Sight May Strike You Blind
Where the river tangles with the sea, the island was born.
Too grand a word – island – for what takes a minute
from end to end and side to side, abrupt and beautiful.
No secrets scar this bareboned child lying exposed
under the sun, a thicket running down its spine.
Branches brought here by the silting tide, they say.
And now look at the way the mud clings, anchored
by its own untidy flotsam. So small and yet so burdened
by chance debris. A rip of plastic bag, a gash of tin.
Who comes here, she asks. People like you, they grin.
Abashed, she sinks herself in the wet blue embrace,
two sets of arms salt and fresh colliding,
unreconciled and inextricable. The last of the seven bridges
hangs by itself. Impossible that she should have crossed it
in the dark and not drowned. The sky falls around her.
Are there rocks under this borrowed sand?
Does a rock lobster king hold this island afloat?
For thirty years the patient accretion of time, and then
the water turns to sand. What stops it from floating away
reborn as a spiny turtle, suddenly thirsty for land?
Watch out! they shout. She jolts. A purple oyster shell
lies buried beside her toes. How lovely, she says,
bending to fondle it. Only till you feel its bite, they say,
even sharper than the kitchen blade lying open
on the floor. Purple curls wicked with unshed blood.
Sorrow spurts unbidden, a taste on her tongue.
They have hidden the dead child behind their banter.
Back in the narrow boat, each couple silent on a plank,
a baby mullet leaps in and quivers on her palm.
[From Sight May Strike You Blind]
Sampurna’s poetry has featured in anthologies and journals both in India and around the world. To name a few: Wasafiri, http://www.nthposition.com (UK), The Little Magazine, The Journal of the Poetry Society, Chandrabhaga, Kritya, Talking Poetry, New Quest (India), Slingshot (Canada), Carapace (South Africa) and, in translation, Wespennest 144 2006 (Germany).
Her debut poetry collection Sight May Strike You Blind was published by the Sahitya Akademi (India’s National Academy of Letters) in 2007, and reprinted in 2008.
In his foreword to the book, eminenet poet Keki Daruwalla writes, “Chattarji works within the radius of her intuition. Hers is a poetry of subtle impressions, far-off correspondences (but never far-fetched!), dissimilar images moulded into a poetic whole. She experiments fearlessly … Her poems can be disturbing. But in this day and age, what would a modern poet be worth if she can’t upset the reader and shake him out of his equanimity?”
Other critics had to say this about her work:
“Sampurna Chattarji’s is a strong and accomplished debut. To read this book is to travel with a writer of growing depth and maturity…One senses here a poet who has come into her own, found her stride, been able to align content and craft, preoccupation and poetic voice…The result: poetry of verbal muscle, formal flexibility and control, intellectual curiosity, an ability (particularly in the last section) to throw away a line, toss in an image without overworking it, while operating, like every poet must, on more levels than one.”
– Arundhathi Subramaniam, Literary Review, The Hindu, Sunday, June 3, 2007
“Mothers, daughters, sight and seeing, mythology, photography – these are some of the tropes that find their way into the first book of poetry by Sampurna Chattarji. Her poems are characteristically skeletal, spare, shorn of excess…‘Mother and Daughter: A Duet’ rings with authenticity and a display of technical ease in handling the changes in voice…Just as Chattarji flirts with language, she toys with the surreal. The author attempts in her own words to make ‘language reflect the derangement of everyday events, ostensibly normal, but with an undercurrent of abnormality.’”
– Sonia Nazareth, DNA, Sunday June 10, 2007
In Sight May Strike You Blind, by Sampurna Chattarji, there is a new sense of entitlement – the freedom to extend the compass of one’s subjects. There is a clear indication that the poetry is not going to be framed within traditional uncertainties. This brings in a sense of pleasure and playfulness – the ability to subject things to an intense but not necessarily self involved gaze. And whereas her older contemporaries could not but be autobiographical, she does not seem to feel any pressure to write in the confessional mode. Chattarji strives for a miniaturist’s perfection, compressing a journey across South India into a few taut images. In ‘Murudeshwar’ – “Cement Shiva/ caged/ in makeshift scaffolding/ Not divine but for the sea/kissing his feet.” Everything else that has been and will be said about Murudeshwar suddenly seems verbose. Discursive poems like ‘Salt’ deftly tie together all that salt evokes. In others, the canvas is still tiny but the treatment more lavish. In ‘Object Lessons’, she ritualises a series of random objects – a miniature bicycle, a painted eggshell, a teapot – reminding us of the mysterious lives of lifeless things.
– Anjum Hasan, Tehelka, Saturday, October 13, 2007
The full versions of the above reviews – and more – can be read here: