doesn’t do anything
cannot be done anything too
Sukumaran’s collection of poems ‘The day after tuesday / But / Not wednesday’ published by Kalachuvadu has poems written by the poet after 2011. A short collection where one of Tamil’s finest poets finds some answers to questions about the timelessness of poetry.
I worked with Sukumaran for less than a year, and I owe to him a large part of whatever editing skills I have. Which always makes me doubtful of my intentions when writing about him, as I am afraid I just want to impress him. To impress the ideal image I have of him in my mind. I went to wellington the town, when I reread the novel by him of the same name, and I still cannot articulate my thoughts on the novel because of this. I cannot articulate what relieves me of this fear when writing about this collection either.
If there is a common theme among a few of the poems in this collection, it is that they sing about action rather than existence. All that exists, exists only as an aide for the action the poems sing about. The sky as it exists in its spotless blue is not sky and is even a thing to be scared of, a bird’s flying that re-weaves the blue makes it the sky. Reading through the collection this time, it was similar moments I searched, found and cherished.
In a poem titled Moment of lifetime, he asks whether Sometimes in a second/ A life’s full time is lived through in a second? Poetry finds itself in an easier spot to answer questions about the contradictions between the present and the other two tenses. For example, the second poem mentioned above forces you to read it aloud by its structure and rhythm. Whenever we read aloud, we are more aware of how we create the meaning for the words at the moment instead of other aspects like the reconstruction of memories.
A proud poet who sees the world and its many inhabitants as his image or sees his image in the world and its many inhabitants is not new. Bharathi sings about himself as ‘I am all the birds flying in the sky, I am all the animals roaming the earth’ to ‘I am the one who enacts the lie called I’. Sukumaran in that sense is the quintessential poet, a poet first and everything else next. It is not easy to dispel the personality we form of him from his poems. It is admirable, proud, soft, masculine, not secretive about its flaws. Yet in this poem, the proud laugh of the poetic tradition sounds distinct or, for me, better. Yet, all this present only a glimpse of the collection and the poet, for he is as much a calm conversationalist as he loves questions about time, life and poetry. If anything, both his conversational voice and the voice that sings have found more clarity than before in this collection.
I am flying fish
To the fish that swam across seven seas
you show water brimming in a glass box
and call it an ocean bigger than the seven
To the bird that flew across eight directions
you show sky caught between bars
and call it an endless sky
Fish laughs with eyes always open
Bird laughs with wings fluttering
I stirred the space and laughed
I am that swimming
I am that flying
Few more poems from the collection in translation
I do not remember when I first read Sukumaran’s poem Pet Animal. It was probably a decade ago. It was my earliest memory of encountering the ‘Depression as a black dog’ trope. I have seen it expressed in different ways in different art forms over the years, especially in children’s literature. It becomes an easier way of representing visually and talking about something scary, yet you cannot shake off and carry around. The positives and negatives of this depiction must also have been discussed in detail by now. But it has quietly played a bigger role in what depression means to us as a society. For despite the individual experiences we have, we also pick from what society offers us about a thing and make it our own to define it, to make it less scary.
When I started reading this new poem by Sukumaran, I was immediately reminded of Pet Animal. Both speak of pets and imply they are talking about the mental state of the speaker than the imaginary animal being addressed. Unlike the first poem, the second is a less explicit portrayal, and it can be interpreted to different meanings. Irrespective of the poet’s intentions, I see these two poems as speaking of the same thing across a time divide, a decade in my case, about three decades if we consider the actual time difference between these poems.
Unlike the first poem, where the speaker gains questionable freedom at the end and moves on to a life of fear, the second poem’s speaker seems to be in control from the beginning. He is even convincing the listener of the same. What it offers us additionally (without it catching the eye of the pet) are the eyes and ears of the listener. We can see the deception in play, or we can see the honesty and feel soft.
Sukumaran is a poet concerned with changes, irreversible changes brought by short and long time gaps, on things, on the person of an individual. From his classic, often repeated poem that speaks of the water lifted in a palm alienated to the river to the ‘Old Fort’ in this collection, which wonders if the visitor who entered the fort is the same as the person who leaves. So, I am bound to compare and wonder if the portrayals of the pet divided by three decades is the same, and how does one understand the change!
I have shrunken to
a body awaiting departure of the spirit
staring at the distance,
It sniffed my legs.
Helplessness in its eyes.
I threw a few words in pity
It followed my shadow
Even after its hunger was quenched.
As days passed, it regained
Legs, face, hair and other parts, its
fangs and claws grew
Its eyes filled with vengeance
Afraid of it
Friends stopped seeing me
Children hid from me,
It grew larger than me
Its teeth glared with rage
Yet, I was sure it will not harm me
Its growls and whimpers
ruined my peace.
The room started smelling foul
with the hair it shed,
urine and faeces that gathered.
Unable to bear the disturbance, I weaved a chain
out of hope
and tied it.
When I went wandering
it came along with the chain clanging. Then,
When I was weak to drag it along
It dragged me along.
I was caught in the clutter of chains
Yearning for freedom became my fate
One day, I felt the pull of the chain weakened
I was happy it was lost.
Yet, the fear that
Away from senses
On the other end of the irremovable chain
it lies, became permanent.
You don’t trust me
when I say
my pet is absolutely harmless
Eyes that burn with anger when it laughs
Tail like a dry fibre twisted right then
Planned and chaotic streaks of fur
Skin intense like the desert sun
Fangs that catch wiggling lives
Claws like laburnums tearing the land
You are afraid of all this
You hesitate to accept
my pet is a herbivore
it grazes green grass
it drinks holy tulsi water
if we call psss psss psss
it surrenders under my feet
more graceful than a cat
It opens and eats the almond nuts served in a bowl
more careful than a squirrel
Weighed down by the meal
it sits in a comfortable position
more peaceful than a saint
When we instinctively
call choo choo filled with love
Like the pupil tree’s first young leaf of monsoon
its back tingles with excitement
Whatever I say
You won’t trust, my darling is absolutely harmless
I know my dear animal
is a harmful beast
But my darling does not know
that I know.