As someone who has lived a landlocked existence with an endless sea of prairie grass stretching to the east and the high cresting waves of the Rocky Mountains rising to the west, oceans have long held an inexorable pull on my imagination. Every family holiday that brought me close to either the Atlantic or the Pacific was magic. When I was younger I was drawn to stormy seascapes, images of rugged wave-ravaged shorelines, and stories filled with high sea adventure and intrigue. Now it is something else, something quieter, more metaphysical, that possesses me. From the far shores of Vancouver Island to a lonely beach on the eastern coast of South Africa, I’ve welcomed, however briefly, the untethering afforded by the impossible emptiness expanding beyond me, and revived that longing that no river, lake or landbound body of water has ever been able to fully resolve.
And so, I come to Indian poet Ranjit Hoskote’s astonishingly rich, endlessly engaging Jonahwhale, a collection of poetry that returns, again and again, to gather inspiration, stories and imagery from the watery depths. For Hoskote, who grew up in Goa and Bombay, proximity to the sea has been a constant, one which he admits informs his life, his awareness and his writing. But as an accomplished translator and cultural curator with a seemingly inexhaustible curiosity that extends beyond boundaries, disciplines and art forms, his work cannot be confined to any specific thematic template. His poetry welcomes a wide array of influences, follows maps and legends that navigate an extensive territory, and resounds with an eclectic musicality. The poems in this collection run from multi-voiced epics taking their cues from historical, literary, or artistic starting points, to one line aphoristic pieces and everything in between. This book has accompanied me these past six months, and yet every time I open it I discover a line, a passage, or a verse that pulls me in anew, to reread, refresh, and reconsider.
I cannot assess or review such an impressive collection, I can only respond, which is perhaps the best I can manage with any of the poetry I have read this year.
Divided into three parts, or movements, the first section, “Memoirs of the Jonahwhale” summons voices from a wealth of historical, literary, and linguistic resources, some self-evident, others detailed in the poet’s endnotes, which, I understand, reflect Hoskote’s desire to honour his scholarly self rather than an obligation to explain his allusions. Some of these notes, crafted with a curator’s attention to detail, are fascinating in themselves and may well inspire a reader’s further exploration, but, as one would hope, context, background, and intertextual sources simply enrich the reading experience. They are not essential to the appreciation of the rhythms, images and intensity of his poetry.
A strong musical sensibility underscores the entire collection, and here Hoskote draws on an abiding interest in modern avant-garde music—composers like Brian Eno, Terry Reilly, and Steve Reich—a passion rekindled for me in recent years. It is, then, not surprising that my favourite piece is “Baldachin”. In memoriam Bruce Conner, the American filmmaker whose masterwork Crossroads combines classified footage of nuclear weapon tests with an eerily sublime soundtrack by Terry Riley and Patrick Gleason, the poem also incorporates the looped trigger line of Steve Reich’s Cuban Missile Crisis inspired composition “It’s Gonna Rain”. The result is an extended prose/verse piece that pulses with the energy of an impending storm:
You are the company the name is you poisoner you cannot pretend you cannot hide you cannot swim in these neon currents I am become Death the destroyer of worlds this ocean one open mouth swallowing islands this art of making things disappear in a glow that throbs in the eye that cannot sleep this frame that’s come apart leached the colour from every drifting current this voice that shakes the continents no earthly thing trembles on its breath this baldachin of milk-white smoke has nothing to hide no crystal globe no night of mean knives no shallows no depths all ploughed bare all punctured all furrowed It’s gonna rain It’s gonna rain It’s gonna rain
Beyond the sheer scope and wealth of Hoskote’s poetic vision, it is his keen sensitivity to rhythm, pacing, and visual space—the music and the architecture of a poem—that makes this collection so impressive, so endlessly engaging. If the first section contains some of the most ambitious epic offerings, complete with choral arrangements and refrains, the ten-part poem “Poona Traffic Shots”, which forms the second part, stands as sort of land-bound counterpoint tracing a cycle of rain-soaked ground voyages through countryside and memory, that calls back to the sea in its imagery:
The kick-starter has whooping cough, won’t purr.
. A dead crow’s beak
points from the trash heap like the tip of a schooner
. sunk in a shallow bay, a bruise
at first only grazed, then scooped by nautical furies
. from the coast’s offered skin.
Moving into the final section, “Archipelago”, the tone turns more intimate, not personal as these are not explicitly autobiographical or confessional poems, but smaller, sometimes quieter more focused, often inspired by art or classical themes. Like finely imagined poetic miniatures echoing history, the unforgiving beauty of nature and, as ever, rarely far from the water.
If literature can evoke a sensation so undefinable and expansive as that which I feel at the ocean’s edge, this wise and elegant collection comes close.
Jonahwhale by Ranjit Hoskote is published by Penguin India.
6 thoughts on “The expansive possibilities of Jonahwhale by Ranjit Hoskote”
Yes, I remember being somewhat surprised when you came to Melbourne, and I asked you where next you’d like to go after we’d had lunch at the NGV, and you wanted to see the bay. So off we went to Brighton, and out came your camera… and I realised that we shared this love of water in common.
Alas, I can neither write poetry nor paint, and my photography leaves a great deal to be desired. I have to rely on memories in my mind’s eye…
LikeLiked by 1 person
Hello there. Two book suggestions: The Voyage Of The Narwhal, by Andrea Barrett. I Am The Clay, by Chaim Potok. The first is very watery. The second isn’t, but is stark and beautiful. Both are novels. See ya —
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thoughtful response to what sounds like a collection of sensitive and musical poems. You write so movingly about what it’s like to stand before the sea. Having grown up in a state surrounded by lakes, I’d definitely agree that nothing compares to the ocean.
I often feel a response is all we can do to a book of poetry, and this is obviously a powerful and emotional one. I have strong attachment to the sea myself (and in my country we’re never really that far from it) – perhaps because my grandfather was a merchant seaman and I grew up in a city near the sea. Lovely post, Joe.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks Karen. Having had so few opportunities to be near the sea, I treasure every one. I especially love wild rugged shores. So romantic!