Author: Ranjit Hoskote
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Year of Publication: 2023
Lost moorings form the tangled cartography of this moment. Its pervasive existential threat is a foreclosure of humanity as we know it. For the creatively attuned, navigating its topos tof unbridled angst, metaphysical turmoil, and spiritual combat, feels like a hurtling ride on an aesthetic rollercoaster. The beehive of online forums that have emerged during and post pandemic passionately confront the etymological ambiguities that complicate our discourse today. They feature mneumonic strategizing, cerebral dialectics, urbane prattle, slick eclecticism, and genre subversion – depending on the energy vortex from which their polemic is forged. As this unfolds, disruption is ominously becoming a metamodel for orchestrated chaos. Hyper individualism is morphing into radical selfishness, the grip of the corporatocracy is getting tighter, maladaptive thought patterns are subsuming cyber space, and a mutant vibe of propulsive fear is permeating the zeitgeist. The very air is limpid in its anthemic scope. This scorching song of frayed nerves resists the grammar of ornament, calling instead for a reckoning with this uncertainty at the heart of which an obsolete future rages on the brink of manifestation.
As this wild, wacky frequency bristles with grating ubiquity, one feels fiercely compelled to crack its shadowy code. And then, a pixelated miracle blipping radiantly amidst the neon thrum of digital ether flickers out a message. It heralds the arrival of a book into the reading universe: a promise of Cartesian rapture, of surreal sensorial encounters, of sonic limbs reaching for the emotional jugular, of silences brewed in darkness, of fallen bits of moon. Icelight manifests as the linguistic equivalent of such quantum excitation. On first perusal, its words loom in leonine majesty, setting off an oscillating synchrony of epiphanies. Diaphanously translucent strands of sound images woven into a dimensional matrix of cadences reveal a lush tapestry of the elemental and the imaginative. Ranjit Hoskote shines as a singularity, dissecting silences, providing dynamic shades and gradients to its cavernous unheard acoustics. All this while lithely navigating the myriad significations of the semantic field with an ear exquisitely attuned to aural structuring.
The poetics of mirage, the timbres of threnody, the hues of longing, the unearthly lyrical banquets replete with spectral presences, and at times, the very disrobing of words themselves – all these poetic gestures coalesce with vivid expressivity, nuanced ferocity, and virtuosic flourish throughout Ranjit’s writing. He conveys ever so profoundly what the legendary Salman Rushdie once said, “All secrets begin with the alphabet.” Indeed, as he refines his vintage, Ranjit’s journey could be viewed as an intellectual silk road which cannot be put into a curatorial box in any exegetic sense (compositionally compelling and kinetically glossy as that might be). Rather, it may be experienced through a readerly odyssey on the melodic contours of his fugal oeuvre.
Icelight with all its subterranean rumblings, percussive wonders, supercharged pauses, thrashing climaxes, tingling contrasts, and haunting interplays, is a pulsing auratic field. Impressionistic fogs, edgy spatial layouts, visual portmanteaus, whirling torrents, and liminal messages – all coalesce as a vivid amalgam amid an aqueous, turgid drone of dark waters moving inexorably towards a riveting, hypnotic roar. The swells and fades of this kaleidoscopic soundscape are reflected in the textured tonality of the book’s cover featuring an Atul Dodiya painting where a lone figure contemplates earthrise. Ranjit’s poems appear like linguistic chromatograms of this art work, an aesthetic continuity that is a marvel in itself! Many readings later, after inhabiting the micro environments of each poem and experiencing its restless intensity, notes to a future begin to surface for the reader as a kind of vaporous calligraphy. Hovering at the brink of Ranjit’s cerebral emporium with its neural labyrinths, one feels transpersonal creativity being offered tantalizing access. In the following instance, sepia bursts into color as hands follow the trance of clay, enabling reader to turn into co-creator, fashioning a vessel to follow the rhythms of discovery.
Tonal clusters arise from this collection like smoky spires with unsettling reverberations, spreading over a poetic topology of six sections.This peregrination on paths laced with liminal echos begins with a figure standing on a rocky rim, one copper-toned morning. A jagged landscape gazes back at her in silence punctuated by chirrups. Heavy foreboding envelopes her open-mouthed “tacet” moment, her agitated thoughts heaving under its pressure:
What if there was no border
Between flesh and light
What if I had
Of what am I the barometer?
Preternatural forces ricochet through a sweeping expanse of acoustic slivers, their “lava magnet heart” being a trippy trope that works a strange magic as the timbre ripens with Aubade in reflexive tendrilous musings. Propulsive oceanic churning, a compositional rhythmic tool often a feature of Ranjit’s writerly impulses, manifests in poem after poem. It washes over the dark dreams of sailors and sea captains who navigate through the cobwebs of memory to a shore that shimmers after a “tidal night.” The metaphysical tinge of these elemental fields creates hypnotic backdrop for a lone riveting voice. Comet-like, it whirls through a velvet haze, burning through lifetimes, pilgrimages, battles, rebirths. Aphoristic flourishes reflect the conundrum of existence :”Have I stood here before?” asks the soul of a boy in Spur, who discovers within himself an unsettling constellation of stardust and color in a moment swathed in memory and forgetting.
Deciphering the modalities of poetic experience through this collection is a speculative exercise not for the faint of heart (or art). It does inspire vigorous metacognition within the reader, which itself could potentially become a mode of resistance in the anthropocene, a dominant thematic current that flows through the poems. It impels readerly forays into surreal spaces where a subaltern monk is frescoed into a shadow, a breath bubble engorged with language floats along a nameless track, and fizzing tidalectics of lost boats in whirling torrents dot the eyescape like chimerical pearls. It stirs deeply affective chords in dedications wrapped in aural luminescence that appear throughout the book. Examples include a touchingly visceral expression of darkly primal grief with “pinpricks of light” in Noor, honoring Zarina Hashmi. Trigger revives a haunting memory of a “starling-loud” evening stalked by dread. Dedicated to Devapayya Nadkarni, it is a bullet-like poem firing questions into the void. Runner is a moving tribute to composer Steve Reich whose elemental musical journeys shimmer like seabirds soaring amid iridescent ripples of spray. Entrapped in a vortex of fog and rain, this poem hones in on a flailing voice:
Save me, he mouths as the tidemarks
dissolve, from myself.
The shores where these poems seek to alight throb along with the ebb and swell of the reader’s heart. One simply cannot put intellectual lipstick on such sensorial shifts in one’s own response and confine it to a reductive interpretation. The gossamer strands of one’s own latent artistry are woven into each reading and sometimes there is the thrill of timorous discovery – an awareness of subliminal forces – a continuity beneath the fractures, the fissures, and the erasures. In fact, a compelling urge that often dominates the readings is not just a need to excavate Ranjit’s inner world or to find hermeneutic pathways into his organizational matrix, or even to analyze his strategically articulated sonic experimentation. It is ultimately to sift through his words for a presence of one’s own sublimated yearnings for hope in this time of brokenness and existential squalor. For those drawn to elemental iconography as a kind of meta-commentary, it is a singular treat to see languaging as activism in Ranjit’s dialectical ability, his tautological gestures, and his depictions of the sacred quotidian, as a way of imprinting the elemental on the miniscule. One’s gaze is awakened anew through the resonances to find ambrosial color in the brightness of nowhere.
But where does this morphic field of poesy alight among those who are resistant to its radar, especially those with ideological blinders whose kleptocratic self-absorption appears to have become a dominant impulse? The poems wrestle with this, using subtle energies which tap into domains that ordinarily defy articulation. Seepage is the fragmentary momentum of poems that retrieve celestial bodies incarcerated in soil, as questions leap out like hidden guerrilla fighters in Eclipse:
Speak, lunatic angel,
Which was the right way?
Was I implement or impediment?
Section II is replete with the quivering chords of such ossified turbulence. Darkness is a verb in Night Ferry, as its shadowy figures row through raging storms of shifting linguistic layers. In Foreigner, pre-linguistic meets futuristic, and all perceptual, epistemological, and metaphysical visions start to collapse. Sentence, in the same vein follows aesthetic intuition to a dark place where imagined legacies melt into a hegemony of ashen remnants, and soldiers frozen in stone become pawns on a chessboard marbled into a twilight zone. Paishachi for Mohammad Subhan Bhagat is a spectral spectacle of ghost families who wander through lives, their voices speaking alien tongues. Haunting images incinerate the mind throughout this section. Apostle seems rooted in “nowhere” as a poem lies petrified on the palate of an anonymous being. A muse’s dying breath spreads over the pages like a murmuration of birds, as in Crow Hymn where a plumage of sound unfurls in dark militancy as it glides in shrill flight over an anthropogenic wasteland. Avian souls in cages, cloud traffic, and a drowning sun in What Did I Miss? are surrealistic images which highlight existential quandaries. An ardent steward of words is left wondering amid a crazed rampage of a once ordered sensorium – will there be echoes excavated and retrieved from the wreckage?
Alone each of us
a syllable pulled from a checklist
or a blessing
a dream or a transcript or a curse
how shall we
form words again?
These punctuations in equilibrium are black holes, and yet a fiery evolutionary energy lurks around them, not deterministic or preachy in its tenor, but as a subtle, suggestive undercurrent in Section III. The spiritual fecundity of Ranjit’s divinations is captured in the linguistic complexion of tribute poems such as All Gods Travel dedicated to Arundhathi Subramaniam. Scripted in irreverent vignettes, it is a cinematic palimpsest of scathing caricatures signaling a crisis of faith. Nomadic gods “shimmer along a pealing bell” as metonymic symbols pervade the lines. Camels, trucks, tongues, flutes and trees careen their tempestuous way in and out of a questing gaze, creating an eerie verbal music. Such poems acquire a vicarious power with their scorching visionary clarity and their visceral evocation of the arduous terrain that awaits a seeker. A similar presence of a witness is evoked in Call If You’re Lost where hapless wanderers in forgotten landscapes quiver like antennae on a world as stage. Captive readers are left to beaver their way through “sleep’s courtyard” where a sentence is “chased by echoes.” Plague reads like remembrance of things present, with its ubiquity of spilled blood, snuffed out life, its “bodies left nailed to the doors of heaven.” Like vapor, poems rise, their wispy familiarity arriving in unsettlingly cryptic forms in The Mist Shop, Planet, and Storefront Self Portrait. Folorn finitude permeates Swimmer dedicated to Vivan Sundaram, its “ghosts of sculpture” floating in silence like fragile webs in “dim light.” Wounds are the metric of wisdom in Torso where torn flesh is the currency of biological erasure, the “gash” its calisthenic expression. A feral leap through a posthuman field reveals a luminescent emptiness: a “golden light” that is “dust.” “Rusted stars” signal the end of times in Terminus, and a shadowy silhouette of a “drifting boat” is swallowed up by a vast archive of forgotten journeys in Bait. Anarchic clamor fades into languid delirium, the reader left adrift between observer and observed.
The last fisherman
Is wading into the river
every line cast
as he splashes
towards a wave of ash
Himself the bait
Section IV presents Icelight, the signature poem in this collection which unfolds a moment of temporal eternity in that first timorous cloud-drip which baptized the waiting earth. A lone man haloed in glowing firelight carves a figure in stone. This poem is semantic chiaroscuro, its words a saber in the silence, marking (in Paul Celan’s words) “a meridian of encounters.” The title with its crystalline tactility is suggestive of fire congealed in ice – thawing and fractalizing in clustering geometries. A sense of cyclical arrival lurks beneath the creation myths we have created as humans as we try to fathom form, meaning, substance, and connection, and in Ranjit’s poetic framework a palpable transcendence happens, which deepens this perceptual field. It’s as if he takes our mechanistic, materialist paradigms and dips them into a primal ocean, giving them a vibratory urgency. Art as gesture, life form, and survival mode poignantly inhabits this question:
How to be the earth
maimed and gloried
by that one stroke?
In keeping with the brimming emotional pitch, the psychoacoustical attributes of Ranjit’s incantatory timbre are movingly apparent in the lost and found dynamic that emerges in poems such as Bookmark and Clock. They offer remembrance of his parents, laced with the turmoil of grief, yet revealing poetry as a potent intermediary between the finite and the unbounded. This
locomotion of merging silences heavy with history, is maintained through the section, where we see this poet’s deep sense of the past and his ability to “feel it through his skin” (quoting Hillary Mantel regarding her own engagement with absent presences). The imagery reflects a deeply spiritual fluency – awareness that inhabits yet transcends the temporal register. Despite being caught in the freight of modern existence, it still appears to affirm what Spinoza once said about finding God in “herbs and pebbles.” Thus, a mother’s last words imprint on memory:
Do the parrots still nest
In the tree outside your window?
Ranjit’s artisanal mode is a signifier of hope even whilst being mired in the epistemic crisis we experience today. It places individuality in the context of community. It relentlessly confronts the profit-driven domains, bloody invasions, consumerist gratification, and surveillance capitalism and attempts a pause from that hedonistic treadmill. A potent example is Glover which actually enters an extra-linguistic arena with its imagistic exposure. It shows us the shameful provenance of “passion’s flayed hide” which the leather used to fashion pretty accessories made from animal skins which involve the torture and abuse of sentient creatures. Dedicated to Sukhada Tatke, this powerful poem resists putting conceptual paint over graphic immediacy. It uses image as act, a tenebristic illumination of a process usually shrouded in the darkness of ignorance.
Is geography destiny? Is life a Ponzi scheme? Is the galactic expanse a home? Is our frantic consumption a cognitive devolution? Are we just hyperventilating alarmists wading through quantum foam? Such questions arise from the damp breath of the poems and get caught by the snare of trepidation as they encounter a reader’s dispositional sensibilities. There is a hint of respite for reader turned psychonaut to get enveloped in the numinous aura of poems such as Still Life With Oranges. Even amid tectonic geopolitical shifts that terrify and transfix, glimmers of communion happen while contemplating a glowing bowl of fruit and the “caprice of this shifting pearl-grey light.” Ranjit’s lyric intensity washes over the receiving gaze like a minstrel’s voice in a mystical marketplace.
Several poems illuminate the boundless within boundaries, the answers hidden in questions, the hope that gets distilled from hopelessness. This is poignantly present in the musically evocative Descant for the poet’s wife Nancy, revealing their enduring symbiotic connection. Ocean Park dedicated to Richard Diebenkorn uses instincts of echolocation to reach the physical markers of place and to imagine their disappearance. Provocative poems like Slope and Tune are unfurling pirouettes of time lapse, death throes, and caustic dirges. Miramar reveals Ranjit’s aesthetic motifs transcribed in foam as he offers to Vivek Menezes a blue realm away from interpretative frenzy, where luminous mist is all that’s left of metaphoric mazes.
Column, which begins Section V, is a brilliant symbol of hermetic semiosis – horsemen of yore and performing bears of today seem to be linked by the metamedium of story – the chains that paradoxically hold hope, a saga retold of what is dying and what is struggling to be born. Ritual has a discordant pulse, featuring a person being anointed for sacrifice while revelers celebrate, while Striking predicts unfettered fury that waits to be unleashed from ancient slave labors – its language “a very hungry tiger.” Matinee is a screen shot of man locked in his delusions steeped in familiar bullet-ridden themes, as life turns into an action movie, and people become dispensable “extras.” Dadaist images sprinkle the section, and sear the mind with their combustible script, cruel paradoxes, and disturbing plausibility: an upside down man in pajamas, a river stone talisman, a charred newspaper wisp, a talking baobab, a shrouded king, being among them. Lesson for Asiya Zahoor features a classroom where learning is reduced to lurid graffiti on ruins. Anthem where words are stalked butterflies is “ a song of peace in the mouths of soldiers.” Krishna’s End is the bitter evocation of breakage on a metaphysical scale: cessation of a wounded dreamer god who discovers he is being dreamed.
So compelling is Ranjit’s fine-tuning of the conscious awareness, that even things usually beyond intuitive grasp become a visual possibility, their configuration occurring spontaneously in a reader’s imagination as the poems unfold. And yet, no amount of semantic hustling by the canonized poetic punditry can fully get to the heart of things quite like Ranjit. His relentless excursions into the cauldron of instincts retrieves a voice that rises above the noise. He powerfully reveals that existential battles of yore are the deeply rooted currency of present crises in Section VI. A blindfolded boatman in Catapult dedicated to Joy Goswami rides the precarious binary between victim and victimizer :
Whatever it is it’s coming for us
hurling back all we hurled at it.
This last section urges a reader’s sensibility to depart from a teleological understanding of our lives on this planet, and from the linguistic game playing that manipulates the metanarrative. It unravels the bankruptcy of received truths and exposes their ravages. Departures for Ravi Agarwal displays the full import of dying ecosystems showcased in the symbolic “Museum of Cautionary Tales.” Under the Southern Cross uses the images of a constellation reflecting ancient skills consigned to oblivion in contrast with received history, thus exposing its entrepreneurial and exploitative roots, Every aesthetic and rhetorical device used by Ranjit, such as the stylistic departure in Skeleton – a deadpan prosaic detailing of an unceremonious end to a lifetime of partying and decadence, points ominously to a precipice of sorts. The unease is exponential, as is the feeling that these spaces are populated with psychoid entities with their own volition who expose the pernicious charade of our assumed reality.
Is it possible that all this entropic chaos is actually steering us towards hidden depths in our own being? Is the poet figuratively walking us through these fires to enable a new ontological premise? If so, one cannot rule out that this discernment of a redemptive pattern in the residues places Ranjit in the august circle of poet-as-celestial-diplomat, or non-dual sage who embodies in his medium a “mono no aware” substrate, transcending in the most human of ways the epistemological separation of self and world. The last section plays out this impulse in searing poems of mounting intensity which crescendo in the finale. Neighbours is a showcase of Ranjit’s astounding eclecticism – it tosses impossible mortal dreams around in a whimsical blender of images, heralding a series of poems which could well be a transcript for a dirge of eerily deafening wails. In Fleece, a“wali” sends a coded message for displaced human beings. In a masterful polyphony, two voices speak of a moment freighted with political, representational, and moral weight in Mission. “Drones,” “rocket launchers,” and “humvees” are juxtaposed with “wet soil,” “seeds,” and “orange trees.” Afternoon Poem suspended delicately amid all this violence-soaked economic triumphalism features cocoons of quietude contained in ellipses whose silence cannot be translated. Their dynamics of agony, and meditative ruminations punctuate the poet’s journey. This poem is almost parable-like in its transparency – a dewy distillation of essence, rendered in exquisite muted rhythms of subtle emotion:
Unsung midway between aubade and nocturne
Hour that asks me to revise
My trade routes
Hour that divines
My shortcuts and detours
Hour that shakes my dusty afterlives
From tasseled lampshades
Hour that withholds
My papers of departure
I pay this tribute to all the afternoons of my life
Epiphanic detours abound in the collection, and are delivered with poetic finesse. In The Harappan Merchant’s Complaint artifacts unleash their screaming histories into the void. In our present time, when the soundbite is valorised over debate and nuance, this collection daringly compels a leap out of self-imposed hermetically limiting boundaries. Switch features language as battlefield, where an “exile” sees home as a “drained echo,” having lost the scaffold of meaning in the fog of memories. Roar, a wild sojourn into mocking reverberations of speech and its inherent betrayal, bitterly unveils a “garden of last lines.” A magnetic silence reverberates from the suspended pauses that hover at the end of this section’s poems and their perinatal rhythms. Even the starkest utterance by the poet provokes a maximalist exressivity in the reader’s imagination as it turns into a fluid canvas silhouetted with islands of coherence. Return, the final poem isan enjambed, grammatically divergent, unpunctuated dirge is akin to a weathered hieroglyph. It unveils the regalia of primeval music draping a rain-soaked planet, its “marooned houses” and its falling seagulls. This “world muted by mist” is in its last throes. A traveler stumbles on his weary way through this autumnal requiem, reaching a “latched gate” where a stammered “thanks” escapes his lips. Light peeks in through the crack in his voice.
Icelight is to be be experienced intertextually as a spellbinding confection of history, music, subaltern expression, sensorial flux, political commentary, and existential dilemma. The musical paratext ( with Ranjit’s familiar parakeet, a winged emissary often featured amidst its audible panorama ) with its myriad tonal strands is an affective mechanism that sustains intimacy with a listener’s emotional core. Every sonic encounter adds dimension. This is reminiscent of literary theorist Maurice Blanchot’s aesthetic in demonstrating the sonority of image and gesture, as well as of philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin’s take on dialogic musicality as cultural synthesis. The voice that permeates these pages is at once an anthropomorphic presence, a keenly felt absence, a shadowy specter, an elemental vibration, and a crumpled whisper. It suggests a plurality of consciousnesses within the field of subjectivity, fitting in a book of poems in which a sense of a singular self is radically contested.
Featured Pottery: creation of Shabnam Mirchandani in honor of Ranjit Hoskote. Materials used : acrylic paint layering for icescapes and fire impressions reflecting subliminal themes of Icelight, aqua quartz crystals and polished rocks to convey landscape as language evoked imagistically in the poems, and burnt umber burnished with metallic colors to create a quill image signifying the poet’s instrument of creative expression.
Piano music for the synchronous vibrancy of acoustic art to enhance this reader response: Reflets Dans L’eau by Claude Debussy performed by New York based pianist Rishi Mirchandani