Shanta Acharya, Imagine: New and Selected Poems (Harper Collins Publishers India, INR 399).
Shanta Acharya was born and educated in India, where she completed an MA in English before writing a DPhil on Emerson at Oxford and becoming a visiting scholar at Harvard. She’s worked for the investment bankers Morgan Stanley in London. She’s written books on asset management as well as the five volumes of poetry that preceded this New and Selected Poems. What makes her so worth reading is the way these qualities are combined with freshness, directness and sensitivity in the recording of emotions and experiences. In her writing, eager lyricism is both grounded in down to earth experience and reaches out to an inclusive, almost metaphysical vision of life. There’s enjoyment to be found all over this generous selection, but to my mind it’s really in the poems from the second volume, Numbering Our Days’ Illusions, that she hits her stride. The sections that follow see a rich cross-fertilization between different preoccupations and a power of imaginative combination that reaches its height in the last two. It’s hard to illustrate this concisely, firstly because many of her effects are cumulative, and secondly because the way her voice combines candour and explicitness with delicacy means that sometimes it takes several readings for the weight of what she’s saying to sink in. For example, among some moving poems about the loss of her grandfather and father, one called “Coconut Milk” made little impact on first reading but later it stood out precisely because it’s so understated. It starts with a humdrum shopping expedition and moves on to describing the cooking of prawns. You might be reading a short story, precise, economical, unhurried, with the line endings simply clarifying the description. Then, just as quietly, the poem refocuses:
you loved to hear, I savour your presence, father.
The sun retires behind trees,
swaying to the raga and rasa of life –
teaching me that like the sun, moon and stars
you are always there, though briefly revealed.
When our paths diverge we must let go.
What the sun tells her is radiant with lessons learned in a long engagement with Hindu spiritual teaching. In some of the poems, such ideas can seem no more than expressions of religious aspiration, beautiful but abstract. Here, context makes them profoundly moving. The quietness of the presentation is crucial, suggesting how deeply they’ve been absorbed. And yet it’s a final twist that gives the poem depth of a more dramatic kind. The attitude of acceptance is itself something that comes and goes, changing with the inner weather of the mind. In the last line, raw emotion bursts through, seeming to take the poet herself by surprise: “my eyes are blinded with grief and a child’s fury”.
Poems about family, meditations on sacred texts, reflections on great works of art or music from different cultures, poems about gardens and the natural world are woven together and often linked by the poet’s desire to discover and to bring herself into harmony with a fundamental unity underlying the diverse phenomena and appearances of the world. As I understand it, this is a basic idea in Hindu tradition. Sadly, Hinduism can take narrow, partisan, exclusive forms, but Acharya’s whole approach to life is against this. In the relatively early “Loose Talk” we already see how she embodies a Hindu quest for harmony by reaching beyond India. Reflecting on how her divided linguistic inheritance was both difficult and enriching, she suggests that it was an extension of a way of looking at the world embodied in the yoga positions her mother taught her and through which she “became” bow, snake and lion: in writing she “becomes” hawk, tortoise, Buddha, aurora, avalanche, “balancing a world of words in my mouth”. The converging streams of her heritage are emphasised by the way her phrase “Drunk with the variousness of the world” glances at Louis MacNeice’s famous “Snow”.
Things are taken further in the outstanding “Swimming Reindeer”, from the “Imagine” section. This meditates on a carving of reindeer on a mammoth tusk from about 11,000 BC. After a beautifully evocative description of the reindeer there’s a leap into metaphor that I find quite marvellous, evoking the wonder the poet feels as she looks at them, their “bones breathing / unable to sleep for being alive.” In the last line there’s another explosive metaphor as Acharya links the hypothesized breakthrough in human evolution when “the toolmaker turned artist” to the almost metaphysical value she attaches to imaginative art: “nature rewired the brain / and the world lit up like aurora borealis.”
Many of Acharya’s poems involve such wider reflection. In weaker ones, ideas can seem to be being translated into images rather than incarnated in them. In poems where such wider thought is truly incarnated as poetry, there’s a depth of resonance of a rare and precious kind. I hesitate to use an expression like “spiritual journey” but it does seem appropriate to this book. Perhaps “imaginative journey” would be better, in keeping with the quotations about journeying from Eliot and Proust that Acharya uses as epigraphs to the section drawn from Dreams That Spell the Light and the ones about the imagination drawn from Einstein, Blake and Thoreau that she uses for Imagine. The spiritual dimension can’t be denied, though. The final epigraph to Imagine is Krishna’s words to Arjuna from Carole Satyamurti’s translation of the great Hindu epic, the Mahabarata: “I am the life of everything to come.” The continuity of this journey means that as well as offering pleasure in themselves, even the less achieved poems in the collection make their contribution to the life of the whole.