Poetry is that elusive one-horned beast that stalks the countryside of every consciousness, but is rarely spotted in the open. And unlike the performing horse, rarely yields benefits of the material kind. Yet a tribe of wordsmiths soldiers on giving vent to the pressing weight of lines inside them. Jeet Thayil, of the tortured and damned verses, has to be the high priest of shepherds who opt to breed unicorns.
Collected Poems brings together, in a vast embracing manner, all that has been penned by Thayil over three decades. Starting with poems written as early as the 1980s, the collection includes for the first time a bunch of intensely private poems. The book is divided into sections—New and Uncollected Poems (2003-2015), These Errors are Correct (2008), English (2004), Apocalypso (1997) and Gemini (1992).
Oddly, though there is a lot of movement on the spatial and temporal planes, there is a sense of being stuck in a no-man’s land sans clocks. It probably has to do with the recurring leitmotif of bereavement, angst, a perennial craving to be elsewhere all the time and the ironical social/political/religious commentary apparent in most of the poems. Thayil is an undoubted master of his craft. An accomplished musician, he strings fados and diminuendos and attaches them to situations with great effect (The white bird creaks in the trees/of the sea. Of what does she speak? What distant fados or diminuendos, what longing screes?). ‘Boyhood’, a poem about the eternal adolescent misfit, is poignant while the great cosmic mechanism performing its daily functions is juxtaposed with the minutiae of everyday life with aplomb in the poem ‘Autological’. The quirkiness quotient sparkles in the tongue-in-cheek poem ‘Rules for Citizens’ while ‘The Book of Bruce’, written like a diary, makes a wry statement about the interchangeability of gods with material objects. There is a great deal of globe-trotting with some poems based in Delhi, another in Paris and yet another in Zurich. Religion, icons and god/s are explored with irony and paradoxically, reverence in equal measures as Thayil flits from Buddha to Jesus and from Gandhi to Beethoven. An entire segment is dedicated to saints: Saint Moses, Saint Nicholas, Saint Mummy, Saint Goonda (!) feature among these. Saint Gandhi ends badly, ‘‘……died with the name of God on his lips; shot by a man with God in his name.’’ There is an embarrassment of riches in the vivid wordplay, “…I’m taking medication/to not remember. I/ extricate myself for the violet/ engine. I like the way the world/operates in the shade.” Some poems are in memory of other artistes: Gauri Gill, Kamala Das—while the poem ‘Dear Salil’ makes direct and irreverent conversation on the worldwide web with a close pal. There’s lunacy too, of an endearing kind, in the poems ‘How to Be a Toad’, ‘How to Be a Crow’, ‘How to Be a Bandicoot’ while an entire section, the bleakest one, is dedicated to his late wife, Shakti Bhatt.
The poems skitter in many directions, enemies momentarily uniting at the Wagah border fuelling one poem while the craving to connect with one’s mother-tongue providing fodder for another (‘‘When you’ve been too long in the rooms of English, Open your windows to the fresh air of Malayalam’’). Some poems are a touch too esoteric, springing from some deep personal experience probably, and could leave a reader baffled. It is when Thayil comes down to poems revolving around experimentations with hallucinogens and other drugs as potential escape mechanism, that the poetry runs true and deep. Likewise, the mourning and unending contemplation on the passing of a loved one permeates the entire collection, tingeing it a shade of gray. “I’m walking now in April/ without hope of finding you/ knowing you are gone/ like a street closing under water,” writes Thayil in an untitled poem.
The entire gamut offers an intriguing peek into the workings of a poet’s psyche—a mind riddled with existential confusion, regret, guilt, the collapse of everyday life and the painful rebuilding process that inevitably follows a collapse. The poems in this collection build a strong empathetic bridge between poet and reader; most readers will discover their own reflection in one poem or the other. This writer, who had the interesting experience of being in college with the poet, remembers Thayil as a slim, lonesome boy sporting dreadlocks and loping down the stone corridors of a Bombay college, a sense of search emanating from every pore of his frail form. The sense of search appears to have amplified from the sound of his poems, compounded with a sense of loss.
Poet of remorse, poet of self-flagellation, detached commentator of world affairs, novelist, guitarist and nomad, Thayil’s lines surpass all expectations of excellence. Like sweet wine on a summer’s day or the prospect of a long siesta, one craves to sink into his verse over and over again.