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Book Review: Capitals: A Poetry Anthology ed by Abhay K.

Making capital out of poetry

Rarely does poetry work as a vector of geographical spaces. Abhay K. ventures to undertake an exercise of mapping the world through the poems written on capital cities of the world. In the process, he bestows poetry a latitudinal quotient hitherto denied to the genre even by its champions.

Making capital out of poetry

literary cartography: A view of Belgrade. The book maps the world through poems written on famous capital cities of various countries



Akshaya Kumar

Rarely does poetry work as a vector of geographical spaces. Abhay K. ventures to undertake an exercise of mapping the world through the poems written on capital cities of the world. In the process, he bestows poetry a latitudinal quotient hitherto denied to the genre even by its champions. In some poems, the capitals indeed emerge as the locus of their corresponding nations. Athens with its “statue” that “treads on people’s dreams” stands for the entire classical Greek culture and its seductive anthropomorphic art. In the post-Cold-War Moscow, “statues [that] still stand/ half emphatically” in a park, lean towards “the vacuum of a lost empire”. The post-Saddam Hussain Baghdad sends echoes of “explosions”, which the naïve natives tend to mistake for “fireworks”. A Silent Poem, written on Pyongyang, says it all about the total dictatorship of North Korea as in its “dirt-free streets of filthy air” not even the “whisperers” exist to counter the “official version”. Amman at the sunset behaves like “a teenage girl wanting to go clubbing,/ against her adoptive parents’ …/feigning maturity with its kohl-coloured eye-/lashes”. 

In quite a number of poems, the capitals are personified to evoke a sense of physical intimacy and dialogic tête-à-tête. Paris appears to be a bed-ridden father “stretched on [your] narrow bed/ like an etiolated city” with all its “gates closed”. Guatemala City is compared to an animal crushed on the road accident whose “silence speaks only to asphalt/ to those that see it while doing nothing/ to those who vomit when they see it.” In a poem on London, the Pakistani-British poet Monica Alvi, like a possessive seductress, holds the city in lover-beloved embrace. “Make of me what you can –/My suburbs of ideas, my flames, my empty spaces”.

Against the pristine geographical setting that the capitals are usually ensconced in, there is the ruckus of existential everydayness. In Rome, the concrete conquers the sky “with marbles and scarlet columns/ pushing away naked Gods”. In Belgrade amid “The smell of the linden-tree/ a tremor of water/ the scuttling of the sparrow”, there is the “whistling of ships trains trucks/ The diseased market-place myrrh/ Drunkenness…” 

In Cape Town, “starlings clatter like typewriters”. The sun above Harare “gets dimmer each day/ Choked by poverty and squalor of the ghettoes”. In some of capital cities, it is their rich monumental past that is juxtaposed with their quotidian present. In Budapest “lanterned dome/Of the cathedral” is reflected in “the brilliant chrome/ Of legions of saloon cars purring by”. In Hanoi, “The old tiles are startled/ by the bustle of people/ and the panic of the traffic”. Jerusalem, the holy city, is witness to terror that “lives in the cornerstone, and in the small monuments around what seems like every bend”.

Capitals offers an experiential perspective to routine tourist brochures as the poems embrace in their succinctness the pulse of life-from-below in the high cities of the world. Abhay K. seems to have a fascination for the night-side of life. A ‘night-poem’ written by Derek Walcott on Port of Spain stands out for here night “assumes the impenetrable must of the negro/ grows secret as sweat,/ her alleys odorous with shucked oyster shells, …”. Over all, the anthology remains essentially capitalistic as it ignores pastoral pathways that connect one capital to another. 

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