Dreams of the Sacred and Ephemeral: Blurred Territories of Conventional Genres (Hawakal Publishers, 2017)
Review by Nabanita Sengupta
Kiriti Sengupta’s Dreams of the Sacred and Ephemeral is a unique attempt in genre bending. It not only brings together forms of prose and poetry, but also makes use of images as texts. Dreams is a poetic trilogy, loosely bound by poet’s thoughts on various issues ranging from the mundane to profound and from sacred to profane, as even the title suggests. The first and the second parts of the trilogy follow the ancient tradition of prosimetrum while the third part experiments with words juxtaposed with pictures, presenting a poetry-picture book in black-and-white. Prosimetrum, as the name suggests brings together prose and poetry. The degree of prose or verse used varies from text to text. The term dates right back to the 12th century AD with Dante Alighieri’s La Vita Nouva being a classic example of medieval courtly love in this tradition. The text alternates between personal narratives and lyrics emerging out of those narratives, giving the work a unique structure within European literature. In modern literature too we find the presence of this genre. A more recent example would be Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland, a work in which prose narrative occupies greater space than verse. The term prosimetrum had never been much used in popular coinage, but its examples are scattered far and wide in world literature of various ages and culture. Sengupta’s first and second parts of the trilogy can be treated as a part of this ancient and enriching tradition. He merges the mundane with philosophical thoughts. Each section generally begins with prose rumination and goes on to end with a related verse. The choices of topics are quite eclectic and the readers feel as though they are meandering along a sensitive and poetic mind in motion.
The first part of the trilogy, My Glass of Wine begins at the beginning — beginning of the author’s association with literature which also coincided with the beginning of his romantic relationship with his future wife. The location is also important — Coffee House of the College Street area in Kolkata. The place that has seen the rise and fall of so many literary Mohicans becomes the birthplace of another new poet. The poet candidly expresses his ignorance of Bengali literature to his future wife, but at the same time puts in a diligent effort to inform himself on the topic, and thus begins his relationship with literature. The transformation from a dental surgeon to a poet begins with this encounter. This section interestingly ends with a short poem titled “Consumption,” where the poet compares the time passed with that of milk consumed by an infant — both leaving their effects in the building up of the persona. Sengupta’s first date and his consequent love for literature is also like that milk which nourishes the poet’s poetic persona.
In a true prosimetric tradition, Sengupta traces the origin of each of his verses in short, succinct prose narratives. In My Glass of Wine, they often originate out of the lived life of the poet, making the narrative partly a life writing too. Small incidents from the author’s life are integrated within narratives along with philosophical and religious discourses. He talks about his various encounters with religion and his once intimate relationship with Christianity, moving on to share his encounters with other religions — his acquaintance with Tantric Hinduism and Islam. This extensive prose narration too ends with a verse elucidating the important position that “blood” holds in all the religions. There is a parallelism drawn between the use of blood in various religions and the sanctity of blood relation. Both ensure a continuity of the legacy, as something “inevitable” and “impeccable.” The linkage between blood, religion and relationships inevitably trigger other associations in the readers’ mind, of spilt blood and violence, along with other sacred associations that the poet highlights. Cruising through the prose and poetry of the first part of the trilogy, we meet the poet’s sister, son, mother, and his Master — his spiritual guru, renowned Kriyayoga Master, Dr. Asoke Kumar Chatterjee. The mystic self of the poet comes forth in the section “My Master and the Cover”. He talks of his initiation into Kriyayoga, the world of “quiet ambience” and his “practice of self-realization.” The section as well as the first book ends with a verse on complete renunciation of the world in spite of being one of it—
My master enjoys the stage;
Looking at the sparkling crowd he tells;
Reach the void, and see the cage. (50)
The second book of the trilogy, The Reverse Tree, continues with the genres of prosimetrum and life writing. The poet continues with his journey of the poetic mind and poetry emerges from his consciousness formed of the everyday. In a stream of consciousness like movement, we move from topic to topic, touching upon various aspects of life. Sengupta narrates a touching story of a transgender, Lara, who lived the life of a woman and desired a man whom she could spend her life with. The story is one of courage and resilience in the face of adversity. In his discussion regarding sexuality, he ropes in the concurrent political and the social condition too, standing unhesitatingly by the sufferings of the LGBTQ community, empathising with their marginality.
In The Reverse Tree Sengupta calls himself an “alternative poet,” interestingly borrowing the term from its usage in alternative medicine, because of his narratives on the third gender. He uses words in an unconventional way throughout his work and there are quite a number of places where he uses one word to signify something completely different from its lexical meaning. “Rains” and “Clips” are two such examples from his first part of trilogy. “Rains” to him is “a situation , which makes (him) feel lost … lost in the crowd, lost in (his) thoughts, lost in (his) occupation…” which “dampens the interior, and cannot be seen” (28). The “Rains” section, therefore, contains some of his most beautiful evocations on love — poems that he had written with a “bleeding heart.” Similarly, “Clips” are appliances to hold things together; that can be braces to hold teeth in place or letters from the past that hold bits of that time together. Sengupta’s creative mind transforms a mundane word like clip into an illusory, metamorphosing entity with a fluid identity.
Like My Glass of Wine, The Reverse Tree too ends in a metaphysical note. The reversal that he talks about in “The Reverse Tree” is a Tagore-like understanding and acceptance of death. He talks about his anthology named Epitaphs where only a few poets had composed epitaphs for their own sake. Sengupta is concerned: “if poets fail to consider death as an inevitable reality, what will be the reader’s stand?” (103). The book ends fittingly with a poem on the understanding of the “existence of mankind.”
The final section of the trilogy, Healing Waters Floating Lamps (HWFL), is not a prosimetrum. It is the author’s tribute to the poet seer Rabindranath Tagore, a poetry picture book in black-and-white. Though poetry-picture books tend to bring to mind children’s book of verses, in modern literature, there is ample presence of such books for adults as well. Yet there are hardly any that can match the serious and philosophical tone that we find here. Minus the colours that otherwise characterise the poetry picture books worldwide, HWFL accentuates the solemn and metaphysical mood of this trilogy by keeping the pictures black-and-white. The final trilogy offers a closure to the circle of poetry that began with My Glass of Wine. Just as a circle has no beginning or end, Sengupta’s beginning and end too shed their exclusivity as we find here a number of verses reiterating the prose narratives of the previous texts or simply repeated from the other two parts. But reiteration does not take away the charm of poetry as the verses have a freshness and originality in them. The accompanying pictures, the metatexts, add another dimension to their meanings. Though the poem “Unravel” is a part of the first trilogy as well, here, an accompanying picture of a parrot in a cage adds another layer to the text, comparing each of us with that imprisoned creature, bereft of any actual agency. Alternatively, a few lines are changed in “Initiation” to make the verse stand firm as an individual piece and not as a part of a larger narrative as in My Glass of Wine. Most of the poems are fresh ones though, not originating in the other two books of the trilogy. The verses here are more profound, as if after his long travel from My Glass of Wine, the young verses have reached the profundity of age. Curiosity and restlessness of youth is now replaced by sombre, matured reflections of life. Prose is no more required so it is completely abandoned but in its place comes pictures. In HWFL Sengupta makes his complete appearance as a poet.
The trilogy, Dreams of the Sacred and the Ephemeral, in spite of crisscrossing through genres of prosimetrum, life-writing and poetry-picture book, emerges finally as a book of verses. Even in the prose section, the poet persona of the author remains. He is bold in his choice of genres and presents us with a unique composition. The crossover genre of this work enriches it and liberates it from the traditional compartmentalisation that we otherwise find in literature. This work therefore compels its readers to move beyond the comfort zone of all the established norms of a poetry anthology and creates a distinctive place for itself in contemporary literature.
Nabanita Sengupta is presently working as assistant professor in English at Sarsuna College, affiliated to the University of Calcutta. Her areas of specialization are 19th century travel writings, women’s studies, translation studies and disability studies. Some of her translated short stories have been published, the latest contribution being in the anthology of modern Bengali short stories, published by the Sahitya Akademi. Her creative writings have also been published at various places like Muse India, Cafe Dissensus, News Minute, among others.