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Arundhathi Subramaniam in Kavya Bharati

Jerry Pinto’s debut collection of poems, Asylum (Allied, 2004) is a book that reminds you that precision and passion needn’t be mutually exclusive. They can be complementary, even an inseparable part of the poetic enterprise.
Pinto’s book tries its hand at several modes and approaches that engage the reader at various levels. There is the lively conceit poem, ‘Alphabet Soup’, as well as a small grove of ‘tree’ poems, some haiku-like in their elliptical pictorial style: ‘You are not a baobab./ You are a complacent, middle-class/ Clerk-in-a-sari/ Who would not share her chestnuts.’ (‘Tree 4). There is the strangely disquieting prose poem, ‘Sleep’. There is the narrative poem, ‘Incident at Chira Bazaar’ and the still-life poem, ‘Dadiba’s Matka’ (which reminds you just how animated still-life can be). There are ironic poems (‘Well, If You’re A Poet, Write Me A Poem’), and poems of wry self-deprecation: ‘And I know that another body awaits me/ And another, another./ Each rebellious, different, uncompromising/ Built in with state-of-the-art aches’ (‘At Thirty’).
There is a poem – my personal favourite -- that offers a comic-apocalyptic vision in which paper mutinies against a bewildered humanity, ushering in a terrifying world: ‘Rivers black with ink/ Bank notes printed with runes/ Textbooks in lost languages/ And poetry replaced by Reader’s Digest mailers’ (‘The Quiet Rebellion of Paper’). Appropriately, images pervade this vividly dystopic poem thickly, profusely, and in ‘kamikaze squads’. And yet, the poet is also capable of restraint and effective understatement when required, as in ‘For Allan Whom I Never Saw’ (‘Only a baby could be distracted/ From the important business of dying’) or ‘Rictus’, a poem about the death of a parent: ‘What flows out of his body?/ Ordinary dreams and old fables/ A few riddles, a moral of two, some gaps/ The last fear.’
But the poems that stand out in this collection, to my mind, are those that grapple with a welter of emotions – raw, messy, contradictory, unsettling, often overwhelming. The operative word is ‘grapple’, for the poet does not resort to the easy options: pat irony, intellectualism or sentimentality. The result is poetry that allows itself awkward angles, edges, jagged pauses, hoarse moments, uneasy alliances between imagistic spareness and excess. There is a capacity for vulnerability, for self-implication, an acknowledgement of a soiled self that finds it difficult to forgive itself. This is a voice that realises that ‘clerks, like poets, need to dream’, but then finds it has to deal with the complex demands attendant on the decision to be inclusive, on the acceptance of contradiction, even dysfunction.
And so you have the teacher who longs to tell his students that he has ‘wanted to ask the same questions’, and has ‘accepted the same lies’. There is the lover’s need for resolution: ‘Do you live in terror of a chance meeting/ A semaphored recognition, a face jerked away? …I do.’ And there is the need to bridge the emotional impasse with a parent: ‘I wish I could keep my heart unguilty, my love fresh/ My thoughts wide-ranging, my eyes new…’
What makes these moments work is the fact that they are arrived at through a journey – sometimes shared, sometimes implicit – that is as existential as it is linguistic. ‘Asylum’ offers us a voice that is accomplished enough to acknowledge those areas where accomplishment must be abandoned, craft surrendered. Pinto’s poetic skill lies in knowing when to make that surrender.

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© Copyright 2008 Jerry Pinto