Gieve Patel's Collected Poems offer a rare journey into the writer’s mind and imagination, its development
Gieve Patel — a medical practitioner, playwright and painter — published his first collection of poems in 1966. The poem ‘On Killing a Tree’ from that collection is perhaps his most widely known.
William Wordsworth wrote in Resolution and Independence that young poets always ‘begin in gladness’. In the introduction to Gieve Patel’s Collected Poems (Paperwall, 2018) poet Arundhati Subramaniam puts Patel’s absence from the poetry scene for almost three decades down to two possibilities: a ‘sense of inner necessity being muted’ or Patel’s vigorous interaction with the visual arts compensating for that necessity in one way or another. It is easy to ascribe Patel’s missing act to the middling decency of the latter than Wordsworth’s suggestion of a later ‘madness’. That and the fact that Patel, from among the Bombay Poets, is also its least worn part, an amulet still unstudied to the extent that it enables detachment. It hasn’t helped over the years that the Bombay Poets have only recurred in celebratory capacity, with little attention given to critiquing their writings. Gieve Patel’s Collected Poems though offers that opportunity.
Patel — a medical practitioner, playwright and painter — much like his close friend, the painter Sudhir Patwardhan, first published a collection of poems as early as 1966. The poem ‘On Killing a Tree’ from that collection has become Patel’s 'calling card' in a sense. The earlier passivity of ‘the bleeding bark will heal’ to the a-sympathetic diction of ‘There may be a very small comfort/ In knowing yourself finally’ Patel’s early poetry is marked at least by a gladness to be able to express. His second collection, How Do You Withstand, Body published by Clearing House in 1976 brought a heightened — at times corrosive — manipulation of the image. ‘In your demolition/A besotted kind of love,' he writes.
Patel has always been self-aware. “Clearing House was the first poets' co-operative set up for publishing books of poetry, therefore the special interest in it. Once this phenomenon has been fully covered, interest will move to other events, I'm sure,” he says about the eternal obsession of Indian Poetry with the collective. Patel’s third book came out as late as 1991. Titled Mirorred, Mirroring (1991) this collection indicated a shift in Patel’s poetry, as he moved to the outside, starting to record sights, locate himself so to speak, and later redraw with tenacity that only a poet can offer to storytelling. ‘Dying/ Could be this luxury, melting away/ Into a quintessential afternoon’, he writes in one poem.
After his third collection Patel has been rather more rigorously involved in the visual medium. “Painting necessarily includes the daily routine of cleaning your brushes and palettes. The time spent on this becomes a quiet, introspective interval that allows you to get into ‘painting mode’, so to speak. As a result, I have found it less difficult to keep the painting going as a relatively regular activity,” he says. The allusion to discipline being its own toxin isn’t new. A number of poets through history stopped writing when poetry became too wondrous, or merely a wandering exercise of impermanent questions. For someone like Patel, who has been writing for 50 years, albeit sporadically, that impermanence must surely be sobering.
Most of Patel’s later poems and new ones that feature in the collection are informed by his practice as well. He writes in the poem 'Recover' ‘the skin released from his hand/would spring back to give to the world again/recognisable features he had/annihilated’. Patel zooms in on his practice and the question of impermanence, this time of the body reappears throughout. That said Patel’s poetry has never been clouded by the darkness of his other lives. “I sometimes say that when you feel helpless about life, when you feel that you have no 'solutions', maybe that's when you write a poem. Medical practice gives you many such moments of feeling helpless — you wish you could do more for someone, but you know you can't,” he says before adding, “of course, poetry is also written at moments of liberation.”
But as ecstatically as he would endorse the act of writing poetry, or creating any art for that matter, there is the case for retaining yourself for things beyond its monasticism, Patel believes. “It can sometimes be the other way around: the stress of working on the poems and the painting all by oneself in the studio is relieved by going to the clinic, meeting people, dealing with their problems,” Patel says. His poetry often gets playful when he hovers over dogs or a pair of bras and panties. But largely, his themes surrender to the persuasion of a kind of darkness, be it in the skin, or the air around it. Unlike most of his peers, Patel, at least in his early days, seldom referenced the city he calls home — Bombay/Mumbai. For someone who is essentially known as a 'Bombay poet', his love, or perhaps hate for the city, has rarely been carried through his poetry. In contrast he has found devotion for the late Gujarati poet Akho, whose translations he gives us a glimpse of in this book. Patel’s imagery doesn’t always convince though, and his poems can often be mobbed by the necessity to say things quickly. The slightness, welcome in the age of digital dictionaries and spell-checks, may not always be as rewarding.
That said, Patel’s collected poems offers much that should be lauded, foremost of them a rare journey into the writer’s mind, his development, in some cases the crowding of his imagination as well. These poems shine, as Subramaniam correctly writes, with ‘hard-won luminosity’. And though the light may be uneven at places, you’ll walk through it just about fine.
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