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Another Spring, Darkness.

The poems in Another Spring, Darkness offer a tranced vision of the grim realities of rural life in Bengal. Straddling an undemarcated boundary between the real and the mythic, Anuradha Mahapatra's vision of the working-class life of her village nevertheless offers a clear-eyed picture of its unseemly aspects. No attempt is made to idealize the rural scene into an idyllic arcadia. No words are minced in depicting its "great stench," its "filthy water," its "stale grass," its "wretched" dogs and cows, its "collective copulation." Much of the significance of Mahapatra's achievement as a poet consists in the adroitness with which she reconstructs the dull, drab actualities of rural existence into an unflattering, albeit engaging, vision of disenchantment. The distinction of her poems lies not so much in their rural or working-class focus (excessively extolled by the blurbs) as in the manner in which the cruel ironies and agonies of life in rural Bengal are transmogrified into fitting accoutrements of a deeply tragic realism rendered radiantly daunting by a joyously surrealistic imagination.

Despite the harshness of Mahapatra's vision, there is much tenderness, much compassion, as in "Girl Before Her Marriage," where "an auspicious planet dies" and the young bride's universe crumbles as she enters "the new cave" of her marriage to endure a claustrophobic life of interminable enslavement. Tenderness of a rare kind informs "About My Little Sister," a lovely epitaph ending with the haunting lines, "my little-beautied younger sister survives only / in the beckoning of the stars."

Occasionally, however, the reader comes up against intractable obscurities. "Brevity wants a welcome," says the opening line of one of the poems. It seems that the translators have at times avidly embraced brevity with scant regard for semantic clarity. What, for instance, can one make of "in the sharp beaks, blood's opposing, non-solar solitude / dark, blue blood comes up with all its roots"? Instances abound where brevity triumphs while meaning lies vanquished. "Are you the ambiguity / in the morning's hammered nail?" and "Will you prevent any murder / on the edge of the moon?" seem nothing more than gratuitous attempts to take the reader for a ride. Not that the present reviewer is unaware that, for many a reader of modern poetry, to be thus taken for a ride is among the choicest of pleasures!

The title poem is another in which obscurity appears to be its own end. However, if the opening lines ("In a darkness like spring poems, folktales, and vanished cats / lorries parked beside the garage today") with their garbled similitudes do not put off the reader at the outset, he or she might find ample recompense in what follows. Why the boy in the poem "wants to dunk God / in petrol and haul him out again" and why the rat gnaws at the poet Tulsidas pose, so to speak, underwhelming questions with, of course, no "insidious intent," which is clearly ruled out by the speaker's transparent unintentionality. In the majority of the poems, however, difficulty, instead of darkening into obscurity, serves to light up the readers' consciousness, enabling them to "see" the burgeoning significations of Mahapatra's dazzling metaphors: for instance, "A hairless head touches the sky's emptiness today"; "the tearful biography of grass"; "the starred nocturnal tracery of the city"; "the grace of the field / playing hide and seek in the cut grass."

In the treatment of love and sex, Mahapatra reveals a daring that is unusual among women poets in India. In "To the Mountaintop" the paradox of erotic love is represented in a grand image: "That smell of life in the navel pit? / Is she so sharp or strong that she'll take so much mountaintop?" The agony and ecstasy of sex are dramatized in puissant metaphors: "Womb-pollen, why do you want love? / After burning your all / to want your body back again, / the fish's crimson leap in the pleasuring clay pot!" "Second Planet Earth" is another poem in which sex, shorn of all guilt, is celebrated as a metabiological as well as biological function analogous to God's own creativity made manifest in the cosmos. "God" is a veritable hymn to quintessential sex transcending social barriers and transuming the human and the divine.

The most moving poem in the book (and semantically the most tractable) is "To You, Mother," which should rank among the finest expressions of filial love in any language. Written in the form of a letter to the poet's mother, the poem nostalgically reminisces about the little things that counted for much among the lowly but rich felicities of the mother-daughter relationship: "Keys tied to your sari-end haven't jangled / for a long time . . . / I haven't eaten murala-fish and rice / from your hands for a long time, Mother." More fascinating are the quizzical queries directed toward identifying the locus of love in the complex sphere of parental being and behavior: "Where does love lie, Mother? / In your troubled breathing? / . . . or in Father's hair now sprinkled salt-white." The vastness of the poet's love is suggested in words that seem to emanate from the primeval heart of elemental nature: "let the water of two whole rivers / stay dammed within my heart, for you, Mother."

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Mahapatra's poetry is the way it demonstrates the ascendancy of mind over milieu, of imagination over the actual and the contingent. Here is a poetry in which words function as sovereign agents mastering a creel world, but with no utopian intent. In poem after poem, Mahapatra seems to revel in the power of the word over the world.

Joseph John Trivandrum, Kerala, India
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Author:John, Joseph
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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