Book Reviews

Negotiating the Nakasendo

The new collection of fifty-poems by Mukesh K. Williams written between 1975 and 2006 covers three decades of lived experience in eleven cities and two countries. These beautifully crafted poems possess a focus and sharpness that most Indian poetry invariably lacks. There is no glibness here but a pursuit of the mot just, the exact word, to capture the experience directly and without much ado.  As Williams points out in the “Acknowledgements” these poems are “directly connected” to his “Indian and Japanese experiences” and “support the idea of inhabiting these two cultures.” It is precisely the fact of inhabiting the two cultures that gives a Diasporic uniqueness to these poems. The subtle interplay of Indian emotional intensity and Japanese controlled minimalism provides a fresh nuance to the imagery and a new twist to the denouement.

In the title poem, “The Nakasendo Highway,” the poet juxtaposes the old Nakasendo highway against the “modernized expressways,” “streaking shinkansens” and other “distractions of the civilized world” to capture the quaint and uinsettling beauty of the place. The yearning for the allure of the lost world takes the reader directly into the tragic-romantic story of princess Kazunomiya who was forced to travel from Kyoto to Tokyo to marry a shogun. The entire journey of the young princess long the Hime no Kaido (The Road of the Princesses’), and the tragedy of her widowed status thereafter, is succinctly summed up in the following lines:

As her large retinue
Wound its way slowly
Through small towns
Making friends with people,
And rested on the shores
Of the vast blue Biwa Lake,
The princess looked back
Towards a wooden Kyoto
With wistful regret,
And had an inkling 
Of things to come;
A married woman
Becoming a nun.

The audio-visual imagery recreates a haunting beauty of the once bustling highway. The visual images of snow, human and animal footprints, Japanese mountains, wooden houses and the auditory images of cicadas chirping and horses breathing, pull the past into the present and help the reader renegotiate the Nakasendo highway. Traversing the Nakasendo reveals the beauty of snow-covered Japan and the new technological transformation wrought by modernization. The dormant winter along the ancient Japanese highway is represented in its true colors, especially when the cedar forests are swollen with snow and peach, plum and cherry trees hide their flowers waiting for the onset of spring. These images convey to us the vibrancy and rejuvenation that winter carries hidden within its bosom. And yet the poem captures the bleak landscape of winter in the movement of a 'dwarfish figure' slowly moving towards the barn to clear the snow from the ishidatami or stone steps.

The shift from Tokyo to New Delhi in the poem 'Kalkaji' shows the versatility of the writer. The early morning fog swirling around Bhairon Mandir in Kalkaji and the homeless men huddled against its stone wall breathing in their 'dirty blankets' expectantly waiting for some offerings shows the religiosity and poverty of South Delhi. As devotees move around the sanctified sancta sanctorum or parikrama, the fog throws the traffic in a snarl. Later on the fog and dust creates a surreal Dantesque world of people moving in a daze. Especially in poems like 'Fog' and 'Sarai Kale Khan' the 'crouching' and 'bemused' vultures add to the unreal squalor of the metropolis. City life however celebrates both the past and the present. In the midst of this squalor a loud speaker sings 'to an unknown hero.' The Indian fog gets linked to the Japanese fog in 'Fog in Shinagawa' where the translucence of the fog brings to the mind of the poet 'childhood memories' of Ranikhet 'defogging the past.'

The theme of Japan and the 'war dead' becomes a significant issue in poems like 'Okinawa in August' and 'Yasukuni Jinja' where 'Rectangular stones/Congregate/ In the shadow of trees.' We need to forget the most painful aspects of life, we must not remember forever, the poet exhorts us, in 'Okinawa' poem, but reminds us in Yasukuni poem that it may not be possible as,

The war dead speak
Through their children and grandchildren
As they tell their stories of sacrifice
Heroism and sometimes bravado.

The theme of death is equally significant in the collection of poems. Poems such as 'Nemisis,' 'Manikarnika Ghat,' 'Observation Post,' 'Death,' and 'Rajapur Cemetery,' show the reactions of people to the ineluctable fact of death. Take a look at 'Observation Post' (Madras, 1982) that captures the thought of death as the poet looks at Elliot's Beach in Madras:

The sea at Elliot's beach
Turns up dead animals
One at a time:
In observation is poetry. 

The waves against the sand
Unearthing agitated crabs:
Each teeth of a trap
Must have a neck.

Observing the sea at Eliot's beach, the poet reflects upon the all-encompassing power of the sea and the binary opposite themes of life and death. Each living being must confront the fact of death, whether it is the lowly crab or royalty.

The poems cover a wide range. There are poems on many different kinds of cities'Sarnath, Delhi, Madras, Varanasi, Ooty, Hachioji, Allahabad, Tokyo, Jhansi, Okinawa and Mahabalipuram. The distinctiveness of each city is brought out remarkably well. Take for instance the poem '7 Mayo Road' at Allahabad where the poet spent his early adolescence which captures afternoon freedom and carefree life of adolescence:

Emulsifying as a dream,
Memory sinks into 7 Mayo Road
Separating emotions from facts:
Thick broken shadows yelling 
Across huge grass lawns,
Against a white-washed brick fence,
And forests of tamarind and amla berry. 

Memory continues to pull out details of a long-forgotten past but 
Kids no longer wander in the throbbing silence
Nor wait for the kite-filled evening.

The yearning for the loss of innocence is conveyed to us in the form of a betrayal of the old world and its refusal to speak.

The collection ends on a positive note with two exquisite poems on Japan entitled 'Sakura, Sakura' and 'Early April Sakura Matsuri.' The sakura or the cherry tree blossoms in early April and everyone celebrate the arrival of spring with dancing and drinking:

There is however time for the sakura matsuri
For the fellowship of family and friends
For the twang of the shamisen
For the early morning viewing of flowers,
For beer, boiled beans and sushi
To sit under the sakura blossoms for a moment
Get drunk and then
Dance with pink kimono-clad petals
As they fall exhausted under the tree
In short giggles and blushes.

Words like sakura matsuri and shamisen are explained in the footnotes and are quite helpful for the non-Japanese reader to understand their meaning and nuance in order to appreciate the poems better.

Williams has been able to capture the sweet, flowing rhythms of both the English and Indian vernaculars and dexterously fuse them with Japanese minimalism to create mellifluous poetry. Here we may be reminded of the early Romantics, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound as well as some of the Bengali poets like Rabindranath Tagore and Bishnu Dey and Japanese poets like Ogiwara Seisensui and Takahashi Shinkichi.

In a poem entitled 'Not in Vain' Williams captures the Blue Mountains and the colonial past of Ooty in the following lines:

When I see the sunrise that shall calm my spirits
And know that it is not in vain, 
When I watch the snow settles on the thorn
And know that the flower wilts not in vain, 
Then vainglorious as crickets in the grass
Or foraging snakes amongst the rocks, 
I shall take to their slender ways
For I shall know all is not in vain.

Nakasendo poems are a must read for those seeking a fresh perspective and a new voice. The writer has brought out a new collection of poems based on his Japanese and Indian experiences under the title Chuo Line and Other Poems which, according to his blog the inescapable 'human drama, the comedy and the adventure of traveling on this line.' Some excerpts from his next collection are also available at Chuo Line and Other Poems.


More by :  Gemini Yadav

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