Online Edition: Summer 2005

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Instrumentality

Ravi Shankar

Cherry Grove Collections ($16)

by Neil Kozlowicz

In "Fabricating Astrology," the second poem in Ravi Shankar's Instrumentality, he writes that the firmament "seems plotted / Along three axes: love, labor, time." And so it is here. Shankar's poems often begin by stopping time, by pausing in the face of life; from that stillness, labors and loves find meaning through voice and rhythm. As stated in the poem's conclusion, "Really they move / Towards annulment in a proof I cannot / Prove. Soon enough, pattern dissolves. / Let me replace them with these words." This early poem is in many ways an ars poetica. From the first poem's quiet moment of contemplation, where we hear "Breaths go in and out of many lungs," to Ella Fitzgerald singing Misty Blue in the closing poem, Shankar transforms what he cannot understand into a music that we all can feel.

Instrumentality refers to "an artifact (or system of artifacts) that is instrumental in accomplishing some end." In the title poem it is handschumachers, or glove-makers, and then all forms of physical trades which define our new humanness, which first arrived "when the first basalt flakes were chipped from boulders // To make hand-axes that could dismember most carcasses the hominid / We once were might have hunted down." This poem delights not only because of its language but by its reach, stretching back into the moments where work and words grew side-by-side, to the struggles that gave birth to literate, technological humanity. And so, by analogy, poetry is also a trade, maybe the first trade, that one can lose oneself in and concentrate on the artifacts to transcend the ego. To make something else.

For Shankar, that something else becomes a process of reduction. In "Contraction," he writes, "Honest self-scrutiny too easily mutinies, / mutates into false memories. . . . I tried to live / Twenty lives at once. Now one is plenty." The loss he talks about here is love of another, but is only resolved and understood by working on the self, by building one thing at a time so self-esteem is no longer raised on "wobbly beams." But this is not poetry as self-help--or if it is, it is because something new has been forged, because the self, perhaps, cannot be helped or saved, only set aside.

There are occasional bumps in this first collection--when a poem uses a different form, for example, or the language flattens while covering a narrative bridge. However, a true and dynamic craftsman is at work here, and even the rough material contains a richness and texture that would be missed. This bodes well for Shankar's future work.

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