Review by Isabel Galleymore
‘The light turning on the still / point of a petal’, writes Pratyusha with extraordinary attention in her most recent pamphlet, Bulbul Calling (Bitter Melon, 2020). Ecological detail – as small and singular as the bulbul itself, a songbird known to the Indian subcontinent, inhabits these poems and corresponds to the slight illustrations of flora and fauna made by the poet’s grandmother. And yet, such simplicity strikingly belies far more dramatic happenings. Absorbed by a petal in one line, in the next we are focused on ‘the economy falling through light’. Comprised of ten pieces that range from prose poems to variations on the ghazal (the latter recalling the ghazal translations included in Pratyusha’s debut pamphlet Night Waters), Bulbul Calling is an ecopoetic sequence that is as dreamy as it is disorienting. Seasons and weather are subject to intense depictions, and while this intensity might be understood to be a feature of the poet’s voice, it also speaks of the ecological situation we find ourselves in – of unpredictable meteorological extremes. In ‘mirage’, we read of
[an undersea murmur] it was darkness
[anointing myself with turmeric]
rain obscuring a sky so large [brugmansia bursting with voice]
they call it tabaahi [faani]
The poem flickers with refracted images. Water is at once lacking (‘[land is drying up]/[heavy jackfruits rotting in the heat of summer]’ and overwhelmingly present. ‘Tabaahi’, meaning ‘destruction’ and ‘faani’ ‘subject to destruction’, brings us ever closer to environmental catastrophe.
In other poems, threat has already turned to loss:
in the silence sits a humid sadness
through which I journey, still imprisoned: a night’s
pristine light desiccating its small shower
across my face
Such lines demonstrate the lyric intricacy that can be found in Pratyusha’s writing. This is a poetics attuned not only to image, but also to sound. What might be taken as a complete unit of speech is otherwise completed on a following line or stanza to curious and engaging effect. The ‘small shower across my face’ becomes ‘the privacy of a bruise // quiet grief’. The heart of this poem would seem to be human – the grief is associated with a ‘he’ – but the poem resists any such reading as too simplistic by embedding this tenderness within a landscape dark and drenched. It might be tempting to associate such entanglement between emotion and environment with pathetic fallacy. If we did so, however, we would have to acknowledge how brilliantly innovative Pratyusha’s angle is on the poetic tradition. While ‘a humid sadness’ marks a shift of emphasis in ‘immersion’, a plantain leaf is put to even greater work in ‘seasong’: ‘The / word swings like a plantain leaf, its broad green smiling in the / sunlight’, before the poem concludes ‘You go to sleep watching a plantain leaf, / and the rhythms never stop growing up your neck’.
Elsewhere, the relationship between self and landscape is splintered. What the poet describes as ‘intangible hyphenation’ is literally and figuratively enacted in ‘separation’: a poem that moves between German and Hindi, as well as its own hyphenated neologisms. Echoing the sense of loss evoked in previous poems and their occasional optical illusions, Pratyusha writes ‘along the Rhine I found both tongue and / apparition’. ‘Unbeständig’, meaning ‘impermanent’, then presses against ‘where is the absence / marked’. Such collaging of lines and languages brings the lived experience of the Indo-Swiss poet to the fore. Continuing in a similar vein, ‘if still forest (winter)’ refers first to Epping Forest before unexpectedly touching on the forest as a place of exile for the Pandavas in the Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata. The pamphlet’s depth (and love) of allusion recalls the writing of Vahni Capildeo, while the episodic nature of the syntax – often marked by square brackets and slashes – evokes something more akin to Jorie Graham’s poetics. Of course, however, comparisons can only go so far when reading poems that clearly demarcate a voice of their own. For all their depictions of disorientation, these are poems that seek – and intimately speak of – reorientation. As we read in ‘separation’, these are poems caught between ‘suspension and revelation / relearning / childhood rivers / dark, seamed, watering / dreams’.
‘This is mid country. / The hill country. / It is the rain country’, begins Will Burns’ first full collection, Country Music (Offord Road Books, 2020). Rooted in the poet’s home landscape of Buckinghamshire, these are poems that are often quietly pastoral in nature and yet infused by a kind of cosmopolitan vibrancy. Literary and musical influences such as Chet Baker, Calexico and Malcolm Lowry playfully, and often poignantly, enter the writing – as does a Chinese restaurant and a strip bar. There’s nothing precious about Burns’ treatment of nature. As the poems often suggest, any idealisation of the landscape may well be prohibited by our treatment of them. ‘The unit of violence in these hills / is no longer the disused MOD site / but the bloody mess of individuals’, writes Burns in the first of three wonderfully understated sonnets named after different species of Service Tree. We could say that Burns’s work is marked by an attention to edgelands – the liminal spaces that appear between countryside and urban centres – but such does not do justice to the edgelands of feeling that also occur within the poems. After passing the MOD site, looking for a particular tree (the brilliantly named Bastard Service Tree of the poem’s title),
You headed home
at some point, done in. Alone, I made camp,
marked up the point of separation
on a map, and thought over and over
of the phrase – leave no trace, leave no trace.
The potentially romantic understanding we might read into ‘the point of separation’ is unobtrusive. These are, after all, poems that are softly-spoken as demonstrated by Burns’ reading of his work in his first album, Chalk Hill Blue with musician and collaborator Hannah Peel.
Life’s riches are often discovered in unexpected, seemingly deserted places. ‘We stopped talking one day / but we weren’t really talking by that stage anyway […] A channel between us and everything meagre, everything scrap’ reveals a diminishing relationship in plain terms before the channel takes on literal meaning:
The one time I flew over to visit
I looked out of the window for the whole flight.
Imagined all the living being done unseen, implicit,
in each minuscule, framed, portion of sea.
Breton cider, a fish market in Normandy and a poem entitled ‘The Lost Manor at St Marie’ ferry us across the water as Burns pursues his observations of the ‘living being done unseen’. In the latter poem we have little time to marvel at the unusual logic of its opening, ‘It’s true that not all life taxes itself / with a sense of scale’, before another startling pair of lines arrives: ‘That these buried things below the sand / show themselves as breath’. In a subtly disconcerting turn we learn that the ‘you’ of the poem shares the name of the Lost Manor at St Marie – a detail which is made all the more unsettling by the delicate rhyme Burns achieves by juxtaposing the smallness of ‘settlement’ against the overwhelming vastness of ‘atlantic’. Change and loss thread lightly through the collection, sometimes expressed through Brexit-related bewilderment and family bereavement. Ultimately, the book returns to ‘the rain country; it’s final poem, ‘Heavy Weather’, a melancholy meditation on domestic life that strikes a remarkably prescient note:
A good job
the morning has nothing
but its stale name, the non-echo of night.
No work anymore, no tasks.
Isabel Galleymore’s first collection, Significant Other (Carcanet), won the John Pollard Foundation International Poetry Prize in 2020 and was shortlisted for the Forward Best First Collection Prize and Seamus Heaney First Collection Prize. She lectures at the University of Birmingham.