs I met this lascar,
who thrust me back and, aided by a Dane,
pushed me out into the street.
Meanwhile her husband:
Only one man knew my secret. He was the keeper
of a low den in which I used to lodge.
A lascar, well paid by me for his rooms,
my secret was safe with him.
Neither detective nor wife nor husband knew
the bleached village on the Konkan coast,
or had seen the forced parades at tropical noon,
the forts locked in rising silt, the standing crops burned.

History gave you one name. Fear
gave you and your cousins others.
To novelists: Savage.
To pamphleteers: Cannibal.
To scholars: Anthropophage.
To your captains: Seacunny, tindal,
syrang, topaze. Or mostly
as you swabbed the deck:
Cocoa-faced rascal!

You call yourself names

in the three tongues you speak in your sleep:
Lashkar. Tandel. Jahaazi.

They crowd us into the damp, shallow cradle

they call the fo’c’sle. Silly name. Phana, we call it,

phana: the hood. The wide fan-spread hood
of this coiled sea-cobra we’re sailing.


i. m. Bruce Conner (1933-2008)

It’s gonna rain It’s gonna rain It’s gonna rain noon’s salt flare the tide roars out from where the ocean’s sucked its breath in sharp and spat it out so wide the boom and every boat every corvette every frigate every destroyer is spinning out from where the shudder of foam is rising booming hurling itself across the fractured horizons these lines so flat so flat the sands sinking tide roars on tide that baldachin of milk-white smoke you can’t hear the runes the gulls the curlews the propellors the countdown the levers pulled the buttons pressed there are no shores for the boats that are spinning out in every direction chased by bursting clouds the blinding ocean turns eyeward

You are the company the name is you poisoner you cannot pretend you cannot hide you cannot swim in these neon currents I am become Death the destroyer of worlds this ocean one open mouth swallowing islands this art of making things disappear in a glow that throbs in the eye that cannot sleep this frame that’s come apart leached the colour from every drifting current this voice that shakes the continents no earthly thing trembles on its breath this baldachin of milk-white smoke has nothing to hide no crystal globe no night of mean knives no shallows no depths all ploughed bare all punctured all furrowed It’s gonna rain It’s gonna rain It’s gonna rain

Stop for the gash in the water’s white and trembling skin stop for the broken prism stop for the compass bird that’s out of control and doesn’t know where to point stop for the canoes wedged in the mouths of rivers stop for the traffic of dead fish and silenced pigeons stop for the wood fibre cowrie-shell stick maps of swell and wave crest stop for the eddy stop for the black hole untie the sticks lose the shells there are no islands there to map stop for the emperor’s fleet dredged up from the ocean’s floor stop for the gash in the water’s white and trembling skin a baldachin of milk-white smoke watch for the boat that can knife the twitching tarp watch the rip lengthen in what was water and fade

Lord of lost perspectives,
this might be the wrong prayer:

Give me back the untroubled pleasures
of the sovereign eye.

Track your camera across
the last sand-bagged line of clouds.
The continents have escaped the net,

leaving an island of pearl-eyed gulls
and bomb-crater pools to keep its drifting tenancy.

Spell out a lease of hazy sand and churned riptide
where the palms hold barbed souvenirs of rain
and the children who pick shells and bomb casings
have no memory
and no sight.
That’s all I can promise
if I let you play
with the forest fire of the sovereign eye.

What would you cast: a spell or a stone?

What would you call for: splendour, catastrophe, or both?

Afterwards, the archipelago runs aground in bloated water, the water burns our feet.

The ribs of caulked boats scattered high on the beach.
Spangled clouds dimming in a raw trench.
You hold out your hand. The tide’s practising its roar.

Walk like a wave.
Without casting a shadow
on the surf, brace and reel in
the great horned fish
that has mocked and nothinged
our bait, has never been beached
on this narrow island
of what we know.

Ranjit Hoskote
Ranjit Hoskote

Highway Prayer

If you’re writing a fresh anthem
for the one scorched island
marooned in cyclone country,
be sure to put in a line
about burnt tyres and sleeping dogs
and another line on the flags, curtains,
TV screens, more flags, all the shrouds
the islanders are hanging up
to protect themselves from the world.
They need a saviour.

That’ll be the man in the red raincoat
falling through an open door.
An unseen hand stops him, props him up.
He blocks the door, a crucifix
barring the passage of time.
Time burns right through him.
He clutches at his burst stomach,
crouching on the sidewalk,
holding fast to the creased memory
of a river he once loved.

In him the shimmer is great,
greater than panic,
greater than the fear of flies,
of stakes, of exploding shells,
of ending up as roadkill.
Tongue-tied, he reads
this Rosetta of violence:
this highway across which
sirens call to knotted prophets,
Batmen to Jokers, Jets to Sharks.

Bless me ivories, the land pirate says
at last, shiver me timbers.
In this place that found me empty,
in this place that found me parched,
I am blood, I am grief,
I am the returning rocket,
I am contrary to the commonwealth.
Lord of the booming antlers
on a yellow signboard,
let go, he calls out, let go.

Craft me into this totality
that never closes.

The Refugee Pauses in Flight

for Nuruddin Farah

What should I call it, this number that has no name?

Countries are working hypotheses that sometimes fail.
I escape from mine, my wings of flame
doused, my route sketched in rumours,
an alphabet of stone and diesel
tapping at my ribs.

Invented reasons, found in a drawer of mislaid knives.

Never look back, not even at the veined marble columns,
the coiling creepers, the rusty sea gate, the orange tree:
all that you thought was you.
Even the briefest glance over the shoulder
could turn you to salt on a photograph.

Pick up the key ring, slowed by its bunch of yellowed date tags.

Where to draw the borders of the occupied city?
Across brain lobes that sleep while fingers twitch
in spasms? Across tents that shiver and capsize
on a frozen beach? Across graves
on which the wild basil has grown?

Living among strangers, he almost forgot the names of his gods.

Excerpted with permission from Jonahwale, Ranjit Hoskote, Penguin India.

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