Book Review: Stray Poems
Santosh Bakaya reviews 'Stray Poems', a collection of beautiful and touching poems penned by well-known poet-diplomat Abhay K.
Stray Poems written by the versatile diplomat- poet Abhay K between the years 2010-2022, takes the reader on a poetic journey across the world, ‘to the moon and the planets in our solar system and to the far reaches of the Universe, then back to our glorious Earth!’
And what a delectably enlightening, inspiring, eye-opening, intellectually stimulating, exciting journey it is! With the poet, we travel to the ocean and along with him breathe and sing to the music of the waves, we stand with him near the Beach as the fresh breeze wafts towards us, caressing our cheeks; the fragrance of exotic flowers- jasmine, Champa, roses, the sound of the pitter-patter of monsoon sounds, and birdsong leaps at us from the pages of the book, and the reader is spellbound. Bewitched.
As Gabriel Rosenstock, [Poet, Ireland] says in praise of the book:
“How refreshing that he has chosen not to be dourly imitative but to strike the anvil with a pure, ringing sound and rhythm all of his own.”
Nalanda, considered the oldest university in the world, was an important seat of Buddhist learning. Destroyed in the twelfth century, it was forgotten until the late 1800s. Excavated in the early twentieth century with the help of Hiuen Tsang’s writings, it has been revived as an international center for learning and in the year 2014, it began functioning again as a university. The book has poems about both Nalanda University and Hiuen Tsang, which one reads, absolutely enthralled.
In his poem Nalanda 2, we hear the Nalanda University speaking through his words:
I remember Hiuen Tsang and Faxian –
the saint-seekers from the East,
I hear the footsteps of Aryabhata and Charaka
in my ancient compound today
you too come; come as I rise again.’
His exhortation to Hiuen Tsang in his poem ‘Hiuen Tsang’ to come back to Nalanda keeps ringing in the ears with a sincere clarity- beseeching-pleading- cajoling-
Nalanda has risen from its ashes
to embrace you once again with open arms
Hiuen Tsang bring along I-tsing and Faxian
come back to Nalanda
Three poems, echoing T S. Eliot’s The Wasteland and section 3 of The Wasteland, The Fire sermon, we are the Hollow men made me break out into goosebumps. The way these long poems- The Partitioned Land, The Fire, and Sermon, Diplomacy, [After TS Eliot] have been penned, is indeed awe-inspiring. I must confess, I was absolutely gripped by the stunning imagery and powerful wordplay in these poems, I read on, in an anguished stupor as the horrors of partition, and the futility of war stared me in the face.
In Diplomacy [after TS Eliot] hit me with the force of a hammer, and I almost reeled under its stunning power.
Our voices are loud and meaningless
As screeching fighter jets
In a war zone
Anger has no shape,
anger has no colour,
Anger is a misguided force, a violent emotion;
Between the doves
And the hawks
Through its sombre tones, T S Eliot in his poem, Hollow Men, had lashed out at the tragic repercussions of World War 1. Through his powerful words, Abhay K also talks of the doom that senseless wars wreck on people:
This is the doomed land
This is the nuked land
Here only heaps of bones
Are left – charred, scattered
Under the cold glow of the moon.
In the longest section of The Wasteland- Section 3, The Fire Sermon, the title of which has been derived from a sermon delivered by Buddha, advising his disciples to give up earthly passion [symbolized by fire] The River- song begins with the refrain, ‘Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song.’
And Abhay. K’s refrain in his long poem, The Fire and Sermon [After T.S. Eliot] is:
Sweet Indus, flow gently, till I sing again.
The river’s soul is slashed: its five fingers
Fractured and dammed with an imaginary border. The wind
crosses back and forth the ancient land, unhindered.
The saint has departed.
Sweet Indus, flow gently, till I sing again.
The river bears no blood stains, partition papers,
Silk flags, passports, blue or green
Or other remains of dark midnights. The saint has departed.
Through his poignant words, one can hear India waking up from ‘centuries of slumber, for its tryst with destiny but broken and limping. Partitioned and bleeding, assaulted by invaders.’ Fully aware of its newfound freedom; its numb amputated body feels a streak of terror: It must move on: now what’s done isdone.
When one has finished reading this masterpiece, one finds oneself quivering in every sinew with the horrors of partition, and the aftereffects of the nightmare that followed the waking up from centennial slumber.
In Krishna, he seeks a candid answer from Krishna regarding whether the war should be fought at all.
Tell me Krishna candidly—
could the Great War of Mahabharat
have been averted with more dexterous diplomacy?
Are there limitations to dialogues
and must wars be fought at all cost?
Is there no other way of finding lasting peace?
Are wars woven into the sinews of humanity?
For ours is anger’s dark underworld.
I found these words so reminiscent of the words of the great civil rights icon, Martin Luther King Jr. “Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words Too Late”. Yes, when will humanity realise its hubristic folly? When will it restrain its belligerence? Don’t the angry men realise that their loud, but vacuous voices spell nothing but disaster?
The book has incisive, satirical pieces too, lampooning certain types of people, and I enjoyed these pieces thoroughly. Bureaucrab has a sting in the tail and bludgeons the reader with powerful punches, its conversational tone highly appealing, its humorous satire not lost on the reader. One is awed by the lyrical cadences of The Puppet Show, where the hydra-headed master puppeteer is all set to mentor the puppets, ‘to overcome their shortcomings, but ironically, the puppets are missing. In this enthralling poem, the theatrist in me, found all the ingredients of a highly impactful skit- or maybe a background chorus while the skit unfolds on stage, and, honestly, I couldn’t resist the temptation of reading this powerful poem aloud. Let me reproduce a few lines from it:
The curtain raises
ten heads of the master puppeteer
rise, fall, and then rise again
dexterous hands strum the strings
but where have all the puppets gone?
Where have all the puny puppets gone?
Puppets are missing from the scene.
Where have all the puppets gone?
‘The Pleasure Givers’, an intensely poignant poem touches the reader’s heart with words like:
I see your soul being strangled every hour
I see you drinking hemlock as Socrates
I see you kissing death with your golden lips.
The pleasure-givers, I see you.
Only an immensely sensitive poet, with a compassionate heart, can write something like this, aware of the pain throbbing under the garish clothes and heavy makeup.
The Tiger’s Nest, is a sacred Buddhist site in Paro valley in Bhutan where the 8th Century Indian Buddhist master Guru Padamsambhava is believed to have meditated for three years. Legend has it that Guru Padamsambhava flew to this place on the back of a tigress from Tibet.
In his poem, To The Tiger’s Nest, the poet says,
As I read this highly intriguing poem, The Partitioned Land [After T.S. Eliot],I could hear my professor’s voice echoing from my class room of long ago, with words from The Wasteland [1 The Burial of the Dead ]
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire
Hailing from Kashmir, it was as if Abhay K’s take on this poem was addressing me directly, sending me on a nostalgic trip to our shikara rides in the Dal Lake, to the warm houseboat owners in the cold December months, making me exclaim with Amir Khusrow and repeat with the poet, ‘Agar Firdaus bar rōy-e zamin ast hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hamin ast. [if there is heaven on Earth, it is here, it is here”- is a famous quote by poet Amir Khusrow, repeated by Emperor Jahangir when he visited Kashmir.]
In the poem, he says,
August is the deadliest month,
bringing hatred out of the ancient land,
mixing partition memories and hope,
stirring passion with monsoon rains
Summer kept us sweating
inside our air-conditioned rooms
glued to the Internet and TV screens
Spring surprised us,
coming over Kashmir with melting snows,
we stopped in the valley and went to the Dal lake,
then to Shalimar Bagh and drank kahwa
and talked for hours...
What are the bonds that bind us,
what hopes grow out of this wounded paradise?
Son of Kashmir, only you can say,
for only you know a heap of broken promises
And I read on, awe-struck!
Once I had finished reading this unique book of 66 poems – which is a cornucopia of succinct, sublime, sensuous, satirical, and soul-stirring verses, an image remained etched in my mind, and a song rose above the images of gore, above the wails of refugees and children, the frightening sound of guns, and abuses flying around as cannonballs- The Song of Songs – The Song of Solomon, which figures in his poem, Hoopoes. Yes, come what may, it is love that is the antidote to everything. Its sublime notes rise above the cacophony of hatred, violence, and divisive dogma. It is indeed love – unadulterated love which needs to be celebrated.
Two Madagascan hoopoes in the orchard,
building a nest
in a wall-hole
I watch them from a distance…
and think of the Hoopoe of Attar
who led birds to legendary Simorgh
crossing seven valleys
abandoning dogma, reason, knowledge, desire,
realising everything is one.
The sacred birds of ancient Egypt
depicted on walls singing the Song of Songs —
the Song of Solomon
praising each other, desiring
each other, celebrating love.
These are the moments that matter-the moments of eternal bliss, the moments of love, despite the world being full of suffering. This multi-nuanced book is a book one wants to read again and again.
And yet again.
About the Poet
Abhay K. is the author of ten poetry books including Monsoon (Sahitya Akademi, 2022), The Magic of Madagascar (L’Harmattan Paris, 2021), The Alphabets of Latin America (Bloomsbury India, 2020), and the editor of The Book of Bihari Literature (HarperCollins India 2022), The Bloomsbury Book of Great Indian Love Poems, CAPITALS, New Brazilian Poems and The Bloomsbury Anthology of Great Indian Poems. His poems have appeared in over 100 literary magazines including Poetry Salzburg Review and Asia Literary Review among others. His ‘Earth Anthem’ has been translated into over 150 languages. Recipient of the SAARC Literary Award 2013, he was invited to record his poems at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. in 2018. His translations of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta (Bloomsbury India, 2021) and Ritusamhara (Bloomsbury India, 2021) from Sanskrit won him the KLF Poetry Book of the Year Award 2020-21. His translation of the first Magahi novel Fool Bahadur is forthcoming. www.abhayk.com
Stray Poems consists of poems written over a decade during my travels to Nalanda, Goa, Thailand, Kashmir, Brazil, Madagascar and imaginary journeys to the planets in our solar system and the deep reaches of the universe. Most of my poetry collections are named after places such as The Seduction of Delhi, The Eight-eyed Lord of Kathmandu, Prophecy of Brasilia, The Alphabets of Latin America, The Magic of Madagascar and so on because I organize my poems according to geographies. However these poems did not fit in any of the anthologies mentioned above. Therefore I thought of putting them together in the form of a separate anthology. Stray Poems includes my Cosmic Anthems-- anthems on all the planets in our solar system, as well my rewriting of T.S. Eliot's 'The Burial of the Dead' and 'Fire Sermon' from The Waste Land. In fact 'The Partitioned Land,' which is a rewriting of 'The Burial of the Dead' in the South Asian context, was taught at Cornell University in Fall 2021. It also includes a number of poems on human desire in its myriad forms. I think the book will be a treat for the readers who like to be surprised and shocked with a smorgasbord of emotions