Vijay Nambisan’s First Infinities (2015) selects sixty poems from the last three decades of his largely uncollected verse. Because the net is cast this wide, a fiercely varied cast of poems becomes possible, each experimenting with a different mood, register and form. Together they form a picture of Nambisan as someone who is both broodingly cerebral and goofy, someone pointedly serious and incredibly self-mocking.
His best poems bring these aspects together, where he is able to heed the weighty, despairing voice within him, even as he keeps it from becoming mawkish by a wit that is both devastating and funny.
For instance, in the short poem ‘The hole in the earth,’ the poet-persona on spotting a mysterious ‘hole through to the earth’s bowels,’ starts a slightly woolly-headed, self-serious monologue wondering about ‘what beatitude, what hate, / what hope of sanctity’ might lie in there, only to discover the next day that this hole is a far more unpoetic and disenchanted thing – a ‘manhole,’ which the workmen come and cover the next day. The brooding self of the poet, its labours of the mind, its indulgent explorations of the ‘void,’ are all sharply undercut by the labour, always caste-bound, of the workmen who make a shattering debut at the end of the poem. The poetic ‘void’ implodes into the more material ‘manhole’.
Do not for a moment mistake that the labour of the mind, the work of the intellect is devalued in Nambisan – no poetry does that, and most of his own is very allusive and densely meditative – but this intellectual labour is neither over-enchanted nor cauterized by pedestalization. His mind is always roving, searching, thinking, but never in a vacuum, and is always acutely anxious about self-indulgence. The intellect is worn lightly on one’s shoulders, hoping it would never turn into a performance, a burden.
Nambisan is a poet’s poet, but not in its banal, back-handed sense that only a small coterie really ‘gets’ him. Here instead, it implies that he makes the scene of production of poetry as available to his reader as the product. The worlds where poetry is written, published, disseminated find their way into the meat of his poems, often to be ridiculed. On more than a few pages, you get a sense of his chosen poet-forebears, his acute awareness of writing in English, or the trials of the modern day poetry scene which overwhelm him and not in a good way.
He is very conscious of the craft, of wroughting lines for inducing affect, and particularly of doing this in English in India. In his opening poem ‘Dirge,’ he sees himself both within and out of step with the legacy of ‘Arun [Kolatkar] and Dom [Moraes] and Nissim [Ezekiel],’ the twentieth century trinity of English boy poets, ‘lovely-lettered’ in their ‘Indo-Anglian tongue’. He tips his hat to them even as he finds ‘relief’ in ‘softer shadows,’ and in ‘kisses’ that he takes from his ‘missis’.
In a hilarious poem ‘The Corporate Poet,’ Nambisan wittily disenchants the poetry scene and the supposed ‘high’ of the high-brow celebrity-poet, ridiculing him – sometimes, not even sparing himself. This celebrity poet lends his ‘voice’ to ‘Solemn Moments and Centenary Celebrations.’ He is desperate to get into literary festivals, to declaim grandly on ‘Culture’ or to be in the good books of government Akademis. This is Nambisan’s nightmare of how a poet should be; launching Nambisan’s book in Delhi recently, the poet-novelist Jeet Thayil made it evident that Nambisan was anything but. He said that if ‘you haven’t heard [of Nambisan’s] name before, it’s because unlike some of us, Vijay never learnt to attend the right literature festivals, make the right noises and kiss the right asses.’ Later in the launch event, when Nambisan was asked why the book is called First Infinities, his reply was ‘I don’t know.’ He could have given an elaborate answer befitting a ‘Corporate Poet’ but he doesn’t. The poems will answer for themselves.
Within this leitmotif, his strongest, and most striking poem – and arguably, the best of the entire collection – is ‘Elizabeth Oomanchery’. It is about the odd equation between being a poet and being famous, about what happens to a ‘celebrated poet’ who starts taking himself too seriously. This poem is an odd little gem –
The celebrated poetess
Went to the corner shop
To buy a loaf of bread.
The shopman said, “Excuse me,
“Aren’t you Elizabeth Oomanchery,
“The celebrated poetess?”
So Elizabeth Oomanchery went home.
Sat at her desk one evening
To write herself a poem.
The poem asked, “Excuse me,
“Aren’t you Elizabeth Oomanchery,
“The celebrated poetess?”
So the poem went home.”
Nambisan’s hand can be as light and as sharp as this. The form is tight, the two stanzas sit in an incredible symmetry which is crucial to the scheme and the effect of the poem. The ending slices you and mocks the pants off the poet. It is a homily served with humour, a scriptural warning against vanity offered with a miraculous lack of preachiness. And hidden somewhere within the self-deprecating heft of the poem – this write-without-thinking-of-fame moral – is a naughty little suggestion, asider than an aside, that Nambisan, the one who wrote ‘Elizabeth Oomanchery’ has thought of fame and rapped himself on the knuckles for it.
This self-consciousness, this critical distance from one’s own deceptions, gives Nambisan, in most other poems, a rare vocabulary of pain that moves without being maudlin. This happens in poems about his father, about illness, about the ‘mythological’ figures, or about urban isolation in the brilliant ‘Mind the gap’. The poem ‘First Infinities: Hospital’ holds despair so tightly to one’s heart – as this entire book does – and so matter-of-factly that it becomes an odd kind of strength, a device of self-preservation. ‘The doctor’s hand was asking what my liver / Meant to do. I thought behind the curtains of / This purpose of my birth, to lie and act / Like one soon to be a corpse’. This is brutal in its casualness, up-front in its talk of endings. But it also embraces darkness so readily that it takes the sting off it. The poet has drunk from ‘countless bottles’ and their ‘love’ has gone into his ‘slow veins’ and that experience has been damn exciting – he knows that it made him what he is – and he’s not going to fetishize or regret it post the doctor’s diagnosis. ‘Tell me now what use / The pills, the fruit, nurse’s disgusted eye / Or glucose, or molasses. No life is short / That at its centre has this clarity.’
In his lighter poems, Nambisan’s poetry bristles with an unassuming clarity, making little gashes on all kinds of pretension or grandstanding, and in his more demanding, more despairing poems, he comes at you with a cutthroat clarity of pain, one which lingers long after the poem is read. The effect is sublimely disorienting, as must be of all ‘first infinities,’ whatever they are.
First Infinities by Vijay Nambisan (Poetrywala, 2015) is available from Paperwall.
Akhil Katyal is a writer and translator based in Delhi. His book of poems ‘Night Charge Extra’ is forthcoming with Writers Workshop in July, 2015.