In Montage On Love, a poem gently undulating with emotions, from her new collection, Run For The Shadows, Sridala Swami chronicles the see-saw of a romantic relationship in which passion and intensity are unequally matched.
“She considers inoculating herself against future shock by administering small, daily doses of loss,” Swami writes, referring to a woman who is finding it hard “to be in love again”, that too with a younger man of intemperate desires (“He was irresistible as only the very young of any species are programmed to be. He played enthusiasm like an extreme sport”). So, this woman prepares herself for the inevitable moment of “beautiful disentanglement” by jabbing herself every day with sharp, little reminders that the “serious pleasure” she is experiencing is going to end, as everything does.
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The medical metaphor—with its chilling, and perhaps fortuitous, resonance with the pandemic—is a powerful lens to look at Swami’s work. Loss is the metronome that ticks between her lines. All too frequently, it is experienced as festering rot, leading every sentient creature slowly but surely towards a terrifying finality: ageing organs, wilting flowers, warming seas, torrid landscapes. The optimism of youth gives way to the anxieties of the middle years, and the fragility of old age. But there is redemption, too, even a tender anticipation of beauty amidst the constant reckoning with morbidity.
The sight and sensation of flesh, blood and life force pulsing and ebbing away become repositories of meaning. Their traces are corralled between Swami’s lines, pages and stanzas. One thinks of T.S. Eliot’s words—“These fragments I have shored against my ruins”—from The Waste Land, his elegy for a broken world.
Swami came to writing poetry in the late 1990s. In her early 50s now and a resident of Hyderabad, she has three volumes of verse to her credit, each published at a seven-year interval since 2007. She is also the author of four books for children. “I don’t remember consciously writing ‘poetry’ in my younger years,” she says on a video call. “But at some point the notes and pieces I was putting together increasingly began to look like poems to me.”
In those early days, Swami sent her work to a few online journals, which published some of it. Her poems also found a home in Chandrabhaga, an acclaimed journal for poetry run by the celebrated Odiya writer Jayanta Mahapatra. Mahapatra has since remained a generous mentor and champion of her work, Swami says, along with his other august contemporary, poet and novelist Keki N. Daruwalla.
As a poet of the internet era, Swami found access to an online community of fellow practitioners without much difficulty, and chanced upon calls for submission. That’s how she came to publish her first volume, A Reluctant Survivor (2007), from Sahitya Akademi, which was, at the time, looking for manuscripts in English. The book was shortlisted for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Award.
In 2014, a year after becoming a fellow of the prestigious International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in the US, Swami published her second volume of poems, Escape Artist, from Aleph Book Company. And exactly seven years later, like clockwork, followed Run For The Shadows, in late 2021.
Perhaps it’s uncommon to read a volume of verse chronologically—and Swami doesn’t expect her readers to do so—but there is a special satisfaction in taking that path with this volume.
Almost all the poems in Run For The Shadows are strung together by a gossamer theme of time—its passage, anticipation, experience, ravages and, most of all, relentless one-directional arrow. So pervasive is it in the poet’s consciousness that everything we associate with time—departure and arrival, waiting and fulfilment, life and death, memory and reality—become hard to tell apart. “The collection is cohesive by accident,” Swami says. Alongside newer compositions, it includes poems she had left out of her earlier volumes—because they didn’t fit in. If you read it from cover to cover, you can sense the arc that holds the volume together. The poems do not necessarily grow in dramatic intensity, but their cryptic, confessional and, at times raw, energy leaves you with bursts of self-awareness.
In My Mouth Is Bored, for instance, the anticipation of a snack of peanuts opens a Pandora’s box. “Every fried, spiced morsel settles upon my liver,” Swami writes, “dissolves into globules of fat and coats this large organ with dots of yellow.” This statement becomes a segue into a memory of her father swallowing an endoscope, and the instrument’s “merciless” passage down his oesophagus, “where food lay like plaque”. “Not everything that enters the body leaves it,” Swami adds, “some things remain untransmuted/unsightly when discovered. The inside is not designed to be seen.”
Visceral yet starkly metaphorical, such lines carry the double bind of the body’s erosion and the build-up of a lifetime’s emotions. What others see—a handful of peanuts—isn’t always what it looks like to us. “I’m not hungry; it’s my mouth that’s bored,” Swami writes. “It craves not feed but sensation./ It wants to water like I want to cry.” If her poems bear the mark of disease and death—Swami’s father died not long after her first collection was published—they do so without being maudlin. Her tribute to the late poet and teacher Eunice de Souza, for instance, ends with a rousing image of hope: “A single flower/ at a difficult summer’s end/ will bloom fiercely/ and for a long time.”
With each elegy, Swami says, she is asking herself questions about what the American poet Elizabeth Bishop referred to as “the art of losing”. “Will every death affect us the same way, or do we get used to it at some point?” Swami asks. This line of inquiry becomes even more complex with the growing awareness of our own mortality, she adds. The particularity of each setback—be it in the form of an ailing parent or a fresh ache that besets our bodies—becomes fodder for interrogation.
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Given this impulse to prod and interrogate, a couple of poems in Run For The Shadows are structured, unsurprisingly, as inner monologues or dialogues. Smoke, Fire, for instance, is laid over in haiku-like sections, whereas Dialogue plays out as a mock-Platonic mode of question and answer. It begins with the eternal query “What lasts?” and ends with the sobering words of the poet Anne Carson: “to live past the end of your myth”.
“Be it the Platonic or Vedantic inquiry, these forms have never seemed like genuine dialogues to me,” Swami says, “they have always felt like false methods of directing a student towards a conclusion by pretending that they are part of a joint inquiry.” In her poetry, she aims to reinvent this form, often by doubting the merit of her own lines in the body of her text. Few writers are brave enough to undertake such a wager—but it’s one way of getting the reader to participate.
As we wind up, I ask Swami what has kept her faithful to poetry over prose for all these years. “It’s not so much loyalty, but that I haven’t found my stride with prose yet,” she says, without missing a beat. “I am a learner by temperament. The moment I reach my learning curve, I feel the freshness is lost—and whatever I am doing feels like work.” It’s just as well that poetry remains her metier—a form that’s forever paved with surprises, keeping its practitioners fresh, curious, and engaged with life and language in ways that few others do.
Somak Ghoshal is a writer based in Delhi.