Words and Images
Tom Alter, Biblio
Sudeep Sen's Prayer Flag is a stunning book of poetry, photographs and live audio reading by the poet accompanied with music ( included in a CD). The selection of 55 poems have been written over two decades from 1983-2003. This multi-media compilation is a first for a poet from India to be published internationally. Gregor Robertson on BBC rightly places Sen "amongst the finest younger English-language poets in the international literary scene. A distinct voice: carefully modulated and skilled, well measured and crafted" -- high and rare praise indeed.
Sen's is also the fluttering of gentle words in the searching winds of true poetry:
"She was only
an accidental figure
in the wide-screen frame."
His words are strung together delicately, like row after row of prayer flags -- "... magic carpets -- / shapes caught on / an unintentional clothesline -- // ...".
They are intensely personal -- "each an island, / each with its own terrain, texture, / inscription, and scripture." But, as in all great poetry, in their reaching out they both expose the poet's soul, and touch the reader, deeply and keenly.
Prayer Flag is not a conventional poetry collection, but a unique object of art that reveals the two intrinsically linked artistic sides of Sen's work and talent -- words and images. His evocative photography and design, with its play of colours and the recorded ebb and flow of his own voice, drifting in and out of a Bengali, Indian and international ethos, makes the book a complete sensory experience.
Upon first reading, the beauty of the words -- the fragile tension of the images -- appear seamless in their simplicity and lucidity. Then, when you return to the poems, the ease in the poet's effort smiles at you, and the craftsmanship of the artist shines through. Each line flutters into the next, but in that, one can hear the gentle tapping of the chisel over the wind's song, the soft patter -- and pattern -- of tears on the page as passion is sculpted into poetry. In the short poem 'Conceit', the structure is restrained, and yet fulfilling:
"Whether it is
the oddity of image
Or, as in the title poem, 'Prayer Flag', the perfection of musicality, tone and cadence is tuned to produce the finest resonance:
"... -- I also
like the wind's occasional sound,
its severe current tearing through
the flag's heart -- picking out
the perfect pitch and melody."
The poem, 'Scattered Pieces of a Quarrel', is framed on the right by a photograph of an old, paint-scarred door; the door closed by a rusted latch. Yet the words of the poem reach through the grains in the wood like "breaking glass-ware" scattering "smithereens / as the soprano of anguish startles a bluebird in // the nest outside, on the terracotta ledge / of [his] alcove". This is the finest example of Sen's visual and verbal language speaking as one.
Sen's prayer flags test the wind not only on the cold, austere banks of Manas Sarovar, but on the streets of Delhi too, and in the devastated memories of Hiroshima.The poet reminds us that we, like the woman at the edge of the lake in 'Prayer Flag', are so often not,
"mourning or crying,
just gazing fixedly
into the water's changing glimmer,
as the sky's wet weight
and the shore's rocky line meet,
their edges meandering
melting into the lake itself."
Sen shows us our own selves, shows us the lake -- and then invites us, entices us, to take the plunge at least "for the briefest while" to realise, to sense,
"How each flag -- each one,
must have preserved secrets
that only their owners knew.
How each, a talisman--
exuded safety and calm --
shrouding away grief
for the briefest while,
when one forgets everything --
real, imagined -- and just dreams."
That is the gift Sudeep Sen bestows in Prayer Flag -- the gift of a dream, of dreaming.
"It is full moon in August:
the origami garlands surrounding
glitter as the stars, plutonium--
remember the fall-out of that sky.
Tonight everyone walks around the
where lovers were once supposed
In the distance, the crown of
Mount Fuji sits, clear
on the icy clouds, frozen in time
Suddenly the clouds detonate, and
all the petals,
translucent, wet, coalesce: a
peeling softly in a huge slow
But that's only a dream.
Tonight, real flowers are blooming
in the ancient Japanese
The above poem 'Remembering Hiroshima Tonight' first appeared in Sen's first book, The Lunar Visitations, published when he was just 24. It shows his maturity and facility with language even at that young age. Prayer Flag is a gift to treasure from a master artist.
This review relates to the book
by Sudeep Sen