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Probably Geranium

Author: Sekhar Banerjee

Publisher: Red River, India 2024

 

Reflections and Home

Neera Kashyap reviews 'Probably Geranium', a collection of poetry by Sekhar Banerjee

Sekhar Banerjee’s new book of poems, ‘Probably Geranium’ (Red River, January 2024) follows a previous collection published more than two years ago, ‘The Fern Gatherers’ Association’ (Red River, September 2021). Like the latter, this new collection is also elegiac in tone connoting loss and loneliness in ways that are both laconic and intense, futile but with an endless sense of wait. The metaphors and images used in both are rich in observation yet characterized by a turn of phrase that surprises with a certain deliberate oppositeness. ‘Probably Geranium’ is more distilled, more mature and prolifically interspersed with black and white photographs taken by Banerjee himself, that have a voice of their own. From the tangled wires of an urban electric pole to the silence of a monastery bell at dusk, a rolling cityscape blending smoke and cloud to a misty path winding silently uphill, the visuals speak as if in verse.  

Divided into three sections, ‘Heaven’s Furniture’, ‘Belladonna and Zinc’ & ‘Lukewarm silence’, these poems are never far from the brooding hills of the north eastern Himalayas that have been dominant in Banerjee’s life. He grew up in an old tea town in north Bengal. In his official capacity, he served in the hills of Darjeeling and as a teacher in southern Bhutan, spending more than half his life on hills and tea estates. Yet, he reflects deeply on what it means to be rooted. In the poem ‘Grief in one line’, the west Sikkim hills are described as ‘nature’s ultimate egotists’. The clouds slowly deck up the shoulders of ‘spring’s heart-broken hills/with black mourning veils, long and fine,/to hide their monumental grief//to remain rooted in a place/for long/where they sometimes don’t belong.’

This fear of a misplaced rootedness continues in the sense of things abandoned in the poem, ‘Walking uphill’ set in north Bhutan. There is something holy and untouched about this pre-dawn walk when: ‘The yolk of the morning sun/is still not allowed/to touch the dark pine forest/till the monastery on the last hill top is prepared/to greet it’. Though the thick forest is like ‘a wide-bluish comforter’ around the neck of the hills, there is a sense of abandonment – of lifelong choices, of lists of things – that get buried like ‘a silent forest in winter,/almost like this uphill walk.’

In the poem ‘Effort’, an evening in the hills looks like muddy water without sound. Nothing can be taken for granted. Not life, not death. In a heartfelt conversation between an evening and a human, there is this realization: though there is the monastery, the monotony of peace and ancient constructions, old rosaries and ‘a silent chorus frozen in the hills’…these ‘are never adequate for us.’ Perhaps even in solitude, thoughts intrude - reflections of abandonment. In the book, Banerjee’s silences are, secretly quiet like ‘a conch shell with a restless silence’, empty, unemotional, not a prayer.

What appears adequate is the undisturbed communion between the poet and a city lake in the poem, ‘The lake’. This, despite the fact that ‘fishes avoid the edges/of a broken moon, as oblong and sharp/as open knives’. This, despite the fact that a yellow taxi passes by carrying its usual load of people who yell and shout ‘like intermittent radio noise/in the middle of an essential conversation/between a human and a lake’. For city wetlands have calm eyes that are soothing. They are beguiling in their infinite space and darkness, emitting signals of ‘unknown fish languages’, spoken in the dark. This seems enough.

Though with a nondescript title, the poem, ‘A calendar of events’ reflects the poet’s knowledge of the throb of the universe, as an angler listens to the rotation of the earth in the water ripples around a fishhook, the summer sky breaking in the pond!

Banerjee skilfully reflects the micro in the macro, the macro in the micro. Through this, he goes much beyond the immediate universe. In the poem, ‘An ordinary morning’,the scent of steam/and tea leaves fill up every inch/of the broken silhouette of the sun.’ In ‘Music box’, the glow worms are further out than the stars, the stars rising one by one like ‘spillovers of the glow worms flitting in the hollows/between the small worlds/of the trees and shrubs and the roof of the universe.’ In a single long sentence, a prose poem, ‘An afternoon in Ballimaran’ distinctively describes this walled area of old Delhi. An ittar shop ‘lowers the sky near its precincts’ making Ballimaran a universe with its shadow of minarets, the diphthong of the azaan, splintered Urdu-zubaan, the fragrance of half-burnt milk, ittar shops ….. In this maze of dissimilar shadows, the poet examines every face for a trace of a verse written by Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib when he resided here, in Galli Qasim Jan.

Banerjee uses the metaphors of sun and rain, haze and fog evocatively and sensuously to convey color, prayer, brokenness, inundation, confusion, pointlessness, lassitude. He also uses surprising elements of juxtaposition which often catches the reader off-guard, sometimes playfully, often to create an opposite effect. Sorrow is like ‘a beautifully freckled skin of an old lizard in rain’. Rain has a sharp edge like ‘an open drawer of blades’ that makes sleep a time of ‘fresh wounds. A prayer ‘is a housing bombed several times.’ ‘Ferries laden with mint and cauliflowers, sprout on the Hooghly like blebs on its soft skin’. Some similes tend to be stretched. In ‘Operas’, a lazy ant basks in the shadow of the autumn sun ‘like a profound grief’. Or in ‘A rainy night’ the rain’s straight and fast descent is compared to ‘an official meteorologist’s white mind’. The two urgent telegram prose in capital letters also don’t achieve the playfulness they appear to aim at.

It is through images of death that the reader gets a glimpse of the poet’s search for something more, something beyond. In ‘Zero Point, west of Bhutan’, standing near mossy graves ‘so beautiful yet permanent like an old face’ is to feel the eternity of death, ‘Like another grave/waiting for a bouquet of flowers.’ In ‘The roll call’ the images of life and death dominate:

 

You enter your sleep

wearing a grey coat,

carrying a notebook and a pomegranate

every night. Each seed is for a departed relative

while the playfield across the street 

is covered with blue geraniums and weeds.

 

In ‘Binary’ he asks: What is your breath but a binary – a dot and a dash ‘to live a life on both sides of a fallacy,’ as if urgently requiring you ‘to go home, somewhere’. And where would home be? The answer appears to lie in the poet’s dream home expressed in the title poem, ‘Probably Geranium’:

 

There needs to be vastness in front

like the sound of an old harmonium: solid,

luminous and musical.

A hillock, some flower tubs,

probably geranium,

and a sun-filled expanse of the ferns.

 

The final question comes in the most thought-provoking of poems in this thought-provoking collection titled, ‘Body of water’ when the poet asks: ‘Did you want anything more? Are you sure?’

His answer hints at dissolution when the Neti Neti of everything, including verse, is dissolved in these lines:

 

No shape, no soul, no ferry, no boat, no present

no fate, no divinity, no past, no expectation,

no meaning, no dream, no thought, no direction.

You become a waterbody, a running whole

 

and finally

 

dissolve into yourself

like a lagoon

of coarse salt.

About the Author

Sekhar Banerjee

Sekhar Banerjee is a Pushcart Award and Best of the Net nominated poet.  The Fern-gatherers’ Association (Red River, 2021) is his latest collection of poems. He has been published in Stand Magazine, Indian Literature, The Bitter Oleander, Ink Sweat and Tears, The Lake, Better Than Starbucks, Muse India, The Bangalore Review, Kitaab, Thimble Literary Magazine, Madras Courier, Outlook, The Wire and elsewhere. He has a monograph of an Indo-Nepal border tribe to his credit. He lives in Kolkata, India.

Image by Sixteen Miles Out
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