Night River

John Oliver Perry

Keki N. Daruwalla. Night River New Delhi. Rupa. 2000. 112 pages Rs95, ISBN 81-7167-480-1

WHAT A GREAT PLEASURE to read and reread for review and to have for fresh rereadings another substantial book of solid poetic achievement from this top-ranking India poet in English. Except for occasional subject matter — e.g., “Partition Ghazal,” allusions to Gandhi and Godse (in “On a Dying Milennium”) or to the Babri Masjid-Ayodhya debacle, or the like, and when an Indian subject requires words like mantra or vish kanyas (a wondrous phrase explained within the poem as “those poisoned-womb concubines / for the neighboring king, / who would die even as he co-habited with them” — almost no elements of style or usage indicate specifically that the work is from India. To the contrary, the whole volume is markedly global, both formally, in multiple details of imagery and technique, and in its scope of interests and perspective: in one poem the poet-speaker’s mother visits him in Helsinki; the first poem is of Chinese poets traveling down the night river (which appears often and in different forms in many later poems); there is an “Egyptian Testament,” “A Faiz Quatrain,” “The Stalin Epigram,” a comment on a disaster “Under the Ionian Seas” (with an F-174 trawler, presumably another telling, globally informed detail), a poem on Darius (“Darreios [After Cavafy]”), a solid section of poems titled “Stalking Mandelstam.” And yet it is unmistakably Keki Daruwalla’s thoroughly grounded voice and way of feeling further widening and deepening its range here. As an interviewer reported in India Today, no competent observer could now consider calling him a policeman poet, or even, one might add, a Parsi poet, despite the several poems that reference Persia, Mazda, or Zoroastrian fire-temple practices and beliefs.

This collection, the poet’s first in five years (though nineteen poems previously appeared in national and international journals), seems to me darker, denser, and more direct than those in such prior volumes as Landscape (1987) or the earlier, at times more harsh or violent collections. The “night river” of the introductory Chinese poets’ journeying is one of memory and particularly of dreams. That poem ends: “And those who are not exiled from their dreams, / are they really far from home?” Another poet, or perhaps Daruwalla previously, might have written “ever” in place of “really.” The chosen shift into a slightly more relaxed register may be one mark of the global poet’s reach toward directness and casualness that does not sacrifice dense particularity. And those two lines suggest as well that for all the losses incurred by poets and the melancholy in their poetry as in their dreams, more than enough abides to give them strength through wisdom, clarity despite darkness. As one poem aptly notices: “Birds know an eclipse from a cloud.” This volume, composed before Daruwalla’s wife Khurshid’s eminently tragic automobile accident in Texas, is dedicated: “For Nainaz and Freyana who came recently into the world and for Khurshid who left.” There was another volume almost in press last summer, but it was canceled rather than to imply that poetry can be piled against such a disaster. Subsequently Daruwalla has vowed to an interviewer not to let the loss of this dearly beloved (several love poems here, as in previous volumes, indicate how intense his feelings) turn his poems or his attitudes “acerbic.” As if anticipatory, a delicate balance is maintained here of loss and possession, mirrored in the night river of dreams and memories — richly symbolic, yes, but more than that, simply “really” present.

Immediately following the powerful “Going Down the Night River” — which ends, matter-of-factly, “A dream is as good a raft as any / to take you down the night river” — comes a brief “Dream Log,” beginning: “I look in the black-mirror-river / and cannot find my face.” But a few lines later: “Mist would help, the loss / could be explained away. / But mist, I associate with spirit.” (Note the mastery of rhythm and lineation, regulating the ambivalence.) So that he soon concludes: “I say aloud to no one in particular, / if I can’t find my face / let the mist find it, / let the river find it, / let the spirit of the mountains find it.” And then come three dream poems: “The Room” (“I’m on a hill in a large room / with only three walls. / The architect wanted it that way”), “The House” (“If you’ve lived in rented apartments / all your life / you can’t think of an ancestral house. / Yet I home in [an acute phrase!] like a pigeon / to a place where we stayed for six years, / mother, father and I. / The same doors that squealed!”), and “Melons” (“When the banks get steeper / the river darkens, / and its waters ricochet / from side to side. / The vale opens up, the waters shimmer with light / and darken again with sludge / and effluents, / as they enter the plains. // I am looking for melons. /…. / It’s the same old story — / I seem to find nothing”). Then he learns from a beturbaned melon merchant (“a Djinn could have just / flown in from Samarkand”) that “Rivers are like daughters, / after a while they set out on their own,” leaving “abandoned riverbeds,” and, wondering, he leans over to look, “only to find, reflected, / in a shallow scoop of water, / my long-lost face / on a bed of moss.” Again note the mastery of pause, the essential punctuation around “reflected,” reflecting in turn a care with every available tool of this language much too rare in Indian English poetry. A couple of exceptions: spineless rhyming in an unjustified retelling of Camus’s The Stranger (“Meursault”); the uncharacteristically crass, parodic rhymes for an even less compelling, prolonged verse-review of a Vikram Seth volume.

Some of these poems are notes, sometimes grouped together and so entitled:

brief insights, sharp or perhaps merely casual social, semi-philosophical comments, not needing or possibly not inherently capable of development. For (apart from the above exceptions) nothing here is forced, nothing heavily elaborated, portentously reaching for more than it really is: “One thing you can’t peel off / from the word / is the fog it carries. / Don’t get worked up: / for the person who uttered it, the fog was more important / than the word.” “One sail can people an entire sea. / Sail, mast, the lookout perched on the masthead; / the helmsman. This is human heritage. / May all this be always around. // Don’t let them be turned into symbols. / Symbols become dead words and slow down a language. // I dream more on islands. // The island has lifted anchor. It floats away. / The dream lifts anchor and disappears.” In such lines “Island Notes,” composing the last four pages, contains its living contradictions both through the density of its symbols and through directly looking into dream realities as into those daily met. In social relations and in communion with what one really is — the face lost in a mirror day after day. “Living on hyphens,” says this poet for all of us hybrid creatures, “a man needs to anchor himself. / Between dream and landscape / and between dream and the dark blood / congealing on cobblestones / … / a man must arrive / at some sort of understanding.” Through his caring and careful poetic journeying along wondrous night rivers, we are enabled to justify being “Happy with just one boxed-in sky, / one feeling — love, / one sense — of loss, / one window — despair.” And certainly grateful for the finely shaped poems of direct feeling, complex experiencing, and acutely phrased thinking that he shares with us.

John Oliver Perry


COPYRIGHT 2001 University of Oklahoma

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning