Reviewed by Bashabi Fraser
Published by The London Magazine Editions, 2021
I sit and gaze at fountains and pigeons
watching mobile users driving
unable to prosecute bored
I’m also here illegally
Lions of Sanchi Capital lost
Truth locked away in a museum
(Lions on Trafalgar Square)
A moment like this comes but rarely in the history of poetry, when a new poetic form gushes forth like the fountains dancing to life at Trafalgar Square. There is a sense of disorientation as metaphor and myth collide (like pigeons and passersby) to give meaning to language which flourishes in a fresh revelation. This is Yogesh Patel’s contribution to modern poetry in English – the Rapid poem which carries the rhythm of our heartbeat and flows like the rivers that seamlessly flow through Yogesh’s new collection – the Ganga and Yamuna, the Nile and the Thames in The Rapids.
Reading the 60 poems in this book, thoughtfully arranged and visually presented on the page like paintings in a gallery (like those referred to in ‘Arrangement’ or ‘A Quest for Art’) has been an aesthetic journey for me in poems which traverse continents (Asia, Africa, Europe and America) and are transcontinental in scope and appeal. I have been reading Yogesh’s poems in his previous collections (Swimming with Whales, Bottled Ganges, The Manikin in Exile) which have explored the themes of climate change and a sustainable environment, departures and arrivals, nature, the city and of the migrant self recording memories, loneliness, loss and resilience in verse that is poignant, in a voice that is distinguishable for its unflagging integrity. The themes are continued in The Rapids, and it is as if Yogesh rides on the crest of a breaker here with the confidence of a Neptune taming the waves, conscious of the depth and the vastness of possibilities that the poetic form offers.
He can move from the mundane in ‘A milkman’s round’ which evokes an old tradition, now abandoned:
history doesn’t repeat bottles
at four in the morning
– to the current cold reality of soldiers returning with PTSD from continuing contemporary wars:
when you’re lost and when you’re pissed
a world is a sniper you’re now jihadist.
(‘A turn of an hourglass’)
The realism in each poem cuts deep like a sculpturing chisel.
In ’A game of twigs’, the innocence of an invitation to play a child’s game of Pooh sticks by the narrator positioned on a bridge, becomes a powerful ironic tool, invoking the epic battle at Kurukshetra in the Mahabharata, while playfully daring the onlooker to play a game of Truth:
Be a friend,
Drop stick with me
to disturb my rippled image:
no more an image
that twigs can race through.
The voices of old masters through the poems in letters from a lost doll to Dora, Mark Twain’s affinity with the ‘deep silence’ of a lake landscape, Ezra Pound’s imagist insistence and Walt Whitman’s gulls who survey and laugh, advise ‘Hide the conker, find the conker; its’s a game lost’However, it is not a game lost, rather it is meaning rediscovered where the river is urged to ‘Go downstream;’ where ‘you will find rivers/cities and finally the ocean’.
While the vastness is evoked, there are moments of intimate divulgences e.g., in ‘Thali’ where a joyful wedding game with coins in later years spins under ‘centrifugal forces/at work’ with ‘coins flying like bullets’, or the invocation of ‘A single diya brighten(ing) the night’ willing ‘the words find their mother tongue’ in ‘The anger management.’ In ‘A florid breakup’ the ‘night blooming jasmine/in friendly black space’ mirrors ‘All florid breakups (which) mark a season’s end’.
The environmental concerns and the migrant experience merge with alacrity in the image of ‘the migrant/Wilma the whale,’ who realises that its arrival on ‘the banks of the Thames are also/Harmondsworth prison’, but all is not lost, as ‘There is always hope for/the prisoner transfer: it comes!’ The narrator divulges ‘I am a project restoration.’ And when this drifting being ‘enter(s) a new home’, if asked his name, the identity of the narrator becomes interchangeable:
I am Moses
I am Krishna?
(‘Restoration) – a transnational soul, floating through time, across the globe, in a seamless, continuous presence. The compassion for Wilma can turn to burning anger in ‘Clotho’s tangled thread’ where rape victims are commemorated in
Adikia bloody on the ground
Trying to split Dike’s staff.
The Rapids has the appeal of jazz music, where the poet improvises with spontaneity, taking the reader with him on a journey of delightful revelations. Through these poems, birds sing and soar, make nests and rest in arbours. The poet notes
How wonderful to be
an intruder in these
amidst dunnocks and blackbirds
engaged in a symphony.
And goes on to say,
I am just a migrant
in this part of the world’
But Yogesh’s verse does not intrude on our consciousness. It flows through us and envelops us like a symphony, no longer that of an eternal migrant, but of one who embodies multiple departures and affirms he has arrived on our poetic shores to reassure, revive and to stay.
Dr Bashabi Fraser, CBE, Professor Emerita of English and Creative Writing, Director, Scottish Centre of Tagore Studies, Edinburgh Napier University.