Poetry Reviews

Water Has Many Colors

Kiriti Sengupta
Illustrated by Rochishnu Sanyal

Hawakal Publishers

by Malashri Lal

Water, that formless, colorless, life-sustaining essence that pervades our being—how does one inscribe it in poetry? In his new collection, Kiriti Sengupta answers in a series of meditations that flow with an enchanting fluidity. The poems dwell on eternal themes such as home, belonging, relationships, and community, but these appear in ephemeral light as though transcending the ordinary and enticing the reader to follow paths of self-discovery.  

Reading Water Has Many Colors, I was reminded of these evocative lines in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: “Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure.” Here too, the surface calm of controlled structures rests over a subliminal, surging angst, enlivening a crisp duality in which emotions and experiences are transformative, yet the speaker yearns for more change.

This tenuous hold of troubling dualities appears in various ways under Sengupta’s scrutiny. Understandably, the notion of home is questioned: “Dwelling is a slingshot: more it / draws me in, further I fling it way.” While this suggests a perennial odyssey of sorts, Sengupta offers domestic details with roots in cultural practice: “Ma’s healing touch” and a “tiepin from a fiancée” defy the resolution to unhouse oneself from tethers. Who will pay the cost of losing a sense of belonging? Embedded in these poems are complex discourses on location and dislocation, diaspora and homeland, partitions and fragmentations.  These mega-events are condensed into haunting lines on memory and forgetting. The brief poem “Ma” is stark—“In the kitchen / her bangles / play a carillon”—yet the sound of that music will echo in the parallel memories of readers.

Sometimes memory travels to a collective space, such as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919—a space marked by bullet holes on a brick wall and the darkness of a well that engulfed hapless women. Revisiting this traumatic event, Sengupta pins his sight on the incongruous item left by a tourist in “The Bottle,” a pensive commentary on a tragic past now pigeonholed into history. The poems “Hibiscus” and “Nostalgia invoke, respectively, the Marxist writer Sukanta Bhattacharya and the educationist Samantak Das, but here, too, disjunctions creep in that elevate historical observation into a poetry of elegiac force. 

Mythology also gets examined in the pages of Water Has Many Colors, as in the poem “When a Woman Conquers God,” a riff on the Bengali Manasamangal Kavya. In the original story, Manasa, the snake goddess, is both challenged and propitiated by Behula, who wants her dead husband revived after the goddess has destroyed him. Behula succeeds and is upheld as the epitome of wifely devotion, whereas Manasa remains a deity to be feared and propitiated with “the left hand.” Sengupta places this story in the realm of alternative power structures, contrasting ideas of divinity and hierarchies, thereby couching the legend in modern political discourse. Sengupta’s poem “Urvashi” similarly recasts the image of a siren (apsara) figure; Tagore also wrote a lyrical poem about Urvashi, yet in presenting female desire, the famed Nobel Laureate looked towards the domestic ideal, whereas Sengupta’s Behula and Urvashi challenge this, bringing his poems closer to the contemporary idiom of feminist choice. 

From myth to the cinema is not such a long journey, especially when one reads about the film diva Rekha and her makeover from the simple “Bhanurekha”; the poet seems quite spellbound in describing her “mystique” and “luminescence.” The actor, director, and talk show host Simi Grewal, clad in white, is another aspect of Bollywood glamour Sengupta engages; it’s a tale of light, image, sound, and “cut” that poetry can mimic in words.  

From epics and movies to succinct one-liners, Sengupta suits his poetic form to the subject, just as the folk idiom reminds us that water takes shape from the container in which it is held. The series “Bucolic Bengal” picks out contrasts in nature while hinting that the pastoral idyll is merely spectral; lines such as “kites are born of chimeras” and “mien limns the reality” deliberately pitch elusive, expandable images, stretching the reader’s imagination. On the other hand, the series “Monostich” uses the terse one-line stanza to invoke an inwardness. For example: “What if I am mute or loud?” This poem, “Prayer,” gestures towards multiple meanings; the line may suggest the silent intimacy of grace, but could also allude to mass religiosity.

Water Has Many Colors leaves the reader dazzled by the variety of styles and subjects, an effect reinforced by the captivating art of Rochishnu Sanyal. No line is out of place in the poems or the drawings, and an amazing synergy joins each pairing. The book captures the frenzied pace of modernity yet urges a philosophic acceptance through the enduring image of water. Chronology rolls into timelessness, fragments blend into periodic wholeness, and images float like waves washing up on the shores. This is a celebration of life’s plenitude.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2023 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2023

How to Communicate

John Lee Clark
W. W. Norton & Company ($29.95)

by Stephanie Burt                          

If you’re a poet—and if you work hard and make attentive, patient discoveries—you can expand the range of what a poem can do by finding new forms, new sets of moves that your language can make. If you’ve had unusual experience—lived an unusual, lucky, or difficult life, say—you can expand the range of what a poem can show and say by building that experience into your poems. If there’s a group of people like you whose experience isn’t represented in poems—or if it’s not represented often, or particularly well—you can do important political work by representing it. And if you’ve got access to an unusual conjunction of languages, ways to use words and to make yourself understood—say, Thai and Croatian, or Spanish, Catalan, and Cantonese, or the special talk of the Parisian underworld—you might be able to expand the range of what poems can do by translating, adapting, or making truly new work in a target language using what you learned from your source.

John Lee Clark is all four kinds of poet at once. This first book of Clark’s own poems (he edited the anthology Deaf American Poetry, published by Gallaudet University Press in 2009) does not just reflect (whatever that means) his experience as a DeafBlind creator, moving in Deaf and DeafBlind cultures as well as in other literary circles. It also shows new forms, new ways to use English, as in Clark’s slateku, dependent on puns generated by the two-sided slate used in pre-electronic Braille. Clark’s work imports into English new kinds of intimacy, sarcasm, and communal defense, from American Sign Language and from the less common language Protactile, used (as the name implies) by DeafBlind people who communicate via touch.

These kinds of translation reflect Clark’s life in between languages. He considers how to frame his tactile, translated, uncommonly embodied and uncommonly mediated day-to-day so that people like me (nondisabled, non-Deaf) can dive in.  And I want to dive in. He’s writing at once for people like me and to bolster like-minded figures, and he’s funny, angry, inviting, tender, genuine: “I have been filmed and photographed for free,” he writes in a prose poem with pointers to John Clare. “It costs so much to smile…. I would that I were a dragonfly curled up between your finger and your thumb.”

That’s a Clark original. Here’s a sample translation, from the Protactile of Oscar Chacon: “At the base of your forearm, the lumberjack is surprised. Still standing! What’s going on? Rubbing chin.” And here are lines sliced from an elegy in monostichs for the DeafBlind creator Nicholas Saunderson (1682-1739): “He made a calculating machine with strings and pins and called it Palpable Arithmetic…. Go on feel what it says.” This caustically titled volume also covers the near-dissolution of a marriage, Clark’s life as a son and a father, and his early education—it’s got range. It’s got centuries of history. It’s got portraits, too: the teacher “Mrs. Schultz,” for example, who tried and failed to understand “the Clark boy,” and “The Politician,” whose signed faux pas puts John F. Kennedy’s famous jelly-doughnut remark in the shade (I won’t spoil the joke: read the book).

Is it okay to say, of a DeafBlind writer, that his work sounds like nothing else? Because, to this hearing reader, it’s true. Clark hasn’t just put his life into verse and prose poems; he’s felt and manipulated and explored and expanded what poetry in English—in print, to the ear, on the fingertip—can do. He’s got puns, euphonies, wordplays, cleverly arranged syllabics, as in those slateku: “Hollywood / Smoothly wraps / Hollywood / Soothingly warps.” And he’s also funny, sometimes exhausted, and more often exasperated in a way that you might recognize if anyone has ever called you “brave” for attempting to live your daily life: “Let go of my arm. I will not wait / until I’m the last person on the plane.” Or: “Can’t I pick my nose / without it being a miracle?”

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Two New Translations of Max Jacob's Poetry

The Central Laboratory
Max Jacob

Translated by Alexander Dickow
Wakefield Press ($22.95)

The Dice Cup
Max Jacob

Translated by Ian Seed
Wakefield Press ($19.95)

by Patrick James Dunagan    

With only relatively brief selections of work readily available to Anglophone readers, the French poet Max Jacob, who died of pneumonia in a Nazi internment camp in 1944, has nonetheless long held an exalted status. These new translations of two of Jacob’s major collections should be recognized as welcome and essential: The Dice Cup (1917), Jacob’s unprecedented contribution to the development of the prose poem, and The Central Laboratory (1921), a collection that spans nearly two decades, together encompass most of his early poetic work. As recounted in Roseanna Warren’s enjoyably thorough Max Jacob: A Life in Art and Letters (W.W. Norton, 2020), this extraordinary flowering was buoyed by Jacob’s friendships with Picasso, Apollinaire, and many others in the Parisian avant-garde—though he was often at odds with his fellow groundbreakers as well, such as his on-again, off-again prose poem rivalry with Pierre Reverdy.  

Born in 1876 into a bourgeois ethnically Jewish family in Brittany, Jacob scorned provincial mediocrity by absconding to Paris. There, he embraced the artistic city life that filled small streets and neighborhood hovels. Later in life, Jacob moved through the echelons of the upper class, mingling with art dealers and other patrons. Inner conflict about his homosexuality may have played a part in his deeply invested conversion to the Catholic faith, though he claimed it was due to a mystical vision. With Jacob’s enthusiasms as constant as his general dissatisfaction, it’s no wonder his poems display the influence of these shifting life experiences, often at a dizzying pace. As translator Alexander Dickow notes in his introduction to The Central Laboratory, “Jacob cannot act as unequivocal role model or poster boy for any particular identity: he is too full of contrasts and contradictions for that”; as a result, his “extraordinary life has long overshadowed his work.”                            

The frenetic shifting throughout The Central Laboratory—from line to line in individual poems (with an abundance of esoteric references and wordplay) and between forms from poem to poem (ballads, nursery rhymes, experimental collage)—continually surprises and challenges the reader. For instance, consider:


Someone’s patched up the azure of my sky
My nuptials had two lions standing by
And then Saint Catherine lifted her blade
To prune my honey-colored shrubs in braids—
Two castles on which little towers dwell—
The little castle tower’s scrofules swell.
It’s all that was left in this capitol
With bits of garden scattered here and there
And we could see your coifs of lace as well
Madame Adamunzipper
The color of kipper
Madame Mirabeau, Madame Mirabelle
Nebuchadnezzar’s mother, truth to tell.
Now sailboats returned to this cathedral
One with gold and the other with coal tar
The third one catching fire carried Abelard
While the sea seemed somewhat vegetal
I write in letters that are capital:
I’ll never be but a novice in art
The novices’ necklaces we wear crowns
The one who’s crowned amounts to he who crowns.                            

Jacob moves freely between sense and nonsense, beautifying the confusing, and at times, he delights in nothing less than the joy of how words sound. Yet, there is also  glorious hubris (“my sky”), cheeky insight (as in the closing claim), and a sparkling intellect throughout, all of which showcase Jacob’s depths as well as wordplay.  

As can be felt in the inventive lines above, Dickow’s translation of the Laboratory is generally quite fine, though there are occasional odd decisions. “Barège n’est pas Baume-les-Dames!” becomes “Bombay is not Ramagundam!”  which is defended in a footnote: “Jacob mentions Barèges, a town in Southwestern France, and Baume-les-Dames, a town in Burgundy. I felt that Indian names with similar sonorities and rhythms might be more evocative for Anglophone readers.” This might hold true for some Anglophone readers, but most would not recognize Ramagundam any more than Baume-les-Dames—and Jacob was naming French locales, after all. Why exoticize the work? In another instance, “La fenêtre: un cigare au coin de l’univers” is rendered as “Window: cigar that dangles from the cosmic lip”—a rather overtly poetic flourish for the clearer “cigar resting on the corner of the universe,” disrupting what would seem the more striking image Jacob perhaps intended of the universe as cosmic ashtray.

Though the prose poems in The Dice Cup might be less formally challenging for today’s readers than the dizzy verses in The Central Laboratory, Ian Seed’s new translations, like Dickow’s, provide an opening for digging deeper into Jacob’s poetics. Dickow leads the way, citing Robert Guiette’s 1976 critical study La Vie de Max Jacob based upon interviews with Jacob in the 1920s, noting how the poet “framed his poetics precisely in terms of ‘disappointment [déception]’” and took triumphant glee in how “the reader was slid from place to place until there was nothing left.” He goes on to describe Jacob’s work overall as “the art of sabotaging readers’ expectations, of producing doubt and disorientation, perhaps even sadness or a slight sense of having been jilted.”  Indeed, given the relative comfort most readers feel when faced with a piece of short prose (as it may contain the hint of a narrative, characters and actions assigned to them, etc.), it is jilting indeed to have none of the comfortable associations of one’s reading experience go as expected. Take this short piece: 

The House of the Guillotined

To Paimpol! You cross the hills in the evening. The roofs of the news houses in evening blue and sea blue. A room at the hotel for so many from the smart set. Now for a life of great pursuits. All these little bladders on the sidewalk come from pretend rabbits: a servant blows them up and we take a shot at them: there is but one true rabbit: he’s old and seated: “Where’s René?” “He puts in an appearance from time to time.” René puts rubber soles on his shoes to act out the role of the old rabbit, and we sit down at the table facing Paimpol, facing the port and the evening hills. There’s a lady who knows the hostess’s secret: “It was in Paimpol last year at this time that . . .” The lady rises, her eyes full of tears. What a scene!”

Of course, Jacob has no intentions of his poem aligning with readerly expectations. Paraphrasing Jacob’s own remarks, Seed relates how “The prose poem ‘transplants’ components of reality into a realm where we can ‘situate’ those components in relation to one another, offering us alternative versions of reality, which in this case is not something fixed and stable, any more than one’s personality is.”

With both collections, the intent is to throw the reader off balance and to have that experience offer delight. Dickow cites a 1907 letter of Jacob’s that draws an interesting contrast: “surprise is a stable state,” he writes, whereas “pleasure is in movement; the spectator must be tossed to and fro; aesthetic emotion is doubt. Doubt is obtainable through the coupling of that which is incompatible (and without producing stable surprise) . . . in poetry, interest is born of doubt between reality and the imagination . . . Doubt, that is art!” None of Jacob’s poems, whether in prose or rhymed verse, are intended to be too easily digestible; he intends to confound. Seed reminds us in a footnote that, “In his Art Poetique, Jacob famously declared, ‘Personality is only a persistent error.’” In his social life, Jacob continually presented a refreshed reimagining of his self to the various scenes through which he swirled. His poetry likewise remains dedicated to the constant reimagining of the world.   

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Laura Walker
Apogee Press ($18.95)

by John Bradley

The King James version of the Book of Psalms is a profound and intimidating text with layers of musicality, history, and spirituality. Most poets would avoid using this imposing work as a source of literary invention. Not so with Laura Walker’s psalmbook, which offers sixty-nine poems, all titled “psalms,” that draw inspiration from the Book of Psalms. Walker manages to preserve a sense of prayer while also reshaping the psalm into something new—a significant literary achievement.

One of the most notable attributes of Walker’s psalms is their fragmented state. They feel like translations from scraps of ancient papyri. Here is “psalm 142” in its entirety:

sound poured round our heads

like trouble

or gravel

The fragmentary nature of the poem is augmented by the use of the lower case, as well as the space between the lines, heightened by the oversize page (the book measures 7.5 x 9 inches). The spacing slows the reader, asks for the poem to be read again, and then asks us to meditate on the resonances.

Another innovation in psalmbook is Walker’s use of the second person. Unlike “Lord” or “God” in the King James Book of Psalms, “you” builds intimacy and uncertainty: “i see you there / or think i do” While this “you” usually seems to be used for a divine presence, at times there’s ambiguity: “i see you lying in the dark,” in “psalm 5,” could be speaking of a human presence. This ambiguity is unresolved in the adjacent lines: “tracing another cliff, another toppled island / on your bedroom wall :”.

Walker brings her psalms into modernity: “listen— / i will talk to you in the morning / by the washing machine.” Here the human need for spirituality is placed in the mundane world of laundry. Walker often blends Biblical and contemporary language. In “psalm 99” (there are poems in psalmbook with the same psalm number, indicating that some of the Biblical psalms inspired more than one poem) we hear both the King James-like language—“your name is a plucked thing in my mouth”—and contemporary language—“perched on a fence with your pant leg rolled up.” Perhaps the “plucked thing” could be a mouth harp. As the psalms continue, however, we encounter something unfamiliar, something surreal:  

perched on a fence with your pant leg rolled up,
holding a flag or an apple, milk-creased creature
against your thigh

No matter what this “milk-creased creature” might be, Walker suggests that the language we use in our daily lives—“your pant leg rolled up” or “holding a flag”—is just as worthy as King James English in creating a prayer.

The cover of psalmbook, showing scraps of ink-inscribed ancient papyri, evokes salvaged pieces of a holy text. It also evokes, as does the text of this book, what survives of Sappho’s poetry. Perhaps this allusion is intentional, though the yearning in Sappho’s poetry is more concerned with earthly love. Yet its fragmentary nature, as in psalmbook, furthers that yearning.

Walker’s psalms will no doubt lead some readers back to the Book of Psalms, and that’s all to the good. But psalmbook stands on its own, steeped in absence and mystery, such as in “psalm 85,” which is all of three words and a punctuation mark: “i remember you :”.

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Alive at the End of the World

Saeed Jones
Coffee House Press ($16.95)

by Walter Holland

Saeed Jones’s latest book of poetry, Alive at the End of the World, is an outpouring of anguish, grief, and anger. It’s also an outward-looking commentary about racism and the performative pressures placed on the Black artist in America to meet white expectations and assumptions.

Jones’s debut came in 2011 with his chapbook When the Only Light Is Fire (Sibling Rivalry Press). It was followed in 2014 with his full-length collection Prelude to Bruise (Coffee House Press), a beautifully crafted account of his boyhood in Texas and his life growing up as a young queer Black man. The rich lyricism of his work, with its mix of earthy imagery, explosive violence, and sensuous eroticism, portrayed a world of family, country life, pervasive racism, and trenchant inner conflict.

Jones is part of a generation of queer poets of color who have revitalized and reshaped American poetry. In recent years, this group has been nurtured by the efforts of progressive MFA writing programs and writers-of-color-focused organizations. One of these organizations is Cave Canem, established in 1996 by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, which seeks to counter the underrepresentation and isolation of African American poets. In like manner, Lambda Literary created its Emerging Writers program for LGBTQ+ authors; these talented poets were also embraced by the small-press publishing world, which made a concerted effort to promote more diversity. Jones joins the likes of Danez Smith, Donika Kelly, Justin Phillip Reed, Taylor Johnson, and Jericho Brown—I could go on—all queer Black poets of distinction.

Alive at the End of the World is a departure from Prelude to Bruise. It has the tone of a jeremiad, a long lament and outcry of informed complaint that is sharp, direct, and chilling. It harbors angry indictment and accusation. It is the work of a maturing poet, too, and perhaps a transitional work: Jones has moved from the subject of his boyhood to the volatile racist politics of the here and now, as well as his worries for the future.

These poems speak of a constantly unjust and fearful world. Jones weaves together scalding social commentary with everyday personal experiences, uncovering the tense undercurrent of racial conflict in every facet of Black life and the psychological wounds it inflicts.

The title poem, really a series of poems of the same title, offers a fitting overview of this formidable project. The first poem begins:

The end of the world was mistaken
for just another midday massacre
in America. Brain matter and broken
glass, blurred boot prints in pools
of blood. We dialed the newly dead
but they wouldn’t answer.

Inequities and violence are casually understated, but their brutality is clear beneath the dismissive tone of the final dialogue:

With time the white boys
with guns will become wounds we won’t
quite remember enduring. “How did you
get that scar on your shoulder?” “Oh,
a boy I barely knew was sad once.”

And it’s not just the most tragic violences that define these end times. In “Sorry as in Pathetic,” Jones describes a white woman on a street walking “right through” him to get to “her next spike-heeled hour.” He waits for the woman to turn and apologize, but soon realizes that her violation of his personal space will not be acknowledged; she doesn’t even “see” him as being there. He closes the poem with the description of another tense encounter, and the sad fallout that adds weight to the title:

once I was lost on a late-night street
and when I asked

the woman walking just ahead of me for help, she screamed
“Oh, god!” and clutched her purse the way the night holds me.

I told her I was sorry, then felt sorry for saying sorry.
I think of that woman often; I doubt she ever thinks of me.

Jones’s language displays a wonderful musicality and a gift for metaphor. In “Date Night,” he contemplates his mother crying out in her sleep for her brother, his uncle, whom she wishes still lived near her, as though only he could give her comfort through his solid masculinity and paternal strength. The poet is hurt by his mother’s yearning—though he is perpetually available to her, he cannot be who she wants—and this suppressed inadequacy apparently gets voiced aloud while Jones sleeps with a lover. Here is how Jones transforms this pain into poetry:

When a Venus flytrap
flowers, the two white blossoms sit atop a very tall

stalk. Green teeth way down at the bottom. It’s trying
to avoid triggering its own traps. It’s trying to keep

the bees it needs for pollination away from its own traps.
I’m most dangerous when I’m hungry. I’m most hungry

when I’m hurting. Seems like I’m always hurting. Nothing
but teeth. Nothing but the same words calling out to me

in my sleep. Grief asking its ghosts not to leave. Please.
It’s not up to me when I get to stop crying. Or hurting.

Or holding memories in my mouth, gentle as bees
I promised not to eat, but oh, the hurt is so sweet.

In a way, this poem serves as an ars poetica as well as a trenchant personal narrative. Jones has tried to resist the temptation to eat of the fruit of grim knowledge—not of something as simple as good and evil but of racist hatred, of maternal rejection, of all the many slings and arrows that Black men in America face daily. But as a poet, as an artist, he is compelled to eat of this stinging truth—and equally compelled to make from it the sweet honey of verse.

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