Literary Criticism does not have the implication of fault finding when the qualifier is there. It can be an opinion or an assessment but not the final pronouncement of a judgment. It is preferable to consider the following short essay an attempt to record literary appreciation. This is intended especially for readers with a flair of pondering on creativity in imaginative expression.
Asha Viswas is a unique poet. She has three volumes of poetry: Melting Memories 1996, Mortgaged Moorings 2001 and The Rainbow Cave and other poems, 2011. The third volume contains fourteen poems from the earlier two other volumes. She considers her poems lyrics. Suffering, sadness and deep thought are her basic poetic feelings. Her poems are brief and imagistic in content and poetic quality. Compactness in expression is always an interesting and a powerful quality of being intriguing too. The collection under study has an Epigraph from the very great and powerful poet Ezra Pound.
And if you ask how I regret that parting:
It is like the flowers falling at spring’s end
Confused, whirled in a tangle.
Asha is socially concerned but not a feminist. The epigraph in a way is her own assessment of her poetry. The title of the volume is indicative of the quality of her poetry in general. The mind is a cave-not a dungeon used by a sage for his meditation, contemplation or penance. It is not a cobweb ugly, flimsy and really didslike-provoking. It can have multiple colours of the rainbow. It is always a source of joy and rich fruitful insight and understanding of lacrimae rerum, tears in the nature of things. Asha’s poems are deeply sensitive and thought provoking.
The first poem The Living and the Dead is on an intensely felt bereavement The ‘she’ is the poet’s mother. It is a lasting and continuous grief. The passage of twenty years does not lessen the pain of the loss. Opening the mother’s trunk gives still the fragrance of words silent and no longer heard. The silence has colours with claims of loneliness. It burns in the wilderness of the self in the grief stricken. It is more painful that the passage of time has not made the anguish less. The expression is sometimes a rain of memories
… …. I read
some of her old letters
a strange smell of folded
brown paper leaks into the room.
In a separate folder, the photos
of our ancestors are kept. 1
Ancestors do not leave such pain as the mother does and that is the reason for their photos being kept in a folder separately. The cause of demise is the hurry of the mother’s lungs to leave. With the photo being slipped into the folder there is silence of the unsaid words which go on inflicting the pain of memories. Naming the disease is irrelevant for the poet since it does not give relief in any way. The heart throbs, pang and sorrow are vehemently expressed which no stylistic analysis would fully unveil. The loving is better understood in this short but completely structured and expressed feeling.
The grief of the loss of the birth giver is recorded in another poem I Miss You. It is a dirge as emotional. The mother in the first poem is mentally visible for the reader too. The speaker says she is like Alef, the first alphabet in Arabic. There is emptiness and only her shadow is the thing visible. It is endlessly replayed along with nouns despair, fear, grief agony, brokenness and anxiety. The thought from total darkness illuminates the truth :
Mother! Do you think
You would have gone through this hell
If I had dies
not You. 2
Stylistically the capitalization of you is suggestive of the divinity of the departed one. The darkness of hell perhaps is the professor’s memory of Miltonic description.
The duo of September Blues and Autumnal Cry is closely related in the similarity of the season with the speaker’s mental state. In September Blues the vocabulary includes despair, ravished, tears, washes, blood, tears, pants, corpses fall and insatiate hatred strikes with flames. Roses are crushed, sighs wind, heaps of thorns are all attributed to September and referred to blues. Such blues trigger imaginative expressions too. Autumnal Cry refers to the cold season. The segment of the sun in the windy skies disturbs dreams of musical wind instruments of humans. The cry conveys the uncountability of the dead in the mixture of metal and flesh signifying the battle field. Even the flora is not spared:
Blood smeared Death derides,
Poisonous pollen drips
Through her silent finger tips. 3
Fireworks in September sky cause smoke, making people cough roasting life and celebrating the season of blight. Autumn is the cruelest month for this poet as April was for another renowned earlier poet. Mother’s demise, loss and pain of bereavement and the cruelty of the month and the season lead to the composition of the poem From the Cliff Tops. The waves in the sea are seen and thought of as fleeing refugees. They are pursued by the onrush that is invading. The waves carry foam babies in their arms, rush, pant and collapse on the shore. The verbs distrust, haunt and disturb, annoy, submerge are all harsh. In the end howls from the cliff tops:
Lost narratives, ghostlike, rise from their graves
howl from the cliff tops for their lost earthly loves. 4
The fierce sea is seen from the cliff tops. The harsh rush of the waves with passion is described. A single and fast reading is not enough to understand and appreciate many of Asha’s poems. Her vigorous and imagination demands multiple readings with adequate time gaps.
Death is a poem which underlines the poet’s technique that comes not out for artificial design but from out of a gushing Brahamputra-like flood. The ‘a’s before waiting and between are artistically brought in. If said life is waiting between thought and its release would have been an insipid statement. The beginning is scintillating and what follows becomes is splendidly thoughtful. The rest of the poem becomes an unforgettable statement of felt truth unforgettably expressed:
Death is a thought without being thought
An unuttered word, a slip of tongue. 5
The article before tongue is perhaps found just an unnecessary waste. The rest is all thought provoking truth:
It is woven from the threads
of traces of Truth, a beyond and beneath
outside of time, an eraser f self,
a disappearance of appearance.
It is a sound that never resounds,
an absence that cancels presence
An infinite circle of come and go. 6
Maya is many apparent dualities, contradictions, paradoxes. This philosophical complexity in existence is ever worthy of contemplation. Not voluminous but brilliantly thought provoking, Asha’s thin output is compact and very brief. Putting feeling in such brevity must have taken a lot of time and effort.
The Bombed City is about thoughtless, diabolic waste. The cries of the wounded in the bombed city are only noises the images of which are presented. The bricks are shattered and they wait for the last bit getting broken. Wind blown is the peace dreamt of. The wounded bodies are pieces of puzzles that cannot be solved. Totality itself is a fragmented scene compared to the sight of a traveller viewing scenes from a travelling train. Smithereens of human bodies are inscribed in the scenes. Hatred is the winner planting flags over the dead. Orphans wander in the deserted and empty streets. This prosaic imperfect paraphrase is just a bit of simplification to aid the re-reading of the poem many times. The capacity to think with power and feel with intensity makes for reading at a slow pace. This is the flair for reading imaginative poetry which conveys the horror of death by blown wings. The fast varying images convey the horror of bombing.
Imagism is a fertile imaginative device of figurative expression which contributes both to convey impression and electrify the reader. It comes in using figures of speech in different ways, visual, olfactory, tactile, auditory and abstract which demand high levels of imagination to tactfully convey messages and impressions with astounding brevity. Unless the poetry is highly sensitive and very well read this kind of expression cannot be easy or effortless. Ezra Pound is the one who devised the technique but later many, many poets used this.
Python Chains in two parts is about the powerful coils of the serpent binding and twisting its prey. Lying awake on the sea shore many stars may be counted while the eyes don’t have them. An unhealthy mist raised by lies and deceit makes truth covered in fog. Truth is bound tightly by the python which makes peace feebly heard in the hear beats. Another image is the noise of the giant caravan of trucks which is an intrusion upon peace and silence. Flowers in the hair faintly fight it. The heat of summer is violence transferred to vehicles which are killer machines in more ways than one.
A summer of violence blindly transfers
action to killer machines.
Nice excuse. 7
A Bombed Mall describes the crowded Mall a few minutes before a bomb blast. It is called painfully a bomb ago. Loud music and drinks make the desires of people getting drunk in the warmth of the place. The explosion is like lightning. People are killed or maimed. Each biography becomes a history torn, mutilated or charred. Victims lie flat on the floor. Here is the last pic:
A pathetic mix of broken glass,
empty coffee cups and human flesh.
Life like a beaten dog, yelped all night
some human monsters
mauled it with all their might. 8
The Void Within is about total emptiness. Boredom is a void. Pain is left and the courage to believe in life is lost. Here is a powerful expression of emptiness. Void is the vacuous interiority of space that is felt. This is left to one’s own feeling of utter boredom and the blowing imagination.
Edges of Life is a comparatively simple poem. Devout Hindus believe dying in Varanasi is in itself the way to salvation. This is flashed with inbuilt faith, trusted as inherited. There are more poems on Varanasi: Dreams, Ganges Grumbles and Assighat at Varanasi. Dreams end like this:
In this old city of slums
Dreams, like children, run
After painted butterflies. 9
The holy river is the speaker of the poem The Ganges Grumbles. She feels that she is ‘dragged’. (Though it is believed it is drawn down with great effort by the great saviour Bhagheerath of the Ikshwakus) She feels hurt and anguished that she is used like a refuse box to dump a rush of broken bones and the burden of prayers. Her demand cum instruction is prefaced thus:
….It is time they stop doing this to me
Will they be happy if I go back
to my own world or should I rise
crossing my bounds to warn them
that a woman creates but can destroy too.
So stop throwing your deaf
and :all your accumulated sins to me.” 10
The poet’s genuine concern is that her words may stretch themselves as a curse if not paid heed to. Unfortunately the cleanser is believed to cleanse everything in everywhere. Here is a deep social consciousness and ecological concern too.
The Assi Ghat at Varanasi is a lovely poem where there is a rainbow too. The river is a brown mirror reflecting the shadows of the women. There are further, more attractive pictures too;
Giggling girls at the ghat
A crowd of coloured parasols
On an open boat :
Rainbow in August skies.
Floating earthen lamps
On the river floor :
Reflection of stars
From October skies. 11
There are some poems which are intensely mystic and philosophical. There is deep understanding in the idea and thought filled serious mind. The world is visible between birth and death only. Bodies participate in the realm of the inner ‘I’ and the world is woven in the fabric of bodies. An intensely mystical idea leads to this conclusion:
The stars in the sky are the same
as the stars in your eyes.
The flesh is the ‘I’ linked
to the river of life,
the double of the Sun is the eye. 12
Displaced Desire speaks of the nomadic desire moving away from place to place. The poet sees ego as mask-like opacity and the following is the realization replete with wisdom:
Ego, pendulum like,
moves between the earth and the sky
an absurd theatre of human life. 13
Time being is not the past which is within us now and it is a continuous happening of ‘nows’and the truth is this
Each moment of illusion
In time past and present.
Past and future happened
When we reached them. 14
A Question sounds again to be an echo of Eliot. The evening is spread on summer branches like a question mark. Then there is a question too:
They preached “obliterate the I”
Remnants of my I
Still hide behind tearful eyes.
They insisted “Life is a flux”
Why did it fail to take me
Along with its flow? 15
Cerebration and deep melancholy are at the back of these serious ideas expressed powerfully. Reason for Happiness is the realization of the path to happiness:
Happiness happened only when
I stopped seeking it, I sought
For a reason of happiness. 16
The poem Echoes from the Past deals with Maharshi Jamadagni’s fury and his son Parashuram’s filial dutifulness and wisdom. The echo now is limited only to the beheading not with the level-headedness of the obedient son.
Yesterday another parashuram
Axed his old mom just for a piece of land.
The sky gets red with so much blood
Why filial truths unleash
Such stunning echoes of maternal groans? 17
The answer is not unknown to thinking persons.
There are many philosophical poems in The Rainbow Cave. Apostasy is one. It is a poem which is not from an apostate but from a genuinely devout person with faith and devotion too. She does not turn away from faith and belief in values coming down ages. The dichotomy between free will and pre-destination is age old and perhaps goes on for ever. Even the devout cannot help falling in that Serbonian bog between Scylla and Charybydis where armies whole have sunk as expressed by Milton in his Paradise Lost. Destiny is the speaker’s attitude at that moment but she is no apostate. “Life like a dome of many coloured glass/ Stains the wide radiance of Eternity/Until death tramples it to fragments…” wrote Shelley and that state of mind was his at that moment. Milton was no apostate and we cannot say Shelley was one either. The chronicle of fury, cruelties and insecurities is like listening to a soft tune. It is a valid conclusion that in the present we only collide against a blind structure of hate.
All unhappiness can be erased by dismissing feelings like hate. A saint can see this. All shall be well and all manner of things, said St. Juliana of Norwich long ago. There is equanimity in the poem Beyond Love and Hate:
Between blind love and blind hate
There is a vast expanse of fear
Till you dive deep to the centre of Self. 18
Some of the poems are enigmatic but they communicate a sense of despair, dissatisfaction, pain and sorrow. A Gazing Encounter and The Emerald Fields are examples. The first is about two since the beginning is with ‘Both of us’. The duo is said to be without a past or a future. One does not understand the other and there is plurality in desire. Both are self-centered. The difference is subtly expressed briefly in the reality between the nomads:
Our one way gazing encounter
failed to see beyond the self. 19
The feeling is almost similar in the Emerald Fields. One was leaving. The two are driving together for the last time seeing the hills and skies, not looking at one another. The meeting and the stay in the hotel room did not yield satisfaction or joy. The end is this:
All is lost in the mist of time
Birds have stopped singing now
All that is audible is the cacophony
Of a rain-soaked lonely single crow. 20
Obviously the speaker is referred to as the single crow.
Feeling and thoughts related to places and sites are diverse sad, satisfying, happy or joyful. All are, as always, thought provoking whether they are of the poet or of the speaker. Raindrops at the Window and the sighing of the wind are a melody though without words. Shadow of a hand on walls dimly lit make the mind play tricks with the eyes. And then there is ‘your’:
Soft breeze unfurls pages of past
contours of your face
suddenly look back at me 21
Is this ‘your’ is of her mother? One cannot be sure. On the Bay Islands many things are seen, coral beds, bamboo glades, orchids and hibiscus flutter. This is to make the ‘you’ aware of their life. The ‘you’ here is not the mother. It may be the universalized you, meaning any body.
Desires shine, like starlets,
under the flirting moon 22
Moon flirting starlets and desires are amorous. The Sea at Pondy is described at different times, morning, afternoon, and night. The best is at the afternoon:
Where the sun scorches it
the sea is all broken glass.
metal-grey, afternoon sea,
just a shade darker than the sky,
is a movement in cosmic will. 23
In the poem The Sunset at Secunderabad the colours of clouds are described with impressive phrases like acrophilic sun in full splendour. The waters shimmer and infinity is palpable and tangible now and
Runs down my face, like rain,
Yet retains telltale signs of the infinite. 24
Clouds and water, infinity and finite spoken together conveys the magnificence of feeling.
All great poets write about Hope. Recently I read Susheel Kumar Sharma’s poem on hope and long ago I remember reading Emily Dickinson’s Hope is a thing with feathers. Now here is Asha Viswas with her poem Hope:
Hope is a flame
that mystically moves
in the realm of tomorrows. 25
Memories, dreams, fantasies, longing dawn, light and humming stars can be seen ad felt in this mental luminosity. After Hope there is Peace, the poem is about peace and later of penury, and then of noisy vibration and finally of an angel of a lost paradise.
It is a dream sobbing
and floating in terrorized eyes. 26
An then there is a poem on Unity too. A small pebble in the pool distorts the face of the moon, the poet sees unity thus:
Between the Moon and the river
Night plunges out of her dream
A streak of stars on the waves
is a whisper from the boundless ‘Being’. 27
There are poems which appear to be pensively personal in the poet’s earlier two collections Melting Memories and Mortgaged Moorings. A Hopeless Longing is melancholic. There the speaker and the ‘him’ are three thousand miles apart. The two are in monogamous polygamy which rejects communication downright. The speaker wonders:
Why do I still write to him
and why am I
thinking of him now?
Why does he still haunt
like half forgotten
familiar dream? 28
Being and Becoming expresses the distinction very thoughtfully. The most valuable in the poem is the second stanza:
The heaven above
And the Earth below
Of time and space. 29
The First Argument is an experience perhaps in Nigeria. There is deep wisdom in the realization that the West changed into an amorphous crowd and the East lost its aura of quietude. The experience in that far away country is a memory carefully written down:
In African music
Excuses and subterfuges,
Justifications, moral tone
Sprite and beer
Squirms and fear
I came back
All alone. 30
The poem Shivangi is about a pathetic incident of middle class morality in a newborn babe with still a bleeding umbilical cord rudely cut and thrown away like refuse. Someone must have given the infant a name and decent burial shedding loving tears. A woman with the heart in the right place, with manas, can be seen here:
No lark must have sung over her birth
But when she opened her beady eyes
The seven rays of creation danced with joy. 31
The greatest and mostly powerful among our nava rasas is karuna. Bhavabhuti, poet an an aesthetician of yore went to the extent of declaring that compassion is the only rasa: eko rasah karuNayeava. Shivangi is one of the best poems in the earlier collection.
Asha Viswas is a unique poet and in spite of its thin output her poetry would be adjusted the most memorable in the recent Indian English Poetry. To a question: “Do you believe social consciousness or sociological approach is necessary for a poet?” this is the poet Asha Viswas’s answer: “I still believe that a poet should be guided by inner convictions and should aim at aestheticism. A poet should try to be a poet first and should not build his/her web with lies and propaganda. However, contemporary issues cannot be ignored. Though the boundaries between the self and the outside world cease to exist only when one is dead, yet (sic) a poet should go beyond the ‘I’ to push back the boundaries…” 32. She would acquire further fame without having any popular feminist stance.
1. The Living and the Dead, p.9
2. I Miss You, p. 12
3. An Autumnal City, p.11
4. From the Cliff tops, p.13
5. Death, p.14
7. Python Chains 2 , p. 17
8. A Bombed Mall, .18
9. Dreams, p. 25
10. The Ganges Grumbles, p.34
11. The Assi Ghat at Varanasi, p.43
12. The Body, p.28
13. Displaced Desire, p.29
14. Time being, p.30
15. A Question, p.31
16. Reason for Happiness, p.32
17. The Echoes from the Past, p.33
18. Between Love and Hate, p.35
19. A Gazing Encounter, p.38
20. The Emerald Fields, p.39
21. The Raindrops at the Window, p.40
22. The Bay Islands, p.41
23. The Sea at Pondy, p.42
24. The Sunset at Secunderabad, p.44
25. Hope, p. 47
26. Peace, p.48
27. Unity, .49
28. A Hopeless Longing, p.52
29. Being and Becoming, p.54
30. The First Argument, .57
31. Shivangi, p.58
32. Asha Viswas to TS V Chandramouli, Boloji, E-journal, Feb 14, 2013