Out of Syllabus by Sumana Roy
Speaking Tiger Books, March 2019
138 pages / Amazon
Out of Syllabus is Sumana Roy’s debut poetry collection. Roy, much acclaimed for her works How I Became a Tree (2017) and Missing: A Novel (2017), also recently edited the recent anthology of the finest animal stories in Indian literature, Animalia Indica (2019).
Roy’s forte is relationship. Her poems saturate with relationship and explore the resonances – emotional, linguistic, and imaginative, of relationship and its polyvalence of meaning. What Roy revels in is the unraveling of the texture of ‘desire’ – desire that is mired in deceit, disparity and doubt, and yet discerning enough to usher in a greater dawn of realization. Speaking of a palpable design, Roy is divergent in the manner that each section of her new collection is about a subject (or academic discipline) privileging the wholeness of alternatives over reductive typecasting of subjects. How each subject intersects, undercuts and works in tandem is an area of pedagogical scaffolding.
On the construal of the enterprise of knowledge, Roy’s host of epigraphs is a method of seeking the forms and nature of knowledge about relationship. Her multiple allusions is Eliotesque in opening up the intrigue of forging meaning of relationships from multitudes of stimulants – stimulants which are anti-mimetic, incursive, ephemeral, tangled, intentional, serendipitous, paradoxical and peripheral. Besides the conceptual affinity, the epigraphs are also in antithesis to the poems creating an awakening to multi-hued reality. Rather than seeking a reconciliation of the binaries, Roy loves to indulge in the flux of experiences that makes this collection a metaphorical deluge. However, its organic unity is an appeal to introspection to invade the personal space as the pithy statement holds out: ‘Now an outside waits/ on an inside.’ This is perhaps a defense of her poetic creation. It is a Dantean world in its blending of poetry and epistemology. Roy creates a circuit and shows the ‘how’ of the intersection of different areas of knowledge and to what extent this lends to reimagining her poetics fostering dialogues about epistemic issues and relationships across time and contexts.
Structurally, the collection begins with Mathematics, alluding to Linda Pastan: “The proper numbers march together/ their uniforms button bright;/ the rational numbers walk alone.” It ends with Art, alluding to Pablo Picasso: “Others have seen what is and asked why/ I have seen what could be and asked why not.” The poem “The Third Is a Betrayal” under Mathematics further alludes to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Roy unpacks the festering void that seals the fate of relationship: “You and I are now the third,” followed by the categorical submission that is hyperbolic “a lifetime’s strangers.” The stagnant relationship in the wake of “an iterant holy betrayal” is a paradoxical take on the failing institution of marriage. However, what redeems these crises is the acute awareness of presence: “There’s a stranger in that word.”
One wonders if writing is a conscious act aiming at dethroning the mounting arrogance of illusions and, in retrospect, bridges the gaps in conjugal fidelity. Writing, an existential determinant, foregrounds the horizontal responsibility to relationship. The poem “Portraits: Shards” is a ten-fold way of representation that culminates in “Death Mask” in the metaphor of life as “a harvest of waste” or a “history of tiredness” where the denial of renewal is paramount with a bleak sense of finality. Death is more a death-wish (metaphorically) than a physical death. What renders permanence to Roy’s poems is the beauty of suspension between realization of the contingent and the longing for the consummation of the elusive certain.
Roy’s penchant for prolixity can develop self-indulgence to the detriment of expression. The wealth of accumulated, memory-laden experience can at times be heavy going. However, what intersects with ambiguity is, of course, an eloquence which is intriguingly provocative, but the poetic voice is rather muffled though supple with connotations. In the poem “Sadness,” where Roy employs a riot of metaphors, each epigram is weighed down with an intensity of possibilities. The possessive instinct of a diffused and studied search is more than evident in so far as sadness is “a white crane,” “a white sand,” “white hibiscus,” “a snow-covered tree,” “a wild elephant’s tusk,” “the sclera,” and “a museum, pictures of white wall.” The preponderance of “white” is but remote to unmask its intent as each “white” is a loaded proposition, sometimes Hardyesque. It reminds me of the pagan musk-and-dance ecstasy of the Dionysian cult in the Euripidean Bacchae. Nevertheless, the clingy sense of relationship lingers all along that exudes a new climactic immediacy: “It washes itself, tinges read and becomes white again.”
Is Tagore a “stranger” in his own Shantiniketan? Is the world-poet an alienated outsider? To what extent Tagore and his mystical muse Jeeban Debata drifted apart? In Roy’s poem Shanti: Niketans, the use of colon and plural creates a foreboding of alienation, unease and angst. Evoking the image of barrenness in the early part of the poem, the lines “For nothing speaks of lack of reciprocity/ more than vacant school benches” bring forth the relationship of dislocation. Shantiniketan, Gurudev’s life-transforming workshop, where “someone is always absent,” where “shanti, is a loanword,” and where “the bearded man watches over this democracy of pain,” breeds an increasing sense of cultural erosion with an ironic echo of Lawrentian regretful yet frantic plea: “Give me, oh, give me/ My kingdom, my power, my glory” (“Lord’s Prayer”).
Playing out against this withering relationship, Roy’s rhetorical question: “For what else is the man-at-peace except/ the first line of an aborted story?” and the appalling sense of cultural apathy in “Below the Tagore-like sketch stands a lonely word:/ ‘Terrorist’” speak volumes for the deep-seated disintegration of culture. Roy’s lingering feeling of “a missed call from Tagore” is redemptive for all unwavering Tagorites aspiring for creating “a small Shantiniken,” to quote the eloquent phrase by the eminent Hindi author, Shivani in one of her retrospective pieces in Amader Shantiniketan. The ending of Roy’s poem with a simile: “you realize that your life is a folk tale without a moral” clinches a deductive deal like Joe Winter’s “Old Lalon/ shall I catch up with you on an / open path / between two villages?” (Calcutta Song: Life, Love and Learning in a City of Dreams). Both Tagore and Lalon are a panacea to cultural rifts unleashed by mind-numbing consumerism and unsparingly self-driven world of today.
Roy loves the hypnotic dizziness of what is strange in relationship. The “strange” or “strangeness” is stripped to the skin as evident in the anthropomorphized lust which “comes/ only in anarchy,/ in a stranger’s shoes” (“Lust”), and the persona, consumed with pent-up longing, holds out a passionate plea: “Stranger,/ make me a lie,/ make me move,/ make me your lust.” The anaphoric “make me” is a depersonalized sacrifice to transcend lust and make love transformative and elegant. This strangeness forbids familiarity and testifies Eliot’s prophesy: “human kind/ Cannot bear very much reality.” Roy’s strangeness is an inescapable conceptual apparatus of her poetic creation. This strangeness is an ode to the enigma of the ‘unfinished’ or the ‘undefined’ relationship as also embodied in the collection’s cover photograph by Bhaskar Kundu, that seems a playful parody of Cartesian Dualism or the mystique quality of dwindling light conjures up the “pale light” in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Adrienne Rich’s “unmarked strip of light.”
The book cover also alludes to a Foucaultian notion of resemblance and similitude in seeking insights into relationship. One hears the echoes of Rene Magritte in delving further into the polemical thing-thought equation. Yes, not to forget Richard Wollheim’s “two-foldness” of seeing-in and the ways of perceiving reality. The strangeness of the surreal ‘head’ in the book cover calls forth questions of interpretation opening up space for “doubt and an alert, skeptical irony,” to borrow Edward W. Said’s words. Moreover, strangeness also lapses into an irreversible sense of ‘slippage’ (Remember Stephen King’s Black House?).
The collection yields insights into the truths of relationship. Out of Syllabus discourses large and loud about relationship as its controlling and pervasive metaphor brought out through imaginative radiance what Yeats defines as “wavering, meditative, organic rhythm” (Joseph Hillis Miller’s Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers).
Sudeep Ghosh is ToK Coordinator and faculty in the English department at the Aga Khan Academy Hyderabad (India). His pedagogical articles, poems, research papers, translations and art criticisms have appeared in international journals like Aesthetica Magazine (UK), Le Dame Art Gallery (UK), Canadian Literature (University of British Columbia, Canada), and Wasafiri (Open University, London). Indian publications include Teacher Plus, Indian Literature (Sahitya Akademy), Sannate (Penguin India), The Knowledge Review, Families (Fulbright Alumni Journal), The Statesman, The Telegraph, The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Hindu, The Brown Critique, Poetry Today, Gandhian Perspectives, Bulletin of the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Sahara Times, Kavya Bharati. New Global India, The Book Review, Apurva (University Research Journal, BHU), Phoenix (Allahabad University Journal), Poetry Review, Muse India, The New Indian Express.