Nabina Das reviews “Eidolon” by Sandeep Parmar


by Sandeep Parmar

Shearsman Books

ISBN 978-1-848613-92-8

Reviewed by NABINA DAS

The reading of Eidolon for me started with the cover art of Sandeep Parmar’s book. The Gustave Moreau painting evokes a sense of mystery and intrigue, as also of solitariness in a ravaged world—emotions that continue to run through the slim volume.

The 50 title-less poems numbered in Roman numerals is a narrative of Helen of Troy’s life then and after, literally. The poetic in this collection embodies artifact or memory, unspoken desire or a snapshot of both past and present.

The classical entity that we know Helen to be, is realized in Parmar’s poetry as a modern identity engaged in acts of everyday ennui or philosophizing about her immediate environs.

fetching the paper from the front lawn in her dressing gown a lot of the time

But that is only one dimension of this ideating the poet indulges in.

The word “denuded” is not only a reference to the body exposed and ensnared but also one that talks of a self shorn off the grandeur one imagines with the feminine representation of Helen of Troy.

Helen denuded                Helen
white_squarewhite_squarewhite_squarea place of palor where
white_squarewhite_squarewhite_squaresilk shrinks around her throat
white_squarewhite_squarewhite_squareexits the office”

“Silk” becomes the marker of a certain bearing, status or pretension. The idea of beauty, finesse, perfection can well choke the body as well the legacy of all bodies  that inhabit a public space in our society.

Eidolon is a compass to memory, a newly annotated reference book to Helen the classical heroine, as well as to the so-called burden of a colonial history that Parmar has seen percolating her own history.

Tippeted old Colonial –
Uncle, his mustard handkerchief
like a standard raised to his lips
asks: ‘If it’s  England vs. India
at the Cricket, where do you stand?’

This deviation from the ‘Helen narrative’ actually helps in understanding it better. The “standard” is a sign of power, one that was used by the British colonial masters. The history of the standard is ancient and one that is mostly associated with power and domination. This is further highlighted by the allusion to an “England vs. India” cricket match which, although less charged than an India-Pakistan face-off as any subcontinental would know, is a matter of great pride being staked on the either side. Divided loyalties is the crux of the matter here. Helen could have supported her own husband or her furtive lover. Either way, she would be doomed because she would have to carry the burden of identity pitted against love and duty. The “mustard” can be seen again as a nationalistic indicator given that saffron or mustard still plays a big role in contemporary politics especially in India, where Parmar’s roots are. Originally seen as a color of sacrifice, this hue acquires a complex meaning in the history of war/s and engaged body that the poet explores.

The narrative structure of Eidolon takes us back and forth through the personal emotions of the individual named Helen, her projected historical aura, as well as through Parmar’s own voice of listlessness. Sometimes, the latter appear to be a longing for locating the self through this designated character of Helen.

Helen                where are you
white_squarewhite_squareand where is your shadow       Helen
white_squarewhite_squarecircling the horse
white_squarewhite_squarepacked with soldiers
white_squarewhite_squaretaunting them
white_squarewhite_squarein the voices
white_squarewhite_squareof their wives

Something interesting here is at play other than the call for attention. It’s the “shadow” that supposedly addresses the tired soldiers. The multiple becoming of Helen in this manner is an indication of her being seen by the poet as a unique device for iteration. The men are taunted, for they have wasted time in warring. Parmar’s feminist personae through this shadow-talking is highly evocative. The voices that the shadow mimics is a perfect impersonation to drive home notions of love, repose, longing, and feminist futurism.

Throughout the collection, one may say Parmar’s ‘Hellenic ideal’ through the narrative of Helen is also a call to democracy, justice, and equal rights:

US National Interests. Matters of vital interest to the United States to include national security, public safety, national economic security, the safe and reliable functioning of “critical infrastructure”, and the availability of “key resources”. [PPD (Presidential Policy Directive) 20, Top Secret]

white_squareIt has of course occurred to me                             that this conversation
white_square            is being recorded                                         but what you say
white_square                        does not anyway                              belong to me (vii)

The all-too well known image of “Uncle Sam/a pitifully silvered Abe Lincoln/his sinewy hands pray” is the flag bearer of a masculinity-riddled civilization that Helen’s imagery seeks to appeal to, requesting sanity in politics and personal life.

In fact, this conglomeration of ideas—the individual and the collective states of mind—could seem to be jostling too close for elbow space. While the gamut of concepts in undoubtedly eclectic, the sparkle ebbs now and then because the reader hops over staccato sentences, jaunty phrases, abrupt transitions and somewhat loosely structured topic switches.

However, this is where the reader also feels that Parmar toys with space and page and we see a lot of long and short sentences, as though history and lore keep vying for focus, At times, the line breaks, lengths and indents seem too frequent. Language in Parmar’s hands is a tool or a trick. Like memory it rambles or prances. At times it diverts one’s interest in the subject matter. There is no denying the fact that at the end Parmar’s craft provokes to gauge through the verses. Eidolon emerges in the reader’s vision as that ‘reincarnation’ that is at once empowered, prophetic, and questioning.

NABINA DAS is a 2015-16 Commonwealth Writers Correspondent, a 2012 Charles Wallace Fellow, and a 2012 Sangam House Lavanya Sankaran Fiction Fellow. She is the author of a short story collection The House of Twining Roses: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped and a novel Footprints in the Bajra. Nabina’s debut poetry collection Blue Vessel was cited as one of the best poetry books of 2012 while the most recent volume Into the Migrant City was cited as one of the top 11 poetry reads of 2014. An MFA from Rutgers University, Nabina teaches creative writing to students in universities and workshops. Her poetry and prose have appeared in Prairie Schooner; The Yellow Nib: Modern English Poetry by Indians (Queen’s University, Belfast); The Indian Quarterly; Caravan; The Missing Slate; Good Housekeeping, etc. Nabina occasionally blogs at