Miriam Wei Wei Lo reviews Entries by Prithvi Varatharajan
by Prithvi Varatharajan
Reviewed by MIRIAM WEI WEI LO
Reading Prithvi Varatharajan’s Entries, is like tuning in to an erudite conversation. At first my brain struggles. Then, like a middle-aged woman on the tenth day of exercise boot-camp, I suddenly find myself keeping up.
Twelve poems in, I’m not only keeping up, but I’m transfixed by a moment of connection in the (Proustian) prose poem “Speak, Memory”:
Writing memory transforms a beautifully shifting thought-picture into a static one, there for you to re-read but not to re-remember. It preserves memory while at the same time killing it. (15)
Varatharajan is discussing the fluidity of pre-written memory, of how it “seems to be fluid, letting you remember the same event in slightly different ways each time you recall it”. This may seem impossibly intellectual (like, oh, historiography) but I’ve had just that experience when I’ve written down memories of my own. Writing them down seems to kill, or at least fix, them in some way – like a dead butterfly pinned and mounted in a display box.
Other points of connection emerge, like the star-points of a constellation. Before I dot them out, I will venture some comments on form. Most of Varatharajan’s ‘entries’ are prose poems. There is the occasional foray into free verse (playing with many different line lengths), a couple of odes (one very cryptic), and one ghazal (that keeps the radif and dispenses with the qafia). The prose poems push at the ‘poem’ end of the boundary – there is a very deliberate prosaic-ness to their rhythm and diction as well as a palpable resistance to the kind of closure one often expects in a poem: the kind exemplified in, say, the closing couplet of a Shakespearean sonnet. This resistance to closure is also a resistance to synthesis and evaluation – this gives many of the prose poems the feel of an unedited documentary: reading them feels like watching live-stream footage from someone’s webcam. Except there are two crucial differences: first, these episodes include interior monologue; second, these episodes of footage are curated. They are carefully snipped-out portions.
The points of connection that emerge for me from Varatharajan’s curated entries include a sense of ambivalence towards cosmopolitanism. The poem “Inner City Reflection” submerges the reader, via the body of the narrator, in a pool of sparkling light – the inner-city lap pools of a thousand hotels come to mind – as our thoughts are directed to the sameness of the global urban landscape: “I’m in an everywhen of the central business district” (22). Varatharajan is summoning up metaphors for the cosmopolitan urban professional experience – an experience he participates in, like a swimmer entering a pool; but also steps out from, troubled. Varatharajan keeps disturbing the smooth aesthetic surface of cosmopolitan life in subsequent poems:
I was put off, in that group, by the pride taken in an appearance of effortless cosmopolitanism; I say ‘the appearance of’ because I’m sure it’s effortful – going through complex visa and immigration processes, not to mention the daily difficulty of communication in second and third languages (“Sombre Reflections” 71).
Bonny Cassidy, in her introduction to this book, highlights the ambivalence of Varatharajan’s poetic posture and celebrates it as “the most honest position” (xiv). In this instance, the ambivalence is fuelled by tension between the desire to obey the conventions of cosmopolitan etiquette and the desire to achieve more meaningful human contact.
Love and death twine their way through this collection in a double-dance of presence and absence – appearing occasionally as muted erotic touch: “I think of the exact weight and shape of you” (“Love Poem” 4); manifesting in the dead bodies of birds (“Bird Death” 5); materializing in gestures of friendship: “Julene in Spain says next time I’m in Europe she’ll visit me in whichever country I’m staying in” (“Ode to European Friends” 36); and receding through loss: “A Literary Shadow” documents the entry and exit of a significant connection – the South Indian writer Ashokamitran.
Travel is a constant reference. There are major and minor movements. The major movements take place between cities: Turin, Chennai, Adelaide, Melbourne, Istanbul – each of these places, and others, are captured in unique poems of anecdote and description (including “Opera Diary”, “A Literary Shadow”, “City Selves”, and “Nazim Hikmet and Radiohead in Cihangir”). The minor movements are between a succession of share-houses – “(Im)permanence” is a particularly helpful exploration of the difficulties of shared accommodation.
Some of Varatharajan’s most resonant poems, for me, are those that document minority experiences. I admire Varatharajan’s exquisite attention to the detail of these experiences:
The music is folky with paradoxical touches of darkness and whimsy. There’s no-one else like me there, so of course, I wear my difference heavily; of course, I berate myself for being so self-conscious: get over it, idiot (“Identity Anecdote” 23).
I don’t often come across representations of non-white traveller anxiety, so I am grateful for this, from a poem recounting experiences in Budapest:
I’m not sure where my defensiveness has come from … The Hungarian Prime Minister addressed the Viennese parliament today, and said Hungary was not interested in replicating Western Europe’s ‘failed’ experiment with multiculturalism by letting in non-European migrants. That is probably preying on my mind (“Incident in a Café, Incident in a Supermarket” 38-9).
I laughed out loud, with a sense of déjà vu, at this:
What’s to be done about being in the margins, since I find myself here all the time, even if I tell myself, some years, that I’m not going to keep putting myself in that position through my obstinate self-identifications? All that’s left to do now is to get comfortable, put my feet up in this virtual armchair, and find incisive perspectives on the world beyond the margin – perspectives that only a life in the margins could provide. Or – another option – suppress thinking about the margin and the mainstream, because this is after all just a story we tell ourselves, even if that story appears grounded in lived experience (“Occupying the Margins” 52).
I have chafed, as a writer, at the restrictions of the ‘Majority Gaze’ which seems to want to position me, always, in terms of my Asian-Australian ethnicity; with less interest in the many other dimensions of identity I currently occupy (‘housewife’, for example, seems particularly unworthy). I am anxious not to frame Varatharajan in a similarly restrictive manner; his work certainly resists any easy ‘ethnic’ categorisation; and yet, ironically, I am drawn to his poems about family, precisely for the deftness and honesty with which he handles the ethnic dimension of minority experience:
Last night I recorded a conversation in the kitchen … We dig up some dirt from the past. I describe my feeling of being embarrassed by our religious culture as a teenager, being embarrassed to bring my friends home because of this (nearly all my friends were white); I ask whether they were aware of this embarrassment, and if so, how it made them feel. In their answer they describe some of the other things that me and my brother did that were upsetting to them, which are heart-rending to hear; they relate to how we characterised their way of speaking English to schoolfriends we brought home. I say, ‘That must have been hurtful.’ It goes on like this for a while. It’s like a family therapy session (“Memories in the Kitchen” 62-3).
Entries is not an easy read. I confess there are a couple of poems that completely eluded me (“Apperceptions” and “Informal Poetics”) but it is still worthy of close attention. Other readers might like to mine it for its range and depth of literary references. Fans of arthouse films might find their own points of connection too. Readers looking for ‘Australia’ will find it here – in ironic refractions. I’ll conclude with one of them, from “The Australian Bicentenary, and a Memory”:
A friend of mine today recalled how he sat in a cinema in St Louis as a young boy (in 1989 or 1990), watching a selection of footage from the Australian Bicentenary … Going to see the Bicentenary was his father’s attempt to get his son enthused about the country they’d soon be moving to. As he was describing the scene to me – a childhood memory that seemed incongruous (You watched the Australian Bicentenary in a cinema in St Louis?) – I warmed a little, thinking: ‘Ah, this is real. I’m writing about something real.’ (50)
MIRIAM WEI WEI LO is intrigued by complexity and seduced by simplicity. Simultaneously. She teaches creative writing at Sheridan College in Perth, Western Australia. Find her online @miriamweiweilo (Instagram).