Kristin Hannaford reviews A Shrine to Lata Mangeshkar by Kerry Leves
A Shrine to Lata Mangeshkar
By Kerry Leves
Puncher & Wattmann
Order Copies from http://www.puncherandwattmann.com
Reviewed by KRISTIN HANNAFORD
Sometimes you have a book that travels with you. A collection of poems which has secreted itself into a handbag or suitcase, a book you grab and keep chancing upon like a forgotten bus ticket floating at the bottom of a purse or wallet. Kerry Leves’s A Shrine to Lata Mangeshkar has been my bus ticket for the past eight months. It has travelled to Sydney with me, to Brisbane; it has ferried back and forth to work and made appearances at lunch hours patiently offering up delicious snippets of India.
Carrying the book in the backseat of a Brisbane taxi I ask my Indian taxi driver if he is familiar with Lata Mangeshkar; he seamlessly negotiates city streets while enthusing over her beautiful voice. Lata Mangeshkar is also known as the Nightingale of India. Her pre-recorded voice can be heard in thousands of Indian films as female actors dance and sing through their lip-synced Bollywood musical extravaganzas. The taxi driver and I discuss his home town of Mumbai and the hugely successful Bollywood film industry. He states very seriously about his intentions on returning home to India, ‘God wants me to be a Taxi Driver for a while and then I will be an actor!’
So it seems that as I dip in and out of this collection, despite the fact that I have never been to India, that the connections between my world here in Australia and those of India are many. A Shrine to Lata Mangeshkar takes place, for this reader, in that wider ‘mythic’ India; the rich tapestry of Hindu gods and temples imbued with colour, energy and noise of people and the streets. The collection opens with ‘Mumbai’, a beautiful poem simply focussing on the sights and sounds of the ‘pearl-dust’ dawn in the city which carries the title line,
There ought to be a shrine
to Lata Mangeshkar,
her honeysuckle tones,
& all the faces
she has ever sung.
‘Mumbai’ delivers an Indian street symphony. The couplets in the poem serve to slow down the reader, we survey the city, listen to the rising cacophony of street sounds, which quieten to silent prayers ‘& the god in a knee-high roadside shrine/ is only colour loud; is quiet’ . In the final couplets the Mumbai crescendo peaks with the arrival of the day,
Breakfast puris tan
in oil that seethes;
blue flames hiss, a kettle blackens –
welcome! Welcome to Mumbai!
It’s hard to imagine living in a city as large as Mumbai, with close to nineteen million people, its competing for the spot of the world’s most populous city. Leves’s sensory exploration of the city is delightful and his attention to imagery works well throughout the book, lines such as ‘The sun/churns the river.’(Himachal morning) and
late 20th century fireflies
& spin the darkness
like a raksha’s eyes
Rough sprits guard this valley
where town lights
networked close along the river
form a yoni –
map a Goddess part
on Shiva’s inky carbon –
(15) “Night piece, Himachal’
suggest a sensitivity and awareness of the intimate connections between people, environment and spirituality in India as the poet observes the landscape at the foothills of the Himalayas.
The collection is prefaced with a quote from Indian Poet Keki N. Daruwalla, ‘In an alien land, language itself turns brown and half-caste’, which I believe gestures towards the difficulty of processing and translating experiences of ‘elsewhere’ into language, into poems. The writing inherently becomes happily muddied, infused with words, experiences and traces of the ‘alien land’, both shaken up by the experience and transformed. In an effort to guide those readers who are less au fait with Indian phrases and concepts, like myself, Leves has included a meaty glossary at the back of the book.
It appears Leves first began this collection in the 1980s (or at least this is where some of the poems were conceived) when he travelled in India with well-known Australian poet Vicki Viidikas. Viidikas is included in the oft-quoted ‘Generation of ‘68’ which includes poets such as Robert Adamson, John Forbes, Ken Bolton and John Tranter; poets active and engaged in the inner city Sydney poetry scene in the late 60s and 70s. Many accounts exist detailing the poetry and personalities of this time; Ken Bolton’s recollections of this time in Sydney are particularly interesting. Viidikas died in 1998 and Leves dedicates this collection to her. Viidikas’ presence in these poems is large; in many ways she appears in these poems as Leves’ muse, visions of her appear as moments of enlightenment or struggle, in Kali:
a golden doll a crazy-clock but animated using
all her wicked tickling wit to tick him off
stick-limbed a cloud of incense
sandalwood the scent she is
translucent like and autumn leaf
This poem explore the concepts of the Hindu Goddess Kali as seductive and beguiling, a woman capable of change and cruelty, the reader gets a sense of Viidikas’ ‘slavic cheekbones vast dark eyes/ with sly dimensions swim for his subconscious striking out’ and her charged and unsettled emotional life. The narrator is her ‘Magister Ludi’ (Leves’s witty reference to the Hermann Hesse novel of the same name) and the reader begins to glimpse here the complexity of the relationship – is the poet suggesting he is, like Joseph Knecht in Hesse’s novel, a servant or slave? Or is she/he a willing ‘intellectual’ participant playing a complex game of thoughts? I’m happy to be left in the dark here, because this is one of those times when complex layers of meaning joyfully saturate and obscure the ordinary. As Kali draws to a close the narrator knows he is ‘second’ in this relationship, second in love, second to her demands and ideals:
he sometimes fights their way onto trains and buses
can discuss the gods & God
till the candle’s low
till the flame’s engulfed
& through all this
that it’s not enough
no never enough (for her)
for him it’s close to perfect
Viidikas also wrote a collection of poems from her time in India called ’India Ink.’ I’m sure it would make interesting reading alongside Leves’s work; a kind of dialogue of poems and experiences of India.
Some of the poems in this collection predictably fall into the postcard poem basket, providing glimpses and observations rather than sustained insight, but I believe this is part of the appeal of a collection of travel poems – sometimes the view from the street or out the window is enough. There are, however, many interesting sequences of poems. I particularly enjoyed ‘Monkey Balconies’ (pp.60-67) which explores the journey to Shimla, the old summer capital of the British Raj when India was under English rule. Images define the mismatch of ‘English swings, fields, stiles’ and the ‘paan stained bathroom’. The narrator experiences his ultimate severance from the landscape, traces his place in this strange misted vision of England and India:
So this is seeing the world
without Hindustani: a tartan shawl
bundles my bones together.
Into & out of the mist, I’m a walking
shadow of history. Must be the altitude –
not even drugs can earth me.
The sequence ends with ‘Celestials’, the poet negotiating Jakko Hill, the shrine of Hanuman the monkey God. Here the monkeys rule. Aggressive and ‘ungodly animals’, any reader familiar with experiences of monkeys and temples (or for that matter any place where the native animals have been encouraged to seize food) will get a smile out of Leves’s clever depiction of a tug of war between the narrator and a monkey over that aforementioned ‘tartan shawl’. Comic images ‘descending into Monkey Hell’ and of a tireless priest ‘flailing a knotted club/ in some karmic fandango’ are memorable and witty.
A Shrine to Lata Mangeshkar is Kerry Leves’s long awaited fourth collection of poems, following Green (SeaCruise, 1978); Territorial (AnT Studios, 1997) and the chapbook Water roars, illusions burn (Vagabond, 2002). For the armchair traveller or India enthusiast, A Shrine to Lata Mangeshkar is certainly well worth a read. The collection reflects Leves’s longevity as one of Sydney’s most interesting poets.