Book review: A different medium

Srinivas Rayaprol, Angular Desire: Selected Poems and Prose, ed. Graziano Krätli and Vidyan Ravinthiran, Carcanet, £16.99, ISBN 9781784109257
Emma Bird on a neglected Indian modernist

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In ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’, Srinivas Rayaprol considers the challenges of poetry, describing the sense of failure that, for him, marks the very act of writing. He refers to language as “my poor medium”, describing how often it has “betrayed me / in the middle of a mood”, as he struggles to express the palpable, yet elusive, moment between thought and consciousness. In this poem, as in others, his poetry seems perpetually on the edge of a “threshold of a discovery / that this word could not contain”, lending his voice a disquieting distinctiveness that has not met with the critical reception it so deserves. Indeed, the poet references his status as an outsider in the literary scene, and anticipates some of the reasons why his poetry would be overlooked. “I trade in a different medium”:

my goods are not for ready sale
I have nothing to state
that will startle your senses

The poem ends with an appeal to the reader: “if my meanings are clear / please do not step over me too quickly”.

Rayaprol’s appeal seems to have gone unheeded, and his poems have indeed been stepped over, largely excluded from major anthologies of Indian poetry in English and from postcolonial criticism. The reasons for this owe much to the circumstances of his life; Rayaprol was born in 1925, in the provincial town of Secunderabad – which he describes in one of the short prose pieces included here as a nondescript place, “where everything happens elsewhere” (‘City of Mine’). Aside from a brief period in the United States between 1948 and 1951, he spent the rest of his life in his hometown, working as a civil engineer – removed from the urban centres where anglophone poetry would later take root. He was not a prolific poet, publishing just three volumes between 1968 and 1995, and was never part of any literary ‘scene’. Angular Desire: Selected Poems and Prose is to be welcomed for introducing new readers to Rayaprol’s largely unexplored body of work – not only his poems in English, but also a selection of his translations from Telugu, which until now have only appeared in the odd anthology, or in the pages of East and West, the short-lived little magazine he edited from 1956. The selection is both a literary gift and an archival treasure, illuminating the work of a poet who was in many ways out of synch with his time, and who had seemed destined to remain the “much misunderstood man” of his poems (’An Ordinary Life’).

Rayaprol’s experiences in the United States shaped his writing in significant ways: it was there that he encountered new writers and ideas, enrolled in a poetry class, and began a lasting correspondence with William Carlos Williams (whose ideas about language and poetry he shared), finding in him a mentor of sorts. The archive of letters between them has only recently seen the light of day – thanks to the publication of a remarkable edited volume by Graziano Krätli – but the landscapes of America, and the sensibility of modern poets like Williams, certainly appealed to Rayaprol. His clean, unmannered lines, his avoidance of abstraction, his attention to the details and textures of the ordinary world, lend his poetry a striking substantiality; here is a poet who takes seriously his own command, to “love the object / as you would the idea” (‘Dogs in Ruin’). The external world of which Rayaprol writes – of trees and buildings, parking lots, waiting rooms, parks, university campuses – is a source of creative energy: “The bird in the air / Or a leaf on the tree”, he insists, “These are all poems, / In a way. // The rhythm is in the motion or the stillness” (‘To an Editor’).

In ‘Portraits of America’ – a series of vignettes, short ‘stills’ of ordinary spaces – no word is out of place; the taut lines construct each scene out of finely chiselled images, so that they appear before the reader as suddenly and as unexpectedly as they vanish. Consider the sharpness of these lines:

The snow lies
on the rail
like a broken snake

Or the unsettling brilliance of this image, where the visual construction of the lines on the page parallels the towering stature of the building:

At night
the Capitol

like an embalmed corpse

The language is descriptive and direct, so the sudden intrusion of unsettling and sinister metaphors defamiliarises the subject and setting. Snowfall – with its connotations of purity – is snake-like and threatening; an iconic national building – a marker of progress, law, democracy – does indeed shine, but “shines” like a dead body rather than a beacon of hope or respectability, clearly suggesting the darker, menacing side of modern life. The reader is repeatedly caught off guard by these disturbing images, and by sudden changes of pace and direction – prompted to consider what lies beneath the outward surface of things.

The poems display a particular empathy for the outsider, and Rayaprol writes frequently of loneliness, grief, and discontent. There is a solitary widow, taking her daily walk through Washington Square; an elderly couple, living out their days in monotony and silence; a woman sitting on the floor, stirring a never-ending pot of soup; and a city park, which has become a meeting place for the lonely:

And on circular rows of green
benches, browned by bird shit
and rain, old men sit and stare
pants worn, souls torn,
each wholly alone
                                              (‘Portraits of America’)

It matters that the benches are green, and arranged in circular rows – because these precise visual details create a sense of proximity, and prompt the reader to recognise the sadness of these lonely old men: “pants worn” leads immediately into “souls torn” – a visual and audible conflation of the object and the idea.

Often, it is the speaker and poet who is figured as the outsider – perpetually out of place, and trapped by the confines of “my world of wood” (‘Gone Now’). His poetry and prose pieces express this sense of being on the margins, suggesting perhaps the upheaval of Rayaprol’s relocation – first as a foreigner in the United States, and then as one returned from abroad. In ‘Streets’, the concept of home as a fixed place is undermined, as the speaker is literally and figuratively cast out: walking through the streets of his childhood, he finds that “the architecture of red and white iron grilles / replaces the weary mango trees and coconut palms” and “Nothing remains now / except these neat back streets that turn away / as I approach them”.

However, the outsider in Rayaprol’s poems is not simply the postcolonial other. Remember, reader, these poems “are not for ready sale”. Instead the peculiar texture of Rayaprol’s phrases, and the original – if awkward – tone of his writing, owes more to his concern with expressing the immediacy of the moment, and his realisation that such a task is almost impossible. How to represent the ‘now’ after the moment of its passing? How to express the palpable but ultimately fleeting instance of clarity between thought and consciousness – a state of being Rayaprol refers to brilliantly as

[…] the moment
out of space, between the clocks
the moment within and without
the self
                                              (‘Bones and Distances’)

Rayaprol’s most affecting poems are haunted by a recurring sense of their own failure; it is a poetry of glimpses and gestures, accompanied by moments of utter intensity that the reader will cherish.

The editors note that Rayaprol’s poetry can be uneven in quality, but even his less successful poems leave the reader in no doubt as to the originality of his voice. The inclusion of some of his translations gives an insight, too, into the creative energies of modern Telugu writing – in particular the expansive network of cultural traditions it draws upon, and the tension it foregrounds between tradition and modernity. While it is beyond the scope of this reviewer to analyse the relationship between Rayaprol’s English poems and his Telugu translations, or examine the way English and Telugu shaped his writing, the translations reveal a different side to Rayaprol; not only a lonely poet, but an innovative and responsive translator, alert to the meaning of words, and the very shape and mood of language too.

Emma Bird is an independent scholar researching mid-twentieth-century Bombay poetry. This article was first published in The Poetry Review, 110:2, Summer 2020. © The Poetry Review and the author.