By: Dr. Duane Vorhees
Title: Dreams of the Sacred and Ephemeral
Author: Kiriti Sengupta
Published by Hawakal Publishers in April, 2017
Price: INR 350 / 15 USD
ISBN: 97893-85782-62-6 [Hardbound]
Page count: 202
Reviewed by Duane Vorhees
In the “Alap” to his trilogy Dreams of the Sacred and Ephemeral (2017) Kiriti Sengupta makes an important point: “Poetry deserves to have more than one layer of meaning. If we remove metaphors, poetry loses its charm. If we remove the philosophical content, poetry turns disastrously mundane.” The book, a collection of his earlier volumes, My Glass of Wine (2013), The Reverse Tree (2014), and Healing Waters Floating Lamps (2015), is a rambling yet disciplined journey through the Bengali alleyways of his life. The short prefatory verse “It was not only the wine, but / that the glass was mine” well expresses much of its spirit (both in the philosophical and imbibing sense). Though the themes are varied, it is the “wine,” his religious exploration that most closely ties the book together as a genuine trilogy rather than just a collection of verse.
The first book begins with a confession of his ignorance about literature until challenged by his future wife on their first date. From that embarrassment, and his frantic effort to overcome a poor first impression, he emerged as a poet, someone able to realize and express the essence of poetry: “in all works imperishable I listen to the / unheard… bundles of joy, drops of eyes / make the ‘I’ a bard.” Immediately afterward, in the second chapter, the book moves to the confession of his early erstwhile conversion to Christianity. Two things stand out to him: the way the congregation was able to unite in prayer “towards the fulfillment of a certain goal” and his first alcoholic drink, homemade communion wine. He was told that red wine made him remember “the divine blood that Jesus sacrificed!” but he remained skeptical of the claim. He went on to discuss similar Tantric and Qurbani rituals and concluded that “the elements of blood, power, alcohol, and red [are] associated intimately with divinity.” In “The Scripture” he realized that “God only dwells / within mortal frame!” but it took him some time to discover his personal attachment to Kriyayoga. One of its attractions was that there was no requirement to remember God by drinking wine. Instead, the aspirant is able to taste “the rich nectar wine” secreted from the cerebral region; Kriyayoga “allows one to reach beyond the mind,” and, once spiritual awakening is achieved, it allows one to feel like living in a “winy trance.”
I have not reached yet
the science of you
Since period unknown
you spin, and continue to swivel;
you have a firm grip.
Faulty are my limbs,
they tilt even on the steady floor;
I readily realize
it is all in my mind
as the sky swings.
You spin, and continue to swivel.
Much of the remaining text, over the span of all three volumes, can be read with this orientation in mind. The first two contain far more prose than poetry, but the third is all verse. Perhaps it took him that long to find his firm poetic footing. Though not haiku in form, they are, in effect: koan-like enigmas that reveal little while exposing everything. Dr. Sengupta (a dental surgeon) offers healing via a process of self-revelation rather than didactic preaching. They are fine examples of an erotic ecstasy that is simultaneously sensual and spiritual.
The rainbow has disappeared a long time ago
The horizon looks clean and sunny
as the rain dropped in seven hues
In those drops of color I remained
I remain even now
And you were the drop-filled windy cloud
Who is being addressed? Is it a love poem or a benediction? One’s answer colors the perception. As he admits, “It keeps the human alive in my wine!”
A translator of the Bhagavad Gita, he reminds us of a passage about “an imperishable banyan tree that has its roots upward and its branches down and whose leaves are the Vedic hymns. One who knows this tree is the knower of The Vedas.” To Sengupta, this is key: “Humans are the only such trees that have their roots [brain] up and the branches [limbs] down.” He ruminates on this insight by offering up a number of arboreal poems.
My tree is stout, / well-developed / it refutes the gravitational pull // not always, you know… // my roots run against the sap!
In “Wide,” one of the poems from the first book, he insists, “Your roots hold it tighter… desperately / deeper / and much deeper rests your God…”
Elsewhere he claims “numerous branches of the root / unite into two soft halves” … “nature shelters the root / secures within an encapsulating tough skin // the shoot is long and thick / smoother skin palpitating beneath. / no study of the plants, but of humans”
The final volume is infused with the mystic nature of the Ganges. It opens with “Beyond The Eyes”: I reach the sky / While I draw a circle in the water // Looking at the image // I take a dip
In the same poem in which he recognizes that the “unheard … bundles of joy” made him a bard, he admits:
defining soul is difficult,
I have no doubt
I can perceive the ‘I’ in every decibel
my take is simple
it attracts dust
that smears the steps to the body’s temple
I press two fingers firm on my ears, and thus,
let the light dazzle my imprisoned candle
I walk early morning, wrapped in fresh silk
air entices, my skin shivers – I hear sounds
He, thus, sums up how his poetic existence is connected to, and dependent upon, his spiritual; and under the Gangetic influence his verse progress from the naturistic to the mystic: “Immersion happens only in the water / People gather…they sing and dance / Only a few of them have their eyes moistened // Rituals of self-reflection end / With gods and goddesses / The river turns pregnant”
Until finally, in a wryly ironic “Memorandum of Understanding,” he is able suggestively to join the poetic with the spiritual and biographic elements of the trilogy: “I’m no linguist… // I know / air and age are linked… // and the wounds surface again / in all directions… / sporting the guise of youth…”
As an American reader, I would have appreciated more contexts (although I’m sure Indian readers and foreigners who are familiar with Indian culture would have found such commentary tedious and unnecessary; it’s always problematic how one deals with separate, disparate audiences). Nonetheless, I found the parts of the book that did try to provide explanation — the long personal essays that comprised most of volumes one and two — far less compelling than the elusive poetry that did not try to “explain” anything. These poems are simultaneously specific to Sengupta and universal for any reader with the patience to see them not as “the answer” to life’s mysteries but as a clue to one of the possible answers. Any enlightenment from the poem derives from within the reader as much as it does from the poet himself. There is such a thing as good didactic poetry, and poets who are supremely able at directing others’ attitudes and behaviors. These poets act in the twin roles of hold keeps and locksmiths. But there is also good poetry that suggests infinitude of doorways and displays panoply of keys while omitting the labels to match any key to the correct lock. The creators of these poems are enablers who encourage others to, first, pick the doors and, second, to try to pick the locks. The tools are provided but the instructions are unclear, written in a familiar language undefined in the standard dictionary. It is to the second category of poets that Sengupta belongs. His poems need no cultural context (beyond knowing what a tree is or water or self, those things which are innate and self-evident to nearly everyone); they “merely” require enough insight or imagination to allow their reader to understand, for instance, how a mother bird can change into the sky (as he suggests in one of his masterful verses).
He did his work. Now you must do yours.
About the Reviewer: Dr. Duane Vorhees grew up in rural Ohio, in the US. After graduating from college he held a number of jobs, including lifeguard, carpenter, truck driver, dish washer, tool room attendant at a shipyard, door-to-door salesman, factory worker, and high school teacher, as he traveled extensively throughout North America. He was also involved in amateur theatricals and journalism. Eventually he went back to school and received a PhD in American Culture Studies from Bowling Green State University in Ohio and went to Korea to teach English at Seoul National University and other schools before joining the faculty of the University of Maryland University College, for whom he taught a number of classes in American Literature, American History, Government and Politics, Philosophy, Education, Library Science, and Sociology. He also became a charter member of SAN (Seoul Artists Network) and was an active participant at open mics. He has published academic papers, essays, and poems in numerous journals and is the author of Loves I Bear To You (2003). After retiring in 2014 he established duanespoetree.blogspot.com, a daily webzine that features creative contributions from artists of all stripes from around the world.