“Vital Signs” Amlanjyoti Goswami (Poetrywala) – book review

Amlanjyoti Goswami Vital Signs book cover

In this second collection, Amlanjyoti Goswami invites readers to look at familiar scenes with fresh eyes, to fully attend what’s happening in the present moment and take joy in the small things – a familiar meal, a boy with a set of balloons, tending a plant. “seeing it new” sets the tone,

“The year is flying out
But I am not ready to open the door. Not yet.

All quiet now.
Some make a clean break from the past.

Some look at it another way – the year begins at harvest. April.
At the festival of lights. November.

But that door is knocking. I hear a bell.
Wait, I shout, not time yet.

This zone between dawn and dusk.
Every breath is a birthday.”

There’s a sense of nervousness about the new year, not being ready to accept its arrival, which prompts contemplation about the significance of a new year and the possibility of fresh starts. Perhaps there’s still time to shift the date, this new start, to a day that already holds some significance that isn’t personal. Until the speaker reminds himself that every moment holds a celebration when we’re awake enough to notice it.

“Taste Collector” links foods with memory,

“Scientists will one day recover a place for all tastes in the tongue
Where is sour, where sweet, what is umami, where resides the spice
Route to the brain, to the cells where they preserve
Memories like pickles.
I will call everyone home for the perfect meal, a buffet of possibilities.
Like memory, hope and the granary, the options and servings
Will be unlimited. Baked with love. Made with attention,
That hidden ingredient lingering in my tongue
I cannot find a name for,
As I turn page after page after page
In that dictionary of memory. Call it what you like. It stays.
The one that will tide us through all the rough days.”

Food nurtures us. It is fuel but also loaded with social and emotional importance: a birthday meal, a celebration, a religious festival, favourite foods from childhood. On occasion, trying to recreate a perfect meal fails because each time we cook, we cook it differently whether to compensate for an unfound or out of season ingredient or because we measured ingredients by instinct instead of scales or cups. Or a recipe has been incorrectly remembered and the taste is wrong. The generalised labels for food – spice, baked, buffet, a perfect meal – invite the reader to picture their favoured spices, their idea of a perfect meal. However, taste is strongly linked with smell – when someone has a blocked nose, they complain food is bland because they can’t smell it – and it seemed odd that scent, aromas and smells were missing from the poem, giving it a two rather than three dimensional feel.

In “Thoughts of Paradise”, the poem’s speaker is watching a man climb on a roof and then climb higher, “soon he will reach the sun” and the poem ends,

“The sneaky feeling that it might be a flower
I passed by, when in a hurry the other day,
Or who knows, the balloons red blue and yellow

The kid got yesterday, for a birthday.”

It’s a lesson in turning focus from the bigger picture – a man trying to reach the sky – to the small details, birthday balloons. The balloons are in primary colours, inviting the colours to be mixed into a thousand possibilities. Big dreams start small, just like the longest journey starts with a single step. The traveller can focus step by step enjoying the journey as much as the destination or can solely focus getting to the destination, not being open to diversions and meanderings on the way. This big/little picture dichotomy is picked up again in “Art Lessons” where the speaker remembers an art teacher who instructed his pupils to look at a vase of flowers, even if the pupils didn’t draw them, they would learn about the flowers.

“I remembered him
While drawing a picture boat with my kid
Who knows what it is to make something.

Be patient, she says
Waters must swerve not swirl
The blue must hold.

I tell myself
It isn’t enough to paint the boat
One must also make it float.”

Here attention to detail for the sake of observation isn’t enough. Whether the water swerves or swirls seems to take the focus away from making a boat that works. The practical side of the father wants to hurry the child’s patience and turn the child’s attention to something more important. This seems to contradict the earlier advice to slow down and pay attention to details. It’s a turning away from art for art’s sake and wants to turn art into a craft, so it makes something useful.

The title poem starts “I haven’t lost faith/In the body” and ends,

“The body which fells us
And the body that tells us

Every morning: physician, heal thyself.
Tomorrow, in the supermarket chain, while buying essentials

I will bring a bottle of champagne
To this art of remaking – scar tissue, lost and found organ, grey matter.

I know this isn’t difficult to do, if I put my mind to it,
It is nothing I cannot master.”

It’s an exhortation to both take care of and celebrate what our bodies can do for us. We serve our bodies as much as they serve us. If we don’t do the maintenance, the engine won’t run.

One poem, “Difference”, considers race. The poem addresses a “you” who asks the narrator why he couldn’t “have a shorter name,/ Like John or Daniel”, then later,

“When I turned up at your door, the day
Your mother died
There were no words but silence kept us warm.
That hug beyond black and white, us and them.

We were looking for something to say,
But nothing made us say it.
The sadness spread its thin fingers, looking for a hand.
The hand would not go away for want of colour.”

A bereavement is a universal experience and one that can overcome artifical boundaries of skin colour, even if that boundary prevents an acquaintance becoming a friend. Grief is picked up again in “My Neighbour”, whose attendence to his garden suggests he’s recovering from grief.

“Who walks towards me, not seeing,
His white hair flowing, a beard growing longer with time.
He does not say anything
But his hands are in those plants, he fills them with care.

He remembers his mother, his brother.
He waters the plants one by one.”

The hair and beard suggest age and wisdom from experience. The man uses touch and tenderness, rather than speech, to communicate.

Throughout “Vital Signs”, Goswami implores readers to live in the present, using mindfulness to pay attention to what is happening in that moment and discover essential truths about ourselves and our environment. It doesn’t take huge gestures or a long list of goals to make a worthwhile life, just the grace and humility to respond to the immediate. There is no shame in an ordinary life. Goswami is determined to celebrate any and everything that makes life worthwhile.

“Vital Signs” is available from Poetrywala.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

“The Queen Mother’s Rebel Cousin: Lilian Bowes Lyon and The East London Blitz”, Roger Mills‘ book features quotes from the reviews I wrote of Lilian Bowes Lyon’s poetry.

Featured in the Top 10 Poetry Review Blogs on Feedspot.

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