Six poems by New Delhi-based poet and novelist C P Surendran from his new collection, Available Light: New and Collected Poems
A Shortage of Words
Once, when I was eleven and some
I was caught stealing a Max Brand
From a rental library. The old man
Who kept the place took me out
Into the sun
And slapped me so hard
Mirrors skittered in my head
And I could see myself endlessly
Don’t tell anyone, I told him, walking
Backwards, staring at him all the time,
Don’t tell anyone.
A couple of years later in high school
I ran a raffle with money out of my pocket.
You see, I liked to surprise my friends with gifts.
After the first draw, the headmaster called me
Into a high room cold, the only source of heat
Was my palm, burning red
Every time his rubber-wrapped cane
Descended to set fire to my flesh.
Go tell your friends, he said.
Around this time, my father, a Communist
Plotting at revolution, became fed up
With the breakfast I never ate,
And took a stick and beat my bare back
About like a bush, till birds of pain flew up in the air
And the stick in his hand broke.
He was beat.
I called out to his retreating back blank like a door,
I’ll tell everyone,
I’ll tell all your friends.
When I was twenty, and a drunk,
The police caught me for travelling
Without a ticket which I had.
Later they changed
Their grievance to prevention of discharge of duties
And beat the shit out of me because I was drunk
And angry as my girl
Was putting the answering machine on me.
Tell her, I said to them, tell her.
Well, there have been other instances
Of violence taking over speech.
But now that I am forty, I no longer care
Who has the right of tell.
I think now
Each blow to the body is a word
Deleted from the dictionary.
We don’t have more words than we deserve.
(Ilse Koch was the wife of the Commandant of the Buchenwald
concentration camp. She was cruel, and apparently partial to tattooed
Ilse, how we come back unerringly to ourselves
For others’ sufferings. In Buchenwald, the men
Wore their skin like bangles over their bones,
And some were hanged so their skin wouldn’t break.
The sun was blindfolded by wire from their gaze.
Flayed from flesh, in a moment’s cannon-flash,
The tattooed dead, you saw, lit the living room
To the desired glow, wrapped around a lamp.
Or filtered, like lace, the cattle cars and smoke,
Falling blows, the children rubbing their eyes
At boots growing tall like turrets in the snow.
And softened, too, the one-way tracks
Like a cross-stitch of steel gleaming
At the heart of things, the twisted sign
Of millions bent on Common Design:
The gas, fatigues, transport, and tanks
The iron nuts and bolts of the human fate.
It takes many, Ilse, and a lot, to keep your room
Just the way you want, put all else to shade.
Often what power does to desire is the same
As what desire does to power; it dims the sight
To available light, so the others flatten formless
To a uniform dark beyond the rim of your lamp,
Their cries faint as emission from the farthest stars.
Hurtling through the shadows in the grass
Teasing abuse from spikes, rounded hide,
Dead beast tanned, despairs home
Past my outstretched hands towards
Prophecies of trestle and cordage. Goal.
Once again the universe cartwheels
And other sidereal prospects, coaches,
Broken ties, hotel rooms spin out of focus.
From the ringed stands, a trillion cheers raise
A tower to the sun. Under the crossbeam, I sink
On knees of water, eyes composed to darkness
Through a wreath of sudden pain. Monarch
Of empty air, I leave impress upon space
With a sigh, of a far truth breathing close
And borne away in the same breath:
Implosion of all time in a moment’s dare
And miss; a whiff of eternal loss.
Back the ball goes, kissing boots in gratitude
To its shifting flight from loyalty to treason,
as the soldiery dip, rise and dance,
Work their antagonism towards wine.
What they kick about lies close to my heart
But never fellowship of conscript dust.
I relapse into vigil-crystal, gaze at my goal,
Ice-embalzoned solitude its future and resolve.
I open the door with a key shaped like a dagger
And sharp enough to pick its way through
The ribs, unlock the phantom-hoard of the heart.
I cross the hall and find the floor tilting
Towards the kitchen smoking like a pipe
After supper, the bananas yellow, and hooked,
Hanging from the roof by their stalks.
The washroom tiles preserve in dust
Little footprints like memory’s fossils.
The study in which I’d breathe my last
As I closed a book is shorter by a chapter.
The balcony creeps into a wall of vines
That came away in my hands as I fell
When I was eight, and the air echoes
My knee’s screams when its cap cracked.
I push against a door
I’d missed off the hall
Bracing to see my father bent
Over the desk, a fat green pen
Lit between his fingers,
Writing up a storm.
And see a boy in shorts instead,
Watching ink flow along lines that glow.
He looks up and says, welcome home.
When we are done with the nature of light,
At what great speed it travels, the evil it does
To mass; its tricks with the eye,
Refraction and reflection, finally
We are left with time.
When a child, I could see
In the glass on the wall
A lot of my forehead.
Later, only the chin,
As my grandmother was short.
There have been other mirrors
When all my features
Came to light, and yet I had lost
My face, and I had begun to look
Like my ancients, a forefather there,
An uncle here, all having travelled
By rays of light into the great hall of glass.
These magisterial dead stare at you from afar,
Distances measured in irreversible events,
Till you give in and blink,
And mirrors within mirrors,
They all go blank;
That’s the time to cross over, turn,
Full eye and no mercy, return
The favour to the next in line.
This morning again I was drunk with longing for you
And for those days when it was possible to love.
I look out over the terrace, at the minarets of the mosques
From which ascend forlorn cries.
Sounds, like well-worn steps, climbing towards heaven.
(Almost certainly Gods speaks not
English? Persian? Perhaps an argot you forgot?)
What I won was not wholly without value:
Palaces of betrayed kings aflutter
With bat-wings of echoes.
Abandoned ice rinks, the empty railway yard.
The zoo where penguins—the wrong consignment,
It was the spotted deer we wanted—perished in summer,
While in their eyes vision of distant icebergs
Welled up like tears.
Of a museum of ruins.
Your hand was cool to the touch, and I was the crystal
Your breath would mist over and dissolve.
Into an eternal gaze of longing.
We might have been two against the world.
You denied me your all. I denied myself.
I left the Durbar in a state, and groped my way to the washroom.
There they found me gagged by the shoe of a commode.
I was sick. That night, in sleep, I swore myself into a kind of penance
(Excerpted from Available Light: New and Collected Poems by C P Surendran, with permission from Speaking Tiger Books)
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