(REVIEW) bulbul calling, by Pratyusha
Lauren Collee enters the sensuous, attentive and shimmering world of Pratyusha's bulbul calling (Bitter Melon, 2020), a pamphlet whose formal shifts, dialogues, music and imagery speak to a dream language of becoming and re-becoming, grounded in a complex history, politics and ecological sense of embodiment.
> ‘Dreaming leaves me uncertain, a little nauseous’, writes Pratyusha in her poem ‘heatwave, 2016/2017’. Reading the ten poems in bulbul calling (2020) feels like stepping into the clarity that accompanies a fever; an unsettled corporeality that is highly attuned to micro-adjustments of temperature and humidity, sensitive to the slightest disturbances. In mirage, we hear an ‘undersea murmur’. In ‘heatwave, 2016/2017’, there’s ‘a faint tremor’. In ‘(a)version’, on a ‘sleepless, half-crazed night in March’, Ganga can be heard ‘a continent away from where here body still abundantly flows’. In ‘feverish delirium’ the poet hears ‘faint echoes’ of a voice, perhaps that of Ganga herself. These shifts, echoes and tremors arrive like messages. Sometimes nothing arrives at all. At the end of ‘heatwave, 2016/2017’: ‘Skin opens to air, but the air is wordless’.
> Published in May 2020 by London-based publisher bitter melon苦瓜, bulbul calling is as beautiful an object as it is a collection, hand-sewn and risograph-printed in lilac and green, and illustrated by Pratyusha’s grandmother, Lakshmi Parthasarathy, who also features in several of the poems. As an Indo-Swiss poet, Pratyusha's writing shifts between languages, geographies, and internal landscapes. The collection’s title refers to the flame-throated bulbul, a small bird endemic to the forests of south India (also the state bird of Goa) which takes its name from a distinctive bright orange triangle on its throat. The world of bulbul calling is a world in which a repertoire of properties, substances and states are made to behave unpredictably (heat, light, darkness, smoke, water, sound, salt and air). A voice that should emerge as sound, for example, may emerge as smoke instead: ‘who can extinguish the Bulbul’s flame? / her voice rises from autumns and ashes’.
> In trying to think of a way to describe what it felt, to me, like Pratyusha was doing in the poems, I kept coming back (perhaps unimaginatively) to the idea of the mechanical product endurance test, in which matter is subjected to extreme high temperatures, low temperatures, waterlogging, stretching, twisting and lacerating in order to assess how it will fare over time under different conditions. Within the poems, the ‘matter’ in question is, often, a body – and the beauty of the writing lies in the unpredictable transformations that occur as a result. Heat, for example has transformative power; but if at moments this power is life-and-voice-giving, at others it contaminates and stifles. In ‘heatwave, 2016/2017’ – one of three poems that use mainly prose – ‘dissatisfaction hangs like a vapour’. The heat distorts bodies, landscapes and economies - ‘The light turning on the still point of a petal. The economy falling through light. Predictions for this fiscal year: deflation’. Later, more extreme visions not just of distortion but of eventual erasure: ‘I dream of huge floods, an Amsterdam townhouse floating sideways in a river that breaks its banks at sunrise, a copy of Bloomberg magazine lying on a stray island, words sliding off the page, stock markets erased’. The looming threat of climate breakdown sits heavily on the poem, but this does not fully account for what the heat is, nor what it does to the landscape: in the third stanza, ‘The poison-heat from the oleander (after dark, one can sense a faint narcotic smoke) rises into the night, twining itself around the cherry tree and falling back down into the peonies. All at once they wither.
> Meanwhile, voices caution and question one another, offering fragments of pragmatic advice: ‘What are you doing out there? It’s late, come inside, watch for mosquitos’, ‘Drink rosewater before you sleep’, ‘wake up, wake up, it’s nearly noon.’ The dialogue presents moments of interruption, but also moments of taking care, respite from the heat-induced anger, irritation and lethargy that otherwise causes them to ‘squabble over dinner’. In one of the most quietly beautiful lines in the whole collection: ‘My mother pulls my braid tight. My scalp itches, glows with the tension. It’s a fierce pull, nearly feral; I don’t ask her why she’s angry, perhaps it’s better unsaid.’ Between love and anger, carefulness and heedlessness, the glow of a too-sharp tug on a braid is – like the ‘faint tremors’ felt throughout the poem – a sensorial message that will never exist in language beyond the transcription of the event.
> The collection is full of such moments, occuring at the intersection of body and world. There is a close attention to hair and skin as the membranes between them. In ‘immersion’, a bruise comes into contact with an illuminated darkness: ‘a night’s/ pristine light dessicating its small shower/ across my face, the privacy of a bruise’. ‘immersion’ is a restless poem, in which nothing stays as it is for long, so the ‘privacy of a bruise’ perhaps conveys less an idea of self-containment than it does an opening, the record of a moment of contact which reminds us of how permable we are. The poem begins with the the body’s clothes ‘dissolving, textured string & part garment / here, the final gnaw’. It is bruised, permeated with light, perforated, shed like a ‘rind’, transformed into belief, and then ‘into heartbeat’, and finally ‘leaves leaves leaves’. Chains of material density are disrupted, as is any distinction between physics and metaphysics: belief is a state that matter passes through on its way to becoming foliage.
> Similarly, in ‘if still forest (winter)’, the delicate membrane within which a body is contained is subjected to a series of forward slashes, like literal lacerations, causing it to spill out of itself:
fleshy fibres separating skin/ roots of blood-current veins / moss glimpsed through protective barriers, your thin skin masquerading parchment / felled branch landing into a blueprint
The verses are three lines long, each successive line indented forward. The process of undoing here is more invasive, more surgical. The divisions and schisms are marked by ‘brief loss, trying not to count’ and ‘collateral damage we could never unsee’. Analogies are drawn between disparate places, a counter-effort of stitching back together: ‘some forests remind you of other forests’. The divided-up body may be able to be in two places at once, (‘pungent fragrance in Epping’ and ‘tropical summers yellow and hot’) but the this division is uncertain, painful and exhausting. Finally, the poem is allowed to ‘collapse into the familiarity of hand-holding/ my dear it is composing’. Composition brings solace – but in the sounds of the final clause (dear – composing) there are echoes of the process of decomposition beginning all over again.
> In ‘separation’, processes of division are still less ambiguous in their violence. Here, the poet finds themselves ‘angled, pulled taut’, marked by ‘intangible hyphenation’. The poem alludes to partition, but situates itself at the ‘Dreiländerecke’, described as ‘the corner of three lands; a place in Basel where Germany, France and Switzerland meet’. Written in English, the poem is peppered with German words and a single word in Hindi, translated in the margin as ‘dew’. Throughout its verses, language becomes increasingly waterlogged: what begins as ‘the stretch / of grass between two farms’ has become, towards the end of the poem, ‘tidal fields / a basal / dewlake / a catching-place’, and finally: ‘childhood rivers / dark, seamed, watering / dreams’. Water in the poem is an agent of dissolution (a place of drowning and a space of emptiness), but also an agent of separation (rivers as markers of borders and seams). Perhaps there here hints of the growing threat of water insecurity in a time of climate breakdown, and the ways this exacerbates border conflicts (I am thinking of water disputes over the Indus River - which provides water to both India and Pakistan - arising from the violence of partition and intensifying under climate change). Questions of identity, cultural memory and environmental politics find their way into the poem delicately and heartbreakingly: water is a body that, too, can be subject to severances, vivisections, the violence of the cartographic knife.
> Water takes a more explicitly central role in ‘(a)version’, in which Pratyusha retells the story of Ganga, who ‘drowned her multitude of sons? / suns?’. The poem’s central anxiety concerns Ganga inability to wash herself clean: ‘she cannot both wash away the grief and contain it within this flowing body: a river of blood, her face obliterated by water’. The poem, like Ganga herself, collects and accumulates matter. When the sons are drowned, they swallow ‘dead leaves, the ashes of corpses, washed-and-cut glass, the sharp edges of twigs, and bruise their tongues purple from the overabundance of salt/silt’. Language flows in thick eddies. The poet hears the body of Ganga:
a continent away from where her body still adamantly flows, carrying now the vestiges of plastic along with her children’s ashes, cigarettes, posters turning back into tree, her voice fogged with pollution’s hot veil.
Meanwhile, a dialogue unfolds, quiet as a whisper, between Shantanu who tells her ‘I love you, I ask no questions’, and Ganga who ‘asked not to be questioned, dreamed of becoming air’. To ask questions is to accumulate matter, to grow heavy; to ask not to be questioned is to remain weightless. After its abundant deluge of words in prose, the poem pares itself back into seven, brief lines of italicized verse: in this faintness and delicacy the poem achieves Ganga’s dream of ‘becoming air’, even as she asks again ‘where do I wash myself’.
> ‘[pakeezah thumris] dialogue’, too, revolves around dreams of purification, of shedding matter. The poem is a ‘redreaming’ of a scene from Pazeekah (1972), dir. Kamal Amrohi, in which ‘Sahibjaan imagines herself as Pazeekah (translated to: pure), something her status as courtesan disallows her from’. The ensuing dialogue (‘between Sahibjaan and her female friend’), falls into a rhythm that echoes that of the thumris with which it is interspersed:
Close the curtains. [there is a stone] I am drifting – [stone] Away from Sahibjaan
Slowly, the protagonist turns from stone to ‘[rising smoke]’, as she drifts ‘away from Sahibjaan / [how to voice this] / and she away from me’. Fantasies of purity unfold in the language of disembodiment, of apparitions, shadows, air and smoke – but ultimately this state of being is unstable: if belief can turn to leaves leaves leaves (as in ‘immersion’) than stone turned to smoke can turn back into stone, just as things ‘blurred and lost’ become language again.
> In bulbul calling, nothing is immune to rhythms of doing and undoing, and the passages between states of physical matter (solid-liquid-air) are disrupted and reconfigured. The poems navigate, and are pulled between, disparate locations and stories, and these navigations – even when dreamed – are as essential as they are demanding (translation, Pratyusha writes in ‘if still forest (winter)’, is ‘a means of survival’). For me, the allure of bulbul calling lies in its joyful commitment to the strangeness of what it means to walk through the world as an individual body. It pays tribute to the importance of physical experience while also allowing processes of dematerialization to exist alongside, and in dialogue with, the material weight and the temporal, spatial specificity of a self – because what is a dream, or a vision, if not a challenge to the idea that we can only ever be at one place at one point in time? In allowing matter to misbehave, Pratyusha’s poems grant a wider, more multiple life to the individual body.
> In ‘Name gha/zal’, the final poem in the anthology, Pratyusha addresses a symbolic gesture of individuation: the act of naming. To name is to enshrine and make sacred: ‘our names: ancient, in remembered texts,/ divinity and existence unfolding at the shore’ - but it is also an act of containment, of enclosing something live and breathing: ‘the names pour blood when sluiced open,/ run into the water flowing at the shore.’ At the shore, names encounter the bodies they belong to, and language encounters the things it describes. Standing at the boundary-line between world and water, with a verse that laps at itself, eroding and depositing simultaneously, the collection ends with an imperative: ‘our true witness is with our names: / speak, Pratyusha, of everything, at the shore.’
bulbul calling is out now and available to order from bitter melon苦瓜.
Text: Lauren Collee Published: 20/10/20