Search for metaphors
Arun Gaur

Vanishing Acts New and Selected Poems 1985—2005
by Ranjit Hoskote.
Penguin. Pages 219. Rs 250

THE present volume contains some of the selected poems from the three earlier anthologies of the poet: Zones of Assault (1991), The Cartographer’s Apprentice (2000), The Sleepwalker’s Archive (2001). To these selections a new body of poetry—Vanishing Acts—has been appended.

While basically the themes—self-identity, nostalgia, fear, ritual, bequest, language—remain unchanged, style changes markedly from one section to the other.

Right from the very beginning (Zones of Assault), we can note the poet’s deep involvement in the creation of an image. Often one metaphor substitutes the other in a long series of displacements. Not always with the happy result. The conceit may become grotesquely metaphysical tinged with the maudlin: stared till their plum eyes, / swollen with staring, / dripped to earth." The moments of ritual are melodramatic.

Experiment is done with the tool of repetition: "they laughed the laugh of angels" and is used to emphasise an emptiness: "a many-pillared space, / a wordless space, a nameless space." For the poet this emptiness is important and he generates it through a profusion of desolate images.

Hulls are bleached on the sooty dunes, Time dances in the darkness of night, and there is a dread of a wolf fixing an identity of the poet with "phosphor eyes". Under these circumstances, what can be the legacy of the poet? He is not sure about that. In any case, it cannot be any account of triumph or compassion or any "strata of hieroglyphics / for digging grandsons to puzzle over". The outcome is a fumbling over the question of language, an inability to find the proper metaphors for countering the hieroglyphics: "In this green dream, language and I / face each other alone. / Language is forests and hills; / I, tiger."

For a variation, we do have a Sanskritised apostrophe in "The Cartographer’s Apprentice": "Goddess who dwells on the tip of the braided tongue, / goddess who rides the white swan of desire, hear me." Because of such elements, there is a risk that at least a part of the poetry would turn out to be outdated. However, there is a fine recovery from such pitfalls in the allegorised lines where the art is refined: "In the tundra, every poem is an elegy / to be read on the footboard of a moving train / and every train is a fatal pledge / dragging the poet to the rimlands of destiny."

In the poems from The Sleepwalker’s Archive, the ritual imagery becomes more prominent. The poet still cannot help affecting the metaphysics: "And now, God knows how, my pulse has struck / a litany of forked tongues behind my eyes." Shadows of worn out Eliotic personifications: "Nursing your silences, I watch night / wedge its broad shoulders tight / in our windows" and the decadent late Romantic images: "where silver gazelles leaped from the tapestries" are the troublesome factors. But the great redeeming feature is the straightforward, evocative narration: "This is a seventh-floor window in June: / the wind is maritime, / a whiff of the seventh century / carried from rusty canal gates, tarred docks / above whose roofs the spectre of a smokestack rises..."

Conceits are less barricaded and more fluent "In Vanishing Acts" and the poetic-prose has become more elegant and memorable: "Like Mars, he goes up marble steps to write / volumes in a Reading Room. A wasted man. / Outside, the rain snatches at the dog-eared light / and at lovers sharing an umbrella." Linguistic experiments do continue—"Roots. Routes? Coracle. Oracle... Goats. Oatmeal. Bridge. / Or ridge? Or turnip? Urn. Lip. Loose. Use?—in a general sweep of remarkable creative energy, but the poet has still a long way to go.