Un-building Walls by Ananya Chatterjee
(Kolkata: Zahir Publication, 2019, ISBN 978-81-939828-4-6, INR 250, Pp. 86)
Review by Dr. Amit Shankar Saha (Assistant Professor, Department of English, Seacom Skills University)
The Unpretentiousness of Being a Poet
Poetry, as any other form of literature, is a mixture of intellect and passions. The metaphysicals and the modernists put more emphasis on the intellectual part of it whereas the Romantics vouched for emotions and feelings more. In both the cases for the flag bearers there is a kind of pretentiousness that stems from the rhetorical stance they take or dialectical prejudice they have in order to argue their case and substantiate it. The two qualities that a poet possesses are enhanced ability of perception and the craft to express it in a form. But it takes imagination to transform a work of craft into a piece of art. And yet it is not a cliché to say that art lies in concealing art. Just as the poet is doing something with the art, the art should also have a transformative power on the poet. This poet who has been transformed by his/ her art is an unpretentious poet whose art is deceptively simple because of a subtle and harmonious balance between intellect and passions. It is an art that can be read at the surface like rays of light skimming on the lake and yet has a depth where light itself finds it tough to enter. Such a poet is Ananya Chatterjee.
A poet, whose poems are easily accessible on surface meaning and yet have an inner depth disguised in the ease of construction, runs the risk of being taken only in the former sense and not the latter. That one should not stop at the surface meaning and delve deeper is a mental block of a reader too attuned to interpreting texts with single meaning or narrow theoretical objective. That the surface meaning is only a gateway to a labyrinth of meanings is often obfuscated due to postmodernist reading of texts as all surface with nothing underneath, where the cryptic nature of the text requires cerebral code-breaking. That there is another way to reach what is underneath the surface through the scanning of apparent meanings in search of disjuncture in the intelligent tapestry of feelings and emotions, which is made easily understandable by the poet, is an art that requires an art to conceal. A poet of such order falls in the tradition of such divergent geniuses like William Blake and Billy Collins. Ananya Chatterjee belongs to that order and her poems admit of popular charm and critical weight.
Ananya Chatterjee’s volume of poems “Un-building Walls” comes after her three previous collections “The Poet and His Valentine”, “Another Soliloquy” (co-written) and “The Blind Man’s Rainbow”. The Preface to the book says that this “is a collection of poems that talk of the ailments humanity is suffering from” and further adds that “these are poems on everyday scenarios where the poet finds something extraordinary embedded”. There is something paradoxical in juxtaposing the macrostructure of humanity with the microstructure of everyday life. The paradox is only apparent because the poet tries to decipher the macro by looking into the micro where the macro becomes a special case of the micro and not the other way round. The collection is dedicated to Brutus, whose name is symbolic of deception. And yet the poet wishes him well for he was instrumental in the evolution of her verses into poetry. Then who is Brutus? It opens up doors to new interpretations once the poet destabilizes the symbolism of Brutus. Beneath the shimmer of the surface more mysteries lie. It is here that the craft of poetry transforms into an art, an art that hides its own artistry.
Let us take a short poem “Blackout” to illustrate the point for the longer poems are too precious to be given out in a review and not savoured in the book.
More dead names
in newspaper font.
Thus, the days begin
I plunge back into
this night-warmed pond
of spotless satin.
Here I can dream
of fond yesterdays
when morning sickness was still
a symptom of life.
The poem is of horror of death intertwined with nostalgia. In an attempt to show that human death has been so dehumanized in today’s society the poet depicts “dead names” in “newspaper font”. She puts words at a premium for conciseness is the art of the poet. She goes on as a representative of human species who show abject nonchalance and plunges into “night-warmed pond of spotless satin”, an imagery that is both escapist and visionary. Escaping into treasured memories of the past gives a counterpoint to the present situation. In the past morning sickness was due to being pregnant with new life but in contrast the sickness that this morning brings is of death. So there is no indifference after all; it is just an escape from the daily horrors of death that the newspapers bring into focus. What is the poet then? Is she an escapist or a visionary? What does the poet achieve by mixing the social and the personal? Is there an underlying private tragedy in the social death or is there a social critique in the imagery of personal life? Answers to these multiple questions elicit multiple interpretations to the in-depth reading of the poem. In another poem titled “Lullaby” she writes: “Such is my land./ Death falls here like the midnight rains.” Short poems like “Statutory Warning”, “By Heart”, “Denials”, “Season Starved”, “Wall Space”, “Mutiny”, “Frigid” make the readers pause and reflect and try to fathom multiplicity of meanings beyond what is apparent and which are revealed in layers of historical or philosophical or personal identifications. The poet ends her poem “Wick and Wax” with the following lines:
Could ours be
a love like that?
Unfair, yet forgiving?
Here we start to see the wick and the wax in a kaleidoscope of new lights of interpretation. For Ananya Chatterjee, it is not just the punch lines that the reader carries home because the punch lines are not just adornments but they are the keys to multiplicity of interpretations. If she asks a rhetorical question it is not to move on but to invite the reader to re-read the poem and re-interpret it. And she does it with so much ease and effortlessness that the reader may be lulled into believing in the simplicity of it in terms of being simplistic. Ananya Chatterjee has that artistic talent of masking art which comes naturally to her as a matter of evolution as a poet.
The Greek dramatists aroused fear and pity in the audience through their tragedies. Ananya Chatterjee almost does that without the poetics of tragedy; the family that dines in “accumulated silence” on “lentil-washed rice” in the poem “Of fish-bones and other such fantasies” can almost be yours and the man that dies in a streetcar on a “beautifully indifferent dawn” in the poem “Natural Selection” can almost be you. A number of poems like “Virginia”, “When a Woman Writes”, “I Will Sleep Now” are overtly feminist but they are poetry in the first place. A poem like “Sweet Tooth” touches both as poetry and social reality in its depiction of a human frailty or ailment. A poem like “Crow’s Feet” is both intensely personal and yet universally accessible. And a poem like “An Old Woman’s Summer”, which is so perceptively universal, has something allusively personal. And yet there is more, for each reader may create his or her own meaning and there will be mythologies of meanings. In the poem “One Afternoon” she intertwines, like in mythologies, themes of love, passion, ecology, philosophy, memory into a complex whole and ends succinctly with an epiphany:
Wiping your memory
off my lips, I said,
If this banyan could speak
it would scream to death
until we turned deaf…
But then maybe
it is already screaming
we’re already deaf.
Perhaps that is true for us too. In our postmodernist concern for reading the surface we have read her only in surface too and the meanings that the poet embedded at the depth, which are screaming to be heard, have ironically made us deaf. “Un-building Walls” needs to be read if we do not want to stay handicapped for here is a voice that is not pretentious of any “ism”.
Amit Shankar Saha is Assistant Professor (English) at Seacom Skills University, Co-founder of Rhythm Divine Poets http://rhythmdivinepoets.blogspot.in , and Author of "Balconies of Time" and "Fugitive Words". Blog: http://amitss6.blogspot.in Website: http://sites.google.com/site/amitshankarsaha