Dec 11, 2023
Dec 11, 2023
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.
— John Keats in Ode on a Grecian Urn
Words, sound and meaning have been existential and cosmic musings of man and his poetic mind. They have been vibrant and resonant in each and every sphere. Poets have been playing with words, extracting meaningful sound out of silence, thus soothing, with the cadence, their heart and soul, nestled and cuddled on the bed of existence for peace, happiness and comforts. Words are of no value unless they are squeezed for the essence of meaning- of existence, life, quests and fulfilment. ‘Words-sound-patterns’ are the ‘whispers’ of cosmic silence, of the Eternity. In this context, Sharmila Ray , a celebrated poet based in Kolkata writing in English, arrests our attention towards her creative exploration and exposition as contained in her latest collection of poetry Scrawls and Scribbles comprising of sixty four stirring and evocative poems. She is widely anthologised and featured in India and abroad. She has, till date, seven volumes of poetry to her credit. She has dedicated the present book to her mother who introduced her ‘to a world of words’
The very title of the book Scrawls and Scribbles is much more attractive for the alliterative beauty of words resounding her thoughts, ideas, perception and reflection over the mundane and the beyond, known and the unknown, words being a powerful vessel into this existential voyage. The sibilant sounds keep echoing while we go through her poems. That’s why words are central to her poetry but when it comes to expression, these words retreat and silence takes a forefront. The anthology begins with the poem “Words”. She feels words ‘compressed’ and ‘reticent’; her thoughts ‘are silent words’. She unloads the heaviness on words engraved in hearts by silencing the cacophonous noise words create:
But when words lose sound
and become deep seas within us,
then the secrets of the universe
are told in whispers.
She doesn’t believe in artificiality of world and life. Natural surroundings, as they are, fascinate her. The pomp and show of modern life appears suffocating to her. All the man-made attempts to coat extra colour of affluence and glamour to the surroundings create a’ prison house’. She believes in ‘smallness’ of life. Her poem “Small” is a testimony of this thought of hers. She declares:
green and summer squirrels leapfrogged here
everything is an islet in the lucid sea of change.
The poet gives preponderance over the space between the thoughts or sense and the words. In the given space, she swims around and gathers something meaningful. Sense-space locked in the alphabets is of paramount importance to her. She remarks in her poem “Alphabets”:
In the sense-space of my thought
alphabets grow again on their own
as do the fern
much like the nail on your finger.
Alphabets mother of words.
And if we do loose ourselves
in the forest, it is exactly then
that we find our voice.
As a ‘twittering voice’ of silence, passion, protest, angst and anguish, the poet tends to celebrate her secret poetry. Her poetic realization is well pronounced in the poem “Coffee Bar”:
I realize that all poems
are basically dormant
until you flesh them
in denials and delights.
Words twirl with lucidity
devouring earth water fire air...
Sharmila Ray prefers reading between the lines, keeping aside all the texts of facts, parts of the known. The realm of unknown entity fascinates her to glide into the unknown, mystical labyrinth of existence. Her poem “My Morning” speaks volume of her reading taste, thus reflecting her erudite temperament. Her house is stuffed with significant books on world literature- by Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, about Gilgamesh, historical king of the Sumerian city to mention a few. However, ‘fantastic story of/ a universe’ or ‘nation extinct long ago’ doesn’t matter much to her. She rather finds herself ‘Caught up in the wreck of languages’. What she likes is reading or demystifying is ‘unsung subtexts’. She remarks:
sticky with nectar, crawl all over my body and sting.
Let alone literary texts, she even gives no importance to the ‘sonorous voices. She likes the ‘blankness’ and ‘toneless’ of the unheard music. She feels glad when ‘the spilling music spirals outwards/ leaving it toneless’. Her interest lies in the void of nothingness as she holds in “Daybreak”:
Like a shadow I will dissolve
among winter wheat,
doze among uncut flowers-restored.
The same voice is again heard in the concluding lines of the said poem when she remarks:
Somewhere, in the universe the séance of
sterile hours will melt welcoming the
chastening influence of sleep.
Somewhere. The first notes of daybreak
will flood my heart.
Her poetry is marked by elements of secularism and echoes pleasing voice of global harmony. The scenario of the contemporary world is volatile. Frenzy, madness and power-hunger have turned it hellish. She wishes to escape from such maddening world, torn in the name of caste, creed and religion. In her poem “Journey”, she says:
I’m trying to find a piece of land
far off from the smell of
with a single green leaf and a
half-open flower, with eyes
mirroring the celestial shadow...
As the poet is herself an authority on history and historical cultures of nations, she gives vivid account of some cities with historical importance. She poignantly describes their ruins, causes of their fall with special reference to their present plight. From historical perspective, two poems “Delhi 2010” and “Oh Alexandria” must be mentioned here. Their poetic account is caustic, vitriolic and satirical. She takes into account all the factors responsible for the defilement of the past glory and the present state of affairs.
"Delhi 2010" tells its sad saga. Mushrooming growth of 'multiplexes', 'sports complexes', 'housing estates', 'brothels', etc have all marred its pristine beauty of its 'charming face’. ‘all the birds have/ disappeared in warm tears'. "The swarm of precision greenery/ encircles the rich man's quarter’. The poet poignantly depicts a realistic picture of this city lying in moribund state-
The city's throat has been slit
and blood clots in inhospitable hollows,
there are cobwebs forming on its skin.
The poet bemoans the present plight of Delhi, which Time has ravished:
Under the sagging breast of history
the city limps to midnight blaze.
“Oh Alexandria”, on the other hand, highlights the miserable condition of Alexandria, the second-largest city in Egypt. This city of pride has also met the same fate. The fall of this city from the grace has 'no answer'. The poet's lamentation can be heard in the following lines:
Under the windswept plain crisscrossed
by archaeologist’s digging spree
the city-blood clots and
language turns to hieroglyphs.
Time whitewashes, coat after coat
till the passionate midnights find place
in museum halls.
In the similar fashion, “Sarnath” embodies historical sense and temporal perspective of the poet. ‘In the landscape of Sarnath’, she is silent and reflective, walking ‘between the rows of ruins’, observing each and every aspect of its glory and spiritual connection and significance. She muses over the power of time and its flow:
Here time writes its own script
fighting the nettles and the
algebra of ideas.
However, the poet is endowed with extra sense of perception and optimum optimism. To her the ‘hollow spaces’ of the ruins open its vast vista for her spontaneous reflection:
The sun lighting the hollow spaces
of the terrain reopens forgotten
moments even if once.
The poem “Ruins” is equally significant for the different viewpoint of the poet towards the sabotaged and destroyed heritages of a cultured nation. These ruins provide her ‘the story’ that she explores, ‘buried beneath the mosaics and/ in the whispering of the lizards’. She doesn’t put any blame on anybody else. She does introspection while hearing the ‘echo’ of cries of the lost:
I have my own notions about other ruins
but this one makes me search myself.
I utter is lost in the limitless space
then it gathers speed and hits the
frozen walls breaking into echo.
This is how she explores ‘the story’ ‘buried beneath the mosaics’ and ‘in the whispering of the lizards’ and she finds the ‘first star’ shining with the light of realization. She is insistent on undertaking her journey of exploration digging all the ruins of life because she believes in the stories that ‘will not go away’. She is delving deep into the existential, physical ‘ruins’ to recover the lost glory, be it subjective or objective. “Song of Mohenjodaro” reveals:
The story continues-
It lays itself out plays hide and seek
To be searched again to be familiar yet now.
She is a realistic poet of maximum optimism and contemplation. Her realisation of life is excellently exhibited in the poem “Sea Shell”. With endurance, she waits for the ‘hope’ to sprout of the kernels of time-trodden paths of life stuck in the pall of gloom and despair. She knows:
...in the memory book of the sea there is
nothing, only waves-curvy, glistening,
synchronized with a mystic astronomy.
The poet’s sense of reconciliation can also be seen in the poem “Once Again” in which she comes to terms with the hard reality of life. She knows that there are certain things we don’t have control. She writes:
Darkness and light
certitude and doubt
pain and radiant angel.
I have seen it all.
The poet is clever enough to subjectify the semantic power and beauty. Overwhelmed by a unified sense of ‘words-sound-patterns’, ‘words images’ and ‘whispering presence’ of the significant meaning or quest, as expressed in the poem “My Valentine”, she gets personal and has her romantic-cum creative say:
Words my Valentine,
words my story,
just not a conjunction of
vowels and consonants
but of my body and tomb.
There are some rhyming poems which are soothing and melodious. Such poems are “Love”, “Faith”, “Pretence”, and “Prayer”.
We also find some sporadic patches of sensuousness, symbolically fitted into the poetry of Sharmila Roy. She tends to be a submissive poet of love. With a view to highlighting the importance of water in life, she compares herself to “water drops’ and ‘rivulets’. She expresses her wish in the poem “Water Drops”:
Let me be the rivulets
that run along your body. You see me
but there is
nothing to be seen.
You feel me and your
senses are aroused
I am a sort of a worship
and I love this ritual
of gliding uninterrupted,
softly sinking into your flesh,
waltzing to the tunes of some
far-off earthen flute.
She also expresses her apolitical approach. She is averse to the state of political affairs and expresses her angst and wrath to the politicians. In “Politicians”, she is insistent on exposing the ‘secrets’ of politicians.. She curses them with malice ‘to choke your throat/and the voice in your head dry enough to catch fire’. She vents out:
My hate is but a heap of shame that points
Social consciousness is also a significant concern of Sharmila Ray’s poetry. She articulates her responses to social reality in a sensitive way. In the poem “Loosing Colour”, she raises some sensitive issues pertaining to woman and her safety and the safety of ‘womb’. She strongly voices the protest against such practices and motivates the people to take on the issue else they will be questioned later. She has her say:
There’s no going back to childhood
and from childhood to the safety
of the womb.
I have no wish to be the silent hero of my life.
I write for you as I write for myself
even though you’ll never read these words.
At the same time she also makes us alert:
But watch out.
Someday the ants will attack.
There will be cloudburst and landless limbo
and when you open the door
a mummified hand of a child
will be there to greet you.
Mysticism and mysteries are also a major preoccupation of the poet. Some of her poems are the poems of search and exploration. She wants to probe into the unknown realm of existence- earthly or ethereal. “Pilgrims” and “Voyage” are the major poems which are testimony to this quest of hers. In The former poem she declares:
As for myself I do not care
whether heaven or hell exists.
I want us to be pilgrims in search
of an unknown god who speaks of love
who is everywhere at once.
Her poetry is a semantic extension of her spiritual quest. Writing poetry, to her, is not only an aesthetic pleasure or intellectual delight; it is also an alternative path to the realisation as it leads to the Reality. Her “Voyage” bears this fact:
As I reach you through
my word, my alphabet,
the alleys, the byways diminish.
And each sound of the keyword
like a milestone recedes
taking me towards you.
Hers are sweet and innocent expressions steeped in profundity of thoughts and emotions. Like a common being she laughs and smiles, feels the pans and cries in pain but her ideas, thoughts and tears seek refuge in her poetry only. In her “Night”, she reveals that when she has ‘pangs of pain’, she shivers and flinches, and cries out like an infant. She takes up her pen and inks in her blood to write a poem, not easy to be written though. She declares in “Writing a poem is not easy”:
Every day I sit and pray for words.
Everyday I’m tortured by words.
Words superimpose on my life every day.
Every day, wherever I go, I walk with words.
To sum up, Sharmila Ray’s are poems of shapes, poems of sounds, poems of sights, exploring the world and life ‘with words of love’. She is articulate and dynamic in her expressions. The poetry of Sharmila Ray is deep and intense, cerebral and celebration, reflective and penetrating. Her poetry is a kind of oscillation between the gross and the subtle, exploring the space in between. Through her well- structured thoughts, surrealistic approach, juxtaposition of images, incongruous associations she takes the reader to the world of unuttered words; she digs beneath the layers of our conscious or unconscious experience and makes the readers form new connections or constructs to be seen or perceived in a different light.
Scrawls And Scribbles, Ray Sharmila, 2016, Hawakal, Kolkata
More by : Bhaskaranand Jha Bhaskar