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The Big, Blue Drawer of Memory

The Big, Blue Drawer of Memory
C P Surendran. Photo courtesy of the poet

Available Light, CP Surendran’s book of poems, is luminous   


CP Surendran’s book of poems, Available Light, published by Speaking Tiger, is the most wonderful, intense and luminous book of poetry I have read in sometime.  

The available light in cinematography is what also aids CP’s tunnel of words. I say tunnel because CP’s poems leap from the dark. Darkness where light hides what is visible. Poetry reveals the underside of light, where shadows grope for words. In the opening poem, ‘A Note to the Self from Tranquebar’, remembering consumes time, and language bends to memory. You are greeted by the erotic despair of a landscape that tosses up an avalanche of images. The poet invites you open the “big, blue drawer of memory.” The poet swims in the sea, the same “long finger of water” where history took place, changed hands, as the “Danes sold Dansborg Fort to the British”, where his father “slaved through centuries of night”, and where he made love to her after she swam away. Poetry is a return to the sea of origin, the orifice of memory. Even as you move into the next poem and read, “The ballet of sex on a bed of leaves”, you realise the poet’s coastal sensibility, where you can smell the sound, and hear the body. The coast of imagination has a richness that throbs with the fluid arrangement of things. It enters the scheme of language, creating unique metaphors. In ‘Headcount’, a poem on Mohammad Akhlaq’s death, you discover death as a change of seasons. You feel Akhlaq’s death as an event that glooms an ordinary piece of world. In ‘Hadal’, a title CP used for his novel, the body is the elemental other of its landscape. 

In poems like ‘Mask’, love-making emerges as an act of finding your face, a recovery of the body through elemental metaphors, where the skin hides and emerges from layers of scales. The poem ‘Omen’ is brilliantly constructed to drive home the uncanny nature of our inner voice that defies logic to ensure our safety, our time in the world. Such a voice grips us in a dream, whether we are asleep or awake, and introduces a disturbing mark of our loneliness. The metaphor of the mask returns in ‘Couple’, but this time not as a mask of the face but of love itself. The poem, through an event of departure, speaks of love as a mask of aging together. In poems like ‘Signature’ there are delicious shifts of language from the expressive to the imagistic. ‘Shakti Mills’ is a good example of how to experience a place through what it does to your intensity. Intensity is another mark of a coastal poet. In the coasts, landscape destabilizes language, land and water blur territories, and the body is a fish in and out of (its own) water. 

In the poem, ‘Two’, we hear the lover tell the poet his favourite words: “Dark, descend, stairs, nude, lantern, death”. The string of words reminded me of the title of a famous painting by Marcel Duchamp: Nude Descending a Staircase. When a poet paints darkly erotic figures, intensity shivers in the tunnel of silence. Imagine what Duchamp’s title becomes thus transformed: Nude Descending from Dark Stairs Carrying the Lantern of Death. It reminds me of a scene from Carlos Fuentes’ short novel, Aura. The young historian, Felipe Montero, is led down the stairs by the old widow, Consuelo, and her breathtakingly beautiful daughter, Aura, carrying the lantern. In that dimly lit darkness, Aura sparks off intense desire in Consuelo. The story will descend into a tragicomic fantasy. Fuentes is paying attention to the ghostly nature of desire. In ‘The End of the Affair’, CP delves into a poetic realization that can be regarded Fuentesian. The poem suggests there is a primal language that hides like a dark secret between lovers. Love is the beginning and ending of a time dictated by the norms of culture. It is possible to have a face within that time, till the mask wears off. Then you are face to face with another face, the face of a primality where you experience the loss of face. The loss of face returns you to the animal face of the origin. For Fuentes, desire is giddiness in the presence of a lover as animal incarnate, in whose mirror we lose our face. Love has no origin, for the origin knows no love.



But the poem, ‘Waiting’, also reveals the opposite, about the relationship between love, culture and poetry. The language of accusation in love is a language of claws, an animal-language, stripped of decency and politeness. Waiting in the poem is waiting to tell the story, waiting in vain for the lover who has passed into the time of primal origins, to return. Civilization is a zoo that entraps the animal till the façade of love is alive. It is poetry’s task to let the animal out of the cage and allow it voice. 

In ‘What the Doctor Said’, we realise the poet’s intense realization: There is no clarity without excess. As if every act is a way to find a clue to existence, constantly slipping away, a key not fitting the lock. “Don’t drink”, for you might “see vultures / perched on the window/ or strut in through the door.” The image is surreal, but not exactly corresponding to the Buñuelesque. For Buñuel, a projection of the unconscious reveals uncanny images. In CP, reality is a maze that brings no solace, and excess offers terrifying visions. Excess takes us closer to the unconscious, and throws us over the cliff of reality. The metaphor of mirrors returns in ‘Mirrors’, where you learn, to pay obeisance to one’s ancestors is to be caught in mirrors, “the great hall of glass.” Memory is a glasshouse that splinters with touch. The primal returns in ‘Incest’, where you learn, love is also a way to grow into siblings, a mirror of likeness that is taboo. The idea of the origin returns in ‘Disconnection’, where breakup of a love affair creates a breakdown of language. To write on the event of parting is to recover the language lost at the moment of parting. It is the tragic temptation of losing the beloved again in language, no less intense than the original, primal moment of loss. Poetry, like love, invents its own origin, gifted by culture. It takes us away from the place it brings us back to when the façade ends: the loveless origin before love. All partings, the poem ‘S.O.S’ suggests, tend to live on in the undelivered sentence. It is difficult to produce that sentence when love sentences you to death. The undelivered sentence multiplies into questions, “And is there a possibility of us meeting, / Far in the future, no doubt?”The lover sentences himself with hope.

‘The Plain of Jars’, dedicated to Fred Branfman, the American anti-war activist and writer, is a desolate requiem of our times. A precise row of images haunt the poet: “Right now a gun’s being fired, a woman raped, / A child orphaned, a man between knives”. The times are falling apart, and the morning rain shall bring no solace. Yet words are written in available light to register the despair. It is poetry’s responsibility to do so. But what is this time we live in? Does anyone know this time? In ‘The Time of Our Lives’, the poet tells us the clocks know nothing of time, and time teaches you nothing of itself. Time simply passes and you pass through it, like a thread passing through a needle. And that may take us to another crucial realization in the title poem, ‘Available Light’, where we learn: “Often what power does to desire is the same / As what desire does to power; it dims the sight / To available light”. It is a political insight thatpoets are more capable of than social scientists, aspoetry is a more intuitive craft. Power and desire control each other, and manoeuvre each other’s destinies. They may often adjust to each other, to make things happen and maintain momentary truce. 

In the few poems that deal with political history, there are a few troubling, though insightful, marks. In ‘Lodi Gardens, Winter’, the historical Lodi imposes his ghost on the poet. CP replaces Octavio Paz’s ironical tone (in his poem on the garden) with cynicism. ‘Global Warming’ has a representative image of poverty that does not help the poet’s consciousness to escape the conventional trappings of guilt. The poem suffers from the inability to question its gaze. CP is more confidently eloquent in ‘Permanent Revolution’, where he finds in the Russian landscape, the clotted blood of memory betray the snow of forgetting. Murder was committed in the name of an idea. The poet chastises his father for writing the “footnotes / To a history that was false”. In ‘Portrait of the Space We Occupy’, CP broadens the theme of the father figure of power, the enormous weight of the absent father in the gallery of photographs: Nehru, Gandhi, Lenin and Stalin.

CP often comes across as a poet who isn’t in conversation with the world, but rather, with the ghosts of his past. He is more keen to know the world through these ghosts than lose his way into the world outside, unconnected from his life. But the mark of a genuine poet is to offer the world insight about life, and CP’s poems offer us a lot of valuable moments to realise and reflect upon. A master of innovative phrases and expressions, CP’s language sparkles with astonishing range and accuracy. 

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