Kolkata Dreams is a first collection of poems from Montreal writer K. Gandhar Chakravarty (8th House Publishing) and true to form offers the delight of a new poet’s way of seeing and being in the world — in this instance, the world of Kolkata, India.
What I liked most about this collection — more specifically, about the better poems in the collection — was Chakravarty’s eye for the poetic moment. Wandering the streets of Kolkata, in his finest moments, Chakravarty is able to see into original moments of real pathos and humour through the sometimes difficult tension of being an outsider. The poetic importance, for instance, of children throwing pebbles into a hole in a stone wall — a game that will never be marketed to wealthy Western kids — or the butchering of a small goat, or the way food offerings in a temple become food offerings for the millions of tiny creatures who carry it away, or the crazy and not-so-crazy street words of a leper.
The language in these poems is Bukowskiesque in its matter-of-fact observing and deadpan, and is solid and shows evidence of a gifted writer. His eye and attention to detail are strong. He is a clever and affected observer, walking that difficult line between tourist and more insightful participant in an alien culture.
The hard part of any travel poetry, of course, is seeing through the exotic and into something more meaningfully human. Chakarvarty is sensitive to this tension, and in poems like Ode to Riksha-Ola, where he muses on his bartering with a rickshaw driver for less than pennies, he is all too aware of how his status as a (comparatively) wealthy visitor complicates his experiences.
But in other poems I missed this self-reflexive acumen — when, for instance a mother’s life is summed up in a few lines, her life and her family’s on the street, as organized by “animal instincts”, or poems criticizing “corn-fed, white–bread Middle-class American hippies”. I can only imagine how repulsive a certain kind of tourist must be in India, and yet such a simple slag within a collection of self-declared travel poems makes me wonder if the writer is letting himself out of the poem too easily.
And this would be my more general critique. There is a wonderful intelligence and curiosity at work behind these poems, and flashes of linguistic beauty and originality — for example: “And yet another polio inflicted peasant crawled by / Dragging a disfigured body / Across the train platform like an injured silkworm”. His eye is good — the moments are real (or they feel real, which is the point) and they explore complicated tensions. But some of the endings for this reader flirt too closely with cliché: Kolkata a city of scavengers; “the world just got way too fucked”; a heart turning to gold; history that cries …
These are, I think, moments where the poet ducks out at the wrong time, preferring an easier wrap-up than perhaps what is at stake in the poem. And this is also why I will look forward to Chakavarty’s next collection. Everything but these endings in these poems was rendered well.
Kolkata Dreams is an ambitious undertaking – the writer of travel poetry must do double-duty to overcome and to see beyond the “childish pleasures of tourists” as Orhan Pamuk phrased it, and to avoid the clichés that must inevitably arise for a Westerner encountering this remarkable culture. Chakravarty does well with much of this collection.
It is a strong first outing and I’ll be looking forward to his next.