Book review: Deeptesh Sen’s ‘House of Song’
By Bhaswati Ghosh
Title: House of Song
Author: Deeptesh Sen
Publisher: Writers Workshop, 2017
The house in Deeptesh Sen’s collection of poems House of Song is built with absences. Of objects that were, of bonds that tried to stay but couldn’t. Yet far from being hollow, this is a building that reverberates with the rhythms and refrains of those absences. Sen introduces this idea of loss with the titular poem itself: No one comes anymore/to your house of song.//Its long corridors once bustled/with the shadow of every beat,//and meditations on rock/let the silence fall with ersatz feet. Like the shadow of the now-missing beat, Sen’s is a mission to catch fleeting images and thoughts and render them in a language so beautiful, it makes the reader desire longing as an end in itself.
The quest for grasping the disappeared is evident even as Sen’s eyes survey lost locations. In “Ghost town”, he writes, The city churned like a spinning top/at the corner of mind;//long aisles, towering billboards, rusted shops/lay deserted in unflinching solitude,//memories of flickering voices/danced at the crossroads in the rain. See how the city, ostensibly dead, springs to life as the poet attempts to unlock its obscurity with his delicious use of verbs – by churning it “at the corner of (his) mind,” and making voices that once were, “dance (again) at the crossroads in the rain.”
The city as an entity passes through Sen’s poetic aperture time and again. In “Solitude”, he traces its arc and oldness. You and I have spent centuries/travelling across the ruins in the city.//The ruins of rugged skin/on a blacksmith’s palm,/the ruins of overdrunk streets/unhurried with nostalgia…
Yet Sen doesn’t let you get carried away with the romantic notion of “unhurried nostalgia” when projecting the city. He is equally alert to the flipside of this inertness of cities. It is a side he bares unapologetically in “Stagnation”: people jostle for placeright in packed buses,/and shops selling condoms on the pavements/mock mannequins in brassieres/for their misfortune. When I read these lines, I couldn’t help thinking of cities like Kolkata and Havana, which remain wrapped in time bubbles that both cushion and suffocate them. Pause for a moment and consider “placeright,” one of the several coinages Sen makes in this collection. In the cities mentioned and their likes around the world, that word is so fitting in the context of crammed public transportation; one wonders why it hasn’t earned its placeright in the dictionary already.
The anxiety of city living is a recurring theme in “House of Song”. The undertow of mistrust and artifice that marks human interactions and the relationship between humans and brick and mortar edifices concerns Sen. As does the extreme isolation that’s a corollary of urban angst. Another day in silence/among the alien buildings,/ horns and women/and pretending ghosts of society//cold, malignant eyes stare at you/from across the coffee table. (“Eyes”). Then there’s the anonymity of city life, the condemnation of facelessness amid a sea of faces. Nobody has a face in this city/The city has no face./Do you think you have a face?/I’m sure that’s a mask you’re wearing/or if it’s a face, you will lose it soon. (“Overture”).
Yet despite the urban loneliness, Sen’s poems also seek to explore the delicate folds of relationships. In “Not you”, a poem, which reminded me of Emily Dickinson’s enigmatic pursuance of existential questions, Sen says with playful elegance: What lies between you and me,/is not you, nor me,/but something like us,/not quite you perhaps,/but striving to be like you. This lack of certainty in pinning selfhood in an alliance between two people is delightful precisely because of its ambiguity.
In “House of Song”, laughter stands out almost as a genre in itself. It is curious to note how Sen observes the many moods of laughter and the way he textures it with his words. He sees a room quietly exploding “into unbearable spasms of laughter,” and talks about staring “at the strange geometry of laughter.” I found the poet’s meditations on laughter so intriguing that I couldn’t resist asking him what was it about the expression that made him probe it with such frequency? His response confirmed my reading – he found in laughter a well-masked scheme of absences. As Kaifi Azmi says, “Tum itna jo muskura rahe ho/kya gham hai jisko chhupa rahe ho?” (That you smile so gaily/tells me that is where you hide your sorrow); so does Sen find through his examination of laughter that it “can be the most apparently banal and heartfelt emotion but its anatomy might not be constituted by a slippage, a loss.” He goes on to add, “It is this essence of namelessness, absence and loss that makes laughter though they might be the same emotions that laughter hides.” This is best exemplified in a sentence broken over three lines in “Decadence”: Laughter is the perversion/you choose to embrace/over the banality of love.
His repeated meditations on laughter are only a mark of Sen’s seriousness for his craft. In form, style, and content, he doesn’t rest by merely scratching the surface. He is an excavator who digs deep – whether it is into the recesses of the thought-feeling cavern, to sharpen his metaphors to crystalline sheen, or to keep moulding the shape of words until they sing. Most of all, though, like every good poet, with House of Song Deeptesh Sen takes the reader on a journey in which she sets out to solve riddles but ends up finding delight in remaining looped within them.
House of Song is available on Amazon India.
Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction, non-fiction and poetry. She is the Editor-at-Large at Cafe Dissensus. Look up her website here.
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