This new collection of poems from the London-based Punjabi poet Amarjit Chandan opens up landscapes, both geographical and, perhaps more importantly, spiritual. The Preface sets the scene: comments on Chandan’s work by John Berger, Madan Gopal Singh, Navtej Sarna and Moniza Alvi raise the level of our expectation as we read that his poetry “transports its listeners or readers into an arena of timelessness” and that the poems “hold steady, as if written out of a still centre from which the flux of life, its richness and sorrows can be absorbed, contained – and let go.” As if recalling Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’ statement of stillness being the centre of “the turning world”, Chadnan’s poem ‘Suchness – Memorial to an Unknown Migrant’ gives us
“This white patch framed by dark
is the memorial that exists only in the mindscape.
It is the surface too delicate to bear the weight of any colour.
It has no horizon – here the earth and the sky never meet.
It is the stillness that always moves.”
The Eliot reference adapts the words of Aristotle’s De Anima concerning movement:
“…all animals move by pushing and pulling, and accordingly there must be in them a fixed point, like the centre in a circle, and from this the motion must begin”.
Chandan’s poem opens with an epigraph from the historian Johanna Ogden who wrote in an email from 6th November 2012 that her talk “will project a blank slide for the Ghadar memorial that I believe should be in Astoria, Oregon.” As a note at the end of the book tells us, Astoria was the birthplace of the revolutionary Ghadar party formed in 1913 by workers from the Punjab to liberate India from British imperialism. The word ‘Suchness: Shunya (Tathatã in Sanskrit and Pali) conveys “absolute emptiness, a key concept in Buddhist philosophy”, and its presence in Chandan’s poem is as prominent as a block of colour in a painting by Mondrian.
Some of these poems were originally written in English and some have been translated by such major figures in the world of poetry translation as John Welch, Stephen Watts and Julia Casterton. One of the English ones, ‘Traces of Memory’, captures some of that movement in stillness which is a hallmark of Chandan’s poetry: “In an exhibition hall in Brixton / names of the disappeared in Argentina so many years ago / hang from the ceiling, printed on plastic sheet.”
Perhaps it is that end-of-line phrase “plastic sheet” which conveys something of the callous loss of real people a little like ‘black-bags’ has been used to sanitise victims of war. The people whose names appear, temporarily one presumes since this is an exhibition hall, “disappeared”… “so many years ago”:
“A strong, focused light projects their shadows on the wall
They move with the jostling of the viewers.
Ever-changing under their gaze.
Nothing stays still.”
In 1945 Pound translated words from the twelfth-century Zhu Xi as “The main thing is to illumine the root of the process, a fountain of clear water descending from heaven immutable. The components, the bones of things, the materials, are implicit and prepared in us, abundant and inseparable from us.” I am reminded of Arnault’s raining light, “lo soleills plovil”. Chandan’s volume is dedicated in memory of John Berger “for whom I shall always carry the keys of poetry” and it is yet again a remarkably important publication from Arc…what would we do without them?
Ian Brinton 30th December 2017