Tanya Mendonsa | All the answer I shall ever get
Noida: HarperCollins. 2016 | P-ISBN: 978-93-5177-704-5
E-ISBN: 978-93-5177-705-2 | Pages 149 | Rs 350
An idyllic, psychedelic, lyrical nostalgia
Here is a compulsive and enchanting collection of poems artistic in concept, impeccable in language, rich in diction, elegant in style, exotic in touch, biblical in brush, sparkling in imagery, captivating in description, intens e in thought and liquid in lyricism. In short, All the answer I shall ever get by Tanya Mendonsa refreshes you like a breezy Westerly.
This collection of 64 poems is divided into three sections, Part I, Part II and Interlude, comprising 30, 3 and 31 respectively. A quotation each heralds these sections and sets the tone for the themes of unflinching faith, dreaminess, and the inseparability of the past.
They come in nostalgic, déjà vu and psychedelic spells (from the ecstatic to the wishful, from the wistful to the rueful) – of places, persons and their relationships; of nature, its splendour, its despoliation and the imperative of eco-harmony. The dominant leitmotif, however, is love in all its angles and hues – platonic love, infatuation, unrequited love, heartbreaks, betrayals, promiscuity, ravishments, desertions and remarriages. Tanya has poems for the adored ones – Gilda, her mother; Joshua, perhaps her son; and social philanthropist Sarojini Vittachi. But halt! Joshua was not her son, but was more than a son – “in fact, my entire world.” He was her “beloved black and white cocker spaniel,” reveals Tanya to Atreya in their correspondence. “Three students in south India,” she adds, “wrote me that they'd done their BA thesis on my memoir – I, of course, was thrilled”; and continues with a chortle “but when I was sent a copy of it, it was one long indictment of my passionate absorption in Josh, to the detriment of my partner, family and friends... actually it hit the target, and I found it quite funny!”
Tanya’s poems are redolent with the sophistication of one who comes of a cultured Goan Catholic family and is educated in Calcutta before flying to France to turn highly accomplished. Our poet-painter (cover painting done by herself) studied French literature and lived there for twenty years before returning to India. All the answer I shall ever get is her second poetry collection, preceded by The Book of Joshua, her memoir; and The Dreaming House, her debut poetical work.
We are treated to the ‘best Bordeaux’ of Western settings and symbols – the Greek and Roman mythology, and mostly the French, with a sprinkling of the Portuguese, Italian and Polish. The reader would welcome it as a pleasant educational tour abroad – to visit goddesses (Clotho, Lachesis, Atropos); nymphs (Ondine); places (L’Ombra Della Sera, Ithaca, Jerusalem, Eden); poets and writers (Pierre de Ronsard, Stéphane Mallarmé, Wistawa Szymborska, Tim Winton, WH Auden, Tennessee Williams); maestros (Mozart); and lyricists (Bob Dylan). And to enlighten oneself with scriptures (Book of Job); and to regale oneself with poems (Mignonne, mignonne, allons voir).
Though the only trace of Indian references in the collection is just Goa, Punjab, Gulmohur and Mehndi, one would readily agree that the pervading sentiment and spirit in the poems is universal. No wonder Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni calls Tanya’s poems ‘jewelled,’ and Amitav Ghosh discerns their ‘cosmopolitan’ touch.
First on Tanya’s ars poetica. She feels she is ‘…writing incredible poems in my head that no-one will ever read’ (None of This is Mine). But she knows the falsity of the second clause, for how can anyone getting to know her and her poesy keep away from its pull, once they are out her head in black and white? And she rues that “I could not write one day| because I had too much to do,” only to realise that “…everything I did had a new rhythm,” and that they “all sang the words better than I could ever have done” (Another Kind of Poem). This demonstrates that the moments of life that we live full would prove to be much greater than our verbal poetry, for after all life itself is poetry, if on ly we have a poetic heart.
See how Tanya pulls us into a dreamy ease of self-forgetfulness a la Tennyson’s ‘Lotus Eater’ in her poem ‘Too Much Love’ –
When she was with him, it was never enough.
Never enough to feel like one flesh.
To his parched senses she was all water
… … …
A lotus eater he wanted to be:
forever eating a flower
he had never imagined tasting
before he touched her skin.
Fantasy can, sometimes, be more delightful and even orgasmic when the prospect of its actual realisation could, paradoxically, be felt rather intrusive –
I am already drunk on the happiness of being here
And almost wish you wouldn’t cross the street
For at least another hour.
(Waiting in the Café)
Here don’t we hear the echo of Keat’s “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter”?
The wiles of amour can make an unsuspecting belle throw caution to wind and find herself sucked into the deadly embrace of her homme fatale –
When she comes out alone on the other side of the wood
the dying sun catches her dress and turns it all to blood
(Into the Birdcall)
We can’t see the wood for the trees if we are given to too much of dissection or reductionism; only a synthesizing and harmonizing eye yields the pleasure of holistic beauty –
With books and binoculars I tracked the birds,
pinning names to feather and flesh:
I lost their patterns on the sky; stopped listening to their songs.
(A Lot Like Love)
We develop so intense a bond with certain people who, though no more, continue to live in every cell and pore of our body (The Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore). Likewise we are attached to certain places (You Don’t Get Tired of What You Need), but when their organic connection is lost, the key to them has no value (Love Lost). The poet has described these situations with a touching tenderness.
The creation and the world are ever mysterious; you can’t limit them to a single definition or theory. A charmed reflective foray into it could throw one totally off balance either into a feeling of cushy levity or into an inebriate or dizzy self-oblivion, as is beautifully captured in ‘What Is This World, O Stranger?’
The snapshots from the kaleidoscope of short picture-poems in the Interlude section are scintillating coups d’oeil of a broader and cyclical canvas. The first act of volition in the morning would set the pace for the entire day –
I bite into the morning,
a ripe yellow plum.
The sweet juice floods my body.
Now sample this metaphysical conceit –
I bought a beautiful light-blue cigarette lighter.
It was tiny.
Holding it in my palm
was like holding a piece of summer sky.
And could there be a more tender image than in the following lines! –
Open to the night like lips
And drink it down
If you think of a poem for your mural or under your table glass, grab ‘A Second Eden’ – a cheerful and nostalgic symphony of idyllic and effusively lyrical cameos.
A life of activity, of adventure, of exploring exotic realms and climes, and of standing on one’s own legs, though far away from one’s roots, – desires not the fruit as much as the sowing of a seed –
I understand why you need to feel the
muscle; the ropy strain of pulling away.
It is the motion that you crave,
not the destination.
(Ithaca and Otherwhere)
Doesn’t Ulysses the king of Ithaca (Tennyson) stand for the same? And how apt the choice of the archaism ‘otherwhere’ in this context!
What an eco-bliss it would be, if only we realise and live the symbiotic values of existence, letting every critter have its space and freedom! –
Every time I blow an insect off my wrist,
I am delighted that it still exists.
Because we live in this green and growing space,
it has the confidence
to alight upon my skin.
(A Green and Growing Space)
In the same spirit, but by changing tack, Tanya pours out her searing heart, in one of her throatiest lyrics, ‘I Sing a Song of Goa,’ that powerfully speaks of the worsening face of the countryside, and of the changing aspirations and lifestyles –
I sing the lament of the rape of the hillsides by bulldozers and moneymen;
I sing along the veins of the rivers whose blood
is being poisoned by the excreta of factories;
I sing a farewell to the sons and the daughters who go abroad
to seek their fortunes, leaving the fields untilled.
A good Christian, Tanya declares her unflinching faith in Our Lady of Lourdes in France; and she hails the magical healing associated with this Sanctuary in her poem, ‘The Hill Chapel of Lourdes.’
Hardly any word may pass between genuinely loving souls, though apparently poles apart in their physical attitudes; yet they cherish an unbreakably emotional chemistry –
We are cut from the same material of long use,
where the warp and he woof are so intertwined…
‘Spending Time with an Old Person’ captures the heart-touching sentiment and helplessness and loneliness of the old that is rampant in the present milieu. And ‘Truth is the Bird’ suggests a longing for a life of beauty, truth and freedom. One shouldn’t miss the torrid ‘Triangle into Square’ for its symmetry, rhyme and incremental refrains.
Past is something we cannot wish away, be it pleasant or otherwise, for it sustains us in the present and the future as well. After all, life is a concatenation of everything from birth to death, including not only the happenings but also one’s reflections and memories (Going Backwards). Tanya reinforces this idea by quoting Tim Winton: “The past is in us and not behind us. Things are never over,” underlining the continuum of the aetiological phenomenon.
The concluding poem ‘All the Answer I shall Ever Get’ reveals the sole and common answer to all the (implicit or explicit) questions she has raised in the earlier pages, and it is –
… the drop of dew
that falls so courteously onto my fingertip
when I touch the heart of a rose
What a delicate and rosy answer! And one wonders whether “The voice of that child, singing alone in a meadow” (146) in this poem is the same as of “Betty Oldmeadow of the Isle of Sheppey” in the “Acknowledgments” (p 148).
The metaphors galore in the poems evoke spontaneous encores. The exotic of them stand out: ‘rippling arpeggios of light’ (Ravisher); ‘brokeback mountain of age’ (Going Backwards); and ‘foghorns of neediness’ (The Silver Cord).
Despite a good deal of Western allusions, only two poems (‘Ondine’ and ‘Joshua Comes Back’) carry a footnote each.
The wordsmith that Tanya is, her non-hyphenated compound words like ‘parkbench,’ ‘flowerflesh,’ and ‘bloodblack’ don’t jar but add zest.
Lauriers to Tanya Mendonsa for this wonderful collection.
(Originally published in Muse India, May-Jun 2016)