Poet Kavita Ezekiel Mendonca reviews Anna Sujatha Mathai’s Lighthouse for Drowning Memories.
My poetry did not come
a perfect flower,
It was never a goddess
emerging from the waters…
No. He grew painfully,
a bit blind,
a few stray petals here and there,
more like wounds…
Follow your own footsteps
at the well.
Stand among the thirsty,
Share their thirst.
Give your last drop
To one more thirsty than you –
Anna Sujatha Mathai is one of the best Indian poets writing in English today. She is a skillful, compassionate and sensitive poet with a clear voice, strongly individualistic and feminist, but at the same time universal and human. His sixth book “Lighthouse for Drowning Memories” confirms his place in the canon of Indian writing in English. The late poet Nissim Ezekiel supported his poetry and published it in the PEN newspaper. He predicted that his book “The Attic of the Night” “would receive a second, third and fourth printing”. She mentions him in her opening poem “Name”.
“Don’t use Anna, advised Nissim E./ It will give you a Western image.” Mainstays like Keki Daruwalla have also endorsed his work, with praise for his deft command of the English language.
An example of her feminist beliefs can be found in these lines:
We women, don’t we at least have the right/ To our words and our beloved objects? / It took me many years to fight / My own words. /My own love/my own name.
In his poem ‘Hunger’ Mathai reveals his deep sense of compassion, ‘There are all kinds of hungers that haunt the earth/and the only bread that satisfies/is ordinary human compassion.’
I believe that one of the best definitions of poetry “A poem should not mean but be”, in Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica”, is the actual measure of good poetry. MacLeish’s description of poems that “be” as opposed to poems that “mean”. offer the reader greater enjoyment and true appreciation of a poet’s work. It allows the reader to establish an immediate connection with the thoughts, ideas and emotions of the poet. Sujatha Mathai’s poetry lives up to the very essence of MacLeish’s definition. They speak directly to the reader. Her poetry is the expression of her different roles in life, actress, writer, daughter, sister, wife, mother and social worker.
Sujatha gives a roadmap to his verse in his own words “I plant the seed of my experience, so painfully, joyously discovered with enthusiasm in the rich soil of my soul and it blossoms into a poem.”
The title of the poem “Lighthouse for Drowning Memories” may seem like a paradox. How do you drown memories with a Lighthouse to show the way? By reading all the poems and Sujatha’s own key to the birth of his poems, a clearer picture of the poet emerges as one who, though overwhelmed by memories, is not drowning in them, but is completely immersed in events. , and recognizes and acknowledges their emotional impact on his life. It’s a fitting title because she rises above painful memories and processes them with empathy and compassion. Like a lighthouse showing the way to ships on the high seas to prevent them from sinking, the poetess can see her memories in full light, whether happy or traumatic. Mathai uses her poetry to question and challenge her predicament.
Why should she give/her passion/to the dead/When life all around her blooms…(‘Why’)
The word “drowning” appears in several poems, such as in “The Blue Dinner Set”, “Families”, and “Doors with Wrong Knobs”. The themes that emerge from this collection are memory, family, loneliness and isolation, grief, inner turmoil, death that darkens life, a deep desire for justice for the needy and oppressed. As many poets are wont to do, Mathai provides definitions to understand what poetry is, as in the poem “Words”.
words are fish
swim in the ocean
unless there are waves
the fish will not rise
unless there is excitement
words won’t swim
this is how a poem begins
with waves of excitement
In his poem “Archaeologist”, Mathai compares the role of a poet to that of an archaeologist:
Like an archaeologist/ Searches the earth/ To discover lost glory…/ So a poet in a single image, / A single word, / A few cryptic signs, / Brings separated worlds together, / Stamps together wildly disparate visions/ Like a butterfly on a page, / Dreams caught and pinned.
The poems have a lyrical and contemplative quality, and like her other collections of poetry, she is completely comfortable and at ease writing in English. The fluidity of language reinforces the continuity that transports us fluidly through lines and images. Vivek Narayanan in his preface to his book says: “Mathai was born in 1934, already born in English, one might say, inasmuch as her Oxford-educated father was for a time the head of the Department of English at St. Stephen’s College. , Delhi.’
Sujatha’s poetry is shaped by her life, as she sums it up so well in her poem “My Journey”. In the poem “Heaven”. the reader, especially those familiar with her illness, will feel a deep sense of empathy for the situation in which she lives. I have nothing but great admiration for her ability to continue writing poetry, something for which she has a passion and a gift. I had the privilege of several virtual conversations with her and even if I never met her, I feel like I know her well. The poems come even more alive to me since she gave me the opportunity to get a personal glimpse into her life. The skill with which she is able to embrace and transform her personal circumstances into powerful verses, employing language that touches the heart of the reader, evokes a depth of emotion that lingers long after the poem has been “read”, a quality all great writing, whether poetry or prose, must have.
Travel on a boat
which seems to be transported slowly,
is actually speeding me up
to my extinction.
The key abandoned by memory
could help me guess
the lost path, the lost face
I searched for so long.
Even if I win the sweet skies
I will never stop regretting
The loss of joy
to watch the trees grow,
The wonderful colors of my saris,
My books and my images speak to me,
The happy laugh that I loved.
Friends around a table,
Eat special dishes cooked by me
Each spice has its own language.
How am I going to leave this human feast
For a colorless sky?
“Lighthouse for Drowning Memories” is published by POETRYWALA (an imprint of Paperwall Publishing) and has an attractive and tastefully designed cover.
(In a career spanning more than four decades, Kavita Ezekiel Mendonca has taught English at Indian colleges, AP English at an international school in India, and French and Spanish at private schools in Canada. She is a widely published poet. Her poems are featured in various journals and anthologies including the Journal Of Indian Literature published by the Sahitya Akademi and the Yearbook of Indian Poetry in English. Kavita is the author of two collections of poetry, “Family Sunday and Other Poems” and “Light of The Sabbath”.)