This is a column by Vinita Agrawal.
Born in 1969, Ranjit Hoskote is a Mumbai-based poet, art theorist, independent curator. He is the author of five collections of poetry: Zones of Assault, The Cartographer’s Apprentice, The Sleepwalker’s Archive, Vanishing Acts: New & Selected Poems 1985-2005 and Central Time. He has edited an anthology of fourteen contemporary Indian poets. He writes in English.
Hoskote has received the Sanskriti Award for Literature (1996) and the British Council/ Poetry Society of India Annual Competition (1997). In 2004, the national academy of letters honoured him with the Sahitya Akademi Golden Jubilee Award.
His poetry has appeared in journals in India and abroad, including Poetry Review (London), Wasafiri (Canterbury), Rattapallax (New York), Fulcrum (Cambridge, Mass.), The Iowa Review(Iowa City), West Coast Line (Burnaby), Art and Thought (Bonn), The New Straits Times (Kuala Lumpur), Indian Literature (New Delhi), among others. He has been a Visiting Writer and Fellow of the International Writing Program of the University of Iowa (1995) and writer-in-residence at the Villa Waldberta, Munich (2003). His work has been translated into German.
Hoskote poetry is intellectually rigorous, technically vigilant, texturally sophisticated and committed to exploring the image and its many possibilities. His influences have been eclectic, and he acknowledges his debt to writers as diverse as Wallace Stevens, Brodsky, Montale, Dom Moraes, Agha Shahid Ali, Bhartrihari and Jayadeva, to name a few.
In his introduction to his anthology of contemporary Indian poets, Hoskote locates himself and the other selected poets as those who find themselves “at home in a world in which the boundary between the local and the global has increasingly been blurred; they wrestle with the ethical and artistic dilemmas produced by such a blurring”.
Hoskote “traces his poetic journey from its early view of the poem as hermetic artefact to a more porous entity, inviting but no less mysterious, less opaque but no less magical. Through this entire journey, however, his writing has revealed a consistent and exceptional brilliance in its treatment of image. Hoskote’s metaphors are finely wrought, luminous and sensuous, combining an artisanal virtuosity with passion, turning each poem into a many-angled, multi-faceted experience, shadowy with contour and resonance.”
Hoskote’s sensibilities are laced with striking visuality, an abiding historical awareness, and the constant undertow of the archetypal and the mythic.
He has worked on translations of Bhartrihari from the Sanskrit, Lal Ded (the medieval Kashmiri woman mystic), Dahake (the contemporary Marathi poet). He read American poetry, especially Adrienne Rich, Jori Graham, James Merrill. In 1995, I went to the International Writing Program in Iowa, and met many of the poets he had read – from Mark Strand to Louise Gluck.
As a result he was able to gradually articulate some of my misgivings about Zones. His work also grew increasingly fascinated by the game of trying out various identities: “I’ve always been attracted to the persona of the spy, the interpreter, the double agent. Perhaps it has something to do with being a poet among critics, a critic among poets, a theorist among curators.”
Hoskote’s poetry is about a constant play of resources – of language, cadence, sound and association. It’s about working through the polarities of baroque and spare, of shaping a poetry that is not too skeletal or too flabby.
Critics declare that Ranjit Hoskote is the most interesting contemporary Indian poet writing about women today. “His poems have an acutely keen, lynx-eyed vision, coupled with an attentiveness to the minutiae of their mystical inner lives, often addressing metaphysical questions with an intuitive, precise timbre.”
Annunciation, his account of Mary Nazareth, and Fulcrum, his poem dedicated to Camille Claudel, are both significantly rewarding reads.
Objects are lesson: from bowls, hairpins, brooches,
you learn of forgotten lives.
from Portrait Of A Lady
TWO POEMS BY RANJIT HOSKOTE
A door. A stair. And two steps inside that dark,
the straight-backed chair my grandmother sat in,
a lace net draped across its mahogany arm.
And on the table, a volume of stories
open at the flyleaf, its tissue quill-scarred.
The photographs seal her in a shell of relations:
the sepia corset would have her no more
than an empress delegating domestic chores;
in this room, imagine her gravely accepting
tributes of porcelain and sparkling brass
or setting tiger lilies afloat in bowls, or stocking
pots of pickled mango in the attic of summer.
But the wrong word kills, and empress is wrong,
an acrid graft on a delicate stock. Empire
was never her creed: grandmother had to learn
the principles of governance from practised hands.
She had to whet the brusque words of command
on waspish crones in the inner courtyard,
had to tame the peacocks in the garden
and dry the raisins of tact with aunts-in-law,
invalids who ruled from brass-bound chests
and serene beds of illness.
She grew up with her children, kept house
in a city of merchant ships and parade-ground strife,
made a home in the rain-gashed heart
of that world in whose lanes stowaway Chinese sang
the praises of their silk, and coolies peddled
cartloads of spices plucked for colder ports.
Like the poets of that city, she wrote in two languages,
spoke a third in polite company, the lines enjambed
over the trellises, the words trapped in porous stone.
She died giving birth to a daughter
on Armistice Day, 1931.
She grew into the earth, then, a storied fig tree
whose roots shot to heaven and branches burrowed
so deep they seeded a forest.
Giving consumed grandmother. Connected to her
by nothing more substantial than a spiralled thread
of protein, I wake some nights to find her eyes
staring at me from the mirror:
grandmother when she died, younger than I am now,
cut in half by the streetlight’s glare.
Hoard your powers, she says, do not give
from the core, my son, do not give.
Giving spites the flesh, corrodes intention.
Most unreliable of barters, most memorable of sins,
giving kills. My son, do not, like Karna,
rip off the armour that is your skin.
[From: The Sleepwalker’s Archive]
The Postman’s Last Song For The Moon
You glide in plain view, gravity’s nearest slave,
floating outside our windows, just out of reach,
an ice fruit we’d love to pluck
from the sky’s jet branches.
What stops us is we know
the tides would roar and lunge, break their contract if we did:
wall-high waves rushing houses and stores, vaulting over gates,
an army of madmen dancing on drowned asphalt.
Rain-wrapped, fog-tangled, how easily we forget
oceans that have dried and shrunk
to ravines where the eye never settles,
the heart now never goes. Like the Sea of Tranquillity:
so wildly utopian we gave it to you,
tattooed it on your skin’s acceptance.
Safe behind glass and our chartreuse curtains,
we watch it float by on full-moon nights and smile.
The mortgage of our nights and days is so quickly claimed.
You measure breath in the centuries it takes
to carve a pensive ellipse through space.
Messages conveyed, you dip below mouldy clouds
or submit with reluctance to an eclipse,
never more than half deciphered.
You keep your dark side hidden as you shine,
a riddle orbiting in the wide-open eye.
Sickle of the harvest, lantern of our last rooms!
Green moon of January nights,
you’ll bark at our windows,
a dog begging for a bone
long after we’ve gone.
Other voices will wake up to answer:
survivors from the minefields of sleep,
they will pelt you with curses, extradite you to memory.
[for Jeet Thayil]
Author of three books of poetry, Vinita is a Mumbai based, award winning poet and writer. Recipient of the Gayatri GaMarsh Memorial Award for Literary Excellence her poems have appeared in Asiancha, Constellations, The Fox Chase Review, Pea River Journal, Open Road Review, Stockholm Literary Review, Poetry Pacific, Mithila Review and over a 100 other national and international journals. She was awarded first prize in the Wordweavers Contest 2014 and won the 2014 Hour of Writes Contest thrice. Her poems have found a place in significant national anthologies like Suvarnarekha and Dance with the Peacocks in several international anthologies compiled in Australia and Israel. She was co-judge for the Asian Cha Poetry Contest, 2015.