Things That Happen and Other Poems by Bhaskar Chakrabarti, Translated by Arunava Sinha (Seagull Books, 2016)
“Bhaskar Chakrabarti was a major Bengali poet who rose to prominence in the late 1960s and 70s. His poetry was marked by the spirit of urban alienation. Things That Happen and Other Poems is the first comprehensive English translation of work.
“Arunava Sinha is an award-winning translator of more than thirty books. He lives and works in New Delhi.” (Seagull Books)
The life of the poet is a life filled with experiences. These experiences serve as reflections, memories, representations of the wild braids of possible observation. Whether functional or purely aesthetic, the descriptions of moments and feelings of life are, when done well, arousing and affecting. Like waypoints or beacons, we turn to these images within poetry of significance for validation of significance—that our own lives may contain such fruitful extremes and heightened sensations of existence is one of the many benefits of the poem.
From the bushes
The moon will leap up
From the corner of the stairs the cat will shift towards the stove tonight
from “Remnant” in When Will Winter Come, Suparna? (1971)
The poetry of the profound and beautifully-minded Bhaskar Chakrabarti (1945-2005) demonstrates such an exquisite sense of being and telling. Chakrabarti is a name well-known to India, and his Bengali poetry, fusing together romantic Tagorean roots to modern explosivity and descriptive revolution, is well-known too. But only now, in the second decade of the 2000s, is his work thoroughly available in an accessible and exciting translated English. Arunava Sinha, a prominent translator, has done Chakrabarti significant service by providing dazzling and marvelously-ranged tones found in the Seagull Books 2016 collection Things That Happen and Other Poems.
The book reads like a landslide or tsunami with the poems making up a massive body slowly collecting, growing, surging forward, rushing toward the reader. Divided into twelve sections, including a daunting ars poetic preface, “Poetry on Poetry,” as well as a complementary closure of uncollected works, the book feels full; and yet, at over 170 pages, the book only feels like the very beginning of a truly magical individual canon.
In the evening, when it was dark everywhere, I saw in surprise
There was blood on my hands, blood on my feet, my friends, my brothers
What is this room you have borne me into?
A fat and dark doctor plunged an unnecessary needle into me
from “Poem 137” in On The Streets Once More (1983)
Chakrabarti’s poetry reflects a life filled with life, death, and the widest spectrum of emotion possible. There are moments of vast frustration, impending anger, torqued love, jewels of empathy, reflections of sympathy, and on and on. These explorations and pondering sequences are demonstrated through an ever-evolving English-language voice that reveals an urge to explore form and style through the rapid evolution of the themes of the writing. Playfulness, experimentation, and dutiful attention to the leading of the life of the poet are qualities commonly found within Things That Happen.
Without doing injustice to Chakrabarti’s unique leadership in the Indian poetry landscape, I feel I must call out other poets whose works tackle similar thematic trajectories and pathways, whose names flooded my mind (if only for a brief flash during one of the countless flashes of Chakrabarti’s own works) in my own act of recollection: Rexroth, Rilke, Lorca, William Carlos Williams, Voznesensky, Di Prima, Trakl and on and on. However you define modernism, or Modernism, qualities of the Modern can be traced and outlined through Chakrabarti’s wilderness of works; and yet, his voice often feels ethereal and unwound. At times, there are links that could be made to French Surrealism and avant garde groups. At other times, there are postmodern hints and flavors. Perhaps Chakrabarti’s strongest qualities, at least demonstrated in this collection, center on the art of dabbling. Or perhaps that is Sinha’s selective efforts. Either way, the book succeeds in fitting nicely into the brightest and darkest pockets of world literature.
The sweet and broken and crumpled faces are hovering over the streets now
I can see why melancholy sank its teeth into me at nineteen and
my head is beginning to hang with shame
What’s the date today my breath is still circulating in our suburbs although this room is tiny now and the days are damaged and the nights have no cracks
from “Tangles” in Rehearsals from Dreaming (1993)
More interesting regarding the evocation in feeling between Chakrabarti and those other writers is the focus of the content itself: that is, what are these poems made of? The objective descriptions of the ecstatic imagery of a 20th Century India is enough poetic substance to fill millions upon millions of poems, and perhaps that is why we find many of the poems in Things That Happen to be about the happenings of others, and the happenings as represented by splices, by shards, by poems less than 10 lines. But not entirely so: Chakrabarti does well with the longer poem and the serial poems, sequences, as exemplified in the staggering late-life verse in The Language of Giraffes, of which 48 sections are included in this book. The poems, reflective of the lifestyle of a person, an artist, who is in the last stage of their Life, move across the page like a sopping cloth being wrung out, water pooling into a bucket. The effect of these poems, intoxicatingly present and strikingly disruptive, are more than themselves. They contain worlds with worlds that get seen as they get added to one another.
And those worlds are so effectively present because they are so distinguishably personal. As a writer amidst the density of Indian life, Chakrabarti has the infinite of the Indian human and natural landscape surrounding him to do with. There is obvious, intense curiosity and inspiration via the crafting of a lifetime of poetry. And yet, often counterpoint to or in juxtaposition with these external influences are the influences of Chakrabarti’s own life. In some cases, his own life hones on human bondage. The friends of which he corresponds, the family of which he is bound by blood, the echoes of lovers both actual and potential. In other cases, there is Chakrabarti’s own center—the emotive outpour, or the deep disturbance of mental nostalgia. Like the best Romantic writing, there is purpose and intent through emotional settlement and unease, and to explore each state as well as all necessitated transitions is an exploration immensely under confessional pressure. Chakrabarti performs the role of the poet quite well throughout most of his books, demonstrating a level of self-awareness that indicates process of insight, devotion to integrity, and a commitment to the poet’s duty to write it all down.
How will I write again without innumerable mornings in my life
Unless I see the geese flying in from the east to land
Or the swaying and sprouting of the china rose
How will there be poetry, thoughts of poetry
With nothing to say and trite smiles, I really am still an imbecile
“40” in The Language of Giraffes (2005)
Because Things That Happen is powerful, is prominent, and is a blanket of awe and overwhelming quantities of great writing, the demand for a grand context is high. Translator Sinha has provided some context through endnotes that help explain the subtle and often layered cultural references Chakrabarti interweaves through the narrative and non-narrative poetry in the book. And yet, these endnotes and contexts never seem enough; there is a constant need to have greater explanation, more exquisite descriptions of backgrounds. But is that not the case of most great poetry? The poetry itself will be renewed with every new discovery, every new glance beyond the page. Whether he was aware of it or not, as a complex and exciting individual, Chakrabarti’s work will be doubly understood through its reach to pull the world inward and share the poet’s individuality outward. Things That Happen is the beginning of this posthumous exploration and hopefully not the last.
Learn more about Things That Happen and Other Poems at Seagull Books.