“Vintage Verses on a Kaleidoscopic Canvas” by Kalyanee Rajan
In these times it is in vogue to talk of ruptures, discontinuities, fragments, incompleteness, existential crises, impossibility of attaining perfection in any sphere of life, a seemingly all-pervading sense of breakdown and tumult, losses of several dimensions viz. personal, public, national and so on. These themes have all but taken over most forms of creative expression including poetry. Veteran bilingual writer Lakshmi Kannan’s fifth volume of poetry Sipping the Jasmine Moon strikes a gentle discordant note by conjuring relatively soothing images, and brings to fore heart-warming and nostalgic narratives ranging from nature, culture, the dynamics of a kitchen, friendship, womanhood, parenting, and family to the serene waters of Buddhism.
Lakshmi Kannan dons several hats with equal finesse: she is a prolific storyteller who writes in Tamil as “Kaaveri” and translates herself into English under her own name. Kannan traverses multiple genres with natural ease, be it tautly-wrought short stories, the much wider canvas of a novel, the lyrical flow of poetry, pithy book reviews in reputed dailies and journals, and apart from those of her own works, translations of the works of other major Tamil writers such as T. Janakiraman, Indira Parthasarathy, “Mowni” and Thanjai Prakash, the last one fetching her the prestigious Katha Award for Translation.
Kannan also carries with her diverse cross-cultural experiences: she has been a Resident Fellow at the International Writing Program at Iowa, USA; a Resident Writer at the University of Canterbury at Kent, England; British Council Visitor to the University of Cambridge, England; Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla; Resident Writer, Sahitya Akademi, Delhi, attached to the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia New Delhi, to name a few. Her first full length novel originally written in English, The Glass Bead Curtain (Vitasta, 2020, c 2016) which the reviewer had the opportunity of reviewing, effortlessly carried the reader into the closely guarded heart of a Tamil Brahmin household, peopled by numerous athais and pattis in the days of the pre-independence Madras Presidency, tracing the remarkable saga of women’s quest for identity, recognition and professional success.
The present collection under review Sipping the Jasmine Moon brings together some of her previously published iconic poems, as well as several new poems, a total of sixty-six poems, including the craftily inserted prologue/poem “Long Before You Came” on Lord Ganesha, the prathama poojya deva of the Hindu pantheon. Legendary poet Jayanta Mahapatra’s generous introduction adds to the glowing recommendations Kannan’s poetry has received across all quarters. It needs to be mentioned that apart from her five poetry volumes, which includes one by the Sahitya Akademi (Unquiet Waters, 2012, c 2005), Kannan’s poems have found a place in various national and international journals and magazines. In particular, Mahapatra highlights the “unmistakable continuity” in Kannan’s poems, which also carry the aura of authenticity of stemming from the poet’s own experiences. Mahapatra rightly praises the confluence of a certain music underlying the emotions in Kannan’s poems which is undoubtedly the hallmark of her poetic oeuvre. He also draws attention to Kannan’s foray into The Lotus Sutra and Buddhism, appearing to be a “journey…of discovery”, and the volume in effect, leading to a feeling of “renewal”, of an opening up on the part of both the reader and the poet. A sensitive reader cannot help but agree with Mahapatra’s observations, for Kannan’s poems manage to strike a chord somewhere deep within, with their straightforward yet nuanced exploration of several complex and indeed confounding aspects of human life.
Indian Literature Vol LXIV, No. 4, July-August 2020, Number 318
Vintage Verses on a Kaleidoscopic Canvas by Kalyanee Rajan
A very apt epigraph to the volume is drawn from Mandukya Upanishad, and quite literally, the reader is introduced to a few of the central themes of the poems right away: the flowing river, dissolution of name and form, knowledge, and the seeker’s journey towards liberation. Interestingly, Kannan’s previous volume, Unquiet Waters, carried invocations from the Agni Purana and The Old Testament. Sixty-five poems are divided into five broad sections: “Braided Lives”, “Maitree”, “On the Trail”, “Flowing Waters” and, “Candle in the Wind”.
The first and the longest section presents a cross section of various interconnected aspects of life. It contains some of Kannan’s iconic poems such as “An Autopsy” and “Don’t Wash”. “Mahishasura Mardhini” is a powerful poem, unravelling the stark contrasts inherent in the persona of Durga who is envisioned as “the annual, untiring icon of/ what your daughters could be–/ daughters who intimidate the land/ with a primordial fortitude…” The poet urges the goddess to teach her much abused daughters “an effective way to vanquish the asuras”, as the goddess herself rises “…as an annual reminder of a power/ that can hit between the eyes”. This could either be a veiled reference to Durga as the fear-inspiring Kali equipped with the blazing third eye to annihilate the wrongdoers, or to the Goddess’ ability to unlock the seat of supreme knowledge placed between the eyes.
Many of Kannan’s poems revolve around an unnamed “She”, lending them a wider outreach to women across time and space as it were. In some poems, she is young, unmarried, in others, older, a mother and so on. For instance, in the poem titled “She”, the woman is well-to-do, but reduced to the role of a mere house keeper: the house is an epitome of “clean health”, and the floors are “swept clean/ as her empty heart”, and she stares outside at a blossoming “young mango tree…with a rash of new, glossy leaves…(evoking) the pain of memories”.
The She in “O, for shame” is a forty-five years old woman who is drenched in the rain: “the sky cooled waters fell on the parched cracks of her body…/ …quenching/ the enormous thirst of her being” and her subsequent natural delight makes her the centre of gossip and slander by the onlookers, “How could she?”. In “Tinctures”, she is a woman who travels from the impurity associated with the onset of menstruation to the faux purity achieved when she conceives a male infant, who would never know “the treacheries of the blood hounds/ baying for ‘purity’, more ‘purity’!”. In “A family Tree”, the unnamed She grapples with a sense of loss and sadness for the very Family tree which she had watered “everyday/ with the rain of her sweat/ till it stood tall and proud”, deprives her selectively to “not give her the cool shade/ she sought…/ after her work was done”. The sense of pain is all too palpable, as is the realization that a woman’s role as a nurturer and care-giver is almost always identified with a mandatory precondition of self-sacrifice, of never asking for anything in return despite giving her all. “Red Ants, Then as Now” carries the analogy further, of ancestral property passing on to the male heirs, and the narrator here is “I”, who is hopelessly attached to the house of her happy, carefree childhood. “Ruby Fire” explores the delicate matter of the inheritance a young woman receives from her ageing grandmother, a pair of earrings made of priceless rubies which have adorned the “beautifully preserved old lady/ as regal as the house she lived in”. As the granddaughter grows “in proportion/ to the shrinking of her (grandmother’s) frame”, the rubies now whisper to her the tragic fate that awaits her, “ a lot, a lot/ of neglect as you live on/ with people politely, decorously/ waiting for you to go”.
Kannan also tackles the perennial division between Aryans and Dravidians in India head on, in the poem titled “Burnt Brown by The Sun”. The poem carries her trademark wit, as she explains how the Dravidians were burnt brown by the Sun for turning their face towards the sun with “the complete trust of a sunflower”. She enumerates how the Dravidian “small brown children”, fed on
laced with the salt of folk-tales,
fed us on curds and Kamban
as we licked the tang of Tamil
we are now asked to thrust behind
to accomodate the sibilant bureaucrats
who are not burnt brown by the sun”?
The poem is unforgiving in its searing indictment of the self-professed, superior Aryans.
Several poems in the collection centre around the figure of the mother: in “Seasweep”, the mother has “a sea in her eyes” as she gradually rises above her mundane likes and favourites. In “Take Care”, the poet pens a poignant tribute to the mother who always adviced the daughter to take care of herself in matters big and small, and eventually departs from life itself, “ Mother left quietly, without a fuss/ taking care not to disturb anybody./ But her touch lingers/…on everything”; the poem titled “Remember Me?” is equally touching, it records the bewildered response of a daughter who witnesses her impeccable Mother gradually falling apart under the impact of dementia, now failing to remember her own beloved daughter.
In the second section titled “Maitree”, the poem titled “The Road Not Taken” (dedicated to M. A. Susila, a fellow writer in Tamil and a translator), reads like an exhilarating joyride of friendship between two contemporary women writers. The witty poem is replete with affectionate references from Tamil Literature: “Valluvar presided over our coffee./ Andal and Bharati made friendly appearances…/ and Ilango cast a long shadow/ on the roads of Delhi I drove through/ with her, quoting lines from the elegiac Silappadikaram”. The two friends discuss the choices of Manimekalai over a car ride, of her turn to Buddhism, and the poet discovers that she belonged there, “in the alleys and by-lanes/ of Poomouhar/ the submerged civilization of Tamil…”. The poem ends on a hilarious note when the poet misses turns after turns as she drives her car, only to realize that she has had to literally “lose” her way, in order to “find” the great authors of epics in Tamil.
The third and the middle section of the volume titled “On the trail” focuses on the poet’s interest in Buddhism. The poem titled “Mahaprajapati” lays bare the story of Gautami, foster mother of Gautama Buddha, who in order to join the Sangha, after being refused thrice by him, shaves off her hair and dons the attire of a renunciant, upon which she is not only admitted, but given the title of Mahaprajapati, meaning the leader of a large assembly. The poem ruminates upon the fact that “The Alpha woman…/ has to be less of a woman/ and more of a man/ to be taken as an equal/ as an ‘honorary’ man.” The poem offers a sharp critique of the patriarchal world order which refuses entry to women till they adhere to a specific code, become “more like a man”, in order to make strides into a more progressive future. This section also includes a rousing poem titled “Mukti through Mango” which describes in two parts, the story of deification of Punithavathi into Karaikkal Ammaiyar: Punithavathi is rejected by her husband on account of her spiritual prowess, he is shocked and stunned by the miracle manifested on account of her devotion to Lord Shiva. While he deserts her to remarry and relocates to another city, Punithavathi seeks liberation from the beautiful female form, and is promptly transformed into a ghoulish figure, inspiring fear and devotion from the society. The narrative in itself is comparable to several such female devotees who defied the society in the favour of spiritual devotion. In contrast, Silappadikaram’s virtuous Kannagi was deified after she burns down the city of Madurai through her righteous anger at her husband’s unjust murder by the king. Karaikkal Ammaiyar however falls in the league of women saints such as Andal, Mirabai, and Lal Ded. Kannan’s well-crafted poem brings the tale alive and subtly reveals the glaring patriarchal chinks in the narrative; concluding with the trite observation, “It all started with a mango”. Apart from another iconic poem, “Ask for the Moon” (which gives the volume its title), this section also includes two very different poems on the Lotus, a flower being of immense significance to the Buddhist thought.
The entire collection has seven poems with dedications to individuals, where three are dedicated to the poet’s own family members, while one is dedicated to A K Ramanujan posthumously. Included in the fourth section titled “Flowing Waters”, in the poem titled “A Wrong Time for Gleaning”, Kannan describes the glorious Tamil month of Aadi and addresses A K Ramanujan, “Were you claimed by Murugan/…about whom/ you sang in three languages?/ Did Murugan harvest you/ at a wrong time…” The poem succinctly captures an enduring sense of loss the poet feels on account of both, her personal admiration for the poet chiefly known for his translations from Classical Tamil, as well as the rich scholarship that he had yet to offer before being cruelly snatched away from the literary world (Ramanujan had died at the age of 64, as a result of adverse reaction to anaesthesia during preparation for a surgery in Chicago).
The fourth section titled “Flowing Waters” contains several poems based on various water bodies, chiefly the Ganga, the Kaveri and Gomti rivers. It also includes a successful experiment in form, a prose poem titled “Ponni Looks Back”, written in lyrical, almost musical prose, in the musing, ruminating voice of the golden river Ponni.
With the fifth and the final section titled “Candle in the wind”, the volume comes full circle, the reigning theme here being engagements with finality, death and closure. Each poem of this section overflows with the deepest of emotions with regard to the basic instinct governing all life forms: the constant struggle for survival. “Grammar Time” is a short poem which dwells upon the billion-dollar question:
to speak of the past
with a glib reassurance,
speak of the future
as a guessing game.
And the present?
… (why) were so stupefied
while facing the present?”
While “Tree of Life” recalls the marble trees at the Medanta Hospital, “Bracelet Watch” notes the attachment of the owner towards her beautiful watch, at the same time, being acutely aware of the clock ticking away on her own life, and “Tenant” records the devotee’s complaint to God about the need for a new house (body) in exchange for the old one with “creaking joints and poor ventilation”. “Regret to Inform that Mother Died” is another elegant poem which reminds the reader in part of Nissim Ezekiel’s “Night of the Scorpion”. The final poem of the volume, “The Key Turns” pulls a clever joke on the unsuspecting reader, where a seemingly simple case of a key not opening a door turns on its head with crushing finality as the poem ends.
As is evident from this short sampling and analysis of her poems, Lakshmi Kannan’s poetry operates with an acute sense of observation blended finely with irony, wit and humor in equal measure, and all of them set through a tight economy of words and images. Her incisive poems tend to grow on the reader slowly, like carefully measured sips of vintage wine, firmly enclosing the reader in a world meticulously crafted by her, brick by brick, with the cement and building material of freely-flowing feelings, thinly veiled desires, striking a rare balance between tradition and modernity, nature and culture, life and death, and indeed, karma and liberation. Her felicity with multiple languages and cultural traditions adds another rich dimension to her poetic oeuvre. The literary world will certainly be enriched by this collection of poems and one looks forward to many more such volumes from Lakshmi Kannan in the times to come.
Indian Literature Vol LXIV, No. 4, July-August 2020, Number 318
Elevating the Quotidian by Anita Balakrishnan
Poetry is particularly important for women writers. Among the various forms of creative writing, poetry bears the most intimate relation to language. Many women writers share in the task of interrogating received meanings, but poetry is particularly significant in its ability to infuse new significance into language. This makes poetry very valuable to women writers because it allows them to challenge the extant power equations in society through female voices and myths freshly imbued with power.
Bilingual poet and author Lakshmi Kannan’s recently published volume of poetry evocatively titled Sipping the Jasmine Moon, has all the sensitive, subtle interrogations one has come to expect in her verse, though many of the poems also break new ground reflecting her evolving philosophical outlook.
Divided thematically into five sections, the volume contains some of her best-known poems from her previously published collections as well as several new additions, giving the reader a panoptic view of her thematic proclivities. The book includes an introduction by Jayanta Mahapatra, the celebrated bilingual poet, who praises Lakshmi Kannan’s ability to translate intense emotions and personal experiences into memorable poetry.
Lakshmi Kannan is primarily noted for her short, imagistic poems that evince her worldview, her impatience with rigid, soul-numbing traditions that circumscribe the development of identity, particularly female identity.
Review of Sipping the Jasmine Moon Confluence: South Asian Perspectives, London, U.K. May 2020
Three in a row, twisting time in the ritual of doing hair.However, another poem is the very antithesis of this cozy warmth. “An Autopsy” reveals that the woman “had stashed away her private moments” in her core, her brain. This is an ironic subversion of the ideology that equates woman with her body. Here, it is her mind that stores the liquid gold honey which represent her essential self. The poem resonates with others that celebrate Rash Sundari Debi, a self-taught nineteenth century Bengali author, and that icon of female power, “Mahishasura Mardhini”. These portraits of female power are juxtaposed with the poems that follow, that depict the love between the poet and her mother, and her own love for her son, that tell the truth with subtle circumvention. This blend of South Indian culture and western inquiry in Lakshmi Kannan’s poetry is evident in the frequent allusions to Tamil literary texts and cultural icons that season her writings and lend an intertextual dimension to her work. The second section ‘Maitree’ extends the warmth of family relationships that shaped the first section to affectionate, endearing friendships where the poet
‘could come into my own for you just let me be. I shall stand here on the bank of Phalgu and wait for that ferryman to take me across the river. He’ll appear, my ferryman on whose brow sits an expansive skyAnother stunning poem “Ask for the Moon” is dialogic in form and underscores Kannan’s impatience with the patriarchal codes that prevent women from participating fully in cultural and religious customs in South India. The young woman in the poem finally mocks patriarchy as she “sips at the jasmine moon” and recites the forbidden Gayatri mantra. The fourth section “Flowing Waters” contains several delightful poems that are distinctive for their luminous, haunting imagery. “Aarti” and “Unquiet Waters” are particularly noteworthy. Kannan’s syncretic outlook is seen in poems such as “That Friday” on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and in “Mukti Through Mango” on Karaikkal Ammaiyar. The final section “Candle in the Wind” fittingly focuses on the ephemeral nature of life and the enduring mystery of death. This is truly a volume to be read, reread and savoured! Lakshmi Kannan’s imagery and verse are so powerfully evocative that they have the capacity to elevate the reader above the ennui and dejection of present-day life to a plane of higher consciousness. I can only end with the lines from the exquisite poem
“Nelumbo Nucifera”: Above the muddy water, you, the lotus bloom dew fresh, clean and unsullied by the filthy swamp below. That’s how, said the World Honoured One, the lotus keeps its head above the waters. “Review of Sipping the Jasmine Moon Confluence: South Asian Perspectives, London, U.K. May 2020
“Combining the Sensuous with the Transgressive” By Payal Nagpal
Sipping the Jasmine Moon is an eclectic collection of poems. The sixty-six poems range from the realistic to the intensely spiritual. The woman’s point of view determines the contours of each poem and they have been threaded together with great sensitivity.
Her poems engage with strong women from the archives of history. “Don’t Wash” is dedicated to Rasha Sundari Debi, the woman who wrote the first autobiography in Bangla. In it, Kannan imagines the struggle of women like her to acquire the alphabet. The dark soot in her kitchen becomes her slate:
‘You need no book, Rasha Sundari no paper or pen either you have the black, smudgy kitchen wall all of them your secret code for a whole new world.’
The poetic tone transmutes into an intensely spiritual one in the third section “On the Trail”. Based on the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, most of the poems such as “Crossing the River,” “Mahaprajapati”, “Nelumbo Nucifera” and “The Lotus” are based on Buddhist philosophy as expounded in the Lotus Sutra.
The poet yearns for fulfilment. In “Crossing the River”, she says:
‘I shall stand here on the banks of the Phalgu and wait for that ferryman to take me across the river. He’ll appear, my ferryman on whose brow sits an expansive sky’
These lines are reminiscent of the poetry of the fourteenth century Kashmiri poet Lal Ded.
“Combining the Sensuous with the Transgressive”,
Kavya Bharati, Madurai, 2020
She acquaints the reader with Gautami, the first bhikshuni in the poem “Mahaprajapati” who was gained entry into the sangha after she shaved her head and wore the coarse robes of renunciation. Kannan reflects on this as an act that brought her and her women followers closer to their “androgynous self”.
‘Like I said the alpha woman needs to be more like a man.
“Mukti through Mango” is based on the legend of Karaikkal Ammaiyar that dates back to the sixth century. And in the title poem “Sipping the Jasmine Moon,” a young woman subverts the Brahminical tradition by reciting Gayatri mantra. In all these poems, the lines show Kannan combining the sensuous with the transgressive.
“Flowing Waters” is a section that shows the feminine impulse in its various forms. Poems refer to the Ganga and Gomti, but the real protagonist of this section is the river ‘Ponni’, the name given to the river Kaveri in classical Tamil literature. The prose poem “Ponni Looks Back” tells the story of the river Kaveri, its course dotted with references to myths and history.’
The poet presents Ponni as the collective memory of the land.
‘I am a mother linking all the peoples of the land I washed. They began with me. And ended with me. Only I had no beginning, and therefore no end. I am their timeless Ponni, flowing within their bloodstream…I lost count of the centuries. I am their inerasable Memory.’
Ponni carried with her memories of Kannagi, Kovalan, Madhavi and Manimekalai from that immortal classic Silappadhikaaram by Ilango.
The final section “Candle in the Wind” has fifteen poems written with profound maturity and insight.’
“Combining the Sensuous with the Transgressive”, Kavya Bharati, Madurai, 2020
‘Many of Kannan’s poems absorb the spirituality underlying Hinduism, Christianity and Buddhism. The poem “The Friday” powerfully evokes the cleansing, healing and purifying power of Christ’s blood on the cross, on Good Friday.’
Wasafiri: International Contemporary Writing, March 2008, London, U.K.
‘“For Arun” is an exquisitely beautiful lyric that showcases the jewelled, luminous loveliness of Lakshmi Kannan’s poetry. In a relationship of two independent individuals, one a droplet of water, the other a lotus leaf,
the veins of the leaf are magnified through the pearl of waterand how the droplet turnsa radiant emerald on the leaf?
“Braided Lives” is a lovely snapshot of three generations of women – grandmother, mother and daughter – each braiding the other’s hair sitting one behind the other. Suddenly they take on symbolic roles for they seem to be braiding not just hair, but Time itself as it ticks by, reminding one of the Three Greek Sisters, the Fates,
Wasafiri : International Contemporary Writing, London. U.K, March 2018
Three in a row, twisting timein the ritual of doing hair.