Many scholars have said many things about poems: they are called, variously: epideictic, symbolic, lyrical, epic, intimate, personal, ancient, erotic, moral, psychological, traditional, honorable, dishonorable, sublime, metrical, simple, imagistic, deep image-ist, narrative, expressive, epistolary, Romantic, ritualistic, conventional, oral, ceremonial, private, formal, complex, natural, sexual, stoic, emotional, lovesick, historical, martial, haunting, memorable, subjective, contemporary, colloquial, feminist, precise, mythic, patriotic, fragmented, anonymous, famous, silly, obscure, magical, literary, rhetorical, religious, marvelous. Just to name a few.
Wine, too, can be called many things, and the making of wine is complex, but wine, like poetry, is experienced as wine in the first sip.
Poetry is known as poetry immediately.
Love has a thousand names, and is truly million-faceted, and needs time to sort itself out, even though love, too, may come, at first, with a sip, and, with one kiss, we may wonder, “Is this love?” But love requires duration. It requires thinking.
Poetry, like wine, like music, destroys thought, and, at its best, becomes thought which is not thought, and that is its pleasure.
Wine, and poetry—as much as what creates them requires vast amounts of complexity—do not require duration to experience—like the first strains of music, we know at once that we are seeing poetry or drinking wine.
Sappho has but a few surviving fragments, but the wine of Sappho lives; we can go over to the shelf and drink from her right now. Scholars call her the template for nearly everything lyrical—and beyond.
We don’t require more than fragments when it comes to poetry.
Poetry is the speech of Fragment.
This does not mean that all fragmented speech is poetry. But it does mean that Poetry is very difficult to do, because you have to impress your devotees with just a few words.
One can make one’s lover mad with desire with a brief whisper, but that is only if the conditions are right, and Love is there to help, and we all know that Love is a very powerful god.
All the more impressive then, when humble poetry can make a stranger sigh or weep with a few words.
Rather than use all those words the scholars use, we would rather introduce Chumki Sharma to you as the poet of The Fragment.
What is the world without music, and what is music without melody, and what is melody but a few rising and falling notes?
We wish to introduce Chumki Sharma bereft of all scholarly pretension.
Please see what you can do with this idea.
Why is the poem small? Because the poem, to be itself, is small.
Of course there are many poets (mostly male) who came after Sappho, who had to beat their chests, and pile on the fragments, but fragments is all they finally are.
Now it is certainly possible to have a humble poet who can, with all due modesty and humility, produce a poem (fragment) with a particular lovely sound in the brevity of its sweetness and sweetness in its brevity, and, wishing to lengthen this delight for listeners, using the melody of the fragment, spin a poem into a certain length, for mere pleasure alone: once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary, etc. This is perfectly acceptable.
But your epic writers, your long-winded writers, those tedious, meticulous, bombastic bores! Sappho would gag. The fires along the river would gasp and go out. The bright flames on the banks would douse themselves. The coy, melodic snakes would crawl back into their holes and die.
We value the skill that lengthens a poem into an acceptable 100 lines, as Poe recommended.
And then there is the genius of Chumki Sharma, who presents the essence of the poem before intellectual impatience has a chance to spoil it—this is the greatest skill: the skill which poems like ‘The Raven’ build on and pay homage to; there is the rare and beautiful reflection, and then there is the thing itself, which the lake reflects. Poe is the lake; Chumki Sharma is the essence of the reflection that is in the lake.
Her poetry is the wine—before mortals get a hold of it and turn it into mere clever poetry; she is the melody before it is turned into a skilled homage to melody.
There are countless brief poems, and many lovely ones. Brevity, like anything else, catches us, very often, looking somewhere else for that brief moment; and yet, we know our readers will agree with us, that it is easy to tell, at the first sip, the godlike quality of Chumki Sharma’s poetry, which dwells with brevity, not as shape fashioned, but as pure being, and our readers, we are sure, will note how it rivals the best brief poems (fragments of eternity) ever written.
Chumki Sharma is Bengali and comes to us from Calcutta—the cultural capital of India when Britain ruled over her, but now a great modern city of a great modern country, beset with all the beauty and pain of the modern world; her poems come to us in English, from the naked, unfettered mind of a civilized woman transcending all the contradictions of civilization, arriving like the goddess on the shell, wearing neither chains of translation for English readers, nor the noisy chains of learning—a sad, austere soul singing what could be wine, or love, in the humility of her singing.
Why are Chumki’s poems brief?
Because she is modest.
This is the only reason, and the poet will feel this one reason sweetly eclipses a hundred learned reasons.
Inferior poets—and the true poets will understand—have other reasons for why their poems are brief (I made my intellectual point quickly and felt I could stop. I belong to the ____ school! I revised it down to this size.)
Chumki is a master, because she has one reason for the lengths of her poems—her modesty.
We expel here, politely, those scholars who have a thousand reasons for why a poem is a certain length, or not.
The epic intention in poetry has long been overthrown as a useless, antiquated idea—if Sappho’s work had survived fully intact, as Homer’s did, this perhaps would have happened faster.
We do not remember Petrarch’s long work for which the Italian master was famous during his lifetime—only his shorter poems to Laura.
“I find no peace, yet I am not at war…I burn and I am like ice…I grasp nothing yet embrace the world…because of you, lady, I am this way” —Petrarch, Canzoniere #134
And with this exquisite passage all epics are eclipsed.
The cup is small which brings up the water from the spring.
The best known epic poems exist for us in fragments: short episodes, scenes, and well-known lines.
It is not necessary to sweep away epics and longer works, in order to better see the soft lantern flame of Chumki S. She exists everywhere. Her dancing flame is everywhere. She has no desire to inhibit poetry of any length. But she would not make you stay. She would not keep you. For she will not be kept.
There are billions of short poems in the starry universe, but we come to show you some real star light.
What are critics for, but to keep those moments which the world is too busy to know?
Let us move in closer, then, for a look at this lovely Bengali poet’s poems, where gods stand just above the humble dust, keeping watch at the starry windows.
Only the flute is played in the golden, evening air.
There will be no beating of the drum. The heart is sufficient now.
There is an essence of a sad life here; her poems contain perhaps the essence of a sad life (and so much as they are this, they will live forever).
Dignity, a strange, sad dignity, more so than beauty, lives in her poems; in their fragmentary wholeness, the poems of Chumki S. do not strive for beauty—she is not Coleridge or Poe—but something almost more divine, something deep, deep beyond this, which even a Poe or a Coleridge would be alive to: what we can only characterize as patient, philosophical sorrow.
Petrarch’s lyric triumph made tremendous claims for poetry as an expression of inescapable love which afflicts all sensitive creatures; the brief lyric, since it overthrew religion and the epic, has nearly made all the world and all life its home; with horror the parent watches their child seduced by brief beauty: the brief popular song, the brief promise, the brief kiss, the brief and sudden impregnation, and only then length, study, science, responsibility appear, in the person of the child who must be raised.
Chumki Sharma meets this problem head on, in a unique way, one which embraces and yet sweetly rejects the heretofore inescapable template of all lyric poetry and it’s sweet poison. She is Petrarch and Laura’s child. Chumki saves us from the sweet hell which kills millions in its love-lyric reality. With one poem! This is poem #24 in her book:
The One Night Stand—
Enough of putting poetry
on a pedestal.
I thought of the geek
in my Physics class
long back, to whom
‘Gauss’ Law for Magnetic Fields’
was more desirable
What chance did Poetry stand
with her transient words
against the universal
‘Einstein’s Theory of Relativity?’
After spending the night with
‘The irrationality of the square root of 2,’
I return to poetry
like an errant lover
This poem is more than a mere complaint. The greatest poets kill poetry anew, take poetry off its pedestal, question it, defy it; here in one fell swoop Chumki picks up lyric hopelessness and parks it between science and religion; there is a seven century long sigh of relief as Petrarch the lovesick poet is overthrown by “a geek” that makes the less than desirable poet herself “vaguely repentant.” There is a great laugh in that “vaguely”—the laughter of the simple, thoughtless, slowly turning wisdom of the ages, captured for us—now—by an English poet from Calcutta.
If poetry is a fragment that destroys thought, then it is like a pill, or a drug—one meant to soothe and relax. Poetry operates the way any drug does, by interfering with our normal functioning.
Poetry is simply a recognition that human emotions which exist around love can act like a drug, and poetry is merely that which can take these altering emotions which center around love, and put them into a pill.
The pill—working in this case, as a poem—functions always by the result of one person affecting another (one definition of love) and so the poet who manufactures the pill is always under the sway of another, and that is how the poet is a poet and is able to make a pill which affects our feelings.
We said Chumki Sharma is modest, and that is why her poems are short; this would seem to contradict what we are saying, for modesty doesn’t equal the ruthless ambition to make a pill which alters our emotions; but the poet needs to have suffered from love to make a pill which repairs love sickness; her modesty is due to suffering in love, for the modest are always modest precisely because of a strong respect for love’s power; the heartbroken are never arrogant, and the heartbroken make the best poets. The best lyrical poets have been crushed by the power of beautiful love.
Chumki Sharma is more than a love poet. But nonetheless love is the language of all lyric poetry and love merely hides in the background with this modern day Sappho; we do not find in Chumki Sharma’s poetry Sappho’s jealousy (it seems a foreign emotion to this beautiful woman from Calcutta, or perhaps she feels it is beneath the dignity of the Muse). We do not find anything like the love which demolishes the poet of the Canzoniere—Sharma’s poetry does not quite reach the pitch of Petrarch’s beautiful sufferings from love, producing the fragments of Petrarch’s desperate sighs.
Chumki Sharma does not remain to suffer in love, watering the ground upon which she stands with her tears.
Chumki leaves the circus, the gallery, the forest.
Chumki will kill lyric poetry with a science geek.
She is the poet of escape.
“Detangle the deep roots of the rose bush I planted […] I pull the plants from the earth, one by one.”
—“Running Away With The Garden”
Running away with a garden is a marvelous poetic conceit. One could almost start a whole poetic tradition with it.
Now it is true, that in love, as inevitably as we leave, we are left.
Love rules all the comings and goings.
Love has its rules, true. But in the poems of Cumki Sharma, it can be said that she is in flight, and we follow her. She feels deeply, but does not feel sorry for herself.
In her poem, “A Stranger In An Autumn Forest,” we find Chumki wondering, if not quite lamenting, about an attractive stranger she sees in a simple but mystical wood:
“Will he […] fade away with all his flesh?
[…] An ache grows in me that I have no desire to banish. If not him, this pain then.”
In these few lines is contained the entire Suffering Love Trope, what W.H.Auden called the “Divine Eros Tradition” of Dante, Petrarch, Shakespeare (the Sonnets) Shelley, etc. “If not him, this pain then” sums it up entirely!
In her poem Chumki is speaking of a stranger—and he is presented as an imaginary figure leaning against a tree in the poem; this is similar to Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura, aloof maidens who seem imaginative at times, even as they cause pain. The Eros is divine—not fleshy, not shameful, and perhaps not quite real. The pain is real, but pure, and yet to call pain pure does little to help the sufferer. Or perhaps it does help by way of diagnosis, pinpointing the pain, identifying its cause, which perhaps is part of the pill’s power. “What ails me?” You are in love, child.”
Two things now need to be said. Chumki does escape, in a way. “A Stranger In An Autumn Forest” ends with an image of the sky above the tree. A pure, simple image. A pure, simple escape.
Second, Dante and Petrarch created divine targets of their divine and lovely pain: Beatrice and Laura, private associations which, in their poems, became famous. This raises interesting questions about male versus female love: women do not make monuments of their private sufferings.
In Dante and Petrarch the love becomes stronger in the loss, leading to what is essentially worship of God—worship of a deity who is everything and nothing. Everything, because Creator, nothing, because nowhere in sight.
The loss of love, the lover who has left and broken your heart, can remain an irritation, or it can become a religion.
Our religion, our being, as expressed in lyric poetry, is how we express that irritation. Do we go, “Oh damn!” Or do we drape our irritation in beauty? Or do we become a scientist, and wonder not about God, but emptiness?
The first poem in Chumki Sharma’s just arrived, first book, Running Away With The Garden, is a metaphysical tour de force. It is a sly treatise on advanced physics. We come face to face with the idea that poignancy and brevity in the poem may be due to the fact that the poem is a succinct and profound mathematical formula. The battered lover’s modesty is wisdom. Mad love hurts her into science—and poetry.
We quote poem #1 in full:
Shape of Emptiness—
He buys me coffee in a cup
so light my lips drown, scald
in the heat of the liquid.
Nothing exists between me
and the cup in my hand.
Heat seeps through it like
mist on the hills.
The potter’s wheel spins
A number of profound ideas flow into each other in this poem. 1. Matter shapes emptiness. 2. The shape of emptiness is matter. 3. Matter (therefore) doesn’t “exist.” 4. Existence is “buying” and exchange. 5. He buys her coffee: (heat, energy)—but not a cup (matter, stability, order, house). 6. Then a transition quickly to a startling beautiful, nature image (“mist on the hills”) that feels absolutely appropriate, even as it increases our wonder: the “energy exchange” of mist in a natural landscape. The poem finally returns to artifact: making (and implicitly buying and selling) a vessel, which brings us back to that cup of emptiness holding energy. “Nothing exists between me and the cup in my hand.”
This is a metaphor for Chumki’s poetry: the pill, the drug, of her poetry dissolves in the reader: it is a pure, visceral experience without “poetry,” without a medium, getting in the way. “Nothing exists between [you] and…” Chumki’s poetry, like the iconic fragments of Sappho, like the new lyric transcending Petrarch’s love sickness: the ultimate lyric drug cure, disappearing entirely into the reader’s consciousness.
This poem, for instance, makes the case exactly as we are describing it, and of course we quote it in full:
#10 The Train Missed Me—
Thirst so old, it becomes
the air I breathe.
Between a cup of
tea and Valium,
I choose the latter,
relish the sweetness
of pill after pill
melting in the heat
of my mouth.
Hypnotic song of the
morphine in my veins.
after many days
of no sunset, rain.
The drops vanish into
my barren fields, vapour
hisses from the cracks.
Rain lashes on the
window, sprays on my
bed, pillow, face, hair
and all I can smell
is the beginning
of the end.
Reaching the station
just as the last train leaves.
It makes no difference that this poem is all about herself, all about her feelings—with lyric genius, less is more, and the template is the poet, and if it fails to interest, this is not because the poem is “only” about the poet’s feelings (Petrarch’s Lyric Revolution), for how the poet interests us makes no difference, and all the better if the poet herself is interesting, and she is, but ironically due to the poetry, which nonetheless disappears, like the coffee cup of no substance, into herself. Or, is it herself disappearing into her poetry, and the reader who stands intrigued and dumbfounded, the reader the real witness of the train (the poem, Chumki) leaving?
Chumki, the poet herself, not Love, will determine who leaves and who is left.
Another trope she uses is the atomistic, Lucretius universe, symbolized by endless dust which gathers and must be swept away: fine particles of dirt represent endless epics, endless effort, all those old traditions which the lyric poet must take into account and deflect with a brief and wholesome and devout sigh, and no one does it more coyly than Chumki Sharma:
#12 Dirt Builds A World
Cleanliness drive in the city,
a century’s dirt to be swept
underneath. I see
old women everywhere,
like crones out of fairy tales,
sweeping dirt from the streets.
I stop one of them, ask her
for three wishes.
She stares at me, eyes
of Bobbies on a thief,
mutters to the old woman
next to her, “she doesn’t even
know Hindi, her blouse is too flimsy,
what is going to become of us?”
All I want is her broom.
I tiptoe around your dusty footprint
on the walls of this heart.
The heart is the finite entity upon which the infinite dust becomes a writing pad—which will not be erased by any “cleanliness drive” (earnest moral project) if the tiptoeing poet can help it. Chumki invokes a world with a few naughty (filthy) lines.
This lyric mastery is on display throughout Chumki’s book of 30 poems.
It is why we dare to trumpet her greatness, even though her modesty may rebel, and reject it all, as we look around to find her, longing for her lyric pill that has a thousand names, but which immediately makes us burn like ice and freeze like fire, in a delicious agony both artificial and natural, a thrill at once very old and very new; we betray all we are devoted to in this poet’s arms, even as it feels in her embrace that we are true.
This is what this poet does to us.
Her drug works quickly. She sums up the whole universe of single motherhood in a poem on her son, #5 “My Little Van Gogh,” with the smallest drop of her exquisite lyric poison:
“No colouring books for my son.”
[…] He drew his own sky.”
[…] Once my little Van Gogh turned our
asphalt floors into vibrant forests.
His father was angry. I was secretly happy he was taking his art beyond […]
…he made me a box to keep my bangles.
The Bouganvillea spills over
the chained link fence outside my window.”
The lyric gift of Chumki Sharma crumples every awkward convention with a whimsical, soft touch. She is truly the ideal of Goethe’s Eternal Feminine, the wise female force in action.
We quote the whole of poem #6 in her book:
The Book on The Art of Bombing—
On the eve of the 70th anniversary
of the Hiroshima bombings,
you call me and tell me to write on war.
You say a poet should be versatile,
should be able to write on any topic anytime.
And I remember the book you had gifted me,
perhaps as a bribe for a poem on war?
“How To Make Hand Grenades For Dummies.”
That book the same size as the Gita
on my grandfather’s desk,
Motifs of flowers and fighter jets
on the cover of the book
sharing the sky with bombs falling like rain.
Today a woman who loves to read
will hold the book in her hands.
Today a man will be killed by a raindrop.
Chumki Sharma will not let the world tell her how to write poetry. Lyric poets who have the insight and talent and joy and grief of Chumki Sharma owe the world nothing. The contradiction exists: the extreme modesty of the invisible poet—who is, nonetheless, the world, and holds the fate of the world with the way she administers her lyric drug. We are killed by Chumki’s raindrop.
That she “is the world” is not too large a claim—she makes herself the subject of her poetry, which is how the lyric drug works: “Today a woman who loves to read” is the essence of self-awareness which makes the poem and the world one in the mind of the reader—in that escape from the world, to the world, which is the great social act of the art of poetry itself.
As Chumki writes in the final stanza of her haunting poem, #8 “The Gallery:”
I am in all and none I own.
After every rain
I leave the place for
Something called home.
We look for Chumki Sharma in ourselves. And then we realize she is looking for us, but this is the final illusion, for a poem has no eyes. Chumki Sharma knows that even the gift of lyric poetry cannot go that far. She must be satisfied, and we must be satisfied with:
In the moonlight
I step into my own shadow.
— #3 The Inmate
We shall be watching Chumki Sharma for a long time to come.
Salem, MA Dec. 22, 2015