SEXLESS SOLITUDE AND OTHER POEMS: A Review by Patricia Prime
Reviewed b y Patricia Prime
R. K. Singh is one of India’s senior poets and critics. His poetry has been published in many national and international journals, in book form and on the internet. Sexless Solitude and Other Poems sifts a decade of his published work, and it is typical of the unassuming nature of the man that the title poem casts him wishing to be enlightened, for “her light is not priced
/ but gifted to enlighten / the silver-linings.” Not the man to take his art for granted.
This is Singh’s richest collection yet, as wry and witty as ever, but with a deeper tenderness and engagement. All ninety-nine poems in this volume testify to a lifetime of honest practice. Singh’s rigorous ethics, kindness, deep understanding of sexuality, solitude and sympathy are measured by having deep roots in place. There is a fascinating variety of subjects, and now and then language that catches the attention. One such poem which leapt out at me was “Eyeless Jagannath.” Its formality (triplet stanzas) and formality of speech allow the sparingly used images their full force – the kind of images one doesn’t often come across:
I can’t understand
their mystic heaven or thrills
housed in awareness
or sources of plastic mist
through mythical depths
the wings of my thought
are too short to climb God’s height
or blue deeps of peace
Another characteristic of Singh’s poetry is his deep thoughtfulness, too engaged with feeling to be described as philosophical. He is very good at the ineffable emotions that are contained in certain landscapes, certain weathers, or watching human beings in some special act or moment of chance, such as we see in “Awareness Matters”:
Each death has a passage
to surprise the dead
no solace the cow’s tail
in the river’s midst
heaven, far, too far
There is an elegiac note struck in many of these poems that lends a sense of powerful inevitability to the story he is telling. In “Liberation,” for instance, he writes:
Their freedom to choose
keeps them together for love
exchange discourse for lunghi
body for liberation
yoga and meditation
It makes one realize the power of sexuality and the occasional use of an Indian word adds to the mystery of the poem.
There are many lovely lyrics here. Let’s take a look at “Valley of Self.” The stanzas gloss the ordeal of not knowing where to turn for “the promised fulfillment”:
I see no savior come
to rescue me when mired
I seek freedom from myself:
my ordeals are mine alone
in the valley of self
I must learn to clear the clouds
soaring high or low
Knowledge is seen as problematical, only he can find the freedom of spirit within himself; this is ironic in that Singh clearly does not know where to seek the solace and comfort he seeks.
It is this theme of personal relationships on which Singh lays the most stress. For it is against the survival of personal and human values that the odds in modern society have been laid. But these pressures drive the poet to the rediscovery of emotions, mythopoeia, and ultimately, of religious modes of response to the world. This describes his goals, often enough achieved, accurately. It is thrilling to be in the mind of this great, restless poet.
The nexus of Singh’s text is formed by the moral and ethical quandaries we are in; the awful paradoxes, the frightening ironies contained in the quotidian. Who else would call a poem “Bliss Through Death,” indicating the fear and pain inherent in a girl’s menstruation? “They Call God Loudly” turns creatures who “blare / senseless mantras” into agents of fear. “ain” cruelly focuses on the persona’s disability to empathies with his wife. “I Am No Jesus” catches us at our shared dubious predilection to suffer as “a common man” the pain and humiliation of Jesus’ crucifixion. Finally, the “Dons in Four Walls” lets the reader know what it’s like behind the façade of academia.
“Rain Drops” begins “No perfume reduces / the damp watery smell / of the towel hanging in the bathroom.” A personal scene that seems to be remembered by the poem’s speaker leads to an intimate sharing with the reader. There is no ceremony of innocence in front of the altar of personal relationships. The lines seize us in the immediacy of the situation. “I’m Different” invites the reader into the personal remembrance of what it means to be a poet:
I enjoy the self, as much as others
and peep through the façade they raise
to make room for themselves in the sky
I live in me and am happy with
my little images that lift up
the sight and soul and please for a while
my brief thoughts in briefer words deride
the romantic eloquence and mist
they weave in pellucid silence
Politics also enters the poetry, as witnessed in “Politics Defies Silence”:
So they ever see themselves
their truth inside the mirror?
sound too much anger and hate
burn humans and homes to teach
lessons never learnt but played
the communal card for rights
no god granted. Their petty
politics defies silence
Nature too has a part to play, although it shows a hidden face, as we see in “River’s Song”: “With steel flow / the rolling water / pierces the rocks / and shapes them into stars” and “Snake”: “Hiding or waiting / it raises its head when least / expected, a snake,” where the words “pierces” and “hiding and waiting” alerts us to the dangers that may be lurking beneath nature’s kindness.
Poems about protest and terrorism are placed alongside the more lyrical love poems, such as “Wit and Soul”:
A Matisse or Picasso
the secrecy of your face
I don’t understand
you, your body or the nude
even if I touch
hold your hand or sleep with you
sharing long kisses
the mystery of the dark womb
your mind and silence
hardly make up love we seek
squeezing wit and soul
The colloquial voice assumes a common assent to an attitude toward the world, the self and each other, a tone that excludes anything that may stand in the way of truth. The rules that govern the narrow and banal daily routines are a tightly structured reality governed by expectations of what is right and proper and are excluded from Singh’s themes of sexuality, fear and death.
Singh’s poetry is not only completely and refreshingly free of the triviality of blind confessionalism or of gratuitous appreciations of the natural world. He is refreshingly unafraid of developing an undisguised dimension of existential inquisitiveness in his poetry, by means of deceptively simple, energetic language, emotional and mental density, and memorable imagery, to the overall effect of challenging the reader.
He deals poignantly with the themes of sexuality and solitude without getting sentimental. His short pieces have a bounce and rhythm that give the sense of great energy and he deals with themes such as personal inner conflict with unremitting candour. The sensitive poet suffers in the narrow, vicious and violent realities he witnesses, in the course destroying all illusions any reader, with romantic idylls in his/her mind, may have entertained.