Reflexes from Anathapuri by K. Chandrasekharan. Writers Workshop (Calcutta, India) 2001.
As Reviewed By: J. S. Renau
I first came upon the poetry of K. Chandrasekharan last year while picking through an issue of Verse magazine dedicated to Indian poets writing in English. His poem “Festival Nights” is a fine creation, easily one of the best in the volume, and I found its voice so natural, powerful, and fresh that I carried it around with me for weeks until it had completely grafted itself onto my imagination. Serving as Chandrasekharan’s introduction to American letters, “Festival Nights” displays an ability to measure and mete out language with uncanny precision. Nearly every breath-pause, every line break, creates dramatic tension and carries the poem along to a dreamy close that sits in perfect apposition to the coolly cynical opening.[private]
The dramatic tension of “Festival Nights” is the product of an unfulfilled, or rather, unfulfilling sexual desire. But the desire is no less needful, no less urgent, for that. In fact, it is the urgency of emotion that gives the poem its convincing air of emotional fatigue. Although not included in the book, “Festival Nights” is an apt introduction to Chandrasekharan’s first volume of poems, Reflexes from Anathapuri. Its themes of desire, fatigue, and disappointment are prevalent throughout the book, or as the poet states at the outset of Reflexes, “…this poem pursues…the powerful, irresistible dominance of lust on human life superceding all popularly believed ancient values. This slavery vibrates somewhere between sanity and lunacy.”
Chandrasekharan’s usage of the word lunacy in his Author’s Note is not merely a passing reference, for the whole book is strange brew of seething desire, moon phases, nightscapes, hallucinations, Indian cultural references, and myth-drenched scenes and descriptions reminiscent of Les fleurs du mal. Reflexes is a single, book-length poem, separated into fifteen sections that unevenly progress from “full noon” to “full moon.” As the poem moves to its conclusion, its speaker (or speakers) becomes more and more debilitated by “Lunar Phantasmagoriosis,” Chandrasekharan’s term for a condition of unbounded desire.
The control and precision of “Festival Nights” is not consistently applied to the sections of Reflexes, and to be fair, Reflexes is quite a different undertaking, despite tackling similar themes. Whereas the persona of “Festival Nights” displays a cool exterior and a masterful sense of when and how to reveal himself to the reader, Reflexes is often a frenetic grab-bag of associations and observations. Occasionally, the book leans too heavily on its methods, producing inelegant lines and phrases, but just as often, the poet’s particular gifts are well-suited to his task. For example, the following passage from Section 4 is fairly representative of Chandrasekharan at his best.
Evenings suffer from
problems of menopause,
with pentagenarian youthfulness
gliding past, accosting us,
accosting us, still sanguine,
in spite of the apprehensions
of a misadventure,
in spite of the vespertine
repository of smoke and dust
of a biosterous[sic] day,
still not wholly forgetting
the wolverine hungers
waiting at home.
The adjective-noun combinations, the lovely turns of phrase (“in spite of the apprehensions / of a misadventure”!), and complex sentence structure all contribute to a highly charged, yet measured, revelation. However, the virtues of the passage above can be displeasing when overdone, as with this passage from Section 7:
Unlike the sea, the lake has no outlet;
the sea roars, wriggles hysterically,
and chafes against the shore,
with constant clitorian
as for the lake,
some geophysical power should
buffet her by the trough
and topple over to the sea;
otherwise, on full moons, lying prone,
she may masturbate
The same gestures that produce marvelous effects in Section 4 contribute to a stilted and confusing conclusion to Section 7. The personification of sea and lake competes with the overly metaphorical language, and the resulting muddle never displays the precision and control of Chandrasekharan’s best writing. The poem is already suffused with metaphor (“The sea yelled in molluscan ecstasy / of orgy after orgy”; “Birds with crafty looks / and always-erected penis-like beaks”; “the Karmana river / became a loose stained waistlet / on her beast-hungry pornograph”), and although Chandrasekharan is adept at creating beautiful metaphoric snapshots, occasionally, the collage of metaphor never attains the grace and beauty of its constituent parts.
Chandrasekharan’s great strength is in creating believable and interesting personae, and his poems are less refined when they try too hard on the metaphysical level. His gifts do not lend themselves to conceit, and often, the poems would gain a good deal from not pressing the issue of its metaphors. Reflexes is much more effective when it remains elusive and strange, and the volume excels in its Ashbery-like flourishes, like this passage from Section 9:
I am Julius Caesar,
he, the Captain of the Regiment;
another one, a great trainer of lions;
yet another an incomparable
Somewhere from a wayside house,
a damsel must be wailing aloud
in distress, the moon having entered her.
Ridges from the venereal sea
swing into the bedrooms of laggards,
rejuvenating them; of course,
all of them copulate in the end
following a certain
This passage exhibits an ability to render nonsense in an absolutely reasonable way, a kind of rational irrationality (but of course they copulate!). Even the typographic error at the end may not be an error at all (it’s hard to tell due to the number of typos throughout the volume). If Reflexes were mere Ashbery, it would be a disappointment, but these moments of fancy are grounded in the larger poem where the poet has very artfully created a persona with a psychology the reader can get on with.
Reflexes concludes with the speaker’s epiphanic statement that “we cannot extricate” or unhinge the carnal impulse from any other kind of impulse; in short, coito ergo sum. This awareness comes rather in spite of the speaker’s efforts at distancing himself from desire, whether by meditating upon more rarified things or by manufacturing disgust, such as in Section 10, when the speaker describes spending a night in an inn:
I abhorred the bed in my room;
people of my sort cannot sleep on such beds
even for a few hours.
Many an uncouth sexual act, I felt,
might have been enacted,
night after night on such beds;
Eventually, the speaker and his physician friend weary of combating their Lunar Phantasmagoriosis, or as the speaker says:
The moon had pickled us both
in a diluvial uterine broth,
and reduced us to hapless embryos,
watching the incredible cosmorama.
First Embryo: I am totally unnerved.
Second Embryo: Take heart! Lust is supreme.
Ether is lust, Earth is lust;
Wind, water and fire are lust;
Lust alone procreates, sustains
When Lust is subtracted from Lust,
What remains is Lust.
First Embryo: Then, if Lust is divided by Lust?
Second Embryo: One remains. Moon is the One.
First Embryo: What about Lunacy?
Second Embryo: A blessing of the moon!
This the Lunar Upanishad.
Chandrasekharan’s strategy in concluding Reflexes recalls the ancient Upanishads with its dialogue and valedictory incantation; however, rather than gaining wisdom, the speakers are completely discombobulated, or “pickled,” as the poet would have it, and thus the conclusion becomes a kind of anti-conclusion in which the speakers are trapped and blinded by desire.
Reflexes from Anathapuri, although not as clean and precise as “Festival Nights,” is a fine first effort. In its better moments, the volume affirms Chandrasekharan’s rare skill in creating complicated personae who speak with wit and polish, and who offer penetrating glimpses inside their own conflicted natures. Occasionally, the poem lingers longer than necessary with an image, idea, or metaphor; sometimes the language is a tad overworked, but the stronger work here bodes well for Chandrasekharan’s future endeavors.[/private]