Home to Ballygunge: Kolkata Tanka PDF Print E-mail

Home to Ballygunge: Kolkota Tanka, William Hart; MET Press 2010; ISBN 1935398172, 9781935398172; 72 pages

A review by Don Wentworth

 

            Home to Ballygunge: Kolkata Tanka, a new collection by the fine haiku and tanka poet, William Hart, is a linked set of narrative verses chronicling the narrator’s early life in and subsequent return to the Kolkata suburb of Ballygunge. Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta in the English speaking world, is the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal and the commercial capital of West India, a large, vibrant urban city of the Indian subcontinent.

            Linked poetry in its many forms provides a great many challenges for both the poet and the poet’s audience. The linkage in Ballygunge is narrative in scope and biographical in subject, playing out over a large arc of 50 individual tanka. The tanka each appear on a separate page, inviting the reader to assess each individually as well as part of the greater whole. The collection, though lyrical, has a linear quality; there are a number of poem clusters (of 2, 3 & 4 poems each) which supply a kind of flow that can alternately add or detract from the overall impact. The “linked” poems include poems about Baba (father) and Ma, about an  uncle, about the narrator leaving a party, and such varied subjects and imagery as cooking, vision, rain, birds, rivers (the Hooghly & the Musi), and trains. These are not so much themes themselves as images that carry the true themes: memory, death, identity, departure and return, and home. This is where the narrative resides; a few of these poems are among the best in the collection.

            The idea of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts is laudable in any poetry project. There is, of course, the potential downside of individual pieces not being as forceful as they might be in the service of that whole.

            This is, perhaps, small change. One need only think of reading the average book of poems: how many poems we read once and discard, until we happen upon, ah, a gem, and another, suddenly we’ve found half a dozen fine pieces and deem the collection a success. Putting together an entire linked volume of poetry, especially all in one particular form, puts a great deal of pressure, even more than in a standard collection, on the individual parts, and one should consider if, in fact, that type of pressure is fair.

            I’ve been through this volume any number of times, enjoying it more with each delving. There are nine individual tanka which I found myself returning to again and again. Amidst the hubbub of life in India and the narrator’s return to scenes of  childhood, the first outstanding poem emerges:

 

the center
of my life
all at once becomes
the gnat drowning
in my eye

 

The narrator suddenly is yanked out of his everyday moment and, as in the best haiku, it is nature which incites revelation. The center shifts to a gnat and the universality of death is underscored by the physical affront to the eye. One feels the compassion and the almost comradeship of the speaker with the gnat, who is now the center of his life. Yet it seems as if it is the fragility of his own existence which is threatened; the narrator, as well as the reader, feels himself a mere gnat drowning in a few drops of fluid. This is no mere metaphor for death; the contrast in size makes one think of the huge population of Kolkata and the experience of everyday life beyond one mere human and one mere gnat.

 

a darling mouth
pouts from a piece of poster
fallen on the sidewalk
oh, my fickle heart
to trip on that!               

 

This recalls, for this reader, tanka’s origin in courtly love poetry. Hart, as a haiku artist, is nothing if not a romantic. This tanka gives us an intimate glance at the speaker’s soul, is at once a humorous and lovely image, and feels in that image almost a perfect traditional tanka. A bit lightweight, perhaps, but this is one of the poems which carries the narrative along and so we must acknowledge that there are two kinds of weight bearing present here.

 

my tongue returns
to the loose filling
my mind
to the words
I can't take back     

 

Here is another swift, incisive glimpse into the mind – there is the double sense of loss, one loss triggering the memory of another and, if by analogy, the second, too, is like losing a piece of one’s own self. The memory conjured is full of regret and, since it can be a memory of almost anything, it may further the narrative in its universality.

                                                                                                                                    

this thing between us
like sun rising in fog—
brightness without light
day with no beginning
words but no sound

 

This poem contains some of the many qualities I cherish in a William Hart poem: loss, lyrical nostalgia without a maudlin feel, precise imagery, making nearly tangible in language the intangible in life. The image in and of itself permeates all five lines yet leaves room for meaning; it is perfect. Ennui is one way of saying it; wabi sabi is another. 

 

dream-wide Hooghly
swallow my shout
sweep by me massive
without a whisper
put me in my place

 

Nature has intervened again, bringing that message that trumps all messages. The use of the idea of place somehow recalls, for me, the gnat in the eye as “the center of my life.” As in the previous poem, there is an absence of sound. These moments are moments outside of time, satori-like moments, moments of revelation, even when revelation is mystery.

 

since your name is Rain
when you become a woman
let your grief be rain-grief
tears so inclusive
they fall for us all

 

This works well on the literal as well as metaphoric levels. It is, as with so many of these poems, full  of sadness and wonder and love.  Once again, tanka origins come to mind.

 

at platform’s end
beyond the benches
and the lamplight
shadows on a blanket
the ancient ones

 

Here is the universal moment, here is the mundane transcended, again the play of shadow and light. The ancient ones … timeless, wordless, alive. This is the mystery of all mysteries.

 

sparrow song
now playing daily everywhere
though we may not hear it
a bright two-penny opera
ignoring human drama

 

Ah, the bright two-penny opera, ignoring human drama. One senses some otherness, just beyond the veil. Nature is at the center and we, like the drowning gnat, are at the center, and yet we seem to be apart. Again, we may not hear. Is this the ultimate point of sadness, of grief? Is this the Buddha’s First Noble Truth?

 

ring my heart with grime
revered Musi, fog my skull
with chemical perfume
bear me back to the river
marking my boyhood home

 

In this poem, which comes late in the collection, the biographical element coalesces. The fog, internalized, has returned, and the whole point takes on the flavor of timelessness a la Proust: a true moment of revelation, personal, spiritual, or other.

Does the overall concept work? Does Home To Ballygrunge actually come together as a collection of lyric-infused narrative tanka? In the end, finally, does it matter? 

These are questions I feel must be left up to each individual reader. Yet, still, I, the reader, the reviewer, will have my say. Somewhere between the second and third reading I found myself falling under a spell, one perhaps analogous to the spell recounted by the poet. 

Even more importantly, whether one feels the overall scheme works or no, there are some gorgeous individual poems, as noted above, that moved me at first reading and will last with me for quite some time.

Perhaps, who knows, for a lifetime.

Don Wentworth is the editor for over two decades of the poetry magazine Lilliput Review, which has an exclusive focus on the short poem. His own poetry has appeared in publications as diverse as Modern Haiku, Rolling Stone, bottle rockets and bear creek haiku. His first full-length collection of poems, Past All Traps, was published by Six Gallery Press in 2011.