Poetry Primero (Mumbai)
Reviewed by Jennifer Robertson
One of the secrets of poetic rhetoric in English, according to the British philosopher and poet Owen Barfield, is to romance the verse and renew the finer edges of the words. Success in poetry depends on the splendour of metaphorical verse and cognitive power. One searches for a restored quaintness that makes poetry immensely fecund. One quality that strikes me about D’Souza’s debut book of poetry, Three Doors (Poetry Primero), is the largeness of consciousness layered through many of his poems. With sustained, brilliant irony, he imputes the nightmare of a mosquito to a breathless road. These urban images are interspersed with flashes of academic theory in poems such as 'The Last Harvest', 'The Witch Hunt' and 'Revisiting The Waste Land'.
To say that the collection is a bundle of acerbic poems that are both witty and erudite would be an understatement. I very much agree with Randall Jarrell when he states that “there is as much joy in rescuing the reputation of a sleeping good writer as in chloroforming a mediocre one.” Dion D’Souza is definitely the former. His opening poem, ‘A Dilapidated Cottage’, sets the tone for the book where he highlights the treachery with which life can break us; twinkling rodent eyes et al. D’Souza imbibes a Hitchcockian approach of visual storytelling through some of his poems, where the imagery is sacrosanct. Take his poem 'The Nightmare of the Mosquito':
As the man advanced slowly / moving as if through a monotonous dream, / fumigating equipment in hand, the smoke / rising heavenward behind him/pungently engulfing the low walls / the people, their small homes and lives cluttering the narrow lane,/a boy in a red vest, / breathless/came bounding onto the road.
D'Souza’s deep study of melancholy or the excellence of the word and command of language serve not so much to illuminate or magnify the subject he chooses, but to render it new through a precise eye for details of the ordinary, the day- to-day, and the banal in his poem 'The Case of Kashibai'. A poem doesn’t simply or relate an event in the poet’s mind; it itself is an event. Nobody can generalise the way in which every poet writes, but it’s true that some turbulence happens in the poet’s mind, which takes shape as an event and is communicated to others through the written verse. Here’s an example shiver-down-your-spine kind of poem where D’Souza deploys feline elements masterfully woven with surprise into his poem 'Black Kitten':
Walking into the street / the heat hits as only heat can / (or a mother’s words maybe / and sometimes a perfect stranger’s). We are surprised at the sight of this black kitten in our path. (Thankfully not crossing it! / and yet what harm, / what ill luck could this scrawny creature inflict? / stumbling on thin legs / from under a wire fence, and almost onto Death’s –familiar?—doorstep.)
The subtle art of understanding and reading poetry begins with mastering appropriateness and the presence of an allusion. Many of his poems are poetically pithy and ironic, compelling us to remember the queen of this craft – Eunice D’Souza. Allow me to present a nocturnal delicacy from the book. It is a tiny poem called 'King'.
He takes off his head / at the end of the day, / lays it aside / like a crown.
The poems 'King' and 'Sleep' have a cool Shakespearean air of spectatorial engagement and detachment. The poet creates distance aesthetically by using irony. Here are the closing lines in 'Angulimala', a sentence enraged and seething:
“There are not digits enough in this world to number the world’s injustices.”
In many of his poems, D’Souza uses allusion to keep the past alive; embracing Dali and Eliot, his poems range from visual to literary masters. Here’s the closing line from the poem 'The Persistence of Memory':
"Good morning, folks and good night / This has been a quick inventory."
Similarly, in 'Revisiting The Waste Land':
Consider Mr Eliot / returning to his flat / each evening / turning the keys in its lock / the furniture patient / the pencils on the desk sharpened / penitent / the sheaf of papers white and blank/ as anticipation / Still today nothing / nothing
While most of the book is linguistically sound, one feels the need for a greater emphasis on the lean ‘I’. Even though D’Souza’s poems are accessible and not necessarily oracular, the projection of a stronger or subverted self would have rendered the poems an unmistakable robustness. Take, for example, 'The Avenue' and 'Ageing', which lend themselves to benign reading, but could be metrically more adroit - less self-deprecating and more prophetic; more constant in their treatment of the self. Allow me to quote a short passage from Tennyson’s 'Ulysses' where he captures the perils of ageing with masterful precision. This could be an example to improve upon D’Souza’s version in 'Ageing'. Sample Tennyson:
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old / Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end, / Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
I’d like to close with a reminder that D'Souza's debut book is a mixed bag, clubbed with reassured diction, irony, synecdoche, and metaphors, making it a plurivocal read; one that will require revisiting to peel off the various layers. As Ranjit Hoskote mentions in his blurb, Three Doors is an empathetic debut which settles on mottled stray dogs and kittens, maids and beggars, exhausted teachers and students, newly painted walls and panoramas. Read this book to discover silverfish and their secret civilisation. This is how Dion D’Souza conquers and claims the metropolis – as the city rewritten.