Book Title: The Broken Rainbow
Author: Ruth Vanita
Ruth Vanita’s ‘The Broken Rainbow’ and Elmar Kuiper’s ‘Earthskin’ offer two distinct horizons of poetic pre-occupation — one of desire and another of concern. Ruth’s poems are like splinters of the shattered rainbow, a spray of distracted colours, a melange of variegated inheritances. Surrounded by a checkered ancestry, she basks in the playful “illicit things” that “her two grandmothers” indulged in as girls, back in time. The process of “an untidy girl” becoming a lady or wife or a self-sacrificing mother befuddles the poet most. Instead of entering into hierarchical relationships, the preferred space of comfort for her is that of friendship, its informal languorous conversations. She would address her nagging “ruthless interrogator”, her four-year-old son, as a ‘friend’ who’ll know his mother better, beyond his needs, with the passage of time. As a poet of slow-time, Ruth lapses into ghazals and their translations to register her complaints and moments of cognition.
However, it is in the section titled ‘LGBTQIA, or Perhaps A to Z’ that Ruth acquires a precise thematic focus. Bodies matter, the heteronormative distinctions of sex just wither away: “Leaning across an abyss, our bodies/Greeting, risked all, reclaimed all fell apart...” The poet hints towards the elemental instinctual chemistry that flows across bodies:
Call it love, friendship, water or wine,
bodies, words, curdle
into a compound unnamed,
elemented in time.
‘Affect’ is the new legible language of intimacy and intuition: “Touch is the grace/ nor light of words nor memory can recover”.
The echoes of the poets who wrote about male-male and female-female desire lend a thick intertextuality to Ruth’s poems. Inside the reading hall of Rampur Raza library, she can hear the midnight laughter of three poets of desire:
And in high-ceilinged rooms,
poets revel — colourful, daring,
elegant — ever awake, they laugh,
they speak astounding words, in faded ink.
The poets, professors and other activists of queer culture constantly animate Ruth’s poetic landscape with their griefs and dreams. Writing in memory of a gay professor who was found dead, Ruth juxtaposes the ruthlessness of the city with nature’s empathetic reaction: “Grass withers, and the moon is red as blood/ The silent pages weep like mourning doves.” In the last section, ‘Last Things’, Ruth celebrates the female Bhakti poets — from Lalla to Mukta, who sang in praise of love with their disciplined savagery.
If Ruth destabilises male-female epistemic markers in favour of sexually undifferentiated bodily matter, Elmar imagines a man-animal continuum, an inclusive planetarity, wherein the animals are no longer taken as dumb and passive accessories of the human landscape. A whispering raven, with its “uncontrolled caw”, is not an “unfeeling thing”, it “croaks out orders”. The noises that birds make are messages of alarm. As sparrows chirp, and “the cock clicks its everlasting wattles”, a thunderstorm brews across the horizon. The poet cherishes the cock that “crows with four syllables”. Most rooster crows are of four syllables, and they sound like singing ‘happy birthday’. In Elmar’s poetry, ‘human standards’ often employed to measure animal sounds are challenged with a non-anthropocentric distance. He asks: “Who plumbs the depth of the wolf’s howl?/ Who fathoms the cow’s uncanny gaze?” The so-called sovereign intelligence of human species is subverted as the wolf begins to reason and the mad cow “thinks”. Elmar confides in the dogs, and it is forbidden to tame them. The poet does not want human interference in animal affairs, he is against the idea of cloning animals, of adding wings to a horse or a dog.
Insects — from caterpillar to centipedes — co-inhabit Elmar’s earthscape, its subterranean underbelly. In the title poem of the collection, earthskin breathes hot as though crying in pain and anguish with the cut of a spade. The wriggling centipede is cut to pieces — “one by one/ all its legs”. The poet, as earth-turner, gets out of his slumber, to open the air vents, listening to “the weeping of an early morn”. The tone of the poet remains largely elegiac. Rivers are like veins nurturing the earth, but are “strangely swollen”, battling for life “in the casualty ward”. In ‘Mother Ganges’, which is more like an obituary-in-the-waiting, Elmar spots a deadly disease in the “frontal lobe” of the mother. What makes the poem scary is the ominous flight of the “honey buzzard” that “cries in the pollution”. In his poetry, birds hover as grim shadows, they “almost tumble/ out of the sky”. In ‘For You’, the same hospital imagery of catheter, bag of blood and bandage dominates as “siren’s howling” thickens the sorrow.
The two collections, put together, remind us of the abjectness of life, its ab-initio innocence.