The Contemporary Pacific 16.1 (2004) 212-214
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Diaspora and the Difficult Art of Dying, by Sudesh Mishra. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2002. ISBN 1-877276-18-9, 78 Pages. US$29.95.
The close-up photograph on the cover of a drop of oil spreading out into rainbow layers on a tarmac road like spilled blood—at once a sublime, beautiful, but grounded image—indicates the timeliness (and what might once have been described as the timelessness) of this skillfully constructed collection. In the preface, Sudesh Mishra describes his intention to produce a collection of diasporic poetry [End Page 212] that makes connections based on "an underground logic of colours, tropes, sounds, textures, moods and secrets" (3). The poetry's sensual evocations are not only underground (and this should be read in political, personal, cultural, literary, and postcolonial ways) but also topographical, sky bound, sea/soned, and earth(l)y. By inviting the reader to "join me in conjuring the spectral structure that haunts the poems" (3), the poet has demonstrated an openness to multiple interpretations, to what Voloshinov described as the multivalency of signs, and an awareness of the disjunctiveness of modern life and historical memory, especially as lived in the terms of early twenty-first-century diasporic consciousness.
Pitched uneasily between political exile, girmit (the period of indentured labor) history, contemporaneous life, fantasy, the voyaging of postcolonial literati and poetic melancholy, the poems are sharply observant, ironic, and expansive. They develop earlier themes such as lali (play [of language], performance); a concern with ends andbeginnings; and the strange, painful implication of monstrous injustices mixed in with the everyday banalities of life. The satirical edge can still cut with surgical swiftness—from the cool fury directed at those who conduct unsympathetic Australian dole interviews: "The cretinous queries / Tailored for cretins, the inspection / Of terminal CVs /And to top it all,the icy power interviews /With fat schmucks who take cues / From some fuhrer in a velvet gulag" (45) in "Unemployment Blues," to the dissing of politicians whose greed is responsible for all manner of long-term damage in "AWishingWell in Suva." If the expressed wish is that a tsunami should come and sweep all such corruption away, it needs to be read in a spirit of millennial and utopian hope, of weariness born of excessive love for both home country and the world, despite ongoing inequities and atrocities.
Mishra's development as a poet shows in the restrained, formal, technical brilliance of the poems, which, together with the postcolonial connections, and the postmodern and diasporic logic of the themes, holds the apparently disparate contents together. There are lines that may feel overwritten or striving, but they are deliberate, and are balanced alongside those that show mastery of the art of understatement—such as these lines from "Mrs Mukherjee": "And Yeats/ Two years before Gasand Gallipoli,/ Startling an entire carriage, / Ruining with tears the print of Gitanjali" (36). These poems do not easily give up on the fantasy of an epicurean world, but are too rooted in writerly realities and the hardships of living girmit memory to become "A literary trophy to spike on the picket fence/ Of some bragging Bohemia" (37)—the fate of one photograph of Tagore—just one of the many doubles in the "history of meshed lives" identified by the implied speaker in "Mrs Mukherjee."
Looking for a way to articulate the complexity of responses called up by this new collection, I read a 1992 article by Vijay Mishra called "The Girmit Ideology Revisited" (in Reworlding: The Literature of the Indian Diaspora, edited by Emmanuel S Nelson, New York: Greenwood Press) in which I found a line that [End Page 213] spoke to some of the incoherencies of my own response. Discussing the groundbreaking effects of Sudesh Mishra's poetry in terms of its "postmodern polyphony,"Vijay Mishra described the way "[Sudesh] Mishra mediates the Girmit ideology with poems that do not open up their secrets easily to the uninitiated." It was precisely this cultural intricacy of the poems—which can evoke the distinctly...