The Slow Burn of Transcendental Desire: a review of Kiriti Sengupta’s The Earthen Flute
Title: The Earthen Flute
Author: Kiriti Sengupta
ISBN: 978-9387883079 (Paperback)
Edition: 3 (August 2018)
Published by: Hawakal Publishers, Calcutta (India)
Reviewed by: Jagari Mukherjee
“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”—Walt Whitman (“Song of Myself”)
With the release of the third edition of Kiriti Sengupta’s The Earthen Flute both in India and abroad in August 2018, it is high time we look at this much acclaimed book again. Sengupta’s ethereal collection of poems, The Earthen Flute, is a work deserving of a place amongst classics. While posterity will have the answer for certain, yet, in the humble opinion of this reviewer, The Earthen Flute, which has been a trailblazer since its release, will continue to let its lines shine forth for generations to come.
The collection is dedicated to the “glorious luminary” William Blake, a poet ahead of his times, a marvellous blend of spirituality and romanticism. Blake is considered to be both a Romantic and a Transitional poet (marking the period of transition from the Augustan Age to the Romantic Era). Sengupta achieves the extremely admirable level of what Blake did—transfuse his intrinsic romanticism into a profoundly spiritual, and gloriously beautiful, experience. Needless to add, he does credit to his Muse.
At the same time, Sengupta’s poetry, belonging to the broad genre of contemporary Indian English Poetry, lends itself to a transcendentalist reading. The essence of Emerson’s “Over-Soul” permeates the poems. His images are drawn from nature, and he often describes daily life, yet, an unmistakable divine spirit, an ‘over-soul’ is present in the pieces. Consider the poem entitled “Womb”:
With every earthquake I realize
I have failed to express
to my Mother
The “Mother” here refers to Mother Earth, and the “I” in the poem is Man. It is due to manmade atrocities committed upon the environment that earthquakes occur. The poet, like a postmodern Adam, recognizes his guilt and is ready to face the consequences of banishment from mortal life. He asserts that the Earth has the right to take him back into her womb like a tender mother. One can also detect an element of Thanatos in the lines, where he concedes that in the eyes of the world, his death-wish may be disapproved but Mother Earth knows that her rupture pain is greater.
The next poem, “Moon – The Other Side” is an exploration of both beauty and pain. After all, as Keats said, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” The starting of the poem is lyrical, almost elegiac in tone:
Memories unveil themselves
Through snapshots, even
The moon has its glory
Pinned in poetry
And from this enchanted, idyllic world the poet transitions seamlessly to reality, to naked human hunger symbolized in the words of impoverished poet Sukanta Bhattacharya, who compared the full moon to toasted bread. It is the arguably the most moving piece in the entire collection.
An interesting point to note would be that both Blake and Ralph Waldo Emerson were influenced by the Swedish philosopher, Emanuel Swedenborg (although Blake was to turn to German thinker Jakob Boehme in the latter part of his life). Swedenborg believed that heaven and hell are products of an individual’s state of mind, self-created by every human being during his or her life on earth. Emerson, in his ground-breaking essay, “The Over-Soul” (1841), explores, among other things, the relationship of the human soul to God. He writes, “We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul. We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal ONE.”
The poem, “Experience Personified” embraces the wholeness, the oneness of experience in a few deft strokes. Sengupta, out on a morning walk, describes the very common experience of walking on new grass, and elevates it to a near-divine level. According to the poet, it is not a “feeling” but an “experience.” I was reminded of one of America’s most celebrated poet, the transcendentalist Walt Whitman, as he says, “I loafe and invite my soul,/ I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” (“Song of Myself”)
Of a very different quality is the poem Time and Tide. As a Bengali widow in her late forties prepares an omelette for the poet, he notices her ‘bright eyes’ as she breaks the two eggs. Being a widow from a traditional background, eggs, which are non-vegetarian, are forbidden to her. The tide of temptation to taste such a delicacy has to be controlled in her, and, as a corollary to a life where romantic love is absent, time runs through her hand as much as it runs for the singer (Sting) of “Desert Rose.”
The seven short sections in “Cryptic Idioms” can be interpreted as the poet’s musings on life and death; Kali, black as Death itself, shows her long, bloody tongue, and the flute playing along the serpentine track eventually breaks, thereby stopping its music. In the face of the inevitable, what is Man to do? The poet welcomes Death in terms of a new beginning in a couplet with a half-rhyme.
No sorrows anymore, nor a hint of delight
A wonderful world opens up deep inside.
The soul, indeed, has its own world and exists on its own terms.
My favorite piece in the entire collection is “Let the Flowers Bloom.” A deeply spiritual prose-poem in eight sections, the narrative is replete with rich nature imagery, and lends itself to textured layers of interpretation. On one level, the poem is about Robi’s search for a meaningful existence. Moreover, through the flower symbolism of lotus (the national flower of India), and the water lily (the national flower of Bangladesh) growing in the same pond, the poet emphasizes the essential unity of all human beings. Religious boundaries are blurred as the Muslim Mujibor’s son is called Robi (a Hindu name) and the lotus used in religious ceremonies in Hindu households is sold in the market by Mujibor. The shapla and the lotus are so strikingly similar in appearance that Mujibor’s little son fails to distinguish between the two. “Let the Flowers Bloom” is, according to this reviewer, the pinnacle of Sengupta’s poetic achievement in The Earthen Flute, with its message of harmony and universal oneness of being.
The sustained metaphor of the womb is used in the composition “Mother Water”— a poem that is a perfect blend of form and content, the lines merging into stanzas in a perfect flow. Ganga is the mother nursing a foetus in her inflated uterus, as well as the mother absorbing the residues of the dead that settle into the soil beneath her water. The soil is thus rendered rich and fertile, ready for inundating the plains with new, green life.
The last poem in the collection, “Struggle for Silence,” is an outstanding work, an apt finale. The music of life emanating from the earthen flute will ultimately fall silent, but in its place we will finally achieve moksha, or salvation. It is very akin to the Hindu idea of Paradise, devoid of worldly pains and pleasures, a place (or state) of immeasurable beauty and tranquillity, reached in the last extraordinary lines of the poem, the closing words of this glorious volume.
Quiet grandeur prevails over
The pinnacle of worldly communion
The Earthen Flute is a collection that puts poetry lovers on the slow burn of transcendental desire. The fragrance from burning incense is an all-pervasive impression. As Shakespeare said, “If music be the food of love, play on,” the music of The Earthen Flute haunts readers long after they have finished the book.
Jagari Mukherjee is a poet and writer from Kolkata, India. She has an MA in English Literature from the University of Pune, and was awarded a gold medal and several prizes by the University for excelling in her discipline. Her writings, both poetry and prose, have appeared in several newspapers, magazines, journals, anthologies, and blogs. Her first book, a collection of poems entitled Blue Rose, was published in May 2017 by Bhashalipi. She is a DAAD scholar (2005), a Bear River 2018 alumna, and the winner of the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize 2018 (book review).