Book Review: Arjun Rajendran’s ‘Snake Wine’
By Rashida Murphy
Poems by Arjun Rajendran
Publisher: Les Editions du Zaporogue, 2014
Many years ago, when my husband lived in Hong Kong, he brought back a bottle of snake wine for his sister, in the days before we were asked to fill out copious details about the contents of our bags and belongings before re-entering Australia. Which is why the title of Arjun Rajendran’s first book of poems intrigued me and, contrary to my usual habit, I read each poem from the start and resisted the urge to find Snake Wine first. And what joy to encounter the poem, the second last in this collection and discover that ‘snakeskin tasted like soanpapdi’ and that the poet was ‘once about to purchase a bottle of snake wine/ until I realized it won’t ship where I live.’
This does not read like a first collection, so assured is the lyrical voice. The poems are dense and light, fragmented and fully realized, elegiac and observational. From ‘we tried stoning the sky’ to the wind licking ‘its fingers clean’, the poem “Pyre” evokes an immediate vision of burning ghats in very few words. And this economy is the poet’s gift, I feel. The best, most tantalizing poems are these tight, economical ones. In just five lines, “The Wooden Castro” positions us, along with Castro’s beard and Che’s ghost, against history’s khaki canvas; ‘two comrades and a traveller.’ In the “Elegy to the Adulteress”, worlds are evoked and left behind and time passes and pauses for ‘the usual mistake her body made/every year the spring was late in coming.’
Then there are poems of slow sensuality, poems that hurt ‘from all the gluttony/all the laughter,’ and take the reader to places where ‘we’ve all been together/since we forgave each other.’ Images range from the ethereal, ‘the night placed a bowl of moonlight/outside the door’ to the earthy, ‘a girl/ who smelled of prawn stew and a tree.’ In the hands of a lesser talent, the multiple descriptions of moonlight ‘trembling between handlebars’ and the landscape that ‘fluctuated/between graveyards and granite’ might have seemed cloying or excessive. But Rajendran always returns the reader to something deeply observed and often devastating.
In his observations of life in India, Rajendran imagines the country as ‘a woman with a high/price on her head and feet/that seem to have frozen/while pirouetting.’ It is ‘a home/with an evaporating address.’ It is a place where a woman can cry for the ‘certainty of retribution’ with ‘fingers in her hair.’ And near a municipal colony, ‘the buildings seem to cough’ while ‘a crowd gathers to watch a lemon spill blood.’ There is sadness here, and anger, quietly conveyed.
There are several poems that resonate with me, some because of their subject matter and some because of the surprising way the language moves me to imagine other worlds. Whether it’s the ‘sight/of clouds bathing a homesick moon’ or the ‘stretch mark of the universe/growing healthy in Krishna’s mouth’, the voice is assured and the images are confidently displayed. Rajendran’s particular skills are well suited to the rendering of an acute image, a fragmented memory, a shared humanity, a personal struggle, adeptly positioning the familiar with the unfamiliar.
A particular favourite for me is the poem, “Love and Maugham”, just because it sweeps me along joyfully (and resonantly) in discovery.
‘After hours of searching,
I find what I want;
The first edition of a book
by Somerset Maugham.
Although I’m ecstatic,
I quickly relax my expression
remembering to never reveal
how much you want
There’s that sense of an almost illicit joy so familiar to those who haunt bookshops, those who don’t want to wait too long or appear too eager, yet dare not let it out of sight, in case ‘it turns too expensive’ as a natural consequence of desiring and wanting to own it. But, as the poet warns, ‘if nothing works, sell/ your soul, but don’t let it/get away.’ Exactly.
“In the Cemetery of the Painted Church”, crosses divide ‘the air into four quadrants’ and we have ‘a sense of being in two places: the cemetery and nowhere.’ In “Sugarcane Juice”, we don’t care about ‘the million flies’ or ‘the vendor’s hands’ because we are already tilting back our heads to drink it ‘down in urgent gulps.’ And inside “Karla Caves”, ‘the story [is] set within stone,’ while “At Mauna Kea, Stargazing”, with its memory of ‘meteors/ shooting around a childhood farm,’ there is indeed a sense that ‘there will never be a sky like this.’ In “Revisiting Beaumont”, we intuit the shifts of a life lived elsewhere and the people left behind, along with the strangeness of the man next door who talked about hell and ‘the sin of pre-marital sex, the sin of profanity,/and how he’d love to take me fishing some day.’
Like all poetry ought to, these poems offer deeply felt and strongly held visions, observations, narratives and metaphors that resound in the heart before the conscious mind takes in the pared back, dazzling language.
P.S.: Arjun Rajendran is an Indian poet who lives in San Francisco. He has new poems coming up at The Mithila Review, Elsewhere Lit and Vayavya. A free ebook is available for download from Zaporogue Press or you can order a print version from their website here. You can read some more of Arjun Rajendran’s poetry at the following sites:
[Note: Perth-based writer, Rashida Murphy is Books Editor for Cafe Dissensus Everyday. Send your book reviews, critical pieces on books, author interviews, and book excerpts to Rashida at: firstname.lastname@example.org]
Rashida Murphy lives in Perth. Her poetry and fiction have been published in various journals and anthologies and her debut novel is forthcoming in 2016.
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