Intellect and Heart

Reviewed by Chantel Lavoie

Sabyasachi Nag’s third collection, Uncharted, follows Bloodlines (2006) and Could You Please, Please Stop Singing? (2015). Composed of forty-nine poems, Uncharted is divided into sections titled “Identity,” “Belonging,” and “Death.” Inspired by personal experience, religious ritual, and poets like Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Bly, and Li Bo, Nag demonstrates a voice all his own—philosophical, playful, and lyrical.

In “What We Make of Symbols,” the speaker is flipping through “raw photos from a recent trip” when he catches sight of “shirtless boys” begging outside a taxi in Calcutta, “noses pressed to the glass of the rained afternoon”:

One of them in the far corner of the frame

looked away from us all, woozily

drawing vapour swastikas

on the fog of his breath[.] (13)

The adverb “woozily” is the kind of thing Nag does so well (it picks up on sounds in “away” and “swastikas”). The economy of ekphrasis is striking, down to the final and fine lines describing these boys in “frozen yards, blinking red, green, gold / elves riding reindeer on fire” (13). Like the reality he describes, the language is tough and tender, conveying how suffering and beauty can look the same. The dramas he communicates are quiet, quotidian, wrenching. Varieties of repetition and internal rhyme add to the pleasure of reading what can be hard to think about.

Among the pieces that highlight such craft is the title poem, “Uncharted”. The forceful tercets begin: “The Christmas toy for our fifteen-year-old is about new ways of dying. / Out the window, out in the wild, out in star haze, out in a train; / bloodstained pixels floating in farce. How simple is dying?” (47). Variations conclude each stanza: “How hard is dying?”; “There’s faith in dying”; “There’s art in dying” (47). The book is appropriately dedicated to another fifteen-year-old boy who appears in the second stanza—Junaid Khan, stabbed to death and thrown off a moving train in northern India in 2018, in a caste-based dispute about a seat.

The lacunae where fellow feeling should appear colour the book (its cover, a white tiger’s face, hints at the politics of India). In numerous pieces, Nag pokes a painful kind of fun at how one group diminishes another. Alongside (and interrogating) politics, beauty and pain surface in interlocked images of fish and fishing, forgetting, and avian splendour. “Ode to Forgetting,” for instance, describes how “shadows fall off the cliff in flocks of thousands” (55), while the musical “Ode to a Broken Elm” contains “a million peepers peering / down the lintel of loopy mirrors— / newborn and hungry for the sun” (75). The final section, “Death,” continues to balance intellect and heart. “Seven Odes to Dying” witnesses the loss of a father, his “[l]ungs clogged with dragon tar; / nurses exhausted, pumping the inhaler” (79). Here again, the observational enables Nag to make big questions new. Last in the collection, “Speculations about Soul” ends with lovemaking, “when we are left with an aftertaste / and a craving” (91). A beautiful way to finish the book, the poem reflects wanting more body and soul, as we do. We certainly crave more poetry from Sabyasachi Nag.

This review “Intellect and Heart” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 8 Sep. 2021. Web.

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