From the Singing Bowl of the Soul: Fifty Poems
by Ajanta Paul
Setu Publications, 2023
Reviewed by Ronita Sinha
“When the soul splits/Like the sole of your shoe/And yawns with every step”– is the kind of startling imagery that haunts The Singing Bowl of the Soul: Fifty Poems by Dr. Ajanta Paul – writer, scholar and teacher from Kolkata, India. Her poems have been published in numerous literary journals, and in 2020 she won a Pushcart nomination. Her previous publications include a short story collection The Elixir Maker and Other Stories in 2019. The present collection is a cluster of memorable poems that linger like the aftertaste of exquisite vintage. If the purpose of poetry is to distill, from delight and despair, the truth of life, then Paul’s verse is, undoubtedly, that crucible of consciousness which reduces everything to its essence.
Thematically, the collection is a quixotic exploration of life and its end, and whatever falls in between this “primordial parenthesis.” The poet sees life as a daughter, a stowaway, a debtor, a migrant, a child on “the ladder’s first rung,” among others, exploring joy and anguish in elegant soul-searching verse. Paul typically focuses on the transience of things, and that which cannot be captured or recorded as in Logbook which opens with, “I bend down to tie/The shoelaces of time/as it prepares to slip away,” yet the “heart maintains no logbook/of comings and goings/just as the beating shore cannot record/the ebb and flow of the tide.”
The poet is a cartographer charting the coordinates of experience down to the miniscule “pin code of peace.” Images of maps, roads, trails, grids, and the earth itself which is ‘‘wizened but not wise,’ intersperse the poems with a geography of distances, journeys, routes and borders that reconfigures the spaces of the mind. I can only see this as Paul’s attempt to map what is essentially unmappable because ‘destiny’s caprice’ cannot be predicted or presumed even as one is resting her head ” in the crook of destiny’s arm/safely gathered up/Out of the way of harm.” This same whimsicality is evident when an “uncaring knife carved the nation/And made of kin, a stranger and avenger.” Within this broader narrative of changing maps in “Secular Evensong,” may be found veiled references to India and Pakistan, once united but now divided by the politics of separation practised in the subcontinent. Their relations “have become cold and hostile since/In a relation tense and dry/They never could understand why.”
Paul’s poetry is rooted in her own devotion to family life, in caring for elderly parents, in seeking comfort in memories, and in responding to the social and cultural stimuli around her that inspire her to challenge boundaries, and reimagine the forms and structures of available experience. In an interview given to India Blooms News Service (03 June, 2019) when asked about her literary themes for the future, Paul answered, “About things that happen, things that matter, also, things that don’t matter. Often, the tiny, the trivial, the most overlooked of elements can harbour the synapses that hold together the circuitry of things. It is part of the search for the meaning of life which, in a sense, is what literature is all about.”
It is, precisely, this “circuitry of things” that holds together the present collection. A metapoetic apprehension, a lifeline that gestates the poems is clearly evident in the current instance. In “Surprise,” for exampless, a spontaneous burst of creativity pushes through the subconscious while the poet’s mind is still in the process of crafting another poem. The new thought appears fully formed, and what the poet calls the “interloping poem,” becomes a “wondrous prize.” In “Daunting Task,” the poet confesses, “It takes courage /To write poetry,” easier when one is young, harder when older but compelling when closer to death, for then “the dying is in you/ And you are desperate to get it out/For in so doing you live not once /But as many times as you create/The eternity of the trance.”
The theme of illness weaves in and out in pieces like “Eternity Unrationed” – prescriptions and reports sticking out in “an untidy paper bouquet” hint at the subjective perceptions of time which invest it with corresponding values. When the medical reports of a loved one are clear, for instance, and the poet savours momentary eternity “like a childhood lozenge under the tongue/releasing its nectar little by little,” receiving, in the process, a new lease on life. In “Felled”, the poet experiences a sudden blackout – “in a pyrotechnic of pain and blame /Till I felt a shuddering stab./A coming apart/Of the soldering sinews of life.” In “Origami of Outfits,” Paul gives a chilling twist to braces and prosthetics – “orthopaedic reminders” –”of metal, thread and cloth/valiantly striving to ward off/the inevitable rust and moth.”
On that hyphen between life and death, the poet captures the luxury of time for one very young – “A veritable eternity/With it’s precious hoard/of unspent days,” looking forward to “a deliciously distant” future; to a heart unencumbered by the “complicity of the past/Or the sense of a time that will not last.” In “An Old Kite,” the child, an adult now, stumbles on the eponymous item which sets off a train of reflections. The kite, tethered to memories, has descended from soaring to mooring, and is no longer “invested in the treasury/Of a future.” In “Waiting,” the poet navigates the controversial issues of bioethics through her poignant reference to the frozen embryo, “Created in the crucible/Of the laboratory cold/they do not grow old’ but tremble ‘on the brink of becoming … not born, nor worn, but torn/between possibilities …”
The strength of the poems lies in their elevation of subject and mood from the mundane to the mythical/mystical. In “Waking Up,” this innocuous act is described as an “ancient ceremony” of wonderment and joy. In “Lost,” a cunning escalation of effects is wrought through interesting juxtapositions, starting with the envelope lost in the mail and ending with the loss of memory where one, in acute absentmindedness places a pair of spectacles in the garbage bin. In “Shape-shifter,” an ordinary afternoon is imbued with a celestial quality when it burns “out slowly/in the lamp of the night/feeding the stars, holy.” Although not written in rhyming verse, chiming sounds create an incantatory rhythm that enhances the auditory experience.
Paul’s poetry is rife with feelings, commonly felt, but rarely so well expressed. There is a conscious merging of the senses in ontological overlaps that defy an accurate analysis. The tinkling of China teacups is likened to laughter at the edge of the moon, “spilling its potion of liquid light.” Sound and light merge in a kaleidoscopic profusion of kinesthetic imagery. And then the jarring juxtaposition of opposites – the ground rising up to meet the wayward descent of a kite “shuddering down.”
In “Recklessness,” the poet speculates with deep insight on man’s lack of environmental consciousness – “We need to reflect/On the nature of change/Before wishing for/A change in Nature.” Poetic structure is played with at leisure as if the poet is sucking on the lozenge of life, to borrow Paul’s own metaphor, dallying on the periphery, sometimes just wetting her feet, and at times delving deep into the raw core of living.
In “Becoming,” the girl child “who is done/trying to equal the son” is Alexandria and Draupadi and Rani Laxmibai. She is, also, AI-powered Alexa – “trained to obey [her] master’s orders” when all she wants is to be regarded as someone human. “I was created with a tongue/But you robbed me of a voice.” The poem ends on a note of hope – “My silence is my song,” with the speaker affirming resilience, and brilliantly turning a trial into triumph.
The same hope and resilience figure in “Next Time,” where the poet, undaunted, looks forward to being dealt a better hand the next time around. The idea is expressed again in “Fertility,” where flowers blooming over a grave signal the victory of life over death – “Bright flowers,/sun washed, rain tossed/have sprung from my grief.” The book’s cover, in a shade of muted green, designed by Anwesha Paul, with shiny bubbles floating over a singing bowl bears testimony to the poet’s hope and faith in life despite its vagaries.
But why from the singing bowl of the soul? A singing bowl is a metal bowl, widely used in Tibetan meditation, which when struck by a short mallet produces a lyrical sound, much like Paul’s poems, that resonate long after the mallet’s connection with the bowl is broken.