Review: Uttaran Das Gupta’s Visceral Metropolis
(Published by i write imprint, 2017, New Delhi; no. of pages: 80)
“Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist.” Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
The luxury of flanerie is not for the modern urban poet choking on polluted city air, but poetry continues to germinate and foster amidst the sensual and cerebral assaults of the city. Uttaran’s Das Gupta’s maiden book of verse, Visceral Metropolis (2017), encounters the city in novel ways, as every encounter must, to produce a charming collection of poems. The silica covered ring road and the ferric water in taps invite the reader into the world of well-crafted vignettes that reify so many evanescent experiences.
The recently deceased Indian English poet, Eunice D’Souza, in one of her characteristically pithy poems, asked readers “not to look for (her) life in her poetry”. Poetry is aesthetically distanced from reality and language is an insurmountable barrier for experience. Das Gupta’s prefatory poem, ‘Obstinacy’, is probably a response: Do you know how long it has taken me to type out these poems? He warns, challenges, and dismisses the hypothetical reader: When this book is published and you read it/ your morality will be outraged. Very quickly one realizes that the poetry that follows is as much about the reader who presumes to find a voyeuristic window into the author’s life, as it is about the physical and mental geographies traversed in journeys between the mind, page and interim selfhoods.
Visceral Metropolis is deceptively titled: it inhabits states that are often beyond the visceral and often encompass so much more than the metropolis. The 32 poems in the volume resist any poetic dogmas, and are remarkable for the rare sincerity and emotional honesty. The poems have a dual preoccupation with love and psychogeography, and allied networks that shape the poet’s experiences. It is not simply the mapping of a metropolis, but its connection to other spaces – real, imagined and virtual – that give anchorage to this book. The poet meanders through Delhi, Kolkata, Shillong, Darjeeling, McLeodganj, Kashi, and even Bangladesh, through a simultaneity of belonging. It is to be noticed that a synaesthetic poem about Lenin Sarani in Kolkata and one addressed to a virtual Shillong seen on Facebook are penned in New Delhi. Space becomes a metonym for love, history, literature, alienation and much more in Das Gupta’s poetry.
The history of urban poetry goes back several centuries, and attained a kind of apotheosis in Baudelaire and T. S. Eliot. More recently, Erika Meitner’s Ideal Cities (2010) and even Ravish Kumar’s Ishq Mein Shahar Hona (2015) have evocatively explored the grandeur of everyday loves and invisible urban angst. Das Gupta’s verse does no discredit to the tradition with poems like ‘October in Delhi’ and ‘Eight More Lives’ which map the cartography of loss (of people, things and places) that only shared experiences made real. ‘Go!’, similarly, dwells on the sad geometry of abandoned objects, broken pens, cacti in pots, dry sea, that once were a measure of love:
We’ll never live in the same city again,
or know the same summer, carnival, rain,
and this city, too, will expand and change,
like us, forgetting these streets, growing strange.
The city in his verse goes beyond the senses into textures of abstraction – sometimes melancholic, sometimes transcendent.
The sensitivity is also endearingly flamboyant. There is a certain self-indulgence that is in dialogue with a contained style, much like the conversational poems themselves. In ‘Only One Who’s Been a Widow’, two voices remain discrete yet unidentifiable in the end:
‘She taught you how to cook
shukto?’ ‘Yes, at first, she mistook
Me for a servant. (Pause. Laughter.)’
‘And you were there to interview
her? You should be an actor,
not a scribe’ ‘Old tricks. You’ve no clue
what you’ll learn if you just keep quiet.’
‘Learn what?’ ‘About music and diet.’
Das Gupta experiments with punctuation, lineation, couplets, quatrains, free and rhymed verse, and multiple poetic forms including a few sonnets and a villanelle. His influences are also clearly wide-ranging: Milton, Blake and Shelley cohabit with Amrita Pritam, Sunil Gangopdhyay and Shankha Ghosh, without compromise.
Another recurring concern in Das Gupta’s verse is that of the use of poetry itself. Poems like ‘The Death of a Poet’ and, less explicitly, ‘The Angle Here is All Awry’ and ‘Iftar at Lenin Sarani’, seem to engage with the question of utility and serviceability of poetry. In ‘Plotting Assassinations at Press Club’, the city poets mock their own seriousness:
Only now, we don’t get pearl necklaces;
recalcitrant outcastes, we howl our sonnets
at nocturnal trains, at tombs of Sufis,
and urchins who sell jasmines, rose garlands,
at a discount for assassin-poets.
For poems that are crafted with such fidelity to detail, there is a constant undercurrent of such wry irony and scepticism. This is perhaps the highlight of the volume – an attempt to maintain honest ironic distance yet careful and formal execution of creative labour. The poetics of everydayness emerges at the conjunction. The symbolism of three consecutive Amaltas poems transforms to reveal a science of language that tethers on, as poet Philip Nikolayev says in the introduction, “a fine and fickle line”, but one that the poet confidently treads.
However, this preoccupation with craft sometimes leaves superfluous endings (‘Water Problems’ and ‘On Amaltas Trees’ feel somewhat unfinished) and, occasionally, substance is sacrificed in the interest of form. But the interfaces of history, literature and culture in Das Gupta’s poetry never overwhelm the poetic voice (‘Half Promise’, ‘Boundless and Bare’, and ‘Chittaranjan Park’ are very good). Unfortunately, the more overtly political satire, ‘Get in Line’, which deals with the recent demonetisation drive in India felt like a misfit in the otherwise coherent volume.
A word also about the book construction and design: compact and aesthetically pleasing, i write imprint’s sleek publications are delightful. I read the book several times – at home, at work, and most of all in transit – all the while feeling the photographs of flyovers, architectural ruins and the garbage dump at Azadpur taking on a visual atmosphere complementary to the poems. The book’s division into sections of increasing numbers of poems and the symmetry of the first and last poems lends a well-conceived structural balance. The few typographical errors that appear are no hindrance to reading – if anything, human errors lend charm to daily arts.
To conclude, Das Gupta’s first book of youthful poems has created some enduring word-images. The collected poems are, seemingly, at different stages – some mature, some still brewing, some incomplete, some virtuosic. The symphony they create is pleasing and promises even better from the poet. Das Gupta chooses to write what he knows and loves – through arrivals, departures and endurances of the rest. The expatiations and the gentle irony that characterise his poems are distinctive. At the near end of the book, in the poem ‘Chittaranjan Park’, we are brought back to the beginning:
…but you won’t get your lawful hands on us:
we are cunning, step-brothers of pickpockets;
no Gabriel or Urizen can reprimand
our trespasss, our honest circus tricks,
the taming of lions, zebras, unicorns.
Stopping a passing auto, we bargain
To the reader of Das Gupta’s verse, the metropolis gradually becomes a visceral companion and connoisseur of poetry, too. That is certainly no small feat.
This work was first published as part of the Maple ~ September 2017 Issue, of the Coldnoon journal.