“Ghalib’s Tomb and other poems” Manash Bhattacharjee (The London Magazine) – poetry review

book cover ghalib's Tomb Manash Bhattacharjee

Manash Bhattacharjee’s poems have a timeless quality about them. They are often rooted in larger themes with personal themes widened to become universal. “Shahid: A Ghazal”, a tribute to the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali on the tenth anniversary of his death, ends

“The flutter of merchandise baffled Ghalib’s eyes.
The capitalising of Paradise was plain to you, Shahid.

You reproached God for His denial of Satan.
You veiled the lover – but spoke of the angels – Shahid.

I wish I met you under Kashmir’s skies,
Lost Andalusia in the infant moon putting mothers to sleep.
The vermilion dawn follows us to the teashop
and time’s excuses flower in our pockets, Shahid.

Friends ask Manash, ‘What draws you to Shahid’s poems?’
I say, ‘The fabric and the memorial of loss in Shahid.’”

The name as a refrain is a common motif and used elsewhere. I read the penultimate line by moving the opening quotation marks to before the poet’s name as that seemed to make more sense. The last line encompasses both personal loss and the universal effects of loss, turning to the work to remember the man: a reminder that the loss has not just affected the poet.

The poet is more than happy to reference his wide reading. “Reading Sebald” (specifically “Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems 1964 – 2001” by W G Sebald translated by Iain Galbraith (London, Hamish Hamilton, 2001) starts “World, take a backseat./ Do not disturb./ I am reading Sebald./ Hush.// Trees with eyes flit by/ My blind face./ I drink hurriedly./ Evanescence.” and ends

“Writing is not the speaking
But the hearing
Through steel against steel.

And life is an inverse
Journey by train
Where the wheels of memory
Run over you.”

When typing that out I had to correct myself from using initial capitals on “life” and “memory” because they lost their significance in being buried internally within a line. The hyperbole seems fitting but I’d have liked more of a sense of urgency hinted at by “hurriedly/ Evanescence”. The rhythm feels gentle and conversational in contrast to the subject.

Recent events are not ignored, “Cairo” – subtitled “To the Tahir Square Uprising” – ends:

“With you the square
was a fortress of the heart,
engraved in
rebellion’s calligraphy,
Cairo.

When bulls of the regime
let loose their armoury,
you defended your future
with stones,
Cairo.

Your battered men did not
face the field of honour,
they stood up to
your name,
Cairo.”

Manash Bhattacharjee is a broad brushstroke, impressionistic poet. He employs his lyrics to create an atmosphere and gives readers the space to build the detail. His broad lines shape the peacock but let the reader imagine the detail of the eyes in the tail. However, in writing poems that focus on the universal, there’s a risk of losing the personal details that could add a dash of iridescence. In the tribute poem, there’s no detail of why Shahid’s poems were so significant for the writer although the lost and sense of bereavement is successfully conveyed.

“Ghalib’s Tomb and other poems” by Manash Bhattacharjee is available from The London Magazine’s website.

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