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  • The Loneliness of Islands: Collected Poems 1976–2000
  • Seri I. Luangphinith
The Loneliness of Islands: Collected Poems 1976–2000, by Satendra Nandan. Nadi: Ivy Press International, 2007. ISBN 978-982-366-015-8, xiii,+241 pages, excerpts of reviews. F$24.95.

The meditation of John Donne led to the common phrase, “No man is an island.” However, for Donne and for many writers faced with the melancholy brought forth by crisis and doubt, the emotions associated with fragmentation and loss are assuaged by the recognition that “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” This quote by Donne best describes the sentiments captured in the latest release by Satendra Nandan. The Loneliness of Islands is a masterful contemplation of the poet’s persona and motivation in a place as stunning and as traumatizing as Fiji.

There is no denying that the political upheavals of the past twenty years have scarred the literary imagination in what were formally known as the Cannibal Islands. For Nandan, who once served as the minister of health for the short-lived Bavadra government, there is no divorcing the political from the personal. Much of his work since the 1987 coup and his subsequent departure from Fiji has been committed to deconstructing the myth of racialized nationalism and exploring the power of writing to address injustice. Some of Nandan’s more political poems from previously published collections can again be found here. Readers will quickly recognize old favorites that are frequently cited as the foundation for girmitya (indentured Indian laborer) literary representation: “Lines Across Black Waters,” “Arjuna’s Anguish,” and “Siddarth.” Through the invocation of Hindu and Buddhist myths, these earlier lyrics reflect the development of exilic wandering, suffering, and return as philosophically empowering metaphors for Fiji-Indian history and identity.

The debut of forty-three new poems reflects a further evolution in Nandan’s craft in that the bitterness of the Indo-Fijian experience is acknowledged as posing a fundamental problem for the poet, whose continual rumination on suffering can lead to moments of utter despair. In fact, the opening of Loneliness with the fragmentary prose piece, “To Be a Poet,” depicts the death of a patriarch at a typewriter housing a blank piece of paper. The blankness of paper compounds the tragedy of death—the father spends his whole life in search of truth, but leaves without having ever issued forth a manuscript. In the next poem, “The Loneliness of Islands,” this loss for words becomes clearly associated with “That yearning, this longing / For a place that is / No more” (9). In the historical context of Fiji, land and the ability to call it home have been at the center of racially motivated political upheavals. While memory of place for the poet evokes images of cane cutters and their graves, he acknowledges that the labor and sacrifice of these people did not guarantee undeniable inclusion; instead, Nandan’s allusion to Judas’s betrayal of Jesus serves as an indirect reference to the calls for the expulsion of Indo-Fijians from political office (as was the case in the 1987 and 2000 coups) and from the country itself, even as recently as 2004 with Senator [End Page 506] Adi Litia Cakobau’s proposal to the Fiji Senate.

A sign of change in Nandan’s newer work is reflected in the lyrical disassociation with specific history and in his greater attention to the larger philosophical (and more universal) concerns regarding poetry’s role in comprehending moments of crisis. The modified terza rima verse form in “Nativity” echoes the descent of Dante into hell and his face-to-face encounter with human misery and suffering. As Nandan’s poem makes clear, suffering for the Indo-Fijian comes in the form of an unceasing “persecution [that] is most abhorrent” (30). Ceaseless agony, which by implication leads to the perpetual reinscription of racial divides, eventually warps the soul: “I’ve begun to walk with a snarl / Like the well-fed pedigreed breed” (30). In turn, the soul begins to question faith in the divine: “I raise a prayer, salt water in my hand. / Will he come to rescue me again? / The...