The Lyrical Capitals
Reviewed by Yogesh Patel
Poets: Kavita A. Jindal, Yogesh Patel, Mathura, Abhay K, George Szirtes
“With a poet in Abhay K., we are not limited to the mundane facts. Instead, some of the poems, as he indicates, are so universal that they can be for any place!”
Recently at School of Oriental and African Studies, I had a privilege to attend a book launch of an anthology edited by Abhay K., a career diplomat. He would not be the first one of his kind as we all know great poets like Pablo Neruda and the others were diplomats. In fact, at Skylark, I had published a special Diplomat-Poets number three decades ago. We found and brought diplomats who were poets together under a single volume, a unique achievement in the age of no internet.
Abhay K is an Indian poet-diplomat who virtually lives in his suitcase! The author of two memoirs and five collections of poems, I am glad he brings poetic perspective to his work. Translated into about twenty languages, he has received the SAARC Literary Award 2013. An unpretentious man, he wears an unruffled smile of a poet swimming the shark-infested waters of politics, and survives the challenges! Having visited so many capitals in his job, it was natural for him to conjure up such anthology. In the anthology, you will find a poem about almost any capital city on the planet. Yes, and to your shock, you won’t be able to pronounce the names of some, nor would you know to which unheard country they belong. How much little we know about our planet is a very unsettling experience. The sections are divided to put you on the map with continents. As Abhay says, he has many stories about tracking down poets and poems for these capitals. There are some cities he couldn’t find poets for and ended up penning poems for them. Can you blame him? Look at the names: Libreville, Luanda, Maputo, Moroni, Nouakchott, Praia, Rabat, Windhoek, and so on! As you will expect in such mammoth undertaking, almost all big names in poetry are assembled in this anthology.
There are many aspects in play in this assembly; Abhay says, ‘Countries are sometimes addressed by their capitals. India is referred to as New Delhi, Russia as Moscow, and the United States as Washington DC. Generally, each country has one national capital; however, there are a few countries which have more than one capital. For example, South Africa has three capitals while Bolivia has two.
Some countries such as Monaco or Vatican are synonymous with their capitals. Other countries do not have a capital at all, for example, Nauru does not have a capital city. Certain cities are also known as world capitals, for example, London and New York often compete for the title of the world capital.’
With a poet in Abhay K., we are not limited to the mundane facts. Instead, some of the poems, as he indicates, are so universal that they can be for any place!
Organised by Professor Francesca Orsini, Professor of Hindi and South Asian Literature, at SOAS, it was excellent to find great poets like George Szirtes, Michael Glover and Mathura coming together to read their work. A young award-winning poet Saradha Soobrayen brought the capital, Port Louis, to life with the spoken poetry in vogue currently. Her sharpened descriptive words left no doubt how Mauritius politically made some of its citizens homeless. Perhaps the message was that you don’t have to be in the West to be homeless, you can be homeless at home. See how cruel the reality can be:
Women will be sent on bogus trips to Port Louis. As the home ship
is finally docked they will be told their island have been sold.
Britain’s one of the most celebrated poets, George Szirtes, offered a poem on Budapest and engaged us more on the European canvas with a pondering cultural poise that only an accomplished poet can summon up to make us not just observe but think doubtfully.
A statue balanced on a pedestal
Is leaning over to whisper a close secret.
Two yellow trams clatter in mechanical
Circles. Dull monuments express regret
For what someone has done to them, for crimes
Committed in names they’re trying to forget
But can’t. Here all the clocks tell different times.
All the statues point different ways. Film crews
Shoot Budapest for Berlin. The city rhymes
With its imperial neighbour, like one bruise
With another. People converge on streets
Where there is never any lack of news.
This is a long poem in this 428-page volume, but every word oozes a measured observation translated into a rhythm of wonderment offering an experience that briskly passing tourist simply may not comprehend.
Michael Glover, another great English poet, has lived in Paris read his poem about the city. He captures the city through the prism of his unique experience. This is not tourist’s Paris. In contrast to the pace in his lines I froze up with delight:
It is columnar, and entirely made of ice.
I cannot run away from it fast enough –
the swifter I go, the sooner I arrive.
But Michael’s humour is not be missed either:
If I were to collect up all the spoons
from all the cafes, I would never walk.
Lastly, the poetry landscape is not a dull place. Poet Mathura, aka Margus Lattik, is an Estonian, and capable in unsettling us with a line:
Aren’t maps created in the head? (from In Stockholm)
To conclude, I think this anthology is must for any discerning reader if we want to see the cities in a different light than as urban jungles punctuated by historical bricks!
Yogesh Patel edits Skylark and runs Word Masala Foundation to promote South-Asian diaspora poets.