Aparticularly poignant sequence in Eternity And a Day, Theodoros Angelopoulos’ Palme d’Or-winning film from 1998, recalls the 19th century poet Dionysios Solomos visiting a Greek island to write a poem. Solomos requests the inhabitants to lend him words from their local dialect in exchange for money. He begins receiving one word from each citizen, and eventually starts to assemble the words into a poem which, he believes, will truly reflect the Greek character.

Cultivator: Bibek Jena thought of poetry as an art imbued with the essence of its language and people.

“Bibek used to visit villages to find the exact colloquial words which he could later use in his poems," recalls contemporary Oriya poet Amaresh Patnaik. Writing in the 1970s, Jena advanced the view that the poets of the day employ these old, oft-forgotten words in their poems. Jena likened poets to cultivators, says Patnaik—agri-poets, whose task he envisioned as the cultivation of a poetry imbued with the essence of a people largely dependent on agriculture.

Illumined by a “remarkable surrealistic approach", as Patnaik calls it, the skeleton of a typical Jena poem meanders through the scents, sounds and fields of Orissa, adopts stray words and phrases, and wafts through many a temple door to latch on to symbols (the goddess Kali in particular), before being rolled into a “short and compact" poem. From Midnight (a poem in the collection): “The trees here/shall break down and keep you bound to the blood’s/numerous flowers, and you will be forced to open up your/long black hair to wash my corpse with your tears."

Memories, Legends and the Goddess— Selected Poems: Rupantar, 64 pages, 130.

“He was impressed by the deep esotericism of Neruda and other poets he admired," says Chinmoy Jena, Bibek’s younger brother, a poet himself. “This esotericism informs Bibek’s own poetry as well."

Chinmoy’s Bibek was a boisterous elder brother who read voraciously, introduced everyone else in the family to the joy of literature, kept wickets really well (Jena represented Orissa in Ranji Trophy cricket between 1961-63), burst into invocations of Captain Haddock’s famed “billions of blue blistering barnacles" while playing cards, and swore by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Jena was never a full-time poet. Soon after graduating from St Stephen’s, and after a short teaching stint in Cuttack, he joined the Indian Audit and Accounts Service in Bhubaneswar in 1960. He stayed with it till his death in 1985.

From 1983-85, Jena and Patnaik also served on the editorial board of a literary quarterly published from Kolkata called Pratibeshi, a magazine still in existence.

But, says Chinmoy, “Bibek’s work was never received too well during his lifetime." “It was considered too personal." A close reading of Padhi’s translations throws this in sharp relief. The poetic idiom is plainly confessional.

Neatly divided into three sections—Goddess, Memories and Legends—the collection witnesses the sprouting of Jena’s natural symbols within the first few poems. The moon, rain, vermilion, blood, shadows, lotuses and rivers make frequent appearances. They serve to underscore the poet’s anguished longing for the debi (goddess). Chinmoy tells of Jena’s midnight sojourns at numerous Kali and Durga temples. “His concept of debi, the goddess mother, which so troubled and possessed him, had its birth in those temple walls," he says.

In the stillness of moonlit temple courtyards, the solemn atmosphere of a Jena poem was born. Then came the surreal abstractions, never jarring, that Jena adorns his poems with, and the ceaseless rhythm of arrival and departure, a journeying in and out of dreams, unhurried yet wistful.

Jena died of cardiac failure at the age of 48 in Kolkata. Chinmoy complains that the poets of his time were concerned chiefly with Jena’s personal life, which they presumed to be turbulent owing to his idiosyncratic way of living. “When he was alive, people were only interested in his personal life. This sudden interest in his poetry both amuses and annoys me," he says.

anupam1.v@livemint.com

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