Four Degrees of Separation
Price: Rs 300
Rochelle Potkar’s debut volume of poems, titled Four Degrees of Separation, is a fine work of poetry. Split across separate sections — called “i”, “he”, “them”, “they”, “her”, “there”, “those” —the book is an attempt to recreate the poet’s personal memory for her readers and prepares them for a confessional. It is also an autobiographical journey. By using these pronouns as section names, the poet sets the stage and expectations for her readers, raising questions in the readers’ mind about the sort of poems one may find.
The poems are well-crafted and replete with fresh images. The confessional nature of the poems, along with the tone that Potkar employs, adds to her style and makes the volume a good read.
The book starts off with simple but fine poem where she writes,
“Its time and place is the morning,/
when from the blessings of a stem
it oozes nectar…”
Its time and place is the morning — a line that stands out in the first poem. Though there are few other lines which may be termed as universal, “Timely” is essentially a personal poem where the poet expresses her dislike at being kept waiting for long. What I liked about the first section is that though it is titled “I”, most poems seem to have a fine balance of the personal and the universal.
While in “Doggerel”, a rebellious kid would “jump over the school compound wall/ and kiss alcohol in dingy restaurants/ and chew paan”; in the poem “Two-paths query”, the poet questions the philosophy of ignorance. There is an element of self-questioning too, as she writes:
“Day by day,
I reach the knowledge
of how little I know
Is this the path of knowledge then or ignorance?”
An element of self-doubt can be found in the poem “Outsider” too as the poet writes:
“Wherever I go the party has begun,
their music wrapping around the tongue
of my small-townhoodness, my self-doubts.”
The poem also brings out the stereotypical perception of people who live in big cities towards small-towners.
Continuing the personal and confessional nature of poems, the collection takes us through the poet’s love and sexuality in the next section “he”. In these poems we meet a lover whose observations are skilfully inserted into poems of love and erotica, like:
“an invisible moon takes over
as a crab laps up
the laughter in the rocks”
Or, in another poem where she writes:
“This is how you should love me, wordless
like a wind instrument,
a whirlpool sucking in its last victim.
a spider exuding silk for trapping...”
In this section, the poet also experiments with what she terms “chat poems”, which I personally found interesting. The title poem “4 degrees of separation” starts with fine lines:
“Stream your fingers
through the flames
of a mid-morning dream
and see how broken glass, broken bone
make perfect symphony.”
I particularly liked the poem where the grandmother advices that, “In a breakup, cross the choppy river of night like an island.” I also like the fact that the poems in this section, make the title “he” even more generic, where every men lover can be fitted in “he”, the word itself is seen by the poet as love.
In the following sections “them” and “they”, the poet talks of her roots and the world around respectively. The poems read like a diary (something I like about them) and continue to reveal how the poet thinks. Like in the poem “Introspection” Rochelle writes:
“I want to strike my grandmother off my pages
She cherished sons over daughters...”
Or in “Gathering” where the poet talks about her extended family in a critical tone.
While taking about her “Uncle Wilfred”, she remembers “his opponents/ who had marginalized him because of his poverty”.
Poems like “Mute tour” and “Balcony Seat” are mentionable in the section “They”.
I would have liked if the sections “I” and “her” were placed alongside each other like “they” and “them” to bring out the difference more prominently in the readers’ mind. In the section “her”, Rochelle experiments with femininity and sexuality and comes up with lines like:
“Curdle amidst your clothes that hide
the cleavage, figure, narrow waist, thigh.
… Or invade.
Walk the streets,
expand like a river of rage, naked
on freewill and the edges of total abandon.”
Another poem in this section, “The Malabar house”, is worth mentioning for its beautiful and nostalgic imagery, set in a Konkan village.
The last two sections, “there” and “those” are about spaces and ideas. Poems like “Native place”, “Train to Bombay” and “Content” stand out in these two sections.
Rochelle ends her collection with the poem “Content” where she writes:
“My professor in Advertising would say,
that an ad is fish wrappings in 45 minutes
and then goes onto add-
The persistence of word
is more than the persistence of vision
on a fish wrapping or TV screen
in this large need for consumption
over embedded, embittered boredom...”
The poet has created some delightful lines in this collection; however, there were a few poems that I liked a little less than others. As a reader, I found some lines and stanzas did not end where I wished they could have. A few poems started off very well but fell short of my expectations. This is, of course, a personal observation and I am sure that the poet has her own reasons for using those words/lines. Having said that, the collection works, as the poems, neatly tied under the aptly named sections, continue to acquaint the readers with fresh images and ideas.
As a debut collection of poems, Rochelle Potkar’s Four Degrees of Separation stands out for its confessional and autobiographical nature. The poems are personal yet they evoke a sense of the universal in the readers mind.
The reviewer is a Delhi-based poet.