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On Writing Poetry: Excavations and Predictions - Priya Sarukkai Chabria

There is a thrum in the air. I’m telling you. Something’s up. The last few weeks, as we’ve been wading through the limbo of “pandemic, but not really, almost, waitsecond wave”, it feels like there’s the collective buzz of the world finding creativity. Book launches, performances and art shows are gingerly being planned in physical locations, but always under the looming spectre of cancellation. During the various lockdowns people wrote feverishly about the importance of art, and the existential dilemma of art being termed as “non-essential”. Faced with the monotony of solitude, restriction of movement and suspension of the colourful everyday, the balm we sought lay in the arts. We found solace in the stray possibility that a turn of phrase, a well-delivered punch-line, or a carefully constructed frame, would speak the intimate, universal truth.

In the context of poetry, the strangeness of the times has only led us closer to the oft-asked question - How is it that a mere arrangement of words finds shocking resonance with our most intimate, profound musings about the mysteries of life? Priya Sarrukai Chabria’s On Writing Poetry: Excavations and Predictions, from her new collection Calling Over Water adds another layer to the palimpsest of conversations that has hovered around this question for centuries.

This collection of poetry breaks new ground, easily skateboarding across multiple distinctly crafted experiences across the expanse of centuries. Space and time are companions, as Chabria’s roving quill touches every cultural object and intimate being with sensitivity. Underlying the vibrant lyricism of the poems, is a tacit current of enquiry - questions that make the work at once, deeply human and relatable.

On Writing Poetry - 1 is a journey that combines original excerpts from the musings of Sappho, Lady Nijo, Tukaram, Agha Shahid Ali with what she calls “transmissions from the imagination” - graffiti from Thebes, an old Javanese manuscript, a double verse from Gaelic, a John Doe letter to a publisher. You will even find here missives from the future - “Clone 14/54/G in a secret chip embedded in her knuckle, 24th century” (drawn from her own speculative fiction).

I read it once, slowly. Then I read it again, pausing at every vignette, feeling the constancy of the builder of the Pharoah’s tomb as he writes graffiti for his lover across the river, or relaying the fatal urgency of a missive for war written in invisible ink. I felt the angst of the unpublished or the unrecognised, the quiet certainty of one whose secrets were not for her time, and the faith of one who had tasted the fire of enlightenment, and had slaked it with the word. The poet merges fiction with reality, and bookmarks the moment of birth of poetry - when word meets sound and soars in a spray of imagination. I smiled as I recognised the palette of doubt, desire, freedom, hope, anguish, silence and overpowering noise, that the creator feels. The poem made me think of the act of writing, and the absolute elasticity of the word. Most of all, it is an exercise in empathy, picking at the surface of a life with the thin blade of language, and restitching time and space into a patchwork of testimonies.

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