Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

"When God is a traveller" by Arundhathi Subramaniam (Bloodaxe, 2014)

Shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize! I may well have missed loads of allusions, and having read the comments about Where the script ends in the Guardian I may not be giving the poet's arguments sufficient credit (though I think the Guardian's generous). There's lots of white space. A stanza from the first poem is unpromising -

Like others
you wait
in queues
for the drought to end

White space is used in more ways than that, though its purpose (other than to replace underlining) isn't clear to me - e.g.

We who still wander along the shorelines
hoping one day to be stilled

   by the tidal gasp
   of recollection?

We whose fingers still trail the waters,
restless as seaweed,
hoping to snag
the ring in the belly of a deep river fish -

   round   starlit   uncompromised?

and sometimes white space runs riot


us, just this thinnest
skin of disbelief, almost
vanquishable. Al-

most vanquishable.

Once I realised that poems are likely to be extended metaphors, reading became easier - and less interesting.

  • The ailing poet examines/ his typescript, adds a comma ... The need to believe language/ will see us through// and that old, old need/ to go, typo-free, to the printer (p.26)
  • And so they pull in their in their limbs/ like ancient drawbridges,// watch roaring desires sputter/ into gentler static// though there were always other ways to get here (p.37)

I didn't much care for "I speak for those with orange lunch boxes", "Or take Mrs Salim Shaikh", "Transplant" (an extended metaphor), "Poems Matter" (another extended metaphor). I had trouble with some passages where image followed image

  • let warriors with winedark eyes/ and hair rinsed in summer wind// gambol forever with knobble-kneed fawns/ in the ancient forests of memory (p.25). I realise that some of this is ironic, but for me the symbolic meaning's become confused
  • "You and I that Day in Florence" begins with "What were we seeking that supple/ radiant day when// a medieval city rearranged/ its geography, kodaked itself// at several degrees to the sun?" which might sound effective (or at least poetic) initially, but falls apart on a second reading.
  • So this is what you summoned/ those nights/ when the universe seemed not to listen,// not peace,// but this carnival/ of unmooring,// this catamaran love" (p.53). Two hulls, attached, going fast. But carnival about crowds and noise.

Other reviews

  • Sachidananda Maranty (Arundhathi Subramaniam’s lyrical poems on the body and the spirit work themselves tenuously through modernist tradition; emerging translucent in stunningly new incarnations ... The poems in this collection are well crafted and innovative. At their best, the compositions strike us as meteors flashing through the night skies. Occasionally, the inspiration flags, and we have statements rather than what George Eliot calls the ‘picture’.)
  • Keki N Daruwalla (nothing is as it seems; everything is conjoined, paired, stippled; mask and face are one, and mask meets metaphor at the poem's end. ... Handloom and heart will be paired as she moves from 'secular pastels' to 'wear- and- tear polytheism' in the very first poem "Textile." ... You suddenly realise she is not talking of wool, but of old age. And sure enough the poem ends with 'the/darkening/meritocracy/of the heart.' ... Metaphysics gets decanted almost unnoticeably in her work. A better reviewer (god fearing) should look for that vein. She lets down her guard and attributes authorship to Shiva in a poem. One needs to emphasise the way she brings together disparate realities and fuses them. In the end, she leaves us with not just unfinished business with earth and sky, but also with a statement that poems matter.)
  • Madhavankutty Pillai (We think we are manipulating language. Anyone who deals with language with a certain measure of intensity discovers at some point that you can tumble into places that are completely unmapped by language. Where you are no longer playing grand manipulator. It is no longer you calling the shots,” she says.)

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