Book: Collected Poems: Jeet Thayil
Author: Jeet Thayil
Publication: Aleph Book Company, Dember 8, 2015
Review by: Alok Mishra
Okay! The poems by Jeet Thayil have garnered appreciation by many. I am also one of his admirers because I know Thayil makes sense. However, reading one or two poems or a little more in isolation cannot be the best foundation to judge someone’s poetic abilities with all its glories and loopholes. And now that I have entered into this very field, (Indian English Poetry is the chief area for my PhD), I had the chance to read Jeet Thayil’s 2015-publication, Collected Poems. Here is my review of the same.
Before I go and discuss its content in details, let me tell my readers at the outset that I am truly impressed by the cover designing. The book comes in a hardcover edition and you will love it (perhaps more than you love the text after reading it). The front cover and the blurb have praises by noted poets and critics for Thayil’s poetry. In the preface, Thayil laments (usual for an Indian poet) the lack of support and readership and discloses to the readers that Narcopolis is the only book by him that remains in print. Rightly so; readership of poetry has dramatically fallen in India; you may believe it or not.
This edition of Collected Poems by Jeet Thayil contains all his major poetic creations:
- New and Uncollected Poems (2003-15)
- These Errors Are Correct (2008)
- English (2004)
- Apocalypso (1997)
- Gemini (1992)
When I started reading the poems, I baffled myself by the thoughts of occasions that might be the reasons for those lines. The uncollected poems encounter the readers first. Being new, these poems are exhibiting the evolution of the poet to a better edition of himself. Autumnal, a poem by Thayil on page 43 of this book, is exemplary and I would like to quote some lines:
one is not, whose
two hands hold the
world in place.”
Many poems in the first section are just random reflections of Thayil’s own perspectives. His life in isolation and on drugs, his loneliness, his reveries, his wild imaginations… I found many things but not the depth that I would have cherished and inducted Thayil among those who make serious use of Indianness in Indian English Poetry. Seems like insomnia in the first section could not find peaceful sleep.
The second section in the collection has some remarkable poems. However, like the first section, most of the poems in this section, These Errors Are Correct, are unrhyming, rhythmless and dry. Thoughts shift from mountain to volcano in a rapid movement that many readers must feel helpless to cope with. Again, there are some lines that make you feel comfortable and, at the same time, take you by surprise (like I felt). Take a look:
“This is Bodhgaya where a leafless
tree gives more shade than
a house. …” (Thayil, 68)
Lines from Not Remembering will take the readers into different dimensions of the world that Thayil used to live with and without his wife.
Premonition is a long poem that comes after Not Remembering and it becomes tedious as the poem deepens. Another poem in the same section, Spiritus Mundi, obviously taken from Second Coming by W. B. Yeats, takes a dig at the religious fanaticism in India. However, there are loopholes that need to be corrected because, to be frank, these errors are not correct!
and of the houses, three, inside my head.
In the streets, death, in saffron or green,
. . ..” (Thayil, 92)
So, in this couple of lines, the poet laments the deaths in the name of religion; he accuses the ‘saffron’ and the ‘green’ for the baseless fights. He is right; he has the right; he has the poetic license to do so. However, in the poem of above 50 lines (60 be to exact), Christianity’s faults are covered (I mean covered up) very well. Thayil forgets to mention that wild spirit of lunatic Missionaries who wander in the areas of Dalits and Adivasis for their religious prey and then the game of ‘rice bag’ (as M K Naik puts it candidly – 176-77) happens to be played with full ‘spirit’. South India, the very part of India where our beloved poet Thayil was born, is a natural playground for this conversion mafias. Thayil could have placed these elements in his poetry as well. Nevertheless, he underlines implicitly what he could not say overtly:
“I call the days by their Hindu
names and myself by my Christian one.” (Thayil, 93)
The lines above say so much about India and its originality. However, there is a fear among the poets and authors to acknowledge this sane truth because this will make them something they don’t want to be. However, let us move ahead and I will discuss other aspects of Thayil’s collection.
The ‘How to Be’ series from English (2004) is interesting and the poems are mostly sane and meaningful with depth intact and implicit that needs to be extracted and enjoyed by the readers who will have to toil a little more than the usual. For example:
“As for crow,
turn black.” (Thayil, 178)
These lines from How to Be a Crow will pinch the readers of Thayil’s poetry as I felt. However, other becomings might not interest the readers as much as it did. Likewise, most of the poems in this series and further are mostly personal and very subjective with occasional flashes that transcend the limits and strike the conscious forcefully to push the readers into postures of pondering. Moreover, occasional interferences of the characters like Billy the Kid and others force us to think of Thayil as an intellectual who has learnt a lot, read a lot and travelled a lot.
To end this review, I would like to congratulate Thayil for his frequent brilliance. That frequency, however, is pushed by the overly-populated subjective interventions in the poems by the poet. Sometimes, the poet ruins the entire hours of his hard work in composing a poem just by his confusing or absurd inclusion of elements that will only confuse the readers and divert their attention from the main course of the discourse. Will we call this experimental phase in Indian English poetry? We can and we should; for the better for us, we have to! At the same time, Jeet Thayil’s poetry is nowhere near to the iconic contributions of the iconic characters like A. K. Ramanujan, Toru Dutt and Dom Moraes. I hope Thayil continues writing and produce more of his brilliance and keep us poetically engaged in his thoughts.
You can read the poetry collection by buying a copy from Amazon India:
review by Alok Mishra
Collected Poems by Jeet Thayil
- Themes & Issues
- ELE Final Impression
Collected Poems by Jeet Thayil has poems from all the publications by Thayil and these poems depict Thayil’s journey from a poet in the making to a poet in his own rights.