An Emily Dickinson poem, the first line of which has now almost become a cliché, says, “Tell the truth but tell it slant / Success in circuit lies / Too bright for our infirm delight/...The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind – ”

These lines kept floating in and out of my mind as I read Sumana Roy’s much awaited book of poems, Out of Syllabus – despite the fact that Dickinson wrote fragmented poetry in a lyrical style, whereas Roy narrates stories through her poems. And, because they are truly poems, the plot or narrative within them sometimes wink back like polished stones on a riverbed. I asked myself, what exactly is Out of Syllabus? And where is it going to take its readers?

A febrile pulse

The title innocently gestures at knowledge that one must acquire from outside the prescribed curriculum. The book has poems clustered under headings with subjects that one would encounter in a senior school syllabus – Mathematics, History, Chemistry, Biology, Natural Science, Physics, Geography, Home Science, General Knowledge, Philosophy, Education, Moral Science, Second Language, Botany, and Art. Each section begins with a quote from an intellectual / academic / poet which obliquely refers to what the reader is about to experience in the poems.

Sometimes the poems start off with a quote too, and these are more direct. In the very first poem, “The Third Betrayal” for example, context is created with a quote from TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and the tone of the poem is set with the opening line: “Marriage, you once said was a comedy of manners, / and only that…” The poem unravels a relationship, its torpor, betrayals, and the mundane rituals of a coupled life. The other, the third in the pair, looms like “a bird whose smell / appears before it does.”

Roy has an unsentimental, almost ice-hard, poetic gaze. She does not believe in eulogising even what or whom she loves and / or respects. Her poetry, though, is far from cold. It possesses a febrile pulse. The result is a feeling of immediacy in the narrative flow.

In the second poem in the section “Mathematics”, for example, startling imagery punctuates the narrative of a marriage full of cracks that refuses to shatter – “Anniversaries are wall paint, a smoothening of pores. / They bring colour to the skin of marriage, / and hide cracks where parasites evade mores.” Of course there is much more to marriage than mere cracks, as Roy demonstrates later in the book.

‘Illness rinses my insides’

In the section labelled “Biology”, Roy turns her level gaze into poems of such poignancy, it’s impossible to fathom how she achieved it without wallowing in pity, for herself or otherwise. The poems in this section hold meaning for both patient and care-giver, as Roy turns the frailties and base elements of the body, like sputum, blood and stool, into literature.

She pulls the reader down tube-lit corridors smelling of forced cheer and disinfectant. The lines are powerful, and it is impossible to let go of any poem. Sample these random selections from “Illness in Instalments” –

i. Hospital:

“Illness rinses my insides /…Syringes and needles / lie carcass to a past / in my blood. / …The doctor claps with stethoscope beats. / He borrows the sound / of my heart / for his orchestra…”

ii. Tuberculosis:

“…I watch my shadows shrink into parenthesis. / …Only my dreams stretch like elastic. / …At night I am Keats, / sometimes Kafka, even Lawrence, / staring at death’s deep cleavage.”

iii. Ulcer:

“The world’s mouthwash drains / into my gullet… / That beauty is / an untouchable the doctor spies on – … / the crowd of pain is a roar/ that drowns all other secrets.”

iv. Surgery

“More knives have cut through me than men. / …Needles no longer prick, they are an arsenal of nostalgia. /…the uterus a fledgling / insect trapped in marmalade on toast.”

v. Stool

“…my innards a newspaper, a daily bulletin. /…My by-line, the day’s ingestation /…”

Sleight of hand

It becomes easy to believe Roy when she uses the quotation “all great art comes from suffering.” It becomes just as easy to take a romp with her in history. In the poem “Dancing Girl, Mohenjodaro”, Roy, with a flick of her hand, transforms a poem about an archaeological artefact into a slice of the poetic narrator’s personal history. Through the little figurine of the exuberantly defiant dancing girl, she weaves a story of schoolgirl love and a relationship between a very young woman and a much older man, possibly a teacher. The context startles as much as the metaphors in this poem.

Roy accomplishes similar sleight of hand in poem after poem, turning a name, place or thing, and what lies without, into a labyrinth of the personal and anecdotal. In the section titled “Natural Science”, Roy exclaims, “what peace there is / in falling.” The poems in the section named “Geography” are about arrival and departure, where Roy is “…always awake / like sand is to even a tip toe,” in one, and deftly turns a fly into a metaphor for love in the next – “My mind, like a fly in summer, / moves to you, again...”

The poem “House” in the section named “Home Science” is long and luscious with images. It is feminist in its gait. However, this was one poem that didn’t quite work for me, until I wondered how it would have sounded if it were to be recreated in Bengali. Some poems need a specific language in order to stand upright.

The persona is not the poet

One remarkable quality in the poems from “Out of Syllabus” is that while they seem to spring from a particular place or object or emotion, they are rooted elsewhere. This is a complex idea to visualise. One must understand, that like Dickinson’s, Roy’s poetry, too, works at dual levels. For instance, the poem “Good Housekeeping” from the section titled “Home Science” is a disturbing one, pointing shadow-dark fingers at domestic life: “It is possible to hate humans, even those we love, / but your house? / Love returns after every bout of housekeeping, / like saliva in your mouth.”

Or take the poem “Sunlight” in the section labelled “General Knowledge”. It begins as a joyous romp revelling in sunlit childlike innocence. Only when one reaches the penultimate line does one confront the terrifying truth, and is left staring “at sunshine’s death certificate.” A footnote provides the tragic context to this nuanced poem.

The poem “Shantiniketan” from the section named “Education” reads almost like a travelogue, with Roy as the guide. Shantiniketan (the place) turns into an “extant manuscript” under her poetic scrutiny, making one wonder “how it would feel to receive a missed call from Tagore.”

But Roy can come down from intellectual rumination and place the reader in the midst of tenderness too. Her two poems (in “Second Language”) about her nephew are as sweet as a child’s lisp and falsetto – before she sets forth again to meet the confluence of language and political history, insisting, it seems to me, on making a seeker out of her readers, exhorting them to not be “so poor that you have no memories”. (From “Portraits: Shards” in the section titled “Art”).

The intimate and the public, the private and the shared – Roy takes fragments of the poetic persona’s existence and lays out, in patchwork quilt fashion, a single narrative. So the poems together turn into one story, tracing all the experiences and relationships – very human, frail and ambiguous – that the poetic persona encounters. This gives the book a double-shaded tone, with poems that are at once innocent and wise, naïve and sophisticated.

It is precisely this childlike yet worldly-wise characteristic of Out of Syllabus that made me think of Dickinson, whose poems were enigmatic and paradoxical, sharing the truth even as they withheld details from the reader. By the time I arrived at the end of Roy’s book I felt that I had been on a personal journey, and yet the poet herself remained elusive, even private, tasking the reader with the duty of consuming her poetry and being nourished by it, without seeking her in them or, worse, burying her within them. Perhaps this is where Roy’s strength lies, and this is what ultimately defines her as a poet.

Out Of Syllabus: Poems, Sumana Roy, Speaking Tiger Books.