Avinab Datta-Areng’s debut Annus Horribilis marks the arrival of an idiosyncratic voice in Indian-English poetry

At the outset, one thing needs to be cleared: Avinab Datta-Areng’s poetry collection, Annus Horribilis, is not about the pandemic, despite a title that might point towards it as a possibility. Nor is it a collection that is about happy endings, or for that matter happy families. Rather, it’s about the illusion of measuring impermanent moments, the elusiveness of places and people that feel like home, and sometimes don’t, and the silverfish-like darts of memories.

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The dream-like and unstructured narrative quality of the language, in fact, reminds one of the Möbius strip in mathematics, where one forms a surface by attaching the ends of a strip of paper with a twist in the middle. Consider the second poem of the collection, in defense of inconsistency: In language they bless/ the voice that has/ finally entered itself, / fortunately and found / by the voice looking / for itself. You are harmed…/You are unarmed un-/conscious. You write/ to them: the love/ in your words, though/ not absent, changed;/ the love in you,/ unknown, unchanged.

What is striking about the poems is the permutation of words and images turning what is ordinary into extraordinary descriptions. This is particularly true in Datta-Areng’s poems about places. For example, the poem The Drunk at the Hagia Sophia describes the church-turned-into-a-museum-into-a-mosque and a touristy sightseeing event into an amalgamation of the personal and world histories and losses: The seraphim turn you down: hear/ the little nerve birds choking/ on corks of blood./ Fugitive fossil, drenched/ scroll in someone’s selfie frame,/ you crawl to the blinding filigree/ and retch outside the sultan’s library./ You’re history, my friend, but it’s not only you…/It burns you, to see/ that we’re all alike after all, first hung/ between faiths and now/ relics of glistening death.

Annus horribilis
By Avinab Datta-Areng
PenguinRandom House India
88 pages; Rs 250

In the startling, and sometimes, unsettling imagery of the poems, one is reminded of the writing of the late vijay nambisan. Consider the lines by Datta-Areng in the poem, the spider: At the intersection—of the man/screaming his cheap fixes/down from the road/and a baby lulled—/is where the illusion that/I have been persecuted/finds its ground…/We had to happen,/we had to be harmed for/ the fathomless hunt to continue, / for me to be prepared to hear: / What makes me safe/ doesn’t necessarily save me.

Yet, the poems also have a sense of hope. In the poem Writing, he notes: Left alone with the mind and morning,/ a few sparrows up in the guava tree filled/ with what seems impossible,/ yet distantly possible, in the swift/opening and closing of their tiny beaks,/ in that flash it seems possible to know someone,/ or have unsullied companionship. In this hope too, one is reminded of a poem by Nambisan, coincidentally titled Spider: “There is a cure, however, as there is one/ For all ills except those which breed in the heart…”

Perhaps, the most moving poems are the ones about families, evoking loss, death and tenderness, such as Fever, Mother: Enter the unrecorded pulse in the past, the tangled corridor air, waiting… Once you saw how even grass seemed serious against her face. And once, when you looked up the library in the clouds nearly returned the book, the text corrected. Similarly, Your Father’s Shirt has a strong undercurrent of the fault-lines in relationships, especially with our parents: …I failed to see your longing for your father/ as a footnote to me. How could any love/ that drew from within the same source/ as your love for him, its dedication, be untrue?/ I was deceived by my destiny of fathers./ In my life’s revolutions of fathers, my answer,/ too, was disguised in a father, but the mind/meanders toward what it first sees./First father, then fear, then flounder.

In its depiction of loss and love, longing and alienation, as well as the grimy and often unpleasant yet simultaneously hopeful parts of our lives, Annus horribilis is a book in keeping with the times as well as heralding the future.

Jonaki Ray is a poet, writer, and editor based in New Delhi. Her poetry collection de ella, Firefly Memories, is forthcoming from Copper Coin

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