Book Reviews

RK Singh's Poems and Micropoems

Poems and Micro Poems
by Ram Krishan Singh,
published by Arizona Press,Arizona,2023

Prof. R.K Singh, an internationally renowned poet is a doyen among the poets of haiku and tanka writers. He has published thirty poetry books including a dozen haiku and tanka collections in the last forty years. He has received generous support from poet friends belonging to Romania, Japan, Taiwan, Syria, Iran, Croatia and a few others. His poetry has been translated into different languages, which is quite creditable. His awards and honours include Ritsumeikan University Peace Museum Award, Kyoto 1999, Certificate of Honour an Nyuusen Prize, Kumamoto, 2000. It is an honour not only for Prof. Singh but for the whole country that he was honoured for Japanese poetry by Japanese experts in the art of haiku and tanka poetry. His most famous poetry collections are Lantern in the Sky. Selected Haiku, (2022), ‘She’ (2022). ‘Drifty Silence’ (2023), Silence: A White Distrust (2021), ‘A Lone Sparrow (2021) ‘Tainted’ With Prayers: Contaminado Can (2020), ‘Against the Waves’, Selected Poems (2021) and many more.

The book ‘Poems and Micro Poems’ contains thirty-five poems, eighty haiku and forty-four tanka. It is not possible to review all these in this article but I will review some of them. It would not be out of place to start the review with a favourite poem of Prof. R.K. Singh in which he expresses a sense of disillusionment and a resignation to the fact that there is no escape from the less pleasant aspects of life:

There’s no Paradise
The fog is mirror
Slips by damp towel
cold sets in slippy hands
rain flows on windows
black water crawls down
like diseased reptiles
why scrub the smelly
there’s no paradise.(11 November 1988)

Professor Singh writes on different topics, mostly on abstract emotions and nature. Out of his three types of poetry in this collection, I shall take up haiku first. Haiku is a short poem which uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition. It consists of three lines, the first line having 5 syllables, the second seven syllables and the third five syllables. But modern poets sometimes take liberty with this syllable structure.

In the analysis of haiku in this book, I shall take up only six haiku and comment on them, which will indicate the richness of his remaining haiku. Consider the following haiku:

they watch from the street
our embrace at the window
sneak into liquor.

This haiku creates a sense of intimacy and privacy suggesting a sense of voyeurism or intrusion. A vivid image is created by detail, window, and liquor. Look at the following haiku:

people trust
what utopia looks like:
lighted banks of Saryu.

This haiku highlights human nature and a human desire for a perfect world. The mention of ‘lighted bank of Saryu’ paints a vivid picture of a beautiful and peaceful place which could represent the ideal world that people yearn for. The use of the word ‘trust’ suggests that people have faith in the vision of utopia and see it as something to attempt for.

Let us take another haiku: 

on his epitaph:
he died protesting land tax
on his grave

The person referred to in this haiku was actively engaged in an organised effort to challenge the land tax. The epitaph suggests that protest which is shown as part of their identity. The epitaph commemorates their activism. 

Summer days are full of warmth, activity and the pleasures of being close to nature. The vivid image of this is mentioned in this haiku:

mid- June morning-
the gardener’s muddy fingers
scratch the itching scalp

The first line of the following haiku shows a luxurious bathroom. The presence of beetle in a clean bathroom is because of neglect or a lack of maintenance. The third line creates a mood of stillness and gloominess. The bathroom may not be well ventilated. The text of the haiku a sense of contrast and unease:

one with granite tub
a beetle in the bathroom-
silence of dampness

The following haiku:

threatening rain
dark clouds hang over still trees
smelly clothesline

effectively captures the mood of an approaching storm and the way it affects our senses and surroundings. It depicts a vivid image of an impending storm. The imagery of ‘dark clouds’ hanging over a clothesline have started to smell a mood of unease. 

The question arises why I took up the discussion of haiku first. I would like to quote a statement from Prof. R.K. Singh’s interview with Khalil  A Jomma (WEC: 13:1, March 2023, 92-99). Prof. Singh states:

“I view haiku writing as something innately spiritual, with sensuousness as the key factor; looking outside to communicate the inside, expressing the unity of human being with all existence, imagining life in all its hues- from physical lust to divine sensation… (93)

He further says that haiku has a lot of possibilities if the poet has a sense of proportion or harmony, the expressive side of language or rhythm which permeates the words. 

Let us now discuss a few tanka, another distinguished poetic form of Japanese poetry. A tanka is an ancient Japanese form of poetry that is categorised by the number of each syllable in each line, totalling thirty-one syllables. Tanka translates as ‘short song’ and is better known in its five line 5/7/5/7/7 syllable count form.  There are forty four tanka poems in this collection. 

late night
not many drink
at home
wait for the end
the bed sinks the body

This refers to two different times of a day, the morning and late-night people are active and awake perhaps getting ready for the day. The late night moves very slowly and fewer people drinking and waiting for the night to end. The phrase ‘drink for the end’ is significant suggesting that the people are trapped in the cycle of drinking and waiting for something to happen.

what poem can brew
on faces hidden behind
veils misty eyes say
all I can’t imagine in
haiku with season word

It looks like a fragmented description of some sort of  a scene. The phrase ‘brew on faces hidden behind veils’ suggests some sort of a  mysterious image. The phrase ‘misty eyes’ suggests uncertainty. This means the poem is describing a moment of uncertainty or confusion.

The poem seems to suggest a hidden emotional or psychological state.

Some tankas are very easy to understand. Consider the following tanka describing the onset of winter season and its accompanying illness:

winter arrives with
wheezing sneezing and backache
whole night without sleep 
I try pills to get better
lamenting ageing and pray

The person referred to in the poem is an old man who tries to assuage his illness by taking pills and praying to God for the riddance. Look at another tanka:

no temple
this body degenerates
memory fades
stinking remains
can’t forget all

Generally body is believed to be a  temple in which soul lives. But with the passage of time, body degenerates and memories become dim. But a person can’t forget everything, some bad happenings lurk behind.

Prof. Singh does not always write on abstract topics. Sometimes his tanka is about social issues. In the following tanka, he very poignantly describes the poverty of a person who collects warm ashes to find gold so that he could provide liquor for himself and bread for the starving wife and children. Notice the irony in the poem that the poor person does not forget buying liquor for himself without caring that no money would be left to buy bread for the family.

There are some more tankas referring to the social issues of dissent being regarded anti national and competition between hungry people pushing one other for a pail of rice:

(a)    anti-national

every dissenting voice-
lotus regime
bullying the generation
with changing narratives

(b)   no firsts in hunger:

they all push one another
for a pail of rice
to cook without fire, roof and 
utensils lost in landslide.

The discussion of micro poems corroborates the saying that brevity is the soul of wit. From the analysis of micro poems to the discussion of poems  would be, a logical step. Thirty five poems in the collection are on different themes, from Nature, Love, Azaan, Temple, Meditation to a number of different topics. We shall discuss only a few poems in this paper.

Consider this poem on ‘Nature’:

Nature is me
seeking my place
in the star through births

now memory
wild maze of conceit
and darkness
yet a tiny part
a dew drop
dotted with beauty   (Nature is Me. 10)

The poem offers a relationship with the natural world. In spite of uncertainties and challenges in life, there is a deep connection and sense of belonging that is found in the natural world. 

The lines ‘now memory, wild maze of conceit and darkness’ creates a sense of confusion, disorientation as if the speaker is lost in a complex and uncertain world. Even in this darkness, there is a recognition of beauty and wonder as suggested by the delicate and powerful image of ‘a tiny part/a dew drop dotted with beauty’.

From ‘Nature’, we move to ‘Love’ poem:

Rocking chair:
sun through the clouds in
after days of rain
and nostalgic nights
she hands me 
a lukewarm tea of ginger, clove
and honey to make 
love and stay alive (Love: 35)

The poem describes a beautiful scene of a couple enjoying a moment of love and nostalgia on a rocking chair on the veranda, after days of rain. The description of the warm and soothing ginger, clove and honey concoction adds a touch of sensuality and intimacy to the poem. 

The juxtaposition of love and the need to stay alive suggest the importance of finding comfort and support in a partner during difficult times. The imagery of the warm drink can also be interpreted as a metaphor for the warmth and comfort that love provides.

Let us now move to ‘Love by Default’ poem from ‘Love’ poem:

When you deny love lies in fucking you cheat
millions of starving lovers smelling sex
in each encounter or dating a woman
whose hunger is different each time she meets man
to say the unsaid or live the fleeing joy
or weep longingly recall the days gone by
or rue only if it were as it once was
lying on his back like whales he lets the ships pass
and clasps a drowning one as he gasps for air
and she yields her body to love by default   (Love by Default: 14)

The poem presents a complex and nuanced exploration of love and its many challenges. The language is poetic and evocative and the use of metaphor and imagery adds depth and richness to the piece.

The idea of loving by default suggests a setting less than ideal relationship because the lovers have no other choice.
The image of a whale letting ships pass by and gasping for air suggests a sense of resignation and defeat. ‘To say the unsaid or live the fleeing joy or weep lovingly recall the days gone by or rue only if it was as it was once’ suggests a sense of nostalgia or longing for a past relationship.

The lines ‘when you deny love lies in fucking you cheat millions of starving lovers smelling sex’ refers to someone engaged in infidelity and a sense of desperation and longing. The lines ‘in each encounter or dating a woman whose hunger is different each time she meets man’ refers to a woman who constantly changing and adapting to the men she meets.

We shall now analyse the poem ‘Locked’:

Eagle’s shadow
on the still boat on bank
blank page of tomb 
that sank without history 
of women who anchored
life now locked within
sandy rocks disguising faith
in phallic images
drunken politics
of carving and curving
on the potter’s wheel. (Locked:15)

The poem refers to the issues related to power, gender and history in a thought provoking and challenging way.
The first two lines ‘Eagle’s shadow on the still boat on bank’ suggests a sense of stillness and inactivity. The lines ‘blank page of tomb that sank without history’ refers to forgotten history and absence of women’s stories. The lives ‘of women who anchored life now locked within sand rocks’ suggests the suppression of women power.
The lines ‘faith in phallic images, drunken politics, of carving and curving, on the potter’s wheel’ suggests patriarchal power structures and ways in which they enforce rigid gender roles and social norms. 
A temple is a sacred place of worship but some selfish people use it for their benefit to earn money. Consider this poem:

Known a man of his word
before exiting the windowless hall
scrawls his bearded sinisterity
none could read he proves a rhino
turning the temple into funeral home (Temple:30)

This poem presents a dark and ominous picture of a powerful man (‘a rhino’), who has corrupted a sacred place. This suggests that religion can be used to serve the interests of individuals rather than the general good. 
Look at the description of the man. He had a sinister appearance (bearded sinisterity) and had the power of turning a sacred place into a place of mourning or death. The irony of the situation is that none could comprehend or foresee his intentions. The use of the metaphor ‘a funeral home’ is quite effective.
Like a temple, ‘azaan’ is a holy place for the followers of Islam. But the sacred place may not be holy always; they may be a mix of holy and profane, and ancient and modern. Consider the following poem ‘Azaan’:

at the threshold of sleep
the azaan
only a deprived
muezzin knows
behind the mosque
the peepal guards
mafia mansion
in lantern light
god’s business (Azaan :29)

This poem conveys a sense of precariousness or instability with the speaker perceiving a complex mix of the sacred and the profane; the traditional and the modern, the holy and the corrupt.
The poem can also be interpreted as a comment on the illicit activities happening in the vicinity of the mosque.
The phrase the ‘threshold of sleep’ refers to the verge of falling sleep. The caller of ‘Azaan’ (known as muezzin) has been described as very poor which adds poignancy to the poem.
We are now going to discuss a poem which describes a sense of isolation and the struggle for human connection in a difficult world:

It’s no paradise
but sounds filterupwards
from small smorado shops
live-in couples in Newton
share thrills of touch and hug
older couples miss
while walking or watching 
alone from windows
gauge their depth of feelings
and monetary wellness  (Wellness:25)

This poem depicts a scene in a place called Newton where people live in close proximity to one another in small shops and apartments. But still people struggle with feelings of loneliness and yearn for physical touch and hug. The language used is descriptive and straight forward.

Prof. Singh’s poetry sometimes also writes about political issues.  Here is a poem which calls for a more open and inclusive politics based on mutual respect and commitment rather than a narrow nationalism that divides people:

Is nationalism Hindutva
or right reactionaryism
for political security
of the lines of Modis, Xis, Putins
that play games of disorder
with a Biden and dictate
new rhetoric of regression and repression
at home the hope and hysteria
in dying and no Ayodhya
Mathura or Gyanvapi can win
votes of loyals and traitors
without mutual right to exist
without obscurantism and reform
parody of promises (Parody: 23)

The poem is a critique of nationalist politics and its leaders such as Modi, Putin and Xi, who are accused of playing games of disorder and promising regression and repression. The poet suggests that ‘hope and hysteria’ these leaders rely on to win votes is dying out and even controversial issues of Ayodhya, Mathura and Gyanvapi cannot win the vote without a commitment to mutual respect and reform.

The use of language in the poem is quite critical with words like ‘loyals and traitors, obscurantism and parody’ of promises, suggesting a deep sense of cynicism about the ability of nationalist politics to deliver on its promises.
Here is another poem which conveys a sense of frustration and disillusionment with the current state of affairs but also a sense of determination to continue moving forward despite the difficulties.

Just in Case…
with structural corruption
embedded in system
who can change the future course:
in their stinking nests
the owls and rats plan for
booster shots, just in case...
dooms day is  a long dream
the pandemic cements
differences for eon
standing before a narrow spine
the dead claim the summit
withour reaching the top
I don’t know how to set down
my burden and move ahead (Just in Case :28)

The phrase ‘structural corruption’ refers to the corruption ingrained in the system. The protagonist expresses his hopelessness at his capacity to change the corrupt society. The use of ‘owls and rats’ has been used for those who are powerful and hence they care only for boosting their positions rather than tackling the problems at hand. ‘Dooms day’ refers to the impending danger but a crisis cements the differences and inequalities in society for a brief period of time and later it suggests that we don’t reach the top. The protagonist ends the poem with a sense of despair in the face of difficulties. 

In the preceding pages, we presented a brief analysis of Prof. Singh’s poems and micro poems. They are so full of rich meaning that a book can be written on their analysis. I unwillingly come to conclude the present analysis. 
Professor Singh’s poems are ‘sagar in gagar’ (an ocean in a pot), they are rich in content; have density of meaning; are like ‘a sailor’s arrow that creates a deep wound’. His poems are like a deep ocean in which the more you dive  , the more pearls you discover. The language and style are simple but deep in meaning. Most of his poems are on abstract thoughts but there are poems which describe the present day issues facing the country. The imagery is new and refreshing. I enjoyed reading the poems and I am sure so will you if you decide to read them.


More by :  Prof. Dr. Sagar Mal Gupta

Top | Book Reviews

Views: 710      Comments: 2

Comment Thanks Professor Sagar Mal Gupta for your review of my latest poetry book.

R K Singh
09-Jun-2023 23:46 PM

Comment Thanks Professor Sagar Mal Gupta for your review of my latest poetry book.

R K Singh
09-Jun-2023 23:45 PM

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