Eunice de Souza arrived on the Indian poetry scene a long, long time ago. Her debut collection Fix (1979) established her as an important voice in Indian poetry in English. Her latest, and long due collection, Learn from the Almond Leaf (2016) further cements her reputation as a poet whose validation comes in the form of a vernacular she has, uncompromisingly, remained loyal to for well over three decades.
De Souza in her own way proselytises the written word into utterance. There are little to no poems that feel like they have been etched over days, with de Souza returning to them over time, with iterations of a subconscious paddled by a world in slow, evolving, motion. Most of her poems are short, not more than 8-10 lines, and timeless, in the sense that they roll a moment, or an entire age into a knot, despairingly tenured to last for only the length of the poem. The despair here isn’t one that is cultivated on the premise, but is slowly introduced into the slight body of the poem itself, the size and thickness of which, is part of the causality. And that is a good thing. Consider for example I Disentangled the Moon:
I disentangled the moon
from the branches.
I built a house.
Sparrows no longer frolic
in the mud.
I chopped down the tree
that obstructed my view.
A lone raven breaks into song.
So many things happen in this short poem — as if each image is thrown across the sill of a different window, each time, after having broken through the turnstiles of a room, hovering over a torn world, without a floor to hide behind, a kind of force that is irreversible.
Force is an important keyword here, and there are plenty of forces at work here. The other-worldliness of the moon hanging from the branch of a tree, its disappearance just as it is let free, as if de Souza is trying to tell us the tree is as much a primordial companion of the moon, as the moon is of the tree. This is followed by the very ‘earthly’ exercise of building a house, sort of the recycling the port from which this poem initially left. And suddenly, the despair begins to creep in and is typified by the raven’s song.
A thing to notice here is that we are not explicitly told whether, the tree the moon hangs from (in the image) and the tree that is chopped down (in reality) for a clearer view are the same, thereby assigning the poem a kind of narrative, even though, overtly it may refuse to claim one. De Souza rarely wanders into narrative territory, and even when she does it is clear she connects the middle of two threads rather than their ends, the resultant of which is the tenacity and spontaneity her style has now come to be marked for. In Summer she writes:
Ash pits all across the land.
In some, the fires of Holi
Even the moon has begun
to take refuge from the sun.
De Souza’s ability to cut down on attrition from verbiage is a thing in itself. She makes images come out easily, without the ponderousness of a metaphorical sledge, rolling along the slope of your brain until it slips off an edge, out of memory. There isn’t too much standing around on ceremony. She kicks a can as and when she can. In Compound life she accrues from experience, a kind of shock-and-stop comparisons, a relativity that beguiles the reader as much as it troubles middle-sense human:
Mrs V beats her husband.
The churchman says:
Into every life
a little rain must fall.
What can trees do in such a place
except light their own fires.
The night watchman
Sleeps through the night.
Opening his tiffin he says
This is a good job.
The best I ever had.
A compound full of silver cars.
The sky with not a single silver star.
The irony and brevity of these passages is what de Souza’s previous collections have established her the chauffeuse of. She is unsparing, yet sympathetic, curt as an observer, but kind as a victim of her own observation. She identifies with the church yet not the man within it, and refers to him as the ‘churchman’ as if to tell us that men run on establishments and not the other way round. In Western Ghats she writes more personally:
Fling my ashes in the Western Ghats
They’ve always seemed like home.
May the leopards develop
A taste for poetry
The crows and kites learn
To modulate their voices.
May there be mist and waterfalls
Grass and flowers
In the wrong season.
For a poet, a reader is the anomaly, his or her existence the unseasonal expansion of a barn walled by seasons of experience. And therein lies the impossibility and hostility towards poetry itself. Poetry, perhaps, is literature written in the wrong season. Enough people stake their ignorance of it on the impossibility of it becoming anything or something; which isn’t to say it isn’t, but more to say, that it doesn’t have to, captured best in the poem that gives the book its title:
Learn from the almond leaf
which flames as it falls.
The ground is burning.
The earth is burning.
De Souza doesn’t hold up a torch here, to light the room so much so to even shovel a bit of darkness out the door. You are on your own she says. And poetry says that too. A poem will not put its arm around you, because you are the arm and the ears, the mind and heart. A poem breathes through you. And in de Souza’s poems that breath is taken away, ridden by anguish, painstakingly considering the time it takes to overcome grief and the question of existence. In her late poems, de Souza isn’t personal, she has moved outside, and is watching, writing in short spurts, linking bottlenecks to the bar-ending tables with a kind a clear conscience, the surface of which is coated with fire, the almond leaf falling or not.
First Published On : Oct 8, 2016 09:26 IST