Sutapa Chaudhuri reviews “On Manannan’s Isle” by Usha Kishore
by Usha Kishore
Isle of Man, UK.
ISBN: 978-1-304-14507-9 (PB)
REVIEWED by Sutapa Chaudhuri
On Manannan’s Isle is Usha Kishore’s debut collection of poetry. The fifty-six poems included in this collection are multicultural in nature and present a ‘chiaroscuro world’ (‘A Spoonful of Indian Sky’). Intertextual and multilayered, these poems build up, as Kishore writes, ‘an in-between space’ (‘Multiculturalism, Postcolonialism’). Like Kishore, an Indian-born British writer from the Isle of Man, the poetic self in On Manannan’s Isle experiences life as an amalgam of the East and the West, of Ganesha and Manannan, of Indian monsoons and British autumns. In ‘Monsoon Nights’ Kishore writes,
… The smell
of sand perfumes the air in a trapeze of fireflies
and a courtyard quivers in the lap of a pale moon,…
Those monsoon nights rising from a fond letter
are drowned in cups of Darjeeling chai,
as a Manx morning wakes up to a tiger sky.
Poems like ‘Ganesh Utsav’, ‘Monsoon Nights’ or ‘Moddey Dhoo’ too consciously build up ‘an allegory of exile’ (‘Women Like Me’) through the use of mythology and intertextual allusions, especially through the figure of Shakespeare’s Caliban as in ‘On Teaching The Tempest’:
… Caliban rolls
in the dark recesses of my heart,
an accident like me, taught
to moon-worship in an alien tongue.
On Manannan’s Isle explores mythology— both Celtic and Indian— apparently in an attempt to connect the East and the West through myths and legends. The opening poem of the collection, ‘Ganesh Utsav’, seems to serve, for Kishore, as a point of entry into the alien culture. In this poem Kishore’s invocation: “Come Ganesha, bathe in the Irish Sea…” tries to put the spirit of the Celtic deity who permeates the whole collection, Manannan, the guardian of the Irish Sea and its inhabitants, vis a vis the Hindu deity Ganesha. This seems to be a preamble to Kishore’s later attempt to assimilate the legendary Celtic guardian spirit, Manannan, as an integral part of the poetic persona’s exiled identity and resilience in an alien land. In ‘You Manannan’ Kishore writes:
But, you Manannan,
drag me by my sari tip
into your greenish depths
and imprison me,
my verses and all
in the barnacles that grow
on your rocky ledges.
Kishore’s poetic language in On Manannan’s Isle incorporates the signifiers of two different cultures, not only crossing cultural borders but also giving rise to a heterogeneous ‘mottled culture’ in which the meanings of the borrowed words are ‘translations of fabled history’ (‘Multiculturalism, Postcolonialism’). In this assimilative multicultural language, English, Celtic and/or Indian words or phrases are placed side by side. This hybrid language contains elements as discrete or as heterogeneous as
accent, my Sanskritised Puritanism, my love
for Browning’s sardonic quips and Hopkins’s
sprung rhythm … my lingering love
for Tagore, my idioms sprinkled with French
and Latin, my sunburnt Malayali metaphors, as
old as Parasurams’s axe or my calling to equality
Creative use of poetic language in this debut collection also shows Kishore’s affinity towards enjambments and broken sentences, used together with unconventional rhythms and a multicultural lexicon as in the title poem ‘On Manannan’s Isle’:
Gathering legends in a sibylline sunset,
the exile fills her wandering rucksack
with fairy fables that wing across time, …
The exile whispers: Vayu? Varuna? Indra?
Which of my thirty three million gods, are you?
I am but one more – cloak yourself in my swirling mists,
hear my laughter in the crashing waves, feel my power
in the roaring winds and say my name!
or as illustrated in poems like ‘Power’ or ‘Waiting for Autumn’ :
Your moon, cloaked in mists, serenades
my chakora spirit with fragrant madrigals
and leaves his rays on the edge of my sari.
(‘Waiting for Autumn’)
The imagery in On Manannan’s Isle is evocative and lyrical as in depictions of ‘the jasmine coloured moon’ (‘Power’) or her portrayal of the sights and sounds, the colours and cacophony of a typical Indian bazaar in ‘Teaching Between Two Worlds’:
…jalebis frying in ghee, alphonso
mangoes in cratefuls, baskets of jasmine
flowers. Chikankari saris in sapphire
and emerald map the skies with threads
The poem ‘At Janet’s’, on the other hand, uses colour codes and cataloguing to portray the studied monochrome of an urban and sophisticated First World:
Even the conversation is black and white, crisp vignettes
from stratified layers of glossy magazines, effervescent
as freshly brewed coffee, biting into the tongue, like
The striking visual quality of Kishore’s images in illustrated in lines like ‘serpent kite sings/a cruel blue song’ or ‘With blood on their beaks, the cackling/hordes rise in a flurry of possessed white’ from the poem ‘Blackbird Chased by Seagulls’, a poem in this collection memorable for its dramatic quality.
Special mention has to be made of the eight ‘The Bones of Time’ poems in On Manannan’s Isle that evolved as part of an ekphrastic project with the British artist, Carola Colley. These poems are close renditions of Colley’s plein air canvas, and they too carry on Kishore’s theme of assimilation, and points towards, as Kishore writes in ‘Meayll Circle’, the concluding poem of Kishore’s collection:
An infinite meld; there is
no vanishing point, just
a harmony of hues…
a palimpsest of time and tide…
border crossings into an ancient,
The poem talks of migrant journeys and home comings — the ferrying across of souls — to adapt one of Kishore’s phrases in the same poem, reflecting a blend of experiences and colours in an ‘abstract landscape’:
…My eyes cannot
fathom this abstract landscape, but a blissful
tranquillity draws me into your float-mounted,
Kishore’s poetry in On Manannan’s Isle attempts to analyse the notions of Otherness and integration, displacement and exile and in that process interrogates the definitions of home and the boundaries of homeland. On Manannan’s Isle thus projects Kishore as a contemporary poet of the Indian diaspora with a strong, distinct voice — assimilative of the two cultures yet retaining its own tenor.
Sutapa Chaudhuri, is Assistant Professor of English, Dr.K.L.Bhattacharyya College, University of Calcutta, India. She has two poetry collections — Broken Rhapsodies and Touching Nadir. My Lord, My Well-Beloved is a collection of her translations of Rabindranath Tagore’s songs.