Book Review: Despite the dark undertones, there’s sunshine in these lines

Book Review: Despite the dark undertones, there’s sunshine in these lines

By Maitreyee B. Chowdhury | | 16 December, 2017
C.P. Surendran.
There are strong personal and political registers in C.P. Surendran’s poetry and dark themes haunt his imagination, but his voice is always a subtle caress, writes Maitreyee B. Chowdhury.
Available Light 
By C.P. Surendran
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Pages: 272
Price: Rs 499
Sometime last year, I had picked up C.P. Surendran’s book of poetry The Portraits of the Space We Occupy.The poems were a revelation, like soft sunshine on winter mornings I remember being enveloped by his sense of nostalgia, obsession with death and wry smile at living. Poems like “Sound Proof”, “Sowing Circle” and “Penance” from this collection have terrific recall value, as do so many others.
The curiosity thus at the release of Surendran’s much awaited new book, Available Light was laced with scepticism—would the poet live up to the expectations he had set upon himself? Available Light is appended with his four previous collections—Gemini II (1994), Posthumous Poems (1999), Canaries on the Moon (2002) and Portraits of the Space We Occupy (2007). The poet himself clarifies at the very beginning that the fact that three of his previous collection of poems are out of print, makes it somewhat necessity to bring together all of them between one cover, a thought of sorts for posterity perhaps.
The book begins with a fine personal tribute to Vijay Nambisan, whose presence the poet wanted in some manner of speaking here along with the new and old poems. Other than the fact that it traces the journey of one of India’s finest and most underrated poets, the essay is precious stuff for all followers of Bombay poets spanning an era from Arun Kolatkar to Jeet Thayil and then some. At various stages, the poet makes it clear that for him poetry isn’t only the act of writing, it’s also the act of recalling all that one has passed and not forgotten. 
As is perhaps appropriate, Available Light straddles the other collections in this book and places long and short, historical, political and personal poems in no particular order. There is strong personal and political sunshine in here, but his voice is surprisingly mostly a subtle caress, even when he treads political poetry whether it is about Sudan (“A promise in South Sudan”) or Hong Kong (“Umbrellas in Hong Kong”) or Kashmir(“Sparrows”). In the series titled “David, Don’t Be Sad, That Was a Dream” the horrors of genocide are played out before the discerning reader. The series ends with the titular “Available Light”—all that is political here becomes personal finally.
Death is a constant metaphor in most poets who chose to drink a glass half full, in Surendran it reminds you of the pull of raw thread eerily moving in and out of life, visible much long after the frame and stitch are done and dusted. 
More than once the poet specifies that for him poetry isn’t about collecting awards or being seen in the right places; it is about being a part of a rather defiant and dangerous personal vocation—a characteristic that could well be an antithesis to the tribe of Nice poetry doing the rounds these days.
If his satirical vein goads us into an extravagant imagery of loveless existences, lack of faith, cynicism and hopelessness—it is in the poems where he breathes nostalgia about his parents that one revisits tenderness. Recurrent images of his father and mother in poems like “House Hunting” or other family in “Mirrors” make for compelling reading. The personal in Surendran’s poems however stays away from the private. But his sharp eye makes you realise that you’d be lucky if you make it past the tide in life. His lines brilliantly capturing the afterlife of half-done ties, often tends to let it slip by you if you’re not careful and then there’s the mandatory pause, before the subtlety of full blown passion that hits your gut. And one chances upon the white light of pain—
I keep my peace
Aware of the sheath
Of space between us
Just right for a sword to hide
And worry why it takes
Just two people for such quiet.
(From “Two”)
Death is a constant metaphor in most poets who chose to drink a glass half full, in Surendran it reminds you of the pull of raw thread eerily moving in and out of life, visible much long after the frame and stitch are done and dusted. As a result death’s mystery while indistinguishable from select beginnings, classy middle liners and sparse endings, feels like a long lost friend instead of a morose shadow palpable. 
The needle threads through your eyes
I’ve sewn all that you’ve seen
Into a blindfold
From what the crows gave.
You wave it out of sight
From the other side of the grave.
Strains of the poet’s rant fallow you through, spill over and resurrect all writing, “Writing is a career now. A performance. A mime of the self. A frantic, if studied, method to hang on to what may not be there anytime now: an award, a fellowship, a flung nickel, an air ticket. And it involves one of the most tiring tasks an intelligent human can embark on: self-promotion.” But have any of us escaped that recurrent spill including the poet himself, is the larger question one might ask. 
A worthy buy at Rs 499, Surendran delights in all his Available light.
Maitreyee B. Chowdhury is the author of Where Even The Present Is Ancient: Benaras and Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen- Bengali Cinema’s First Couple; she is the poetry editor of The Bangalore Review and co-organiser of The Bangaluru Poetry Festival. She maybe found at http://www.maitreyeechowdhury.com/ 

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