Nov 14 2023
Poetry review – SWEET SHOP: D A Prince is intrigued by the composition of this New & Selected from Amit Chaudhuri
Sweet Shop New and Selected Poems 1985—2023 Amit Chaudhuri New York Review of Books, 2023. ISBN 978-1-68137-700-1 £16.99
What goes on inside the selecting of a Selected poems? In the Author’s Note prefacing this collection Amit Chaudhuri carefully explains the sequencing of his selection. Rather than a chronological approach — whether from earliest to latest, or vice versa — he chooses to open with the full text of Sweet Shop (Salt, 2019), following this with a selection from a later collection (Ramanujan, Shearsman, 2021), then his some of his earliest poems from St Cyril Road and Other Poems (Penguin India, 2005) before bringing the reader into the present with a small group of new poems and a short set of translations from Bengali.
He is clear about how he wants the reader to encounter him ‘as a poet’ — and this is a significant distinction. Chaudhuri is an award-winning novelist, critic, academic, as well as a singer and composer, and he makes clear how writing novels had pushed poetry to one side of his creative life. His observation that ‘As a writer, I think I’ve been less interested in narrative than in making, creation, coming-into-existence. The Calcutta sweet shop allowed me to return to this interest through poetry.’ This conclusion of his preface, pointing the reader towards the essence of creative work rather than a simpler personal narrative, is both Chaudhuri’s self-examination and an invitation to the reader to enter the collection on his terms.
The volume opens with “Sweet Shop”, the title poem
The whole universe is here. Every colour, a few on the verge of being barely tolerable. Every shape as well as minute flourishes created in the prehistory of each sandesh by precise pinches. The horizontal trays brim (but don’t tremble) with mass and form.
In the poet’s brief notes ‘sandesh’ is defined as a dry sweet, made in hard or soft varieties. Chaudhuri’s concentration is on shape, form, mass as though this were an abstract painting; it is the reader who is asked to imagine the range of colours. The poem is intensely visual and yet none of the expected adjectives are present; the effect is, curiously, to create a universal image, the essence of a sweet shop. It would be easy to read this apparently-simple poem too quickly but it is key to the language and register of the thirty-one poems in this opening section: with language pared back to outline, Chaudhuri is enabling the reader to engage with the essentials of place and purpose. As he writes in the final two lines ‘In the harmony shielded by the glass / is an unnoticed balance of gravity and play.’
Sweets become objects in their own right, as in “Just as”, where sandesh ‘is displayed behind the pane/ as in a museum/ to be stared at and historicised.’ In “Petha” Chaudhuri brings in regional difference (petha is a North Indian sweet, not generally eaten by Bengalis) which is also a class definer (‘The middle class ignore you’). There is no description of what the sweet looks like, only a definition in terms of geography, lack of status, and its sensory experience ‘… how you burst in the mouth and dissolve/ immediately like a thunderclap.’ But even that image is abstract.
Not all the poems are about sweets. The simplicity and precision of Chaudhuri’s syntax is a constant, as is his preoccupation with what I can only call the ‘shape’ of a memory or thought, how it is balanced within the brain. In “The Garden Path”, about a bathroom visit while half-awake, he describes his return
as I stumble toward bed finding my way from memory, not lost or adrift, feeling an extraordinary joy, not a euphoric pleasure, but a balanced happiness, as if I know, groping, I’ll be here again.
That word ‘balance’ again. On the facing page, in the final poem of this section, “Sadness-Joy”, he explores how these are not different but ‘indivisible’, and how it is impossible ‘to distinguish/ the lift from the fall/ of gravity…’. That ‘gravity’ returns us to the opening poem, as though completing a circle; the phrase ‘a balanced happiness’ is an apt description.
Ramanujan contains a greater diversity of location and cultural reference — Oxford, Cambridge, Bangalore alongside Keith Jarrett, J.H.Prynne and the expansively-titled “Reading Li Shangyin on Emirates While Listening to Joni Mitchell”. The title poem moves from the limited vegetarian foods available in Oxford in earlier years to a consideration of the mathematician Ramanujan’s life in Cambridge — his time there spanned 1914-1918 — and the even greater difficulties of finding a suitable diet. In these poems there are sweets, of course, and Indian spices, but also salt and vinegar crisps, hamburgers, pizza sharing space with chalta (the elephant apple), bhetki (a type of Asian sea bass), tamarind chutney. These unite generations of the family: Chaudhuri’s mother in India and his teenage daughter in Britain. There is an anecdotal looseness in some of the poems: in “Cambridge” the poet is hospitalised, moving from Addenbrooke’s to Papworth — a link with Ramanujan, who spent time there in 1918. In “Hamburger” the foods on offer in the Campus Kitchen are itemised, unappetising and unloved. Chaudhuri links his two countries throughout these poems; similarly, in “Life-line”, the various cables on a long flight, keep him connected:
Sunk in comfort, I stare at the filaments of my life-lines: the charger’s cord; the remote control’s shoelace-thick wire, the unentangled reel to my headphones. They drip, drip, drip life into my horizontal body or do I eke into them the resistance I’d hoarded?
Chaudhuri’s line breaks, particularly in the poems with short lines, intrigue me: some feel arbitrary and unsettling (as in the final lines above), as though that’s the point they wish to make. A twenty-five page section titled “Short Q and A” is also puzzling, with the answers becoming progressively shorter, more epigrammatic: there is a level of irony/humour but overall I found it hard to see the aims or to feel this section earned its space. The following, as an example, occupies a whole page:
Q. What is an archive? A. The past. Q. What is poetry? A. A form of subtraction where words are viewed as impediments.
Many of Chaudhuri’s earlier poems, from St Cyril Road and other poems, (2005), but dating from 1986 onwards, are different in style — longer lines, building up details into intensely visual poems. In “Letter from the Hills” he describes in heightened precise detail a car journey from Bombay to Lonavala,—
As the sun came up, we saw the leaves peer out, shivering. Each leaf nurtured a dewdrop and a sly caterpillar. The fields strode into view with peasants on their backs, and a mute school of taxis flickered by us, intent as black-and-yellow beetles. Twice, in those fields. we saw how the poor live tranquil as ghosts behind a magic chalk circle they never transgress. But later, near the fisheries the poor became a way of life, like the smell of fish drying, and raw grass. We crossed the long bridge above the Thane Creek, where the leviathan Arabian Sea narrows itself to a whisper. At the end, rafts lay, delicate as flecks of dried paint on a wet, just-begun painting.
All the poems in this section carry the date of composition and “Letter from the Hills” is dated 1986. I wonder if this reflects the 2005 volume or if it is an addition for this selection. I wonder, too, who needs this dating — the reader, or the poet? There’s a sense of Chaudhuri examining his own writing, in chronological order, as though explaining himself to himself. It’s an interesting idea and perhaps the longer view of a Selected is the place for this. With the addition of new poems this collection feels very much like a crossroads in Chaudhuri’s creative process and a way of considering future directions rather than simply recording past publications. This is a collection that will stay with me in new and unexpected ways — something that poetry does well.