(Poetry Collection ‘Available Light’ by CP Surendran – A Review)
With ‘Available Light’, CP Surendran unleashes on us, verses set to the eternal ticks of the sundial; poems that remind in equal measure about what available light exposes, and what it does not, writes Aditya Shankar
The voice of rebellion involves an ascent from silence and inaction. It demands the glittering stairs of light for a gradual climb to truth, the glorious future of a struggle, the rare victory of an underdog (that deserves to be celebrated), the unveiling of an ugly truth sentenced to the silence of dark coffins. With ‘Available Light’, CP Surendran unleashes on us, verses set to the eternal ticks of the sundial; poems that remind in equal measure about what the available light exposes, and what it leaves to the shades. CP opens the window of his dark room (may be a hideout, a dungeon, or a basement), allows light to come beaming out and expose the rotting truth, making the underprivileged speak. His voice, though soft, feels like the slow seepage of an old dam. We witness the trickle and can guess the power of that which is held back, raising awareness about the impending scale of fury hidden from sight. If origins of poems could have been a visually conceivable place or space, I would have seen Surendran among Blacky and other comrades in the movie Underground by Emir Kusturica, thinkers and activists resigned to the basement, preparing themselves for a day of revolution when dark forces are finally slayed. As seen from this setting in the basement where we place Surendran, light holds great prominence as a witness and testimony to the grand arrival of a triumph, the fruition of a revolution, or the re-discovery of a soul at peace with its world. The darkness of the hideout in contrast with the light, works as a metaphor separating the said from the unsaid, history from the impending future, the heard from the unheard. If his verses were laboratory apparatus, they would measure lack of luminance, not its presence (John Keats in Ode On a Grecian Urn – Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter).
The sun is a primordial clock and a source of light at the same time for the poet, who (it seems) identifies his work as a continuation of the ancient Indian philosophical text (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad – asato mā sadgamaya tamasomā jyotir gamaya). Time is visible truth for CP Surendran as he positions himself on one of those invisible hands of time, and reminds us about that famous scene in ‘Modern Times’ where Charlie Chaplin, the novice mechanic, struggles (in retrospective) to attune himself to the unstoppable flow of time. It is probably not the machinery of the clock that needs repair, but the way time exists. CP explores the inner struggle with existence in his works that are in silent exodus, away from the limelight of the celebrated and the self-indulgent mediocre. Sometimes, his poems mimic the climb of the pilgrim from the quotidian to the spiritual, or that momentary swing of the pendulum between the philosophical and the ordinary. His poems are subjected to a depiction bordering on concern and mockery (My friend the failed actor/Christ was asked to go home, far from stage, to Mary, his mother – Diadem). The persona employed in most poems stay true to this dialectic split of experience that we witness in Diadem, where the migraine of the failed actor who is playing the character of Jesus, switches to a crown of thorns. Here, the pain of a struggling middle class person is elevated or equated with larger spiritual pains, say, the crown of thorns worn by Jesus. Alternatively, the poem forces critical self examination of the bigger issues, only to probably realize that the layman’s migraine is one of those thorns in the crown.
The voice of dissent is inescapable in the way CP travels through his verse. We are reminded without fail that the crown of power is also a crown of thorns. His verses are in dissent to the world and itself, much like an autoimmune disease (Tomorrow at first sight, I’ll cut my wrist/watch a perfect sun, set – Return). The voice articulating most of the lines in this collection (and may be, even employed in his works of fiction such as The Iron Harvest) is true to this spirit – the voice of the rebels andstrugglers, the banished, and the outcasts (As Kill a King – At the crossroads between dream and memory, amber and red glow lights of eternity. There I killed the king, blind before and after).
Among the lesser battles that CP wages in his world of verse are the personal poems in this collection. (Erasure – You trailed a bare finger on the frosted glass, as we drove up the mountain/ Nothing remains of those days). But again, CP successfully weds the personal with the political in some of the pieces. The intensity of light involved again provides the context for the conversation. The poem Passage is a testimony to this (There was a train issuing out of the night; it bore us into the day broadening the city into vision, where we’d stay: two characters in our own grim fairy tales.). Another poem that successfully works on the duel between light and shade to convey pain is Bat (I listened to the dark growing wings: flying from out of time, a baby bat/ keening for its mother/ In the nest of blind hours).
This collection also proves CP’s ability to steer clear from the fashionable ‘do’s’ of the poetic voice. One feels he is making a point that every issue is political, and anything political needs a raw and no-frills voice. When Surendran stays away from a barter between the fashionable construct and the voice of the intellect, poetry succeeds (Grace: Women Metalling Road – This close to heaven, a baby bawls, face red in protest/ His mother chisels bread from her day’s granted stones).
With the brilliant quantification of light as ‘available’, CP successfully makes it a portrayal of the unsaid. As observed by Susan Sontag in her reflective discourse ‘Aesthetics of Silence’, the unsaid (or literary silence) equates to the punishment that the artist imposes on himself, for silence. The unsaid that remains as a haunting remnant of art in the mind of the writer/artist, but has no gallery to play itself. In that context, the title poem of the collection ‘Available Light’ works like the shutter of a camera balancing its act between the captured (said) and the ignored (unsaid). Ilse Koch, the cruel wife of the Commandant and the prisoners of war take centre stage, depicting the multiple shades of light at play, to perfection (Like a cross-stitch of steel gleaming at the heart of things, the twisted sign of millions bent on design: The gas, fatigues, transport, and tanks/The iron nuts and bolts of human fate).
This collection (that includes selected poems from Gemini II (1994), Posthumous Poems (1999), Canaries on the Moon (2002)) reminds that CP Surendran’s poetic voice stays in the margins, waits for its share of light, and then ascends to poetic heights.