Absent Muses

One or Two Things about Home


The page falls open at ‘Questions of Travel’.

Burroughs’ Intersection Reading is happening to me,

life intersecting reading, every book I open

telling me something I need to know.

“Just where and under what circumstances did you read?”

Oh, just a little weary, my body dragging on snags of time,

my mind scrambled by six airline meals and one lost day.

She says it so well, Elizabeth: “Think of the long trip home.”

If only one did, before. Before this after

math of bones not fitting, before this after

noon sleep of fatigue before this after


towards what is already failing to be

its own reward, the trip of having been


This is my I Ching for now,

The Complete Poems of Elizabeth Bishop,

falling open at the page that will tell me

everything I need to know.

“Oh, must we dream our dreams

and have them, too?”

Easy to imagine a winter this summer

amidst the reek and swelter, a thirst for snow.

“It’s not funny when your nose freezes,” a friend says,

“just walking out the door.”

I never said it would be.

I know first snow, I have seen it in Krakow,

I have sat in a café and watched the fallen leaves dance

and the first snow fall and the sun shine through

its falling on to this page

“It is necessary to travel. It is not necessary to live.”

They were talking of space travel, as if all travel

weren’t into space, governed by anything but metal

and aerodynamics. Sometimes a postcard is enough.

Sometimes the limits of control are incidental to what must

be, essentially, about silence. A cup in my hand, I travel.

A book on my lap, I travel. Words on the screen, I

Haven’t said where it was that I’m going, or where it is I’ve been.


“Should we have stayed at home,

wherever that may be?”


He did, Orhan, “never left Istanbul”.

Miniatures, engravings, memoirs—

So many ways of knowing what’s

Dear, refamiliarising the familiar.

So many ways of seeing from afar

What’s perennially near, outside

A window, in a hallway down the

Stairs, in a cupboard filled with

Glassware, in the thirst for a river,

In the smudge of newsprint the

Delicate shiver of recognition, a

Face that never really belonged

To the past. This is another kind

Of living, strange to my blood,

Lusting for movement, rusting

Without. This he could never be

Me. But I could learn something,

Yet. Learn to dwell on the notion

Of staying, the slowness of rooms

Opening out into a quickening of

Breath, the concreteness of cities

Closing the arc of supposition,

The imaginary real, the real

Imagined, every scene seen or

Read or known, every turn

Corroborating what books have

Shown me, the cobblestone path,

The church spire, the red-eyed

Bird, the burr or the twang or the

Purr of the voice I have heard

So often in my head. Every new

Place is an open invitation to

Disappointment. But I count on

Delight, and only exhaustion can

Make me stay in bed and exist,

Quote Orhan, “like the Divan poets

Who praised and loved the city not

As a real place but as a word.”

Find me a word I might love

Enough to live with. Bind me to

A promise of rest.


Hungarian sausage from an Indian friend in Austria.

A hard white cylinder, twisted at one end, like a sweet.

The white is a dusting of flour on wax,

the cylinder hard as a shinbone.

Tear the twist of wire off, unwrap the flour-skin.

The meat inside is red. With a sharp knife, cut a slice.

Press hard.

Bite into the little red disc.

It’s sharp, and salty, and good. Could do with a glass of wine, though,

to go with this Loidl Spezialitaten, this Haussalami,

saying the words all wrong, but wanting

to say them, wanting the mouth to do more

than eat this red and salty foreign meat.

What is it about Hungary these days? Should I treat them as signs?

Why else should I be reading Sándor Márai, recalling Csoma de Kőrös,

the Hungarian who walked to Tibet and died in Darjeeling?

If that’s not a sign, what is? Darjeeling, my home for thirteen years.

I left, at thirteen, and what it left me was a taste for mist

and gloomy afternoons, a relish for steep roads and gabled roofs,

a zest for steamed pork momos and cups and cups of tea.

Not for Csoma de Kőrös, he died of malaria in Darjeeling.

And Márai committed suicide in San Diego.

What is it about Hungarians and death?

You read too much, they tell me,

into what is, after all, a series of chances.

A chance gift, two chance gifts, no, three if you count the sausage.

The Hungarian Who Walked To Heaven, a short book.

Conversations in Bolzano, a tale of Casanova.

And the sausage.

And when Casanova speaks of Venice, lovingly, ravingly,

he speaks to me of Calvino’s invisible city.

Oh, you read too much.

Go back to the Hungarians. “Who are the Hungarians?”

Lapps? Finns? Turks? Huns? Kőrös was keen to find out.

Instead, he found a monastery, a bitter cold and a language

he would learn, a grammar he would take back for the world.

Which journey ends the way you imagine? I try and imagine

a journey on foot, in bitter cold, in rags. All I can summon up

are prayer flags, the tall fluttering wisps of cloth I walked past everyday

without noticing what they might be saying, blind to the language

of signs made of wind and air, white on blue, white on grey,

speaking to spirits that must have watched me go. And the more

I’d like to stay with Hungary, the more Darjeeling comes back—

the sound of Buddhist gongs, the stench of horse dung,

the juice of the Bhutan apple spurting on my tongue, the sight

of a yellow light in fog—each separate and terrible, each sign

invisible inside me, marking me for who I am, foretelling every

word, every action, that I might one day make.

It’s hard.

Press deep, cut through to the bone.

From Sampurna’s second poetry book, Absent Muses, published by Poetrywala. Copies can be bought (online) on Flipkart: http://www.flipkart.com/absent-muses-sampurna-chattarji-book-8189621181

and at the Yodakin  book store in Hauz Khas, New Delhi: http://www.yodakin.com/

as well as at Crossword, Mumbai and Bangalore.


“Sampurna Chattarji’s second book of poems, Absent Muses, builds on the strengths of her first, Sight May Strike You Blind (2007). Like Franco Magnani, the American painter who—in Oliver Sacks’ account—held the totality of his long-lost Tuscan birthplace in mind and rendered it obsessively, Chattarji commits herself to keeping real all that is consecrated by memory and passion. Unlike Magnani, she does not trap herself in a vow of nostalgia; her poems also reach forward in space and time, to shape the expanding curve of experience into record. They are tools of investigation into myth, history, metropolitan life and, importantly, the ambiguities of the personal quest for poetic expression.

For Chattarji, the poem often begins as a physiological surge. At a particular threshold of attentiveness, as when one waits for a bird or a shower of asteroids to appear, language and silence announce themselves together through the body’s circuits; in ‘Hummingword’, she speaks of the poem arriving through the “[b]lood rush of cochlea/ and tympanum,/ hush.” Not surprisingly, Chattarji’s poems are like tight skins, bursting with the viscera they hold. Craft forms the skin; the world, in all its vivid and irresistible detail, provides the viscera. If craft demands phrasal tautness and a concision that reveals feeling by subduing it, the world demands opulently sensuous testimony. From this formative tension emerges Chattarji’s characteristic voice: one that transits between the storyteller’s volubility and the monk’s austerity.

Each impulse enriches the other, so that the desire to describe does not become merely descriptive; the desire to mark the instants of perception does not remain merely fragmentary; and the desire to coax happenstance towards conclusion does not end in sententiousness. While some of Chattarji’s poems can be expansive, encompassing cities, deserts, islands, the journeys of scholar-explorers and of migrating tribes, she can also produce poems that are spare, haiku-like in their compression, delicate and mysterious as netsuke.”

Ranjit Hoskote



“The poems in Sampurna Chattarji’s Absent Muses dexterously balance the spirit of intellectual inquiry and dialogue with the impulse to emote. The poet’s eye is well-trained, its gaze wide and its focus sharp and narrow dwelling on the drama that inheres in small things. The voice is compelling, impossible to turn away from.”

K. Srilata, The Hindu, Literary Review, Sunday, April 3, 2011

You can read the full review here


“Sampurna Chattarji does not come at you in the expected ways — no whingeing about identity-theft, no lost-and-found fairytales from the love department, no tea-bagging of memory into a waiting cup. Her concerns are simpler and more elusive.”

Arul Mani, Tehelka, Saturday, April 16, 2011

You can read the full review here



In Mumbai Absent Muses was launched on January 15th, 2011 by poet, curator and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote. The conversation between the two poets was interspersed with readings, and followed by a lively interaction with the audience.

In Bangalore, Sampurna read from Absent Muses on March 24th, 2011, and engaged in conversation with literature professor Etienne Rassendren and her co-panelist, the young writer Samhita Arni.

An interview with Sampurna that appeared in The Hindu, Bangalore edition after the event can be read here


  1. Can I purchase a copy from within the United States?

    • Dear Drew, Thanks for your query. Unfortunately as of now sales in the US are not possible. But if you have a friend in India who can buy it online on Flipkart.com for you, that might be an option. Warmly, Sampurna.

  2. Ms. Chatterji,

    I was wondering how I could possibly get in touch with you regarding a possible interview. I write for an online journal called Helter Skelter ( http://helterskelter.in/). Do let me know if you’d be interested. We’d be delighted to work with you.

    Thanking you,
    Urvashi Bahuguna

    • Dear Urvashi, Hello. You can email me at sampurna_c@yahoo.co.uk. Warmly, Sampurna.

  3. […] linked to this Elizabeth, just as I am to that other, Elizabeth Bishop, whom I invoked in the poem ‘One or Two Things about Home’, despairingly: “Elizabeth,/ should we have stayed at home,/ wherever that may be?” I know the […]

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