While the act of writing, especially autobiographical, can certainly be liberatory, its effects may vary, depending on the kinds of labor that goes into it.
Shamayita Sen’s debut poetry collection, For the Hope of Spring: hybrid poems, is an intimate act of archival, dedicated to her Baba who taught her “to savour life and name the poems.” Though the collection is divided into three parts – ‘On Dissent,’ ‘Grief and Other People’ and ‘Love, Healing, etc’ – it isn’t difficult to read these sections as overlapping affective experiences that hold the book together.
The first poem, ‘Language Bears Roots’, addresses a familiar concern of some Indian poets who write in English, a language that is not their mother tongue.
As Kamala Das wrote in “Introduction”:
The language I speak,
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone.
While Sen, a PhD student in English, is conscious about her use of a language that is associated with “torture” of her “ancestors in/ their native land”, she also recognises its ability to grow “roots” and find “home”.
At one level, each poem responds to a negotiation with home or/and desire, even reflecting on the shortcomings of idealised institutions. Sen’s understanding of dissent and love don’t exist in two separate realms, so that she writes in ‘In Love, In Rage’:
I fetch my heart out of my pocket
and throw it
like a stone hurled in a protest
This unwavering “I” is also a witness to violence against married women in ‘Women’ and ‘Our Times.’ Each poem is connected to the other, so that the reference to the stone in ‘In Love, In Rage’, is also a reminder of the “stray bullet” that destroyed a Kashmiri home in ‘Sans Company.’
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Sen narrates some of her poems from the perspective of a third person who has an intimate access to the psyche of her women characters. In Part III of “Journeying Through,” the poetic persona places two nagging questions, “‘why am I here, alone?’” and “coffee?” next to one another, indicating a compulsory confrontation with grief, that is ritualistic.
This balcony overlooks neither greens, nor does it dry
the red-blue-black checkered lungi she’s grown up see-
ing hanging out in the sun. Where is home? Where is
Baba? “Why am I here, alone?”
Coffee being offered a second time.
“Why am I here, alone?” (27, 28)
The white space on the page and in between the lines, allows the reader to breathe and grasp the small movements of the speaker, who is coming to terms with her immediate losses.
By contrast, in “Books Unread”, the poet seems more concerned with tightness and long sentences that are meant to suffocate:
There are these books, stacks of them, like someone has
stocked and piled placards and greeting cards, curated
with precision and passion over decades as gifts unsent
to partners, friends and lost loves. These books have not
been dusted for ages, like someone has let moths and spi-
ders and roaches to nestle there, like that someone knows
this symbiotic relationship will harm neither the books,
nor the insects, like the insects are offered refuge, like
they have no other home to build, like if the book owner
tears off the cobwebs, she would be as guilty as govern-
ment officials turning away refugees and migrants off the
mainland, like cleaning the bookshelf would be an adios
leading to the fatal acknowledgement of her lonely life.
But what she most frantically desires erasure is the mem-
ory of the impending pain that the words when read
might cause her. The fiction, as true to her terrifying life,
fear her of them paining her through sleepless nights,
their doleful images raking up traumatic memories she’s
buried deep in her psyche.
Sen seems to rely on established images like that of the dust and cobwebs to indicate lack of action and inspiration. The poetic form with no link breaks, manages to replicate the content – the “stacks” and the “piled placards” – firmly scaffolded in prose. Unlike some of the other women characters in the previous poems, this subject has a space of her own, suggesting both privilege and ownership.
My personal favorite in this collection is “Nainital,” that makes the geographical place meaningful through memory and archival. Sen returns to the first-person narrator, trying to survive the loss of Baba who remains a permeating presence throughout the book. The process of healing has to be located in the acts of acceptance and moving on – “Then why must you be scared of living solo?”.
I wonder if “scared” is the apt term to describe the speaker’s repeated attempts to make sense of this new reality of being both alone and lonely. Perhaps, it is the fear and the hollowness of “looking for suitable titles” without the company of Baba whose words seem to provide a necessary push to the process of poetic creation. It is this pain that also forms the locus of Sen’s poetry.
While certain references to ‘political’ events seem somewhat forced and tangential, this book manages to emphasize affective connections that become the means to survive trauma and grief. Healing is a constant process, and poetry is certainly a means by which Sen hopes to embrace it, especially during the ongoing pandemic.
Views expressed are the author’s own.
Featured image: Book cover from Amazon.
is a PhD (English) candidate in the University of Iowa. They are invested in queer studies, specific to South Asian diasporas and social movements. When not heavy lifting in classrooms, they write poetry about desires and friendships.