Voices Across the Ocean
edited by Rob Harle, Nimbin, Australia and Jaydeep Sarangi, Kolkata, India. (2014)
Voices Across the Ocean, a new collection of poems from Australian and Indian poets, is rich in observed intensities, the poems radiating out of the poets’ imaginations and sensibilities. Their absorbing differences of place, and the inwardness of place, human relationships, memory and content burrow deeply into their various backgrounds. The poets’ energies are productively engaged with the exploration and voicing of the world in all its richness, while challenge and disruption are darker elements which some poets also explore and master. Their work reveals a searching intelligence and a willingness to engage language and experience at the deepest level, while retaining measure and control in form and content.
Each poem, each artefact, is self-contained, and the collection does not attempt a progressive arc. For this reason, it can be dipped into to provide momentary access to other worlds. The tangential thoughts are expressed in plain language that nevertheless picks delicately over the subtlest, lightest, deepest concepts. The combination of humour and wistful seriousness recurs, as poem after poem continues to tell hard truths with emphasis.
In the following poem by Ali Cobby Eckerman, an accessible, conversational mode is never banal but always surprising, taking the reader from chasing, to laughter, and to a dying gaze. Residing at the centre of this voice is a moral, soul-searching which never lets the situation pack anything less than an intellectual and emotional wallop:
Life is Often Silent
there is no escaping the silence when
hunting a kangaroo for food by foot nor
the laughter of the chase when a goanna
is knocked out of a tree
there is no escaping the silence of
a coinless empty pocket today nor
the laughter of the teenagers
when soccer is played in the park
there is no escaping the silence of
a grandparents dying gaze nor
the laughter of the babies
when they walk their first step
One of the strengths of this collection lies in its attention to detail. Sometimes, it just a moment. In Nathalie Buckland’s work, for example, the poem builds intractably so that it unfolds into something new and progresses the whole satisfyingly:
In My Town
In my town old women carry
drums, they stalk the
footpath, wrists empowered
by rhythm swelling to taloned
Sniffing the air for coffee they
prowl with predatory eyes,
while hulking youths shrink into
doorways fleeing the
Poised to pounce they
crouch inside a café and
suss the street. In my town
old women rule.
Other poems gather momentum by composing interesting details. Consider these two verses from Peter Nicolson’s poem:
You knew that many died for you,
Sacrifices at the darker isle,
Scumbled into years,
Remembered several times, but soon forgotten.
Were we worth that or
equal to their silence?
Name the things worth death,
Skin hooks of delight
Catching in the throat
Freedom‘s scarlet strength.
Here is a narrator who guides and is guided by thickets of everyday occurrences. In the end this sacred/profane dance enables the poem to function as a distraction from something more serious rumbling underneath.
Another poem, “Passage to Tibet” by Archna Sahni, is a poem of economy, spring-loaded, much like Emily Dickinson. Consider these lines which point the poetic finger at something surprising and new:
Passage to Tibet
Dharmsala is indeed little Tibet.
Smiling sun-baked faces
in travellers‘ photos taken before 1951
line the narrow streets
through which crimson-clad
and colourful wares, aroma of
momos and Potala incense
the roof of the world
amidst the Dhauladhars.
The collection also builds surprise through its pairing of seemingly different elements to create a new effect. At the end of D. C. Chambial’s poem “Wingless”
in the foothills
Air fresh, from
plants, and cool.
The snow-clad peaks
entice hearts at a
stir the chords of
heart and mind.
Long to languish in
this bowl of Nature
and merge with it;
flow to bounds beyond
like ether wingless in
The speaker declares that he would like to diminish his humanity and merge with the beauty of the landscape and become one with the bird flying overhead. Other associations are just as original, as in Sunjuka Dasgupta’s “Shame”:
On my seventeenth birthday
My mother gave me a silk saree
The soft swish of the silken pleats
The shimmering, seducing cloth
Caressingly clung to my lissom limbs
Shielded my ripening bosom from hungry stares.
The saree folded me with care
I folded myself into the saree
Till years later I suddenly saw
My legs were lost alas
Shrouded in five metres of graceful cloth
- Draupadi's textile trap!
Dasgupta has the confidence and skill to address a weighty concern, but at the same time, avoids the dangers of heavy-handedness through a careful arrangement of her words.
As much as the poems leap sure-footedly from one association to the next, others achieve a hypnotic rhythm through repetition of questions. In the first three verses of Vinita Agrawal’s “Priest King” she questions a ‘soapstone man’ whom she sees in a museum. Although the statue is encountered in the present, it has a startling power to capture the past:
Bearded, Soapstone Mohenjodaro man, you speak
to me in a white, low fired steatite voice in these
cold halls of the Karachi museum.
I bake your contemplations in my earthenware heart drape your
trefoil-pattern cloak over my life quietly inherit the hurt trapped in
the maiolica amulet on your arm.
Were you a river god?
A Priest King?
What questions did you drill into the universe that I am
still searching for answers 4500 years later?
The most successful poems dig deep, delivering a philosophical or political punch. Consider these verses from Vivekanand Jha’s poem “Stigmatic Widowhood”:
Customs curse for widow and
blessings for widower widow, a
horse with bridle; widower, a
tiger without fetters.
Stand two victims into sea of sympathy
All waves way towards the widower and
stranded at seashore, she sees
Wordlessly at all worldly ebbs and flows.
Many of the poems have a crisp, authoritative tone that never leaves the reader in doubt. Take for example, this verse from the poem by editor Rob Harle:
Flanked by a nightmare furious highway
beside a forbidding green-brown river
the bodies that built ? Our Town lie still
Graves stretch in an endless mirage
like red-brown autumn leaves neatly
lying in rows, facing East at the
A personal memory not captured in the archive that mutates and changes – distortion here is a provisional kind of survival. But what is not frozen in time and captured canned be ‘saved’; it must finally be lost as only the archive can survive the individual. Yet it offers only a partial memory of the town and the past which lacks the vitality of the present.
The final poem is “Stories Of the Night” by editor, Jaydeep Sarangi. Here is the first verse, in which the poet builds upon the motif of night in which he explores his thoughts:
Dark night kindles the chamber of thoughts
Someone I touch,
I never know what it is
That drags me back.
Possibly, a rope
To climb up or to go down.
Against the backdrop of assumed and imposed cultural perceptions, the poems in this collection strike a balance between mystery and disclosure, bravery and tact. What underpins the whole collection is not a commonplace ‘accessibility’, but a dignified restraint, the poems balanced and controlled, their visions never in question.
Although the book contains poems by both Australian and Indian poets sparked by fantastic accounts, there are no formal divisions or sections and the poems follow each other one by one. This lack of an imposed order contributes to the vibrancy of the collection – the poems are allowed to breathe and be themselves in all their diversity. There are poems about escape, towns, remembering the dead, nature, shame, and a number of discreet autobiographical poems. They are a moving celebration of what endures, in the small individual life and in the human and natural world at large. The poetry turns to the power and sustenance of life, or to the hart-work that art provides, and relishes the sensual and psychological pleasures to be found there. These are poets who know the vivid ache of passion as well as the pangs of loss, but yet transfer pain into an understanding of how one can become more as one becomes less.
Whether intoning images of music, art, myth or relationships – even the banalities of everyday life raised to eternal truths – the poems are vigorous, free verse at its best, expertly tuned to the personal but never mawkish. Verse free, but never helter-skelter or arbitrary, in which every word is a note in the melodic, harmonic whole.