Master of the Lean Poem

The poems in Manohar Shetty's 'Full Disclosure: New and Collected Poems' demand many celebratory re-readings.

Seven poetry collections over a span of 35 years might not seem too many, but what elicits surprise, no matter how mild, is that four of them were published in the past seven years. A readerly intimacy with the poems in Manohar Shetty’s Full Disclosure: New and Collected Poems is bound to assure you that the poet not only does not mind mildness, but revels –even excels – in it. After his third book of poems, Domestic Creatures (1994), he took a literary pause that lasted 16 years, during which time he “never slept, / Only passed out and woke up”, while never cringing “From that same old taunt: / ‘Yeh sala Manu ban gaya bewda’”. Addiction and poetry do not necessarily make great sleeping partners, yet their occasional camaraderie might lead to interesting outcomes in the arena of creativity. If alcohol did any damage to Shetty’s poetry, it doesn’t show. In fact, his post-hiatus fecundity confirms that the poet not only emerged whole and hale from the deep dark pit notorious for ending the careers of scores of artists, but also preserved the integrity, purity and vigour essential for writing elegant poems,

Those unsigned hard won
Stanzas in longhand given
Away as keepsakes,
As prayers, bookmarks,
Or anniversary cards;
A bequest with no return
Address—a piece of paper
Folded close to the heart.

Manohar Shetty <em>Full Disclosure: New and Collected Poems</em> Speaking Tiger, 2017

Manohar Shetty
Full Disclosure: New and Collected Poems
Speaking Tiger, 2017

Those in possession of his words would do well to copy some down on a sheet of paper, fold it and slip it into their shirt pockets, for the pull of a Shetty poem is such that it demands many celebratory re-readings. On the other hand, he doesn’t mind if his precious missives to the world, smugly lost in its collective distractions, go missing. No matter what happens, “He would be game to the last”, exhorting the interested reader/listener to “not be taken in by the rows / Of books touching the ceiling”, but to “Listen instead / To the scratch of words / On the page, any page, white / Or ochre with age”. In India, the relationship between ochre and age goes back to ancient times. The colour is still sacred to many, although in the past two decades or so, it has acquired connotations that are far from savoury. It seems unlikely that Shetty had this sense of the word in mind, but then, what’s poetry without its share of accidental implications?

When orchestrated well, line breaks too sprinkle their own pixie dust into the space of a poem. Shetty has mastered the music of the poetic line and knows how to infuse energy into it through thoughtful enjambment:

Be like a good book,
Well thumbed, fraying
At the edges and shared
By friends. Not
Something stowed away
Unopened on a lofty
Shelf; termites don’t
Speak your language.

Try breaking the above lines differently, and it will become evident why the chosen arrangement works best for them. In the second and third lines, the present participle “fraying” is cleverly sandwiched between the past participles “thumbed” and “shared”. A poet overly conscious of parallelism would have chosen to use “frayed”, but that would have wiped away the traces of hope which “fraying” leaves intact in the lines, the word conveying the continuity of the “book” being still in use. There’s also this additional allusion that the company of friends frays your “edges”, thereby rendering you less capable of hurting others, and that if you choose to be “lofty”, you would likely remain “Unopened”. Now, this is sage counsel imparted through poetry that is, as Arvind Krishna Mehrotra writes in his blurb, “so naturally memorable that you don’t need to consciously memorize it”.

Shetty favours unadorned words, just as he prefers to assimilate the ordinary rather than the exotic into his poetry, unearthing a wisdom that is suffused with acceptance and that pulsates with benevolence:

After your life’s work’s been done
You still want a few things undone

Like that feud with a friend,
Its spark and fuse long forgotten.

Despite their stark simplicity, the lines are charged with the power of a fluid truth that first condenses itself into a realisation, albeit a little late, and then solidifies into regret – something everyone has experienced. No wonder the words resonate. However, Shetty doesn’t seem to believe in extremes, so even if he does not contradict himself, he balances things out. So, for instance, having given us his view of friendship in a previous collection, he moves on to share his take on enmity in one of his uncollected poems: “It’s useful to nurture an enemy or two. / They sharpen your claws. / They grow on you.”

Another interesting characteristic of Shetty’s poems is that they engage both the eye and the ear of the reader. You can almost hear the words spoken aloud close at hand if you focus on them adequately. He is a master of the lean poem, which usually unfolds in four- to seven-word lines reined like docile horses, the expert coachman being well in control of their gallop. Eschewing flourishes that self-conscious style gurus delight in, he practises his art with the patience of a sage, looking “Up the calendar, not for / The month or those festive / Breaks or even the day / Of the week, but for // The year passing by.”

Shetty believes that poets

Out a few lines and stretch them
Taut to dry our battered clothes
Which droop like limp tongues.

The eminent Hindi poet Leeladhar Jagoori, in his poem Another Path, is found preoccupied with a young bird’s first flight, which

is twanging like a wire
on which I can even hang
the washing to dry

Manohar Shetty. Courtesy: Speaking Tiger

Manohar Shetty. Courtesy: Speaking Tiger

While two stylistically distinct poets working in two different languages and yet conjuring up a similar metaphor independently is a topic that demands greater study, serendipities like this multiply readerly delight. They tell us that, irrespective of time, place and language, the wellsprings of poetry have more in common than we are prepared to believe.

Creatures, too, have been a major preoccupation for Shetty. In his eclectic menagerie, rats are “For ever on red alert”, bats glide “across the walls / Like giant bowties”, ants have “bodies like puffed rice” and snakes “speak and mate / In braille”. The lizard “clears / The air of small / Aberrations”, the pigeon has its “Head sinking / In a fluffy / Embroidered pillow”, the spider is “a yoyo , / A jiggling asterisk” and  the civet cat “wears / A most coveted scent / In a most intimate part”. Word combinations like “mushrooming concussions”, “trembling smoke”, “hanging morsel”, “pummelling flash”, “smouldering planets”, “softening sand”, “dribbling descents”, “creaking capes”, “rowing tracery”, “tantalizing yards”, “gleaming arrows”, “scintillating scissors”, “howling monsoon”, “running plaster”, “ripening heat”, “flaking tomes”, “ticking telegrams”, “lightning trunk calls”, “chest-thumping headlines”, “nodding garden”, “scudding frenzy”, “scalding clarity”, “mimicking parrots”, “moulting pubic hair”, “shocking georgettes”, “reddening coal”, “breast thumping gorillas”, “brimming veils” and “cleansing sunlight” show Shetty’s predilection for verbal adjectives, but given the many rewards that the book bestows, this minor tic can be easily ignored.

Quite a few poems, particularly from A Guarded Space, his first collection, have been dropped, besides a handful of others from the later books. “It has been difficult to resist making minor changes to a few of the earlier poems,” Shetty writes in the acknowledgements, but he does not mention those that he chose to leave out of his New and Collected. For all we know, the dropped poems might find a place alongside new ones in a future collection, provided the poet hasn’t discarded them for good. However, what he has saved for us is genuine poetry rooted in the physical world, because he is

      yet to come across
. . . a guru who has
Broken the cycle
Of birth and rebirth
And takes you
With him for good.

Apart from love, death, despair and all the little happenings dotting the long road called life, humour and satire too find their fair share in the poems. So, when it is pointed out that “the doc’s fees / were steep with zeroes / on the cheque like the wheels / of a goods train”, the underlying ironic comment on the whole medical industry is hard to miss.

Thanks to his spare, accomplished voice, Shetty will certainly not have to “wear a long beard / And striped pants and walk / On stilts with a mike / To make [him]self heard”. For anyone desirous of listening to “the hiatus of the heart”, this book makes for a perfect start.

Sarabjeet Garcha is a poet and translator. His new poetry collection, A Clock in the Far Past, is forthcoming in 2018.

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