by Sasenarine Persaud, (Mawenzi House, 2018)
When one thinks of Indian poetry in English, the first names to pop up are Rabindranath Tagore, who won the Nobel prize in literature in 1913 for his “profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse,” and Rupi Kaur, the Indian born Canadian poet, whose book of poems, Milk and Honey,—more millennial aphorisms to live by—captured the hearts of generation Z young women, spending a whopping 77 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. In reality, Indian poetry in English, both in India and the Indian diaspora, is a many-tentacled genre that carries, among other things, the fractured legacy of colonialism and economic migration. So when we speak of Indian poetry in English, we are looking at poetry not just from India, but also from diaspora communities that have long resided in Europe, Africa, America, the West Indies, and other locales. But what of those poets that move from one geographical location to another, embracing all of them as home?
In poet and writer Sasenarine Persaud’s verse, we encounter a global voice whose shapeshifting spirit flits between Edinburgh, Guyana, India, Canada, Sri Lanka, and the United States. Persaud was born in Guyana to parents of Indian descent but has lived in Toronto, Canada, as well as Florida, for several years and this comes through in his poetic excursions which leave the reader breathless as they try to keep pace with him.
In his latest book of poems, Monsoon on the Fingers of God (Mawenzi House, 2018), the lush backdrop of Scotland is where Sasinarine Persaud invites the reader to journey with him into a deluge of history, religion, and geography, where notions of home and identity are constantly questioned and displaced. In the poem, Karma Mornings, the reader is asked,
When did you melt into the white-brown
morning mist indentured to the land, into
the fire-flaming cardinal on the paling;
when did you melt into a black racer
into the rain-cavorting grass and pink
beauties, rain lilies, ringing the wild lawn;
The reader not only experiences four seasons in one day but multiple geographies and cultures as well. In the long lyric titled Edinburgh, which consists of 62 poems, the poet questions his own presence, asking:
Canadian, how did you find yourself
in these uplands waiting for this world
to pass through your gaze and the audacity
—”poetry doesn’t pay the bills”—
And while the profession of a poet may mean near-empty pockets, there is a richness of capturing a life lived, the thrill of exploration in which the poet is a spelunker of experience, carrying the world on his shoulders.
Plunking down your keys, bag
a rattle, pigments from ancient trees
in South America, musk from African
animals, hues from Asian soils—the earth
the heavy earth we release from our shoulders
Edinburgh, 48–Approaching Day’s End
Using the Scottish referendum of 2014—in which the question of Scotland becoming its own independent country was posed—as a jumping point or rather portal, Persaud unleashes a tug of war between freedom and captivity, where land and identity blur into a mythical creature always on the verge of self-combustion.
We are German American Spanish Chinese
looking for a mythic land. Dragon and dragon
Slayer. Crickets hallowed grounds. Grandfather
in Bowler hat and tie and jacket—khaki not tweed
How IndianWestIndianEnglish can you get posing at
the hospital gate…
But how does this journey into the loch end? When the clouds part, what is revealed? We find remnants of a raga that has conjured Hindu Gods like Rama and his trusted devotee Hanuman. There is Kali who is darkness and love, her tongue mingling with the patois of the West Indies, the Gaelic of the Scots where Edinburgh is Edinboro, this language we speak, strange scripts. When it is time for the reader to leave, the poet imagines children flying away into the sky, tourists, alighting from coaches and drenching their umbrellas, as Lord Rama flies into the verdant green. Every space gets filled and emptied, and yet there is always room for the sacred, for multiplicity.
The rest of the poems in Monsoon on the Fingers of God echo the ephemeral—here today, gone tomorrow. One such poem that emulates this is Lost, where the poet points out how our digital world has left us bereft.
A thief come with technology
To usurp meaning; you can twitter
all night and not make a song
Or hear a sparrow or a wren
You can surf all day
and never feel a weed washed
up ashore or sand in your toes
Throughout the collection, language and imagery glint off of each other, a dizzying Ferris wheel of taste, touch, and sound. But location is always the muse and the base, where the tandava dance between experience and truth takes place, ultimately revealing a sharper, new reality. This unique style, in which the poet takes shards of fact and compacts them with imagery and lyrical cadence, renders a dense, rich kaleidoscopic effect, a union of the outer world and inner spirit. Persaud has come up with a phrase for this style of writing, defining it as ‘yogic realism,’ in which the spiritual practice of yoking mind, body and spirit is felt on the page. We see the culmination of this in the last poem of the collection If Kali Were a Car, where the Hindu Goddess, Kali, is a vehicle for spiritual realization, but also the holder of taste and the keeper of time, omnipresent as old empires crumble and new ones are built. The reader is alerted to this new world and asked to celebrate, to do the dragon dance, as island calypso rings in their ears. Monsoon on the Fingers of God is an intricate dance between inclination and emotion, a palimpsest of migration in which several layers shine through. Along with the poet, the reader finds that their worldview has shifted, their way of looking at the world much brighter after the deluge.
Shikha Malaviya (www.shikhamalaviya.com) is an Indo-American poet & writer. Her book, Geography of Tongues, was featured in several literary festivals. Shikha is a co-founder of The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, a mentorship model literary press dedicated to new poetic voices from India and the Indian diaspora. Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and featured in PLUME, Prairie Schooner, Water~Stone Review and other fine journals. Shikha was a featured TEDx speaker in GolfLinks, Bangalore, where she gave a talk on poetry. She has been a three-time mentor for AWP’s Writer to Writer Mentorship Program and was selected as Poet Laureate of San Ramon, California in, 2016. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay area.