Awakenings in Poetry

A book review of A Mirror More Truthful by Prof. Tuhin Sanyal

It is not always that you come across a Claude Monet in the world of literature. Prof. Tuhin Sanyal’s A Mirror More Truthful is something I would describe as one without mincing words. A Mirror More Truthful is an apt name for an Indian English poetry anthology, which is unabashedly truthful in the treatment of its chosen subjects. In a world fraught with pretense this piece of literature is as original and candid as it gets and to achieve all this through poetry is a Herculean feat not many will dare to even attempt. I was intrigued by the title of the book when I first laid my hands upon it. I asked myself, “A mirror more truthful than what?” It was after I went through the poems that I got to understand the gold standard with which Sanyal has evaluated the everyday glass and silver mirror we use to see ourselves in. I will come to that gold standard later in this review.

A few lines have stayed with me since the first time I read the book and I will begin by quoting from “Love”:

Dark, dead-ends
The taste of light;
There, walls grope
For refuge.

The treatment of love in literature is as abundant as oxygen in the air. Of course, where would we be as a species without love? But to put love’s desperation in a manner that projects a fettered inmate’s desperation to break free of his shackles and breathe out in the open is a path-breaking treatment of the subject. They don’t come more candid! We have all fallen in love at some point in life and we will continue to fall in love as long as we live. But to see “Love” in the light of spiritual awakening is extremely rare and to discuss such a complex subject in its entirety in so few lines is a feat rarely witnessed. We sulk in love, we brood in love, we cherish the bitter-sweet pain; but have we ever seen love as an awakening? I believe the poet has.

In “Gabriel” he makes subtle references to Garcia Marquez—a measure of his knowledge of world literature. Where Sanyal says “I am reading Love in the Time of Cholera in a speedy train!” he has elegantly made time a character in his work. I cannot help myself from pulling another quote from his poem “Plastic Stars”:

The heart settles
For an age-old tendency
And plastic stars
Spell ‘anarchy’
From the sky!

How much of our skies are actual and how much of it is concocted?—I wonder!  From the elaborate boulevards of our megacities the stars are brighter, their lights augmented by the glitz and glamour of gaudy lifestyles. And we are so addicted to this concerto of plastic ‘anarchy’ that the real colors of our mollycoddling galaxy are lost among the manmade neon lights! Such profundity of thought is a treat for poetry lovers.

In “Can You Fly?” Sanyal asks, “Trust me, I’ve read the cosmos! But can you fly?” Can we take flight, not with the help of machines that outdo flesh and bone wings, but with the help of deeper spiritual insight? Love’s confusions convulse in the last stanza of “Confusions”:

Your body is now thoughtful
And skeptic, once again,
Think between your thighs, Love,
And tell me where to rain!

A beckoning to the flesh to immerse in limitless raving or a very honest suggestion to deliberate more on human relations?—I, for one, will go with my understanding of the poet’s psyche and conclude that he beckons the souls to mingle through the pathway of consummation.

“A Cremation on Christmas Day” is one poem I so desire to fill multiple pages about. But I am limited by the scope of my review. I can certainly quote a few favourite lines though:

That soulless bodies lay in a humble queue,
For the non-experience of something new—
To burn in body, yet, not feel the heat.

Do we exist beyond death? Is there a soul? What is the true definition of human consciousness? So many questions are raised in merely three lines of a poem! Astounding is the one word I would use to describe the depth of Sanyal’s honest soul-searching. All that maketh a man, his flesh and bones, his behavioral nuances, his triumphs and tribulations are consumed by the flames of the incinerator—all gone in the blink of an eye. But is it the heap of ashes that remains as the solitary proof of the man that was? Or does the soul persist beyond the time the ashes have dissolved in the chosen river? And then he goes on to say quite beautifully:

Death perfects Art—
“To be or, Not to be”—
Life’s literature scores
More than Comedy.

I have rarely read poetry where the poet has emptied his seat for Death. In the poet’s imagining, Death is the quintessential artist, a scribe who writes about life! He is not the dreaded grim reaper—more of an omnipresent composer.

At this point I will hark back to the beginning of this treatise where I claim to find the gold standard with which Sanyal has compared the banal mirrors of everyday use. But for this I need to quote a few lines from his seminal composition, the jewel in the crown—the poem, “A Mirror More Truthful”:

But when all coalesce
To form a shadow,
They search
For a mirror more truthful
And void,
Of mercuric sham!

What do we see when we stand in front of a mirror—the true reflection of a flesh and blood human, devoid of pretense, and stripped of false glory, or the bloated mental projection of a pompous consumer subsisting on symbiotic relationships, yet acknowledging none? This book is the one true mirror. It fractures the “mercuric sham”—the glass and silver mirrors we look into to savor ourselves. Sanyal challenges one and all to look into his insightful eyes and understand their true images. And since this book is the physical manifestation of the poet’s spiritual eyes, this book in itself is the gold standard I was referring to earlier.

There are many Indian English poets delving into impressionism. Impressionism in literature is difficult to define. It is not as demarcated as in painting. Over the past century we as a species have savored works of Baudelaire et al. The corpus of an impressionist poet tends to be rather abstract. But few such poets have strived to take their artwork to the common reader, who is a genuine connoisseur of art but is not a huge fan of elaborate abstraction. In his rather direct diction Sanyal has carved out a niche for himself. Poetry is for all to relish, from the spectacled academic to the back broken porter. Tuhin Sanyal has acknowledged this fact and constructed a mirror that is not a “mercuric sham,” but a beautiful and bright tunnel of light!

Poet, essayist and critic Hirak Dasgupta lives in Durgapur, West Bengal (India). Read other articles by Hirak.