Quoting. Questioning.

August 9, 2010 at 9:02 pm (Sampurna Chattarji, The Reading Room)


Editors Neelanjana Banerjee, Summi Kaipa and Pireeni Sundaralingam introduce Indivisible, their anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry with three words: Divisions. Articulations. Allegiances. In essence, this is what one can hope to find in the work of forty-nine American poets “whose ancestral roots lie in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka”. Divisions of individual/tradition. Articulations of identity/politics. Allegiances to land/language.

Anthologies with detailed subheads seem to be the new and natural home for poets with ‘multiplicity’ as their middle name. Several of the poets here are familiar from earlier anthologies, such as the compendious Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (my review of which first appeared in Biblio, and can be read here http://sampurnachattarji.wordpress.com/book-reviews/) edited by Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal and Ravi Shankar [W.W. Norton, 2008]; The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets edited by Jeet Thayil [Bloodaxe, 2008]; or even Unmapped, The Literary Review Indian Poetry Issue [Spring 2009] devoted to ‘new work by Indian poets from around the world’, guest edited by Sudeep Sen. Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Kazim Ali, Meena Alexander, Monica Ferrell, Prageeta Sharma, Ravi Shankar, Aryanil Mukherjee, Srikanth Reddy, Vijay Seshadri are some of those familiar voices. Indivisible brings us a host of less familiar ones—Mohammad Faisal Hadi, Minal Hajratwala, Amarnath Ravva, Shailja Patel, Ravi Chandra, Reena Narayan, Homraj Acharya, Swati Rana, Mona Ali … this list could go on.

As with any anthology, one could take issue with exclusions, find fault with editorial assertions of intent, quarrel with the idea of ‘multiplicity’ itself. But I shall do none of that, this time. This time, I shall ask myself, and the prospective reader of Indivisible, a host of questions. How does one clear a space in the mind for a fresh reception of what may seem like yet another anthology? How can one renew one’s faith that one will make exciting new discoveries, be struck, impressed, even overwhelmed, or not? Can the clustering of poets under specifically determined parameters yield delights that transcend those parameters? What makes some poets, and some poems, repeatedly anthologizable? Is an anthology the beginning of a journey, or the culmination of one? What do we hear, and remember, in such a crowded space? What do we return to?

I return, momentarily, to the word ‘reception’. Can an anthology be seen as an old-fashioned radio, the kind I grew up with, fiddling with the knobs till the reception grew clearer, voices from faraway places so close, I imagined all those mini-people lived in the box, silent until I turned the dial, found the frequency, tuned in to a clarity given resonance by the underlying crackle of transmission? It is a tempting analogy, but I shall urge you to find your own. Read Indivisible. Question it. Then read it again. Meanwhile, for a taste of the themes, tones and textures in this anthology, I give you a cento stitched together with lines, titles, phrases from the book, an indivisible act of poetry.

It’s a Young Country. I’m Not Home.

You’re good with maps. Find me

a mantra called home.

You walk backwards / into a new land.

Turn what you can into wings.

I substitute images for events, my humanimal prerogative

Which he ate quickly and / sloppily, like a dog.


Every word when leaving / has direction.

I am filled with admiration and autobiography.

I am Burning a Pig in my Room, Apollinaire.

It’s worth a try.

Naming only fixes you as one or the other,

no going back for any one of you.

Before you claim a word / you have to sweat and curse it / crawl and bleed it /

you have to earn / its / meaning

to pour questions about people who bend.

I’m a Scrambled Egg Burrito … with a side of Bitter Melon,

I’m good with tongues.

The sun has done its worst: / skimmed a language, / worn it to a shadow.

The eyes ache from feeding too much

on the ripe fruits of temples.

I mispronounce myself.

All I have left behind

In the Binary Alleys of the Lion’s Virus

treeforms :: the touch of language

memory writings :: picnic

A girl could hang / herself from such a night

Thirty Years Ago, in a Suburb of Bombay

Bombay no longer.

I am a fool to want you.

Is desire confined to language?

The only language of loss left in the world is Arabic—

and my nation is the Republic of English.

We were headed / home, but home wasn’t where we’d left it.

– Sampurna Chattarji

Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry

Edited by Neelanjana Banerjee, Summi Kaipa and Pireeni Sundaralingam

(The University of Arkansas Press, 2010, 254 pp. ISBN-10:1-55728-931-X)


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