Notes on Arun Sagar’s Anamnesia

Arun’s Sagar’s debut collection of poems, Anamnesia, opens with the image of a lake. At the end of the poem, the narrator, overwhelmed by ‘the ache/of vistas’ and much like the empty ‘concrete bowl’ before him, waits eagerly and with peaceful resignation—in his case, for a flood of memories and sensory impressions (‘Beginnings’). Reading through the collection, the reader becomes witness to a ‘jagged summer rain’ of diverse sights, sounds and images. There is a blue towel, blue dress, flowers—plenty of flowers—sunlight, shadows, herbs, the sea, seagulls, sailboats, a cathedral. But if this seems like a simple celebration of reality to which we are all cordially invited, it is not. For there is also suspicion, a deep mistrust of surfaces:

…that old need stirs:
the wish to grip and lift the sheen, to claim
sand and stone, weeds, half-buried bones,
the jagged roots and sinews of the lake. (‘Lake’)

‘I want to be at once/fewer and/more numerous, a/pure/contradiction’, the narrator announces in ‘Medieval Abbey’, which takes as its epigraph one of my favourite lines from Whitman. Indeed, Sagar’s poems are large, they contain multitudes.
Again, it is a distinctly Whitmanesque voice that proclaims:

I am everywhere,
turning the sunlight
into sunlight, that chair
into a chair, turning
all things into their names. (‘Absences’)

The overarching themes here are love, language, memory, representation and forgetting (or the inability or ambivalent desire to do so).

‘All is wordplay, word as play’, ‘Black Leather Shoes’ informs us. An easy and hypnotic musicality underscores this piece, one that stays with you long after you’ve set it aside. eBay, Swiss cheese and bilingual dictionaries are bunched together by and and like, in a show of ‘mere allusion, illusion, shadowy rhetoric’. And yet: ‘I got nothing to lose, I got my black leather shoes’, the narrator declares, with an air of enviable self-assurance.

In ‘Window’, the narrator says: ‘It is true/that the words are the things/the words say the things are’, so that one may spend one’s lifetime naming the various objects in one’s surroundings, although, admittedly, ‘…[s]o much is nameless/or too easily named’ (‘Naming’). But words are also ‘…things of summer,/not truths but absences’ (‘Summer Poem’). And in ‘Words’, the eponymous subjects of the poem take on a life of their own, ‘misbehaving’, going to town, invading, appropriating, ‘painfully/appearing, disappearing’.

Several of Sagar’s poems are long, flowing across the page in narrow and zigzag lines, like a curtain of rain. Some of these relive and record a decade-long romance, presumably ended in September–October—months and a season to which the poems obsessively return: ‘…but here October/waits at the/ramparts of the city…’ (‘Now Somewhere Winter’), ‘and October comes with fire colours, fine rain’ (‘Travel’), ‘[a]nd all is September, October, drawing back towards you’ (‘Black Leather Shoes’).
The love poems are bittersweet, nostalgic, even fatalistic.

all that followed al-
ready there, unseen,
its long shadow cast
over these ten years? (‘Anamnesia’)

‘I see you online/sometimes, your name/almost close enough to/touch’, the narrator writes in ‘Last September’. He still sends poems to his ex, but

Most times now the
poems go without response,
but not—one can only hope
—unread. After all it was a
chance perusal of our old
emails that made you call
last year and say all that
you did…

Love in any age is complicated, more so in the digital age. Does technology bring us closer, or only bring out the worst in us, making us anxious and ever-watchful, causing us to drift further apart? the poem seems to ask.

But even in these poems, as elsewhere, the gaze bounces and shifts rapidly from surface to surface, from image to memory to metaphor, so that one longs sometimes for the poetic eye to stay trained and linger on (and thus allow the reader to absorb) a particular scene (as it does on Salaulim Dam in ‘Beginnings’). For instance, in a poem like ‘Strobes’, no sooner have we settled among the dancers (whom the lights ‘sear and split’) and the sequin-shirted DJ than we are whisked away to a dark cinema hall, from where we make a quick exit to a parking lot, then a shopping mall (‘where women spread their arms/and smile but steal away’), arriving finally on ‘cobblestones in lamplight, vivid with rain’. Indeed, the soul, too, struggles to keep pace: ‘…And/you are too far ahead, too quick/for this stumbling other thing/you’ve called the soul’ (‘The Sense of Being Watched’).

But diversions are par for the course in Sagar’s poetics, as the narrator hints in ‘Poppies’, a poem about the Monet painting of the same name. The painter, the poem speculates, intended to create a very different picture, before he found himself dragged away by a memory and depicting instead a ‘red river’ of flowers ‘soaking the ladies’ skirts and almost/drowning the child who wades chest-deep/behind his mother/yellow hat floating’. Just as this poem, so rich in its descriptions, was pulled away ‘…to a field/now growing brighter and more distinct/than any’ the speaker has ‘seen, or can remember’.

This reviewer was particularly struck by four poems that evoke an unsettling atmosphere of menace and alienation. Darker in tone than the rest of the collection, the first, ‘News’, finds its narrator hooked to his TV set following the bomb blasts that rocked Mumbai in 2008, ‘foot tap-tapping the floor/…finger on the trigger’. And in ‘Rat’, the hunter, chasing ‘…shadows [that] deepened into fur and flesh, sinew’, finds himself transformed into the hunted. But he feels safe in his new vermin avatar, snuggling in a dark crevice, in ‘…the abscences…hollowed out with [his] greying hands’. The boxed narrator of the ‘Sleight of Hand’ is part of a grotesque circus act, his missing head stabbed by knives as his parents argue in an adjoining room. And lastly, ‘The Shower Drain’—which brings to mind that iconic scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho (because how could it not?)—with its clinical close-up of the ‘eye’ of a whirlpool, described by Sagar as a ‘snake-mouth/with holes for teeth’, conveys its narrator’s dispassionate certainty of being devoured by the subject of the poem. One would like to see where this dark impulse, if followed more assiduously, would lead.

But, for now, we must needs close with a

fine rain clean,
and clear yet
and unceasing. (‘Anamnesia’)

Arun Sagar
Poetrywala, 2013
69 pages

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