A Review of Rohan Chhetri’s Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful by Abigail Ardelle Zammit

Rohan Chhetri’s Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful is a slim volume of poetry with the reach, flourish and density of a much longer collection.  Split into four sections which immediately declare its indebtedness to Greek forms – Katabasis, Locus Amoenus, Erato and Grief Deer – it takes the reader on a journey where the personal, the political and the mythological do not merely co-exist but are inextricably intertwined through the formal experimentation that sings them into being.  There is fear here, guilt and personal upheaval, but they carry with them the whole retinue of socio-historical tragedy transiting into myth, of life quivering with a terrible impulse for extinction, its vitality and violence erupting through a language that is at once vehicle and mirror.  The words are arranged so tightly over the page, so precisely over the overarching whiteness, that to move one out of place would be to shift the whole architecture that holds the poems together, which is why the collection is intense in its cumulative effect, but paradoxically tender in its postmodern allusions and unmakings.  

No poem is weak or superfluous, because each is a voice in a contrapuntal piece of music, its motifs reiterated over and over again, sometimes with an obsessiveness that is as terrifying as it is illuminating, a ‘blue rent open’ (‘Towards Some Dark’, 45) from which both the poetic persona and the reader can peak at something beyond – a brief moment where things fall into place, until life descends with its hungry discord: ‘Then arriving / home, always the bruised sky of dawn telling me / something I knew, for a moment, then didn’t. (‘The Indian Railway Canticle’, 13)   And so we read the subtext of polyphonic utterances through the metalanguage of musical note where song, canticle, lamentation, fugue and mezzavoce act as signs for the collection’s formal unity and stunning soundscape, one where free verse is made to engage in choric flourishes, rent by the harsh timbre of death and warfare, yet harmonized through frequent enjambment.  The lines may break in unexpected places, the alliterated plosives bear their burden from start to finish, but they never give in to dissonant clutter.  In ‘Restoration Elegy’, for instance, the pentameter creeps in, the animal world a reflection of an existential predicament that is at once beautiful and inescapable:

                                    In the shallows,

a brown pelican resumes the last hunt of the day,

one big wing cresting the blue maw of a wave.

The swirling lift, the awkward plunge, squirming

hunger it brings up in its mouth. The quiet

after: gliding above the undertow, possessed

In the feed, as a frenzied gull lands beside it, picking

the leftover off its long yellow beak. How

they drift on the ebb, sharing this warm flesh

mauled open into blessing. (27)

The diction too is resonant with echo, its music composed of bone and blood, of salt, song and fog, of darkness, deer, and a ravishing hunger that is destructive, yet necessary: ‘I thought this is how we arrive / at clarity.  Through some clearing / of the living’.(‘Towards Some Dark’, 45)  Doubtlessly, these are the words of a poet who is keenly aware of the dangers inherent in each utterance, one whose Nepali-Indian origins, whose people’s history of migrations and failed revolutions, has unhomed him as much as it has allowed the language of colonial power to mould his literary imagination.  In the poems where the textual lineation breaks, heaving with pause and space, the rupture becomes a commentary on the nature of the post-colonial poet’s primal paradox: how can you be yourself within a language which has been forced on you since childhood?   The answer comes in an interview with Kristina Marie Darling where Rohan Chhetri expresses a desire to ‘contaminate and decentralize the English language, to unhome [him]self in it so that [he] may make new homes’.   The best answer, however, is in the poems themselves, most obviously in the short sequences dealing with border crossings at the intersections of Nepal and India.  In ‘Father, Farther: 1986’, the gapped text erupts with a profusion of discourses, the history of the poet inextricably linked to that of his father, mother and grandfather, as well as that of his nation/s.  The text is always in the act of questioning itself, turning its vocabulary inside out so as to come up with a polyphony of meanings and cross-discourses.  Firstly, there is the tragic irony of the epigraph, ‘Feed him the land, that is what they’re fighting for’, and its juxtaposition to what follows:

                                                                                                                                 Later they’ll feed him

                                                                                             fresh shovelled earth                 until it plugs

                                                                                             his windpipe                   until he cannot spit

                                                                                   soil                    can only will himself unconscious    

Secondly, the father’s border crossing story and the narrative of how his grandfather was tortured for being a separatist, are enacted through loose sonnet-forms and white space; thirdly, there is the play with syntax – note how the words can be read as both ‘further back’ and ‘back here’, thus conflating time and space:

                                                                                                                                             us honest men

                                                                                                     from two countries                One thing

                                                                                                       he won’t tell my father          the other

                                                                                      my father won’t correct why                the ladder

                                                                                 for men like him                is designed sideways why

                                                                                           they are two men                 honest hardly but

                                                                                       from the same nation                   state of famine

                                                                                       & floodsong                    Instead my father feels

                                                                                         a need to go further                   back here he is

                                                                                    telling another drunk                       about the time

                                                                             he was little boy [...]                                              (23)

There are also remarkable poems whose so-called ‘baroque profusions’ gleam with metaphors and allusions that are especially resonant.  In ‘The Intelligence of Hunger’, a poem which I know I will keep returning to, the text sweeps over a world of suffering – the homeless in San Francisco, versus memories of the persona’s own childhood in West Bengal, where earthquakes, gunfire, torture and the elephants’ frenzied hunger were a way of life. When the poem enunciates its very being, it does so through a post-modern self-consciousness that is always in search of itself: ‘Where I live now every sound I make is a half-note/of loss.’  It is in this fraught territory that the poet’s consciousness is forged:

                                               I think

of the fire followers waiting in their late style

of hunger. The giant coreopsis that will bloom

for three bright weeks in April. I wanted to write

about these. If not love. Wildflowers, not grief. 

Thirst in the shape of a deer come down from the canyon

to browse on wet grass as the sprinklers go off

at sundown. But everything here leads me

to the man they found inside the gutted Chevy

on his driveway, the morning after [...] (40)

The poem closes with the fire’s ‘widening mouth’, an utterly destructive force that makes ‘a dry and sudden feast’ of the man in the Chevy.  It is this hunger which is of interest to me, and its proliferation into so many forms, from human beings’ and animals’ survival instincts, to the incessant hunger for revolution which is only equalled by the neo-colonial nation’s greedy silencing of dissident voices.  In ‘Lamentation for a Failed Revolution’, a poem that has already received a lot of attention because of its antiphonal structural, derived from women’s ritual lament in ancient Greece, the poet allows the more subjective male voice to be juxtaposed to a powerful female chorus demanding a separate Indian state for the Nepali-speaking population in West Bengal.   The abusive neo-colonial power’s imposition of the Bengali language is underlined through a subtext of mouths and tongues.  The women feed the troops who drag their husbands down to the river where they pull their tongues ‘out of their mouths taut like catgut’ while the river ’raved / and raved eating up the moaning / turning hollow in our mouths’; a fifteen-year-old boy has his chest torn by a rubber bullet, ‘mouth a shucked-oyster wobble                 Alive / in the elongating horror’ (5-9).  There is also the direct reference to language and violence in the first chorus:

                                                                                                                                  It was an appendage

                                                                                                       they wanted to sew into our little ones

                                                                                           while the low vaults of their mouths were still

                                                                                                                 busy with the simple underswell

                                                                                                                           of small hurt and hunger.  

Death, personified, is that other hunger which shadows each page; it keeps coming back for the living, making grand entries and never really exiting.  From the very first poem, ‘King’s Feedery’ which talks about the border town’s violent history of rape and bloodshed, and its more recent history with ‘Death lurking at the borders again’, we know that the collection inhabits a geographical and metaphysical terrain where a postmodern metalanguage can co-exist with a sombre, elegiac mode of utterance: ‘Death’s ledger full of illegible scrawls / in a dark meter no one could understand’ (1).  The poet’s indebtedness to Greek literary traditions allows him to bypass the restrictions of time and space in order to mythologize the story of his people, bringing their culture, language, conflicts and lifestyle to bear on the English language, enriching the tradition of Anglophone poetry while destabilizing the centrality of the English language.  ‘The Indian Railway Canticle’ is in fact a hymn sung by a traveller-boy, recounting the tribulations faced by a population oppressed by climactic conditions and social turmoil: ‘So why not the sorrow/farmer sowing himself in the crosshairs / of the oncoming train’ (12). The trope of the speaker’s dying grandfather appears repetitively, weaving the personal history of one particular family’s tragedy into the consciousness of nationhood and identity.  It is suggested that the past does not merely impinge on the present moment, but casts its irrevocable blight on future generations: 

Song fated to be oraled into our children’s blood.

We said we would wait until the scythe fell

Two generations down by way of matricide,

Murder, or incest. We are nothing but

A sum of our history of shame. Grandfather rising

From a ditch, blood-washed face boated purple [...] (37)

In the prose-poem ‘Nekia’, or necromancy, the veil separating the living from the dead is torn apart so that ghosts inhabit the unknown town. On one level, the poem explores the postcolonial writer’s attempt to ‘exhum[e] dormant traditions and stories and hauntings’, but on another level of meaning it offers an objective correlative for a state of spiralling depression: ‘an all-consuming feeling of something terminal & finished inside. A tangible bleakness mounting with an irretrievable finality, something inside your soul crouched so hard it refuses to sit up, even if you were to beat it into submission’ (39).

If the nightmare of history is inescapable, the oppressed and the marginalized demand that it is exhumed and sung, even when its inheritance spells loss and irrevocable hurt; in passing the word along, in searching for a form that suits its becoming, in engaging with the myriad voices and poetic utterances that hail from other nations and other consciousnessess – Homer, Pound, Salvatore Quasimodo, Leonard Cohen, Agha Shahid Ali – Chettri has been ‘finding a way to arrive in the break of cold’ ([                         ], 44), transiting into the aesthetic beauty of language made and remade, a place where he can try to be ‘both the hunger & the clarity / Gnawing each other in a white devotion.’ (‘Recrimination Fugue’, 49) 

Abigail Ardelle Zammit is from Malta and has had poetry published in a variety of international journals including Boulevard, Gutter, Myslexia, The SHOp, Iota, Aesthetica, Freefall, Ink, Sweat and Tears, High Window, The Ekphrastic Review and Tupelo Quarterly. Abigail’s two collections of poetry are Voices from the Land of Trees (Smokestack, 2007), and Portrait of a Woman with Sea Urchin (SPM, 2015), which won second prize in the Sentinel Poetry Book Competition. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing (Lancaster), and is currently working on a collection of poems exploring the connections between place, body, and the female experience.