Book Review: Collected Poems by Jeet Thayil
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The first of Jeet Thayil’s collected poems, from his 1992 Gemini, begins: What demon stalks this arid land, how can you live here my poor soul? and concludes, even the sun steps like a thief. Twenty-three years later, in the first of recent uncollected poems, the first line is: Your lips go from sunnyside to suicide in a single click, concluding with, And no faith was left in the world.
Thayil is a powerful lyric poet of discontent and disillusionment. Whereas following A.K. Ramanujan’s translations, Indian poets have often modelled their verse upon the minimalist anonymity of the impersonal, well-wrought anthology piece handed down for centuries by an author of whom little is known or required beyond the conventions of the art, Thayil is revealing, grand and self-dramatic. His language, phrases, cadences sparkle but the themes are loss, pain, dissatisfaction, harmful obsessions; there are recurrent expressions of the need for love and purpose, followed by disappointment, self-mockery, the desire to lose oneself, especially to drugs, an addiction that has, he reports, damaged his liver and is likely to shorten his life.
There is a disturbing finality about this volume of Collected Poems by someone who normally would be thought ready for Selected Poems. But Thayil claims that he will not publish any more single volumes of new poetry, the excuse being that he cannot write better than he did in These Errors Are Correct (2008). However, the short “preface” in this book offers an impression of someone ageing rapidly and expecting to die. Errors was haunted by the death of Thayil’s young, talented wife, Shakti Bhatt, and some of its memorable confessional poems are characterized by guilt that he was not at home the night she died. She filled and gave purpose to what he felt was until then a boring, purposeless existence, which had consisted of the camaraderie, theatre and the nirvana of drug-taking. The volume seemed to combine the trauma of Shakti’s death with nostalgia for narcotics, and its attractions. So if Thayil feels he cannot improve on that volume, it may well be as much the topics as the technique that are the cause.
Errors showed his continuing obsession with the craft of poetry as well. There were sonnets, ghazals, a sestina, pastiches of other poets, a verse letter monologue, and a sequence of poems where the first lines were given by others. Thayil’s verse has always been that of someone deeply soaked in poetry and literary culture; poems and their titles incorporate echoes, allusions to, and fragments of, the poetry of others. Like Arun Kolatkar and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, he is tuned in to the world’s culture; poems and lines may have their origins in such disparate sources as a remark or title by painter Paul Klee or jazz musician Charles Mingus. His origins as a south Indian Christian and years of living outside India may explain the presence of Christian allusions, imagery, even the suggestion that salvation is possible, although one of the rules for giving up drugs, like curing alcohol dependency, is taking on a belief in something beyond oneself.
Among the 50-odd “new and uncollected poems” (2003-15) in this book, there are 16 from “The Book Of Chocolate Saints”, which mix Thayil’s usual irony, amusement, wordplay, easy rhymes, parody and miscellaneous knowledge with the Surreal (I wonder if chocolate might suggest non-white). Saint Gandhi “died with the name of God on his lips;/ shot by a man with God in his name.” Saint Nayantara was “crucified at dawn by municipal spears/cast by her own strong hands.” Saint Augustine, “driven by appetite & ambition”, prays: “let me be chaste, Lord, but not today, / for today there’s she & she & she; / in old age, restored to himself & to thee, / he wrote the Confessions, read to this day.” I especially like the “&s”.
There has always been more than a touch of Augustinian ambivalence about Thayil, whose poetry recognizes the contradictions between desiring rest and the attractions of the flesh, especially the unconsciousness offered by strong drugs. The actual influence was French poet Charles Baudelaire, who keeps being imitated or addressed in these poems. Apparently, an uncle translated Baudelaire into Malayalam. Baudelaire is as famous for his drug-taking as for his observations of modern urban life and Thayil’s verse has its claims to being his own flowers of evil.
There was a time, half a century ago, when Indian poetry written in English, unlike prose, was regarded as a poor joke. It was, and remains, difficult to find volumes and a “Collected Poems” was unthinkable except as self-promotion. A major cultural and political shift, however, was in progress when the centrality of the British literary tradition was being challenged and displaced by American writing and by those formerly colonized. But many Indians were unwilling to accept that some of their poets—notably Nissim Ezekiel and A.K. Ramanujan—could be found in anthologies of the best contemporary verse alongside Derek Walcott and Wole Soyinka.
The success of Vikram Seth in England and the US was the breakthrough—after this it was no longer possible to claim that Indians could not write poetry to British and American standards.
Then volumes of collected poems by Dom Moraes, K.N. Daruwalla and Agha Shahid Ali appeared, and more recently, after he was nominated as the Oxford University professor of poetry, by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. Jayanta Mahapatra, Kamala Das and others had large volumes of selected poems. Indian poetry in English had become accepted internationally as a major literary movement of the 20th century, part of post-colonialism, and it became recognized that the poets in English influenced the next wave of prose authors, such as Amit Chaudhuri and Pankaj Mishra, in showing that Indian life was a fit subject for literature and that their experiences could be written about in English without exoticism or sentimentality.
Thayil is usually thought of as the heir to the “Bombay poets”—he knew them, socialized with them, and at times worked on the same publications, such as Gentleman. He was a close friend of Dom Moraes, who arranged for Gemini, the two-poet volume that Penguin published. Moraes is recalled in The Sonneteer in Errors.
Thayil shares Moraes’ commitment to the literary life, to promoting others, the belief that writing poetry is what matters most, and to poetic form and technique. His poetry, like Moraes’, is about one’s life, and shares an assumption that the autobiographical is interesting and a proper subject for art. Both writers seem out of place in India, if only because their literary frame of reference is international—Thayil’s new poems include three versions of Rainer Maria Rilke, a reply to a famous W.H. Auden poem, a Wallace Stevens take-off; both Moraes and Thayil are lyric poets whose writings usually conclude with disillusionment.
Since these Collected Poems include some revised versions, I wish there was some indication of which ones have been changed; I wanted to compare but my copies of earlier volumes have disappeared due, I think, to friends who borrowed and did not return them. Thayil is known as a musician as well as a poet and some of his earlier volumes were accompanied by CDs in which his poems were set to music. Aleph should be congratulated for publishing this volume—earlier ones are out of print. He is clearly a major poet who should be read in bulk rather than for a few anthology pieces.
I have in recent years looked forward to Thayil’s new volumes of poetry, and enjoyed the large personality and emerging narrative of his life as he changed places and struggled to find meaning, joy and purpose. Here is a contemporary writer articulating what I and others feel. I am disappointed that I will not have further instalments from a life in progress. Thayil is a well-travelled citizen of the modern world and its cultures. He is also a writer who is a pleasure to read; he is interesting and serious without being solemn or inflated. Even the short “Preface” to his Collected Poems is a classic of Indian prose and deserves eventual republication.
Bruce King is the author of Modern Indian Poetry In English.