Review by Rob Spence
In recent years, when reading a book of poems by some acclaimed contemporary poet, I’ve often thought, “wait a minute, this poem is almost exactly the same in tone, theme and expression as the last four or five in this collection.” There’s a tendency for poets to seize upon a certain mood, a certain attitude, and repeat it ad nauseam, like a pop star recycling an old hit. Not all poets, of course, and certainly not Amit Chaudhuri, whose latest volume is, to say the least, eclectic. It’s a rather curious collection, with a necessarily awkward title, which details the scope of the volume. Chaudhuri is over sixty now, and this collection, deliberately non-chronological, veers to and fro across his long career. In doing so, it demonstrates his virtuosity, and his willingness to experiment with form and topic. Often, the impulse behind the poem seems to be an event in the poet’s varied life, giving some sort of loose unity to this wide-ranging selection.
To deal with the title first: rather than a conventional “Selected”, this volume reproduces in full a recent book, Sweet Shop, which appeared in 2019; then a hefty chunk of an even more recent collection, Ramanujan, which was published two years ago, followed by a new, prose sequence called Short Q and A; then more conventional selections from St Cyril Road, published in 2005, but containing work completed twenty years earlier; and concluding with some new poems and translations. There is also a useful author’s introduction, and some brief explanatory notes, mainly focusing on translations of Bengali words and phrases. The overall effect is to present a portrait of a restless mind, forever questioning the experiences that life serves up, and adapting his technique to make sense of it all. In doing so, he never loses his air of wonder at what he encounters. Like a child in a sweet shop, one might say, though of course the sweet shops evoked by Chaudhuri are the Kolkata mishtir dokan of his youth.
Certainly, food and drink, and the relishing thereof, form an important theme in Chaudhuri’s world. In “Fingers”, he celebrates his childhood joy at eating with his hands:
…They plunged into
its heat. The plate was full.
They entered the world below.
Never had they known anything
like the contact, been so close.
They eddied and circled round
and were half drowned, half consumed,
by the elements they visited.
There’s a definite sense of devilment in the twelve-year-old’s boycott of cutlery, coupled with the sensual pleasure of the direct contact with the food. In “Eating at Home”, the adult Chaudhuri connects with the past through the cooking of his dead mother:
For visitors my wife brought out
a pot of tamarind chutney
made when my mother was there.
The coarse gur-coated chhara was hair
unspooling from an atavistic scalp
that in time grew
sweet-sour: we eat our forebears.
This ability to see commonplace items with a fresh eye is in evidence throughout this volume, and at times I was reminded of Craig Raine’s “Martian” poems. Away from food, Chaudhuri also reflects on his experience in academia, and in the poems from the Ramanujan collection, he contemplates the life of the eponymous inspirational mathematician, whose alienating experience in First World War era Oxford is contrasted with that of a modern Hindu student in the town.
Poor Ramanujan! Seventy years
before you he must have been
the first meat-abhorring Hindu
to conjure up from odds and ends
-no spices then in Oxford, no
curry leaves, hardly anything
even for ordinary Englishmen
in a time of conflict and rationing-<
a semblance, at odd hours of night and day
of an aroma that half pacified
the voice that asked, Why are you here?
Even here, exploring the alienation felt by the strict Brahmin in the early years of the century, it is food that provides the key touchstone for the portrayal of sensibility. Ramunujan, who actually spent his time in England at Cambridge, is not the only real life figure to be mentioned in these pages. Musicians Keith Jarrett and Joni Mitchell are featured, but both as stimuli for the poet’s reactions. Broader, less personal issues are prominent too: the poem “Refugees” seems to have been inspired by the sight of women from the Bosnian conflict of the nineties arriving in London, but as the opening makes clear, there is a timeless and universal significance to the issue:
Refugees are periodic
Biennial or triennial or
recurring at great intervals
they aren’t expected
or recognised when they’re back.
Chaudhuri’s poems do not follow any particular style, though he rejects formal patterns in favour of a loose approach to prosody, and I imagine the poems carry more weight when spoken than on the page. At his best, his words are provocative, the images sharply realised, and the sensations evoked startlingly memorable. The unifying element is the closeness of the observation, often of otherwise banal situations, through which the layers of memory emerge, to make for a deeply personal yet satisfyingly recognisable exploration of his world.
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Amit Chaudhuri, Sweet Shop: New and Selected Poems, 1985 – 2023 (NYRB, 2023). 978-1681377001, 167pp., paperback.
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