Book Name: A Clock in the Far Past
Author: Sarabjeet Garcha
Reviewer: Rajesh Sharma
Publisher: Dhauli Books
Review: Sarabjeet Garcha does not worship images. He fathers them, with the hammer and chisel of words. And he is a hard father: he won’t suffer the offspring to be standing around and gawking simply because they happened to have sprung into existence without any reason to be there. His hammer and chisel make not only forms but also music.
He is very mean with mud. And for a reason: he sees with penetrating lucidity and writes with elemental conviction. He understands from where the light comes, and the life. The images he crafts when he is at his best have clear edges, yet are translucent.
This slender sheaf of thirty nine opens like a casement with a poem on his style—style as a singular sensibility to the populace of signals called experience and the peculiar ways of that sensibility to bear fruit as poetry. ‘Frugal Narrative’—the two words hold the two key principles of Sarabjeet’s poetic practice. He does what is necessary. He does it in a voice that has found itself and he does it in form. The structure speaks with an austere coherence that is almost absolute.
Poetry is the work one does on oneself. An ascetic’s pursuit.
After several readings over many weeks, I can finally name my favourites. Favourites because they entice me into reading them again and again. There are at least five of them, not a small number out of thirty nine.
This is how they give themselves to me.
The poem moves in the strange temporality of ‘would’ and ‘could’ and their numerous ministers, a temporality of probabilities, hence of choices and responsibilities. Yet the choices are difficult to make, clarity is elusive. How does one speak grief? One remembers Chekhov’s silent, grieving father. And Auden’s obituary to Yeats. The ice refuses to give way:
The oar of the finger
Chipping the frozen sea
Would only add to the
Iteration of misery
When ice denies meltwater
An oozy way out
There is not only too much to be written, it is also too difficult to write. One is left with the remainder, that too fragile, like ‘the brilliant cellophane/ of a dragonfly’s wing’. A relic of evanescence.
The t’s fall, in the final stanza, with a pounding finality: ‘a truer tale could be told in/ not so much as two lines’. A verdict is knocking. Truth and light do not need elaboration, much less fireworks. A simple candle can hold.
Unlearning is a different learning. Learning as lived, living as learned. Both spontaneous. An achieved effortlessness.
The poem grows as it unravels. As it grows, it astonishes. A lucidity secretes it and produces also its peculiar whiff of immortality. Mysteries that have journeyed down the rivers of centuries glow suddenly. You have a reunion with Kabir, the poet-weaver.
The poem sprouts, as if, in complete foreknowledge of its destiny. Straightaway it starts with ‘the unseen singer/ living in the heart’. Where does one go from the destination? Yet the poem has only begun. It mingles the deep quest with the banality of ‘crushing grass’. A zen moment. The riverbank’s specialness is traded in for any whateverness, which is but a way of acceding to the universal, reverentially.
The meeting with death gets enacted with three booming ooms: room, doom, loom. Rattle acts the accompanist:
There’s no room for anything
In the song but doom
The loom is lucid in its rattle
The song, the one in the heart which the unseen singer sings, annihilates everything, leaving pure void: the loom’s rattle —like a child’s, like death’s— leaves nothing to darkness. You have to only hold your chosen thread to reach where it all begins: ‘to reach the source of the throb/that has robbed you of peace’.
The poet-weaver. Kabir. Also God. Both armchair potters: never involved, evolution or involution. A clod of earth enough to undo the knot that binds you to the samsara chakra. Mud is the stuff the liberating maxims are made of. Mud words hewn into balls to hit and set free. Your defences against freedom turn against themselves. They have become complicit with the attacker: ‘less of a shield/more of a shatterer’.
Yet the final choice is for you to make. You may choose to keep amassing what is any way only an inventory of death’s trophies, a progressively growing, multifarious baggage. You may see death’s sovereignty over all this and plunge into the deep quest, your fingers becoming slowly alight with ‘permanent grains…of private wisdom’. Until the private wisdom will give its great secret—the unwritten script scribbled across the skies, ethereal graffiti, like the song the unseen singer sings. The private then falling away, its work over.
When that happens, you will own the mud’s secret.
A Clock in the Far Past
Memory is the way we store time. It is also the way we come to terms with dying. But we transmute the given, and exceed it, in transcendence.
The poetic is the materialisation of transcendence experienced as intensification, as elevation, as expansion of the aesthetic-cognitive consciousness. This may happen at the point of our contact with a word or phrase crafted and placed with uncanny aptness: ‘a spare longing,’ or ‘swallowed by the windy/ darkness of a tunnel’. The reading knocks you into a new perception, an awakening, causing the consciousness to be rewired. Often the ordinary, attentively attended, returns as the extraordinary. And remembering may turn into an encounter with Time itself.
But the mystery remains, even when it happens to be a native abiding in your own heart—‘the sudden urge’. The insistence of the urge hints at miracles, at hopes overheard as promises. The urge nags, stuck and unresolved, drawing a shadowy arc between the far past and the present: neither the face of the clock shows clearly, nor the present is sure of the ‘something’ that needs healing.
No clear answers. Yet the ambiguity has deepened. This is the way of the consciousness, touched by poetry, gathering from obscure regions its harvest of light.
How can a poem transmit tactility? How does it make you experience touch, know it as it were for the first time, rediscover it as if discovering it?
This one proceeds to do it by way of a narrative, a frugal one. The protagonist is a god who has travelled, but the centre of the poem lies elsewhere.
Elsewhere. Even typographically isolated, placed at a remove:
they would carry
the presiding deity
Removed to his new home, ‘the uncomplaining god’ seems to be altering, absorbing something of the human loneliness. To the gods too, home calls, compels.
So he continues to live in his old home, the submerged temple. Like we continue to live in our old homes, in spite of our ‘physical selves’ moving into new homes. The poet does not say ‘bodies’. That is significant.
Like a ripened fruit bursting forth its seed secret, the poem suddenly yields its magic seal of double transformation, of man’s divinisation and of a god’s humanisation. Suddenly, because you never anticipated man appearing as the fruit on the tree of a god’s frugal narrative.
But then this man is more than his ‘physical self’. Like the touch that is carried by the water to the feet of the divine. And taking hold of your —the reader’s— whole being.
Keeper of the Granth
It reads like a modern book of revelations, so sensitively does it fuse faith and art in laying a feast of sublimities. The sufi’s trope —‘Poise came to him wearing the ankle bells of song’— comes running, with a child’s delight who has just discovered her feet, with the innocence of an artist’s unselfconscious paradox. The poem rolls in the mud and soil of its fertilising culture, mud and soil transfigured into gleaming permanent grains.
For once the reader looks at the keeper of the Granth, and at the Granth through him. His figure mediates the reader’s experience of the sublime. The humble, self-effacing man receives as well as works the miracles of consciousness that one may only call sublime, until a truer word arrives:
His fingers wear the snow the six mountains melded
into the book had shed on the thatch of his hut…
at the horizon, but looking, go beyond, where
you’ll see a pond pressed like a child’s drawing
between two leaves labelled earth and sky.
The subterranean springs of the sublime lie in the Gurmukhi script, whose musical instrument he has become with the paradoxical mystical union of poise with dance and song.
And his consciousness, lit with ‘the allusions dotting the scripture’s paper sky’, effortlessly spans the space between akash lipi (the script ‘imprinted in the sky’) and ‘the earthly movable type’. The mystical sublime takes here elsewhere, and brings elsewhere here.
Well, these five are my favourites. Among these five, you can now guess which are my favourites of favourites, and why. You will find your own when you read the book.
Rajesh Sharma is the author of three books, including In/Disciplines: Notes on Culture, Politics and Education (Three Essays Collective, 2014). He is a Professor in the Department of English at Punjabi University, Patiala. His Once Upon a Time in Punjab also appeared in The Wire.