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Michael Creighton's New Delhi Love Songs: An imminent classic?

 

Chanchal Kumar

chanchal kumarWhat makes great literature? Or, to be more precise, great poetry? Mark Yakich, the American poet believes, "Reading a good poem doesnt give you something to talk about. It silences you. Reading a great poem pushes further. It prepares you for the silence that perplexes us all: death." I share this idea. When I am in the midst of a good poem, or going through a collection of poems that stands out, I find myself taking breaks from my (re)readings to pause and stare ahead blankly, trying to understand and process a distant feeling. I think this is the moment I subconsciously try to come to terms with my own mortality. In a sense, it makes me aware of my own chaotic existence and the times that we live in. Reading Michael Creighton's book of poems, New Delhi Love Songs makes me grapple with questions every person once in a while asks themselves, when they go through an experience that is of profound value. A feeling that can only be vaguely pointed at, not satisfactorily articulated.

Here, I will nevertheless try to put in words the joy and other assorted feelings reading Love Songs has given me, and I will argue why this collection will endure the test of time, the only art critic every poet or writer wishes to be in gentle terms with. This remains the aim of this essay. Another reason could be my own conviction, shared by many, that we, as readers of poetry, should engage with and support living poets who are working and need a wider readership for their work.

I will begin with a short introduction to the poet in question: Michael Creighton. It might come as a surprise to some, who know him only through his work, that Creighton was not born in India. He has, however, been around for more than a decade, enough to learn Hindi and speak it in a unique cadence that we, Indians, often find endearing. He has travelled to many parts of the country and is now, for some time, associated with the Community Library Project, teaching school kids and speaking about the significance of public libraries. Michael has, in an interview, admitted to not being ambitious. He does what he is best at, and trusts others to pitch in and help: a form of community life that finds expression in his poems.

Now to Love Songs itself. Don Marquis once remarked that publishing a book of poems is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo. I am reminded of this quip because I myself, living in Delhi, heard about this book more than a year later, towards the end of last year, when it was actually published in 2017 by Speaking Tiger. The appearance of the volume itself, presented in hardcover, is unassuming, if a little quaint. The painting on the cover is reminiscent of Gogh's Wheatfield with Crows, minus the crows. It sets you up for a quiet journey into the heart of the capital, and to Uttarakhand (a section of the book is called Garhwal, which is a district in this North Indian state). The first poem is the one which gives the book its title- New Delhi Love Song. Its a ghazal where New Delhi is as much the object of love as the poets romantic partner. Michael, why'd you leave your country?, his friends ask him in the poem, and he explains: I found jasmine for her here, in New Delhi.

My personal favorite is Clover, which describes an interaction of the poet with a bee man, visiting his home with

...the remains
of another unwanted hive:
a few slabs of wax,
a plastic bag of honey,
and a dozen or so bees
which trailed him like smoke
from an old motorbike.

in the hope that he will be able to sell off his collected honey. But the poet cannot take moresince he has already purchased 10 kilos worth the week before. And finally, he walks him from the house with the words,

It is regrettable, brother,
but why should anger come
from something so sweet?

The striking thing about this poem is Creightons gift to find an opportunity for poem-making in the most unusual of circumstances. He is always alive to the possibility of a poem being born out of everyday occurrences, and we find more evidence of this as we read further.

Other poems in the collection are playful and carry a lightness in them, with a dollop of tender affection. There is a sense of attachment with the city, a fondness for the little things and of course, an ear for old Hindi songs playing in transit buses. What makes these poems special is how effortlessly they convey an awareness of being in and sharing the world with other alienated people. An alienation which could be physical, philosophical or temporal, but which always follows us, no matter the distance from home. Ismail Kadare, the noted Albanian poet and novelist asserts that the writer is always, to some extent, in exile. The poet, hence, understands that being the capital city of a huge country, Delhi's inhabitants are mostly from other corners of the subcontinent. This makes him no different from anybody else here. Thus, all are welcome with a stare in New Delhi. There is a word in the German language called sonder, which can be explained to mean the realization that every single person one observes walking around has a life as complicated and mysterious as ones own. This can be unsettling, but which also makes us humble and teaches us to be more kind. I can find no better word than this which encapsulates all that Love Songs stands for.

I will bring this essay to a close by saying that a work such as this should be feted and awarded, (which unfortunately hasnt been the case here) for the reason that it shows a facet of the lives of the people which does not often find a place in works of art. It is said about James Joyce's Ulysses that had Dublin ceased to exist, one could create a new city of Dublin solely by going through the novel. Something similar can be said of New Delhi Love Songs. If one day, we find there remain not a single trace of Delhi, we would be able to create a new, alike place by carefully reading these poems. We should keep in mind that a little appreciation and recognition of the labor of poets goes a long way into ensuring that we, as a society, do not fail our living artists. It makes sense also because we want the reading public to be aware of literature such as these. The kind of books that the majority of people read is often a clue to where we are headed as a republic. We have the brilliant Akhil Katyal who has single-handedly brought poetry to a wider public in our generation and continues to do so. But there are names such as Michael Creighton who deserve more support. Chandramohan S, Gautam Vegda, Vikramaditya Sahai are poets at the top of their craft writing today in English whose work only a select circles are acquainted with. This needs to change. Perhaps I'm suggesting something quite improbable, but the words of the Chilean poet Raul Zurita gives me hope. We should keep on proposing paradise, he wrote, even if the evidence at hand might indicate that such a pursuit is folly.

~~~

 

Chanchal Kumar is from Jharkhand and currently lives in Delhi, India. His poems have previously appeared and awarded in The Sunflower Collective, Hamilton Stone Review, Welter Journal, Name and None, Young Poets Network, UK including others. Recently, his poems were translated to Bengali by Harakiri Journal. He is pursuing M.Phil at University of Delhi.

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