Spinning the Web

Bare Face by Jayanta Mahapatra. Kottayam: DC Books (India), 2000. $7.95.

As Reviewed By: Rabindra K. Swain

Today, when India is known abroad more for her fiction than her poetry, Jayanta Mahapatra’s sixteenth volume, Bare Face, arrives. Hopefully, it will win some readers, interested in that country’s literature, from the former genre.

When Jayanta Mahapatra started writing poetry in the late sixties–his first volume of poetry appeared in 1971–the two most prominent figures in Indian English poetry were Nissim Ezekiel and A. K. Ramanujan. From his very first volume, Jayanta Mahapatra tried to develop a style of his own. After initial stumbling, he matured in his third collection, A Rain of Rites, published by Georgia Press (Athens), in 1976. His continuing effort to “mould English to (his) private needs” has, in fact, resulted in a body of poetry which is being keenly evaluated and followed by the younger generation of poets. As Nissim Ezekiel helped create the Bombay School of poets like Saleem Peeradina, Gieve Patel and Manohar Shetty, Jayanta Mahapatra’s poetry has found its successors in Bibhu Padhi, Niranjan Mohanty, Prabhanjan Mishra, and others.[private]

The themes central to the poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra have now been reduced to the minimum in his Bare Face. All that remains is, naturally, close to his heart: poetry itself in the main, and the art of poetry; both of them, the poet and his art, are unable to part with each other. And the art of poetry is bound to have a few things at its core, like the relationship of an evergreen self with its container, the decrepit old body, as well as the personal relationship the poet has with his environment. And it is the poet himself who has to decide how much of the outer world he can usher into his poetry. “A poet who sees too much of the reality is not alive; also he is not alive if he does not see it at all,” Jayanta Mahapatra has asserted in the first anniversary issue of Satabdi, an Oriya feature journal here in Bhubaneswar, Orissa, India.

Most of the poems in Bare Face refer directly, in one context or another, to the art of poetry: to the futility of art itself, and to its strengths. Some of these lines could well pass for the very definitions and functions of poetry, lines like “The poem’s fate hangs like an old calendar…trying to rid itself of its dates,” or “Poetry is not even sure/what it is trying to turn from.” At one point he declares that his art has treated him:

as though she were cursing me
like I had cheated her
word by word, through the years.

Mahapatra seems to feel that his relationship with his work has not been a rewarding one. And his work bears enough testimony to it. But, really, his pain has no boundaries:

Perhaps the lines of my poem
will be lame for a long time,
losing their fight against
the pain of the screaming, frightened girl
in Kosovo, or kicking vainly
at the anger of a boy on the Western Bank.

This uneasiness runs through the entirety of Bare Face. Reading through the poems in this book, one is left with a sense of quiet, or rather disquiet. It is difficult to turn away from the trap his poetry spreads under your feet: “Born of this cold gold, the night… / so that we would be quiet.” There are no more celebrations like those found in his earlier works, such as “Relationship”, which dealt with, among other things, the ruined temple of Konarka, of which his state is proud. Even though that poem had many bleak themes, there was a joyful note in it nonetheless.

And, yet, what greater joy can there be than to read new work from a poet aged seventy-two? What does one expect to get through such “tired eyes?” What should they see, but “the sky grown murky / with promises of the leaders unfulfilled” and “hibiscuses in the blisters of women coolies / tarring the wide hot streets near Raj Bhavan,” in “The Return”? The poet, in his old age, is able to see how “The destiny of India heaves in darkness / in the memory of ancient waters,” (“Abandoned Temple”) and how “The poetry I write bruises the page. / It’s a coquette that keeps telling her little secrets” (“The Tame Ending”). Such brief, astounding revelations abound. They go on haunting you, poem after poem.

One such haunting poem is “Silence”, which appeared in the Indian-English fiction issue of The New Yorker. “Silence” has been the single poem Jayanta Mahapatra has written thousand of times, yet he has not felt content with it. He seems to feel that something in it still remains unsaid. What kind of silence does he speak of in this poem? Is it of rain which is “capacious, like the body of a woman”, or of the saints who “are silent inside their own truths”, or of “four-year-old Pratick (who) is silent inside his screams”? And what of the poet’s silence?

Your sigh, too, has curled itself up
and lies asleep on a mat in the darkened room.

And the “garden spider” of this poem “silently spinning its web” corresponds to the poet’s art, and asserts its validity.

Another characteristic poem of Jayanta Mahapatra in this volume is “In a Time of Rain”. In this poem the poet talks of his local river Mahanadi, whose “dappled face smiles back at (him)”. He refers to ancient rock carvings which depict the great emperor of India, Ashok, invading Orissa (then known as Utkal), an event in which hundreds of thousands of Utkal soldiers were killed; out of remorse, Ashok embraced Buddhism and left the history in rock carvings. The poet also refers to sensuous palm-leaf inscriptions of Orissa which are preserved in the museums, in which scenes of love find subtle expressions; in the eyes of the poet, however, the lovers there are “lonelier than ever.” He finds people behind him “with the voices of dew/ strum(ming) their bones of agony” while he is beyond reason: “But look: the little drum of my unreason plays on.”

The cynosure of Bare Face is a longish poem, “Requiem” in twenty short sections. It forms the second part of the book. The difficulty of judging a volume like this is that long poems can easily overshadow the shorter lyrics in a collection, as “Requiem” has overshadowed the other 26 poems in this collection. Its impact is also historical: it is the first long poem in English on a major Indian figure.

“Requiem” is shorter than Mahapatra’s two early book-length long poems: “Relationship” and “Temple.” Though nowhere in “Requiem” is he mentioned, the poem is all about Gandhi. There are references to his last two words before he died (“He’ Ram. /In these two words was the briefest of silences, a touch of the silence of immensity”) and to Raj Ghat where the remains of his mortal body rest (“the breath of dead flowers day after day at Raj Ghat”) and to his “favourite song / Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram.” It is a touching poem. The poet is humbly trying to articulate his feelings about the man he loved, whose humanitarian ideas he grew up with, and yet his attitude is not without ambiguity: “Defending you today / hurts my tired eyes.”
As pointed out earlier about the art of Jayanta Mahapatra, the poet silently spins his web like the garden spider, and everything in it finds its circular way out. In section XVII he admits “There is not much / I know of the man I left behind” and in XIX “In me / your body opens slowly” and in X: “Perhaps he had seen death / as the most honourable way to ask forgiveness of the world.”

Talking of Gandhi, Mahapatra talks of an India without Him (and the poet uses an upper case H), of the political scenario that makes a mockery of the solemn man and his solemn ideals, of his mission as a failed messiah—“Raghupati Raghava Rajaram (is futile) like this spiritless poem of mine.” He finds solace in Buddha before whose amazing grace “God became a terrible mental silence.” Mahapatra’s idols are Buddha and Gandhi, in that order. But, ultimately, Mahapatra’s poetry creates its own solace, like all poetry, in how it says what it has to say: “What you have left behind are / faded pictures on bare office walls. A day / every year as a national holiday.” It is befitting that this great poet, now an old man, should pay tribute to another great old man; after all, in the autumn of life, as he says in “Collaboration”, “when the leaves fall” they are bound to be, “beautiful as life itself.” That’s the spirit.[/private]

About RKSwain

Rabindra K. Swain was born in 1960. He gained an M.A. in English Literature in 1983 and a Ph.D. on the poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra in 1995 from Utkal University, Bhubaneswar, Orissa, India. He has published three books of poetry, Once Back Home (Har-Ananda, New Delhi, 1996), A Tapestry of Steps (Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 1999), and Severed Cord (Indialog, 2002). He has also published a book of translations from Oriya, Bahubreehi, and a critical work, The Poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra: A Critical Study (Prestige Books, New Delhi, 2000). His poetry has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Shenandoah, Verse, New Letters, and Quarterly West, among others.
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