Review by Amit Shankar Saha
Cleanth Brooks in his influential essay “The Language of Paradox” states that the language of poetry is the language of paradox because in poetry there is always a play of tension between what is being stated and what is being conveyed. Reading Gopal Lahiri’s collection of poems Living Inside it is evident that there is an underlying tension between the narrative and the abstract. Lahiri is a reputed bilingual poet and in English he has five collections of poems. In some poems from this collection under review Lahiri is seen as a storyteller and in some as a pure imagist, in some he shuns punctuations and capitalization and in some he steers away from stream of consciousness techniques. But the real paradox lies deeper, at a subterranean level where there is a constant struggle to dominate between the two selves of the poet.
Lahiri has the gift of both expression and communication. The title poem has the first stanza of three lines:
sitting under strip light holding an empty bowl
a leisurely exploration of the street corner,
the Jamun tree well cooked in the sun – (p. 19)
A series of images of “strip light,” “empty bowl,” and “street corner” culminating in “the Jamun tree well cooked in the sun” gives a crescendo of expressions and yet there is a communication of a narrative struggling to come out of the these abstract images. In the fourth stanza it almost seems that the narrator has succeeded in escaping:
in the night the moon swells and tears apart
the shadow path of the hidden stars
an attempt to escape in silence (p. 19)
But the escape is only an attempt and the result is a failure for the storyteller on one hand and the triumph of the imagist on the other. It is this inherent tension, this constant struggle that charges Lahiri’s poems with the quality of paradox. The postmodernist preoccupation with undecidability is evident in the very form of Gopal Lahiri’s verses. Even a somewhat manifest narrative poem like “Night Rain” ends in a sort of static image of two people sitting in the rain:
Walked into a lonely park in misty darkness
Sat on a bench, tied with the allure of low clouds
We emptied our sadness, our anguish into the rain. (p. 85)
Sometimes Lahiri’s poems give in a flash a profound philosophy surpassing the struggle of narrative and imagism into a stream of consciousness:
if i want to capture the mien of my circle
it is the time to go back behind the eyes
and change the way to see the world. (p. 95)
In these last three lines of the poem “Change the Way” the poet shuns the usage of capitalization as is often done in stream of consciousness technique but there is a strong and perhaps conscious aim at communication rather than mere expression. Both the poems “Coherence” (p. 74) and “A Brush with the Morning Sun” (p. 75) begin and end similarly: “On a journey by train… you meet yourself at the end.” (Coherence) and “A brush with the morning sun… we know you at the end.” (A Brush with the Morning Sun). Both the poems display a speckled narration and the
eventual abstraction into a philosophy like a passage from something specific into the universal. In the poem “The Leeway” (p. 76) Lahiri revels in making pithy expressions: “in one there is many, in one there is unknown”, “to comb the night”, “in one life, the steep edge of another life”, “the symbol goes past you”, “in one possibility, another possibility always remains”. These startling expressions convey universal idioms, stark imageries and abstract philosophies.
A thorough analysis of Gopal Lahiri’s poem “All Night” (p. 77) will give an idea of how intricately the poem works on the reader’s imagination. The poem starts with two lines of narration which forms the background: “all night i sleep on the terrace/ it’s dark, no light on the barren stairs.” The third line stuns the reader with an image par excellence: “stars pinch the dark skin of the night.” After lulling the reader with the first two lines of narration the poet aims for the visual imagination of the reader. Once that is done he immediately shift focus on the auditory imagination in the fourth line: “the wind is musical in its playing.” Thereby the senses of the reader are put on high alert but as happens in a paradox the stanza is juxtaposed with the following stanza that starts with the line: “all night i weep in stony silence” contrasting with the music of the wind in the last line of the previous stanza. The second line of the second stanza has two juxtaposed images: “a drop of blood, a piece of cloth,” followed by the third line stating “the pain runs through the spine” and resulting into a question in the last line: “can’t it answer the misery?” Thus the poem leads the reader through images into a mystery of some “misery” that afflicts. The next stanza tries to explain this mystery through a narration:
all night i pray for the others,
something is missing all together
dream of a world as it is meant to be
i am all ears, make efforts to smile, (p. 77)
Here the reader is made comfortable with the universal reality of how the world is not as per expectation. The next stanza breaks this comfortableness by coming back from the universal to the particular, the specific of the poet’s condition:
all night i listen to the rhapsody
the sound of cricket in high pitch,
gaze longer than usual, a formless act,
cherish the simple and seamless moment. (p. 77)
There is “stony silence” in the second stanza, “rhapsody” in the fourth stanza; there is “misery” in the second stanza, “cherish” in the fourth stanza. These paradoxes emanating from the same situation and juxtaposed in the poem create the poetic intrigue. The reader now expects in the last stanza a dénouement and the poet knows this as well as the fact that he has the reader in his grip. He goes for the kill when “all night i sleep” of the first line becomes “all night i am awake”:
all night i am awake to witness
the shadow moves in its known path
not many of us like the secretive night.
some peace is still there around me. (p. 77)
Remember that in the first stanza the poet has said that it is dark and there is no light and yet in the last stanza there is shadow. Incongruous it seems but the poet will make the reader believe it and that is the language of paradox. The poet will even mock at the reader’s inability to decipher the secret of the night and no denouement will come. And the poet will go back into his hermit like existence wrapping himself with some peace that is “still there around” him. This is how Gopal Lahiri’s poem works through the language of paradox in its struggle between narrative and abstraction.
Dr. Amit Shankar Saha is an award-winning short story writer and poet. He has won the Poiesis Award for Excellence in Literature and Wordweavers Prize (Poetry and Short Story) amongst other awards. He has also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Griffin Poetry Prize. His works have received commendable mention in Cha ‘Void’ Poetry Contest and Wingword Poetry Contest. His articles, stories and poems have appeared in newspapers, magazines, journals and books nationally and internationally including Best Indian Poetry 2018 anthology. He is also on the Editorial Boards of many publications. He has authored a collection of poems titled Balconies of Time. He is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Seacom Skills University.
Cover photo by TUCK magazine.