Book Review | A Melancholic Conversation With Empty Spaces

Let’s have a conversation.
Behind those awkward talks and silences.
Spill the poison beneath you.

In Soniya Kanchan’s Echoing a Shadow, the opening poem sets the tone for the book and the accompanying photograph gives a glimpse of what to expect from this slim volume of poetry.

I will begin by talking a bit about the photographs that have been used in this book. Photographs, as Susan Sontag observes in her book On Photography are “an anthology of images”. Now an anthology can be as diverse and as similar when it comes to the works that are a part of it. Be it the visual medium or the written one used to express oneself; the idea is to bring together different voices.

A singular idea runs through an anthology that acts as a binding agent for the different tongues that converge to create a book. And that is what one comes across as you go through the images that are a part of this book. The interesting bit is the deliberate use of black and white images. The idea if one reads the work closely has to do with the words that describe a world that used to be a coloured one and now stands devoid of it. The images turn into proof for a world left behind.

The selection of photographs and their placement also redirects the eyes of a reader to the “selected” images of what the book wants you to look at and where, and to discover the unsaid within those images. There are times when at the surface level, an image comes across as a simple one; lulling a reader into believing that the meaning behind it is a straightforward one. But the accompanying poem fills in those gaps that otherwise as a stand-alone the images would not be able to get across. The words break the calmness that is depicted through the series of images. The images in turn become the chroniclers of times that have now been lain to rest except that they continue to survive/remain alive in verse. The eyes can still see but it boils down to the words that cut through the impressions that the images can create on the first glance.

The eyes they say never lie,
They show their shades with phases and time.

A sense of temporality pervades throughout the book. There is no stagnation that one experiences. There is almost a spiritual quality that a few of these poems take on and reminds one of verses by Rumi at times. A few lines from a poem do remind one of a quote by Friedrich Nietzsche: “And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music”. It is the philosophical side to this one that needs to be understood in the context of the world and our places in it.

Also read: Of Ghettos and Invisible Lines

I dance to the tunes of the night, real slow.
Breaking free from the chains I chose.
I dance quietly to the tune only I know.

‘Echoing a Shadow’
Soniya Kanchan
White Falcon Publishing (2020)

It continues to flow. Page through page, images through images, the flow remains. To write a book of poetry – it is not necessary to make it incomprehensible by using words that one would reach out to consult a dictionary for. With this book, thankfully, that idea has been done away with that one needs to use abstruse words to make a book work. The conversational style used in this book keeps the discourse dynamic.

Thematically unless the book holds it ground – no amount of fancy words can save its skin. The poems in this book reminds one somehow of Orhan Pamuk’s idea of the hüzün. In its simplest definition, it refers to melancholy but a hazy state of melancholy. There is a sense of being lost. And what turns interesting is the symbiotic relationship that the melancholic nature of the poems here have with the photographs that have been used – thereby making the choice of using the black and white images an appropriate one.

She wears her smile like a mask,
She uses it to drown in voices and faces.

These lines from of one the poems reminds one of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf where the protagonist early in the novel looks at her face in the mirror like she has done in the past “many million times” and shows her the face that she can create whenever she requires a social mask while hiding away parts of her personality that are “contradictory images.”

There is an immersion of the psyche into the psyche of the given moment. There are scenes in the poems that emerges from the innermost self of a melancholic individual which makes one revisit the idea that Sigmund Freud had dappled with in his essay Mourning and Melancholia, which says that in melancholia, “an object loss which is withdrawn from consciousness”. Where a person is torn between the ideas of whom one has lost and in that process what has been lost.

The struggle to live in an empty mind, an empty
heart, and an empty past.

This feeling reverberates throughout this book. There is no stopping point as the words that have been written and the words that have been uttered know no rest. And thus begins a conversation between the poet and the lacuna. The poems are  conversations that open up several discursive spaces. They neither dwell on a particular idea nor get detained by it. The infinity that remains can be read – as well as questioned.

As they kissed the night goodbye
Only dawn wondered
Will there be a next time?

The book no longer remains a poetry book but incorporates so many thematic concerns across the length and breadth of what can be considered literary themes. Each poem carries in it a fragrance of a piece of work one might have come across. Of course, that does not mean the original voice that this book carries gets subsumed in this sea of references. What emerges is a powerful voice that comes equipped with forceful narratives.

Under the dark blue sky
With a million witnesses
Cold wind carries
Our stories of sins
Trapped in this moment
Trapped in our minds
Let’s be curious
Let’s make this night infinite.

Semeen Ali has four books of poetry to her credit. Her works have featured in several national and international journals as well as anthologies. She has been invited to literary festivals to read from her works. She has co-edited three anthologies of poetry that have been published nationally and internationally. Her new anthology on women’s writings will be published this year. Apart from reviewing books for prestigious journals, she is also the Fiction and the Poetry editor for the literary journal Muse India.

Featured image credit: Joshua Woroniecki/Pixabay