Poetry Review – What Survives is the Singing: John Snelling admires Shanta Acharya’s poetry for both its subtlety and its technical deftness
What Survives Is The Singing Shanta Acharya Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2020 ISBN 978-1-912876-21-1 80pp £9.99
The title of Shanta Acharya’s new collection is based on a quotation from Bertolt Brecht. Brecht wrote,
In the dark times Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing About the dark times.
These words appear as one of the epigraphs to the collection. Many of the poems here are about the sense of living in dark times and of the necessity of raising ones voice in response. This is the singing which will survive to record how it was and what it meant to the poet.
Shanta Acharya is a writer with a subtle and discriminating intelligence and an extensive frame of reference drawn from both eastern and western culture. While the claim that there are no easy answers has become something of a cliché, it is nevertheless true and a reading of these poems shows how much Shanta Acharya has, in the words of Keats, proved it upon her pulses. The first two poems in the collection illustrate the point. ‘Strange Times’ takes some of the horrors of modern life and sets against them instances of human resilience and resistance to the darkness. She writes,
Not knowing if we can find a way forward, we stumble on like spirits possessed with sixth sense, carrying the torch of hope in our hearts, believing in the darkness of the world – a crack is all it takes for the light to get in, alter our vision, fire a revolution.
The second poem, ‘Alphabet Of Erasure’ addresses what is lost when people are unvalued and ignored because of their sex, race, culture or anything else. It does not offer a glimmer of hope but reminds us that what we destroy may be lost irretrievably. It ends,
You learn an alphabet of erasure – amnesia, anorexia, anosmia, aphasia, ataxia – Experience every measure of loss between A and Z in silence; not a healing, consoling peace where you find your voice, but the silence of oblivion.
Other poems in the collection embody yet other standpoints and the range of subjects touched upon is large yet the overall effect could not be farther from self-contradiction. To elucidate this, I’d like to quote from three other writers before referring to a concept that is of central importance in Shanta Acharya’s work and gives the title to one of her earlier collections. Many writers have been aware of how the adoption of sharply defined positions limits ones awareness and ones scope as a writer. Thus Keats wrote,
…Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…
For Keats, this quality was characteristic of the poets he most admired.
Virginia Woolf’s novel ‘The Waves’ is told in the voices of six characters, one of whom, Bernard, is a novelist. She gives these words to her novelist character.
But for ourselves, we resent teachers. Let a man get up and say, ‘Behold, this is the truth,’ and instantly I perceive a sandy cat filching a piece of fish in the background. Look, you have forgotten the cat, I say… I have made up thousands of stories; I have filled innumerable notebooks with phrases to be used when I have found the true story, the one story to which all these phrases refer. But I have never yet found that story. And I begin to ask, Are there stories?
As for apparent self-contradiction, Walt Whitman put it best.
Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.
This slight diversion gives some perspectives on the application to our lived experience of the Hindu concept of ‘neti, neti’ which is of great importance in this poetry and about which something should be said.
The collection has some notes at the back one of which relates to the poem ‘Possession’. That poem concerns the experience of losing things that one possesses and identifies with. It ends as follows.
… life passing, shrinking, until disappointment rushes in, weighing me down with further losses, and my bag too heavy to hold my dreams, complains this is no way to treasure hard earned gifts enriched by dispossession, awaken to the true nature of being, no longer be defined by this or that.
In another of Acharya’s poems, ‘Self Portrait’, she writes,
imagine finding yourself in an exhibition where none of your portraits resemble you. Not this, not this – that is not me, I whisper to the gallery waiting for a reckoning.
In her note to ‘Possession’ Acharya writes,
The last line refers to the Hindu concept of divinity as ‘neti, neti,’ translating to ‘not this, not that,’ referring to the idea that the Divine is limitless, beyond definition.
Shanta Acharya’s first poetry collection was called Not This, Not That (Rupa & Co, India, 1994) so the concept is clearly central to her world view. Readers familiar with the western canon will probably recognise it as the concept with which the unknown author of the medieval classic, ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’, grapples so compellingly. When this concept is taken seriously, it inevitably has consequences for ones view of personal and worldly matters. These poems show us what it has meant for the poet and, by extension, can mean for all of us.
In the short extract that I quoted earlier from ‘Strange Times’ many people will have noticed the reference to Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’ in which he wrote,
There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
Shanta Acharya has an extensive familiarity with both eastern and western culture and draws upon it for numerous passing references in this sort of way. She does so productively and in a way that illuminates the poetry for those who get the references without excluding those who don’t. This is something that has been done by even the greatest poets. Thus, it is possible for someone’s imagination to be seized by the assertion that ‘April is the cruellest month’ without realising that TS Eliot is deliberately echoing the opening of ‘The Canterbury Tales’. For those who do pick up the reference to Chaucer, there is another layer of meaning. All of the references in this collection struck me as being of that kind.
A welcome feature of this collection is that poetic techniques are used confidently and competently where they are appropriate in the service of the poem and there is never any sense that we are being treated to a display of technical cleverness. Where an identifiable technique is not needed, it is not used. A good example of the effective use of technique can be seen in the poem ‘Woodpecker’. The poem works by contrasting the characteristic drumming sound of a woodpecker with the very different sounds of small twittering birds and the quietness that one can encounter in woods. It opens,
Persistence resonating purpose, passion reminding us of beings without form – the unmistakable signature, drum roll tattoo of bill, beating against bark in rhythm.
The repetition of ‘p’ and ‘b’ sounds, the ‘r’ sounds in ‘resonating’ and ‘reminding’ and the successive ‘s’ sounds in ‘unmistakable’ and ‘signature’ all combine to evoke the percussive quality of a woodpecker’s pecking. The poem continues,
Yet nowhere is the wryneck to be seen, camouflaged in the trees. I am not the only one walking in Highgate Wood with my face upturned, eyes scanning branches of trees, April bare,
Now our attention has left the woodpecker and we are walking looking up into the trees. There are no percussive sounds and the rhythm of the writing has adopted the andante pace of a walk in the woods. Soon we hear different kinds of bird.
we spot robins, jays, wagtails, starlings with many a thought that did not come flying. The sky-calling, whistling, twittering, cheeping and chirping, cawing and chattering, the screeching, hooting and trilling – bird chorus celebrates all that is hidden.
Here the word sounds and line rhythms are skilfully used to place us in the middle of a multiplicity of different bird sounds.
In summary, What Survives Is The Singing is the product of a highly developed poetic sensibility which succeeds in remaining accessible to those who may not have such an extensive frame of reference as the writer. It gives us a fine example of the effective use of technical skill in the writing of poetry.