This review discusses Anita Nahal‘s fourth collection of poems titled “Kisses at the espresso bar” and provides a deep analysis of the themes, imagery, and linguistic style present in the poems. The reviewer explores the concept of ekphrastic poetry, where the poet draws inspiration from visual art to create a new world of imagination.
“I see wisdom knocking on my door, solidly, repetitively. I see the residues from rampant wildfires spill just outside my abode. I see you and others cooking on those very dangerous embers. Judases. I don’t watch. I observe. I look pointedly. That’s my job. Like the Gods of all religions observing us.”
- ‘Koala and Judases’
There is something deeply unsettling about Anita Nahal’s fourth collection of poems. Its quiet yet shrill clairvoyance puts the reader ill at ease with regard to herself and the world. A strong sense of the occult seems to grip us here in its sharp awareness of multiple planes of reality. Everywhere one looks, a confrontation with chaos is inevitable and yet, there is an eerie sense of control to it all as if all this upheaval were being discreetly governed. In every poem one meets, is a distinct feeling of being under an invisible eye — watched, observed, evaluated, condemned.
Kisses at the espresso bar, as a title, metaphorizes transience and the sense of inhabiting a space and a perspective on the world that will be lost as soon as one moves away from the place of transit – the espresso bar. Congenital to it is a fleeting intimacy, an acknowledgment of the brevity of communion and companionship, and the idea of romance as performance. Here is also, a remarkable association between the physical and the emotional, and a performative play of emotions induced by the aroma and promise of coffee. In many ways, this acts as a fit metaphor to invite us into a collection of ekphrastic poems where a painting or an artwork becomes the specific window for the poet’s brief entry into an unmapped world of the imagination.
“The poems in this volume,” writes Nahal, “are like pieces of artwork representative of the real-surreal layered world in which we reside.” Apart from the first poem which is inspired by an artwork from the poet’s personal collection, the remaining thirty-seven poems take off from the work of seven artists from around the world – Lorette C. Luzajic, Elizabeth ‘Lish’ Skec, Madan Tashi, Madhumita Sinha, Michael D. Harris, Manju Narain and Anthony Gartmond. Working in the fields of mixed media art, graphite pencil art, quilt art, sculpture, and so on, each artist is characterized by an affinity for anything from hyperrealism to surrealism which fuels Nahal’s imagination.
What does an ekphrastic poet see in a work of art? For an artwork to inspire a poem requires the poet to not only be steeped in its wonder or beauty but to also engage with it in a meaningful conversation so that the work finds an emotive signification in the poet’s own imagination, its texture and ambiance becoming the cornerstone for the engendering of another new world. The artwork, thus, becomes a passage or vestibule linking the imaginative landscapes of the artist to that of the poet who gives shape to its ethos in a poem. The poem, however, though immediately engendered by the work of art, is born in the eternally aflame crucible of the poet’s mind and partakes of her spirited mental universe.
In arriving at Anita Nahal’s ekphrastic poems, one is compelled to pause at the sheer wealth and wonder of imagistic association, the agility of multicultural connections, the sharpness of language, and the marked air of surrealism that characterizes the delivery of each verse. Nahal has a predilection for the abstract that establishes itself in the particular structure of her poems where linearity and circularity, conjunction and disjunction, and transparency and opacity go hand in hand. She writes prose poems and yet, they are prosaic only in form, in the particular arrangement of their lines. Their spirit, as one will note, is essentially poetic with an overpowering sense of buoyancy and flow, a rhythmic movement of images, and an incantatory rhythm that if listened to by the inner ear has the capacity to hypnotise the reader.
The title of the book prepares one for a romantic encounter. The chocolatey hue of the cover with graphite pencil art by Anthony Gartmond gives it a rich, molten appearance but, more than romance, what the cover’s ambiance seems to underline is a sense of mystery, an intrinsic play between appearance and reality deployed by a complex enactment of the gaze. Centre stage here are not people but objects – the cutlery, and chiefly the cups that are being gazed at but also, meticulously, gazing with non-eyes that seem to metaphorize the very act of seeing, Not everything is what it seems to be, the cover warns, and there is always more than meets the eye.
Reading through the book, one is struck by the motif of seeing that is manifest in almost each of these thirty-eight poems. The first poem, inspired by a sketch from the poet’s own collection is titled ‘The eyes of the valentine’ and is an elaborate exploration of the act of seeing – “Saraswati is nearby. Shiva is not far away. Yin and yang sit on my eyelids…Much learning is still to be done.” In ‘A new day’, “Cars are circles…Tongues are florescent…Rest is hidden, cut by huge scissors that hang from the sky.” In ‘Humans and extinctions’, the ancient great roamer perches above her baby “her eyesight acute, fully awake, observing the humans igniting the match.” In ‘My Trojan Horse’, a prayer transforms vision and the bulls “poised for the final denunciation” suddenly become “thousands of Ganesha”.
Thematically, the collection is an indictment of the widespread injustices of our world that rally around differences of class, race, gender, and ecology. It is a dark collection constituting a passageway to the essential darkness of the human soul – lust, greed, malice, envy, and the endless posturing. Here is an ache for the world’s distress and its inability to hold on to those who are authentic and pro-life. Nahal writes from a keen womanist standpoint and many of the artworks that she has chosen, deal directly with women as thematic motifs. It is little wonder, therefore, that a woman’s sensitive and robust subjectivity underlines many of these poems. What is remarkable, however, is the way that Nahal empathetically traverses imaginative terrains to join forces with other minority groups – nature, blacks, queers, and the dispossessed and victimized everywhere.
In ‘Koala and Judases’, Judas becomes a metaphor for man’s betrayal of humanity and ecology:
The forest is desiccated, and fragile. Perfect for a fire. I don’t smoke. But I see your smoky footprints in my backyard, sore and fiery, leaving me to douse these with my own skin, my own fabrics, my own rush, over and over. Judases. Ghosts of the Amazonia, Dering woods, Crooked Forest, the Tsingy, the Black Forest, the Tongass, the Sundarbans, and myriad more let out banshee screams often.
‘Educated or enlightened’ is an attempt to distinguish education which is, very often, self-serving from enlightenment which integrally involves a vision of relationship with others:
Education zooms. Sits high on sooty clouds while enlightenment creates a new world in earth, fire, water, wind, and ether. The bulb keeps going on-off, on-off, on-off in both worlds, lest either forget. Bemused, Thomas Edison sits in Sukhasana.
In ‘Greatest Warrior is Metamorphic Mother Earth’, she voices Nature’s resilience:
Don’t shake your head and offer pity over my amputated legs. Ask instead, what, where, and why they walked, kicked, dragged, and were slumped upon. How a warrior I was born. Don’t nod in understanding without looking straight into my eyes which still sparkle in my guillotined head on the butcher block. How a warrior I was reborn. Don’t put your arms around mine without feeling the compacted air that extends beyond my shredded joints. How a warrior I was born, again and again and again.
Suffusing Kisses at the espresso bar is a dissatisfaction with conventional ways of seeing and recording the world, and the need to find the right lens to understand its complex meaning. As a migrant, Nahal compounds many ways of seeing and processes her responses to the world around her via plural cultural epistemologies. These ekphrastic poems document her apprehensions and pain with a world that is deeply fractured, rampantly inauthentic and unethical, and fast spinning towards its doom. It is a fearless condemnation of human perversity, a staunch disavowal of any sense of human superiority or entitlement, and at its most vulnerable, a cry for tenderness and love – “Why is humanity on a headstand even when blood clots pack tight the reasoning grids?” (‘Flame and escape’) or “Have nots look hungrily at leftovers, wipe nose grunges off, stand static for hours, and leave their one set of clothing out every night hoping it might rain” (Haves and have nots).
An overwhelming sense of fragmentation that is both stylistic and deeply philosophical, marks the collection. With the migrant’s ever-open third eye, Nahal finds it difficult to endorse the idea of wholeness. Her poems throw light on the debris of identity, the urgency of reconciliation, and the necessity to shape a vision and ethics of being that is deeply inclusive. In ‘Nagini that may not comply’, for instance, she writes: “Nummp, Nagas, Cernunnos, all avatars are intertwined with humanity. Humanity which portends good, bad, and evil. The she and he, and everyone else.”
The ‘I’ in these poems, one notes, is forever shifting while the ‘you’ as society remains constant. The direct result of this is an astonishing ventriloquism within this collection with myriad subjects speaking through the poet. The title poem, for instance, speaks partly with the voice of cups. ‘Humdrum of my fabric’ is written from the perspective of a fabric. ‘Greatest warrior is metamorphic Mother Earth’ is a recording of Nature’s voice and arguments.
One marvels at the dense language of these poems that has clearly been culled from a wide diversity of linguistic and cultural registers. Nahal consistently evinces a discontent with language and a need to compound it with metaphysical and spiritual meaning. Her experimentation involves playing with syntactical structures and breaking set patterns of expression to find a way to put forward the marginal and the uncomfortable. In an era where the domain of apposite expression is being fast appropriated by AI, Nahal’s chief obsession appears to be the crafting of a human/e language forceful enough to make the deaf hear, and pliant enough to anchor the sensitive.
An oracular confidence marks the most memorable lines in this collection – “Need can arise anytime to wade with the flow.” (‘Of rainbows and jellyfish’); “We became a speck on the messy roll of the film for the nightly news.”(‘No clean slate with blood’); “Don’t ask me whose fault it is. Delve your arms into your belly for that gut of yours. Pull it out. Shake it. Awake it. Ask it.” (‘Jazz vocalist’); “If Earth had not been a mother, would it have been pilferaged?” (‘If Earth had not been a mother’); “No onomatopoeia exists for the sounds of civilizational truths and lies.” (‘Native’) or “Planet has more water, less land, more population, less civility” (‘Prayer’).
Looming large in these poems are breaks, slippages, ricochets of thought, and their conscious dismantling into engineered chaos, exhibiting the single-minded pursuit of a poetic practice that mirrors the surreal logic of the artworks that she has chosen. She attempts a spiritual imitation of these works of art, translating their colours, strokes, textures, thematic resonances and their grand spaces into her poetic canvas in such a way that both the artworks and her own subjectivity acquire a new form.
Reading through the poems, one often experiences goosebumps as one does in the presence of something mystic. Sharp, poignant, experimental, and brutally honest, this is a collection not without its hope of light as it sets out to reclaim the potential goodness of the human heart by exorcising all that is callous, apathetic and narcissistic – “She’s not, they’re not, I’m not, you’re not, half empty. Still in the making till we pass into our next birth. A bit more made. We’ll never know and begin again as half trying to be full.” (‘Half-woman, half-empty’)
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Basudhara Roy is a poet, academic and faculty of English at Karim City College affiliated to Kolhan University, Chaibasa. Her latest work is featured in Madras Courier, Lucy Writers Platform, Berfrois, Gitanjali and Beyond, The Aleph Review and Yearbook of Indian English Poetry 2020-21, among others.