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.
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.
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.
ABOUT THE BOOK:
“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.”
EXTRACTS FROM REVIEWS:
“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