July 30, 2014
Essay on Ranjit Hoskote, "Cultivating Mirages" by Douglas Messerli
Ranjit Hoskote Central Time: Poems 2006-2014 (New Delhi: Penguin Book Boos India, 2014)
Indian Anglophone poet Ranjit Hoskote’s most recent collection of poetry, Central Time, is filled with poems that simultaneously move in several directions. Superficially, Hoskote’s works incorporate literary references that move historically back in time to include the Sanskrit Poets, the Ghazal’s of Persian poet Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, Don Quixote, and the Persian miniature master Kamāl ud-Din Behzād among others and includes enough literary apostrophes (“Annalist of the solar magistracy, I cannot complain.” [from “The Book of the Night”]; “Heart, last philosopher to fall / prey to the biting intolerance of gravel:” [from “Evening Landscape], and to numerous unknown figures, “It’s nearly noon and you’re still balancing on the diving / board” [from “Immersion Technique”] and “Put on these wings” [from “The First and Last Portrait”] to please any Romantic poetry connoisseur. Clearly, this poet perceives almost a sense of necessity in revealing the past—not just of poetry but the whole of his culture—often romanticized, trivialized, and forgotten by the West:
The Burden of History
A bird sits on a branch
of the fury tree:
a bird as big as India.
It’s sleeping now.
You can see it
if you tilt your head..
It’s crouched inside
the amber paperweight
on my desk:
shrunken, waiting for release.
It is clear, accordingly, throughout all of this Mumbai poet’s writing, that he feels, at times, almost as a kind of curator—a role that Hoskote performs in his daily life as well as writing—in which he attempts to bring, as he metaphorically puts it, “dawn birds back to life from stone.” [“Fossil Curator”]. And even if he ultimately fails in that task, he argues, “These events are no less real for taking place inside a head.” With his deep involvement in art, is it any wonder, moreover, that a great many of poems deal with artists as varied as Chardin, Hopper, Morandi, Brancusi, Serra, and Beuys, to name just a few?
Basically, this writer’s oeuvre, however, appears to fit nicely into the late modernist tradition in its heavy use of narrative structures and metaphor. One might argue that narrative is embedded in nearly all of Hoskote’s poems, and, at times, as in “The Guide Recalls the Mountain,” and “Lunch at Britannia,” for example, where his usually dense vocabulary and syntax gives way to the slightly ironic bemusement, his poems are mixed with cultural references that might well have been at home in the personal “histories” of someone like Robert Lowell.
It is nearly impossible to read Hoskote’s poems without uncovering everyday and, more often, highly abstract metaphors. “A caravan of domes / hangs in the scored air….” [in “Desert”], “It’s raining daggers. I’ll wake up drenched, skin bruised, eyes stung by the flute….” [in “Rain”], “rust” peels from trees [in “Portrait of an Unknown Master], a “singing breath” is “anchored by ledgers.” [in “Rehearsal for Departure”].
But unlike the common modernist use of such metaphors, Hosokte’s comparisons do not simply help the reader reimagine the realist world, but often contort it. And, in that sense, this poet’s metaphoric landscape represents less a regeneration of perception than an explosion of it. As critics such as Zachary Busnell in Time Out have described the works in this volume, his poems often become “weapons,” a speeding “train.” As the poet himself puts it some poems “explode on impact; others have a long fuse.” In short, Hoskote’s exploding metaphors often defeat the realist modernists’ attempts to heighten and expand the natural world by blowing up the original object or image with which the line began. Skin “is miles long when stretched out flat,” [“Uses for an executed Dissident”]. “The Soloist Performs with an Orchestra of Events,” for example begins in a kind of contained naturalist world:
The greenest things happen when you’re not looking:
creepers braid themselves around a bridge,
clouds surround a tower, nudge it towards a dead end
and neon measures the length of the cobbled street.”
But suddenly the poet demands the reader “jump off the mind’s cold waterfront,” to “ follow the dolphins, whose dance last as long as a notched breath.” By poems end, indeed, even the reader has been pulled out of reality, a “proxy” of what he once was: “Is that you or a cut-out parked in your chair?” Nature comes into existence entirely without him: “the greenest things happen when you’re not there.”
Combined with the heavy layering of historical names and references which I’ve already mentioned and the density of his vocabulary (for example, “coment-maned, meteor eyed, throat belling with wolf-howl” [“The Secret Agent”], the Mumbai poet’s poems seem nearly often ready to immediately abandon their modernist pretensions. If we recognize that Hoskote loves nature and that, at times, his poems become almost an architectural space in which one might walk, sit, and even sleep, we also perceive that in these spaces we are entirely safe. The world he presents is a kind of modernist fraud, which in the end, often pulls his poems into a surprising, overwhelming postmodernist frenzy.
Of course, we should have known that anyone in love with aphorisms as much as Hoskote might be telling us a kind of twisted truth. Time and again this poet posits lines that may sound like sacred wisdom but that, upon a second thought, are revealed as sophistry. Beside the aphorism I quoted above (The greenest things happen when you’re not looking.”) below are some further examples:
“The palace of illusions shows no mercy” [“Knowing Your Way Around”
“The faster I run, the faster the oasis runs from me.” [“Night Runner”]
“Land is what you sight from a storm-broken ship
the mirage they forgot to sink.” [“Harbour Thoughts”]
“Fear translation.” [“Chimera”]
“The skin is miles long when stretched out flat.” [“Uses for an Executed Dissident”]
“Beware the pent-up heaviness of traces….” [“Base Camp of the Lost Expedition”]
“Paradise is a narrow waterway….” [“The Navigator’s Last Entry”]
Reading these and the numerous others one encounters in this poet’s work, one might almost think he was reading Gertrude Stein.
But Stein’s sometimes dangerous aphorisms, at least superficially, are outwardly placid, while Hoskote’s generalized realities often lead to dangerous pitfalls, a world not only intellectually unstable but spatially terrifying. What might seem to be a fiction is, as he warns us, a “documentary,” evidence of something that has already happened, “the dark tidal against us.” [“Documentary”]. Throughout his writing, disaster strikes. A cashier drags out his striped awning only to witness the entire world around him explode, with “Beheaded men” walking through the smoke [“Late Lunch in a Besieged City”]. Love is compared to “letting go, feet first / from the bomb bay…” [“Free Fall”] A loving mother turns around to see her child “trapped between layers of mud” in a “volcanic fire.” [“Fern”]. In “The Collector of Meteor Dust” the moon “blows up, fades.” Even the tide of a crescent beach, “tears up barbed-wire fencing, splits brickwork shells.” [“The Enemy’s Country].
If we have presumed Hoskote’s spaces to be a lovely territory we might leisurely explore, we are sadly mistaken. As he warns in “Cutting Device,”—a poem dedicated to the sculptor of dangerously balanced heavy slabs of steel, Richard Serra—“You’ve landed in fog on a clear day.” Hoskote’s natural world is not that of his grandfather.
The alternative to what might first appear to be lovely towers of some architectural wonder, are, as the poet suggests in “The Nomad’s Song,” “mirages” which he has cultivated and by which he to be judged. Faced by a world in which “The true believer has lost his touch” and “His past is a field of marble testaments,” the reader can only look to the artist for the beautiful mirages he has created as a way out. If space has trapped us into a timeless void, Hoskote as he argues in “Coutdown” has “painted a door on the wall / for the wind to gallop through….” a way out. Time begins over: “I’m painting the numbers back on the clock.” Art is prepared to truly transform reality: “My origami swan is ready to fly.”
Has Hoskote, in Central Time, not only created a major new work of poetry, but has suggested an alternative to the threatening world in which we daily face our lives.
Los Angeles, July 1, 2014