I belong to the generation that was taught to seek (constantly, and sometimes to the exclusion of everything else) a poem’s meaning. In my head the image is still of a fragile, confused poem surrounded by interrogating eyes, one lone lightbulb swinging over the terrified piece of paper. I will always remember, therefore, the relief of truly breaking free of meaning-message-moral; it is a moment that comes alive repeatedly, gloriously, on encountering Sampurna Chattarji’s work.
Consider the associative leap of ‘the sun rising in a flowerpot’, so much more evocative than yet another mundane mention of a sunflower. Or the dance of ‘Leaf out of page out of step out of sync’, a line that refuses to be microscoped and dissected because it is too busy flying. In Robert Bly’s ‘Leaping Poetry’, he states, ‘In ancient times, in the ‘time of inspiration,’ the poet flew from one world to another, ‘riding on dragons,’ as the Chinese said… They dragged behind them long tails of dragon smoke… This dragon smoke means that a leap has taken place in the poem…That leap can be described as a leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known.’
Chattarji’s work is poised at a unique practice of the leap, where the image begins as a private one but is so honest to a universal experience that it translates into a shared bond. When the gap is slight, the spark is sharper and quicker, when the gap is wide, the interpretations are greater. In each case, the poems jolt, disturb, question, probe — and mean — in ways far more powerful than any reductive understanding of the word.
— Pervin Saket
The Bombay Literary Magazine
Grace is a Given
Being alive to the morning the only grace
the sun rising in a flowerpot
a smell of honey in the air
What do you believe in
that would survive even
the confession of a murderer
The saxophone understands
the tug and flow of blood
Darting from almost-shuttered shop to shop
in the custody of a boy with an earring
looking for a magic-oil for his auto is one way
of letting the morning waste itself, mishearing
‘illegal’ as ‘eagle’, knowing at once he means
the demolition of buildings, cherishing the courtesies
of honest meters and exact change, but looking
for the skating rink where a fiddler on wheels will waltz
is quite another, sliding towards the midden of afternoon
with the saving grace of the wasted, here, happy heap
Take what is given. Gracefully guide
your unbody past the signet where
nightmares come home to roost.
No diktats more wearying than those
that follow the immaculate conception
of instruction manuals for imbecilic lovers
intent on returning to wounded sights.
Leaf out of page out of step out of sync
out of a simpleton’s revenge.
Grace is a given. Take it.
Frames of Offence
Do you want to do something big and
shaggy and fierce?
Live together upstairs?
Did anyone see you upbeat?
Where do you sleep in the valley
of a deadline
Does it make you happy waiting?
Didn’t effort make you in des truct ible?
Eliminating snapshots of sound
. temple bell (alarmist)
. tribal song (nasal)
. rain lash (diagonal)
clears the air (the field) for the frame of offence
No one has hurt you yet
Yet hurt elaborates parts of you that are tight
with refusal. Videoed in a doorway
you are the object of your own amusement
broad-backed dancer in pink shorts
Language a knot in the centre of your head
a marked beast coming through slaughter
on a heap of grass
Killed in the streets mattress smoking
at the age of twenty-two
Furious men cut him up
his face through the glass
arm paralysed hurt the thin bones
threw the filthy water
Sat peering into his mouth
the blood that is real
in or around
The True Story Will Become Too Difficult
To be exact I looked daggers
I tried to follow the spotlights
I tried to find out more
Scandal breaking phobic
Yes, those were my trophies
Still half asleep I never saw
The Blue Lagoon. It kills me
to see the long road loop
People ageing, taciturn
I’m a rookie messing up the routine
See the swaying of the sunshade
The hours fly by poets timid creatures
Falling feet brought us out
In song the mouths of monstrous fish
My patience draining away
I keep forgetting to ask the long nights:
‘Shall I get out? Are you well?
Could you freeze?’
I learn that nothing lasts
(ask the earth)
I have a sharp exchange
in taxis and exit doors
I go away. In Bombay time
the cup is a cup.
This is how I live. Beyond repair.
Some perfectly commonplace object
grown so familiar
for a moment wavered
beyond this moment
Do not reproach me for these things
right on the very edge of sweetness
Immense importance grotesque dropsical
The true story will become too difficult
like boiling silver like damp straw
made me this present at last
Sampurna Chattarji has published twenty books. These include the short story collection about Bombay/Mumbai, Dirty Love (Penguin, 2013); and ten poetry titles, the most recent being Elsewhere Where Else (Poetrywala, 2018) and Space Gulliver: Chronicles of an Alien (HarperCollins, 2020). Her translation of Joy Goswami’s prose poems After Death Comes Water (HarperCollins, 2021) has been described as “a living voice, inventive and vivid as the English of Joyce”.