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Distracted Geographies: An Archipelago of Intent

Written by Jane Bhandari for Biblio on no date provided

A book will always draw the reader's hand if it has an arresting title and an attractive cover, feels solid, and has properly bound pages that will not fall out on the second reading. If it can be stuffed into a pocket or handbag without suffering instant collapse, even better. The compact size and robustness of Distracted Geographies makes it eminently portable. It is also eminently re-readable.

This is a book that needs to be read from outside to inside and from end to end, beginning with the cover, where the human spine is visually related to the spine-like shape of Chile. Almost all clues to the American edition of the book are contained in a small rectangle of graphics on the cover: a segment of a map, minutely examined, reveals names of Scottish towns; a compass points to a journey, a key, to a house on loan. The spectacles might belong to a short-sighted traveller. Building plans suggest an architect, which is how Sen has approached the construction of this book. The flaps of the dust-cover continue the clues required to assimilate the meaning of the whole: it is worth reading the text before one starts on the book-length poem. To simply dip into Distracted Geographies, and take little samples here and there on the first reading, is to lose out on the careful construction of a long series, to interrupt the framework that holds the whole edifice together. These poems hang together as the bones of the body must, and should be read in sequence to experience a coherent whole: like bones, they require connection.

Only the poems in the section entitled ""Passion: Fifteen Movements on Erotica"" can be read out of context without losing their meaning. Each poem is able to stand alone, though as a collective entity they have immense erotic power. The poems range over ""love, loss, illness, passion and sex"": this is the story of a passage in the poet's life, distracted by the geography of the human body, by the urgency of desire that translates itself into poetry that in turn becomes shorthand for that desire. There is also introspection, as often happens when illness forces one to concentrate on oneself: the poet looking inwards, as all poets must from time to time. The first poem ('1') reveals the intent and range of the book:

""My thin country,
my own spine.

Locked dactyls, 
unconnected,

stretched, 
deeply fused.

Juices spill 
cautiously

like preserved 
semen

anguishing 
to let go.

Haemorrhage 
underlying

my retina 
focuses

incorrectly

on the passion 
of spent
moulting skin.

Steel splinters
injecting metal

hold
fragile bones,

desire
a delicate touch. ""

The first two sections of the book provide a setting for the oblique considerations of life, the importance of desire and sex -- all clearly and tersely set out. There are no ambiguities. Each poem is explicit. Sex is unashamedly sex, desire a celebration. Illness is a time to introspect upon the body, reflect on its imperfections, and let them pass. The poet makes more out of the pleasure and grand luxury of drinking single malt than of his mysterious illness, a joy that I found endearing, as was his revelation that the Scottish mountains (home of the single malt!) have the same bony coherence found in the body's spine. The vision of the familiar plump contours of an Ambassador car in the austere streets of Edinburgh raised a chuckle -- though it was probably an elderly Morris Oxford, historically the fore-runner of the Ambassador. The image of the Ambassador suggests a suppressed longing for the familiar objects of a past life, even as the Scottish lochs and ""remnant towers"" of ruined castles delight the Bengali abroad. The intrepid traveller, when not suffering the agonies of allergy, views paintings by Picasso, in which he recognises his own head, his ""cranium"" standing

' ""fossilised 
and

triangulated 
on the

black 'T' 
of a

crucifix."" ('Head I').

He speculates on the attraction of the gulls for the white tents of the famous Edinburgh Book Fair, and is rescued from several mishaps by his ""gull-friend"" Janus. A sly pun? In the poem titled 'C' (from the section 'Distractions 2'), a visit to the eye doctor becomes unexpectedly erotic:

""At the time, 
I was

trying merely 
to read

a backlit 
board...

The curve 
of

the doctor's 
breasts

matched
the sweep
of the letter 
'c', ....""

Some of the erotic poems have a familiar ring, they having appeared in a slightly different shape in Monsoon. But they still have an inherent delicacy that does not arise from the form, as in the poem 'Caress':

""Saryu,
the Zen

poet wrote: 
Without

the brush, 
the willow

paints
the wind.

To which 
I replied:

'Without 
the brush,

my breath 
paints

her
bare skin'.""

This poem has recently appeared in the prestigious international anthology, Indian Love Poems (Knopf/Everyman Library, USA/UK). The last poem, 'Coda', returns us to the theme of the first poem, and neatly winds up the collection. It is an elegant conceit to relate a country (Chile) to the spine, and then relate the spine to an entire series of poems arranged in bony, fragile-looking minimalist couplets. The delicate appearance of the text on the page is deliberate: this is the lover, tracing fingertip lines over the skin of his beloved. My only reservation is that perhaps it is a little too carefully constructed, and perhaps sacrifices spontaneity for design. Even the borrowed quotes (identified by italics within the poems and as epigraphs preceding the poems) have been wrestled into this form. It renders familiar lines unfamiliar, requiring a quantum shift to reassemble them into their original shape. Yet, as in a raga, the poems work well within the imposed constraints and the more muscular format (to borrow the metaphor of the bone).

This is a review of Distracted Geographies: An Archipelago of Intent

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