Book Review: Kavita Ezekiel Mendonca’s ‘Light of the Sabbath’

coverphoto.lightofthesabbath

By Gopal Lahiri

Kavita Ezekiel’s latest poetry collection Light of the Sabbath seeks for the light that travels from this mundane world to the far-away places, perhaps at the end of the imagination. Like Elizabeth Jennings, Kavita explores the appearances of light in its various forms that journeys to the soul and opens a secret doorway of a contemplative world, of a sacred consciousness.

Her poems start working on simple thoughts that blends intense feelings with luminous words. The poet’s unassuming yet measured approach in writing free verses without any sort of wrestling with grand theme is commendable. In fact, her poems appear to be more incandescent, emotive and assured in simplest forms, not indulging in exotic word play and metaphorical indulgence.

“Most poems in this chapbook reflect my Indian-Jewish heritage. They are written to celebrate the warm memories of growing up with the customs and traditions of the culture, faith and personalities of my parents, grandparents, and extended family,” the poet wrote in “From the Poet’s Desk” and added further, “Growing up, Light was an important subject of conversation in my home – how to read in the best light, how to write with proper lighting, opening the windows and curtains to the morning light, appreciating light in all the various forms of illumination that invigorated one’s being.”

The poet aims to portray bygone days and the life as it is in all its diversity and uniqueness. Many of his poems, anchored in Jewish culture and society, seek the immensities, run up against the fear of otherness that so many us feel at our quiet moment yet finally achieve a late-blooming richness, a blessed forgiveness. The poet believes that poetry enables us hope, makes compassion reasonable.

What first draws me to read this book is the voice, which sounds like the poet in a meditation melting in nostalgia and sharing her experience with the readers. Poetry is actually making a story out of a moment and here is a poet who can empty that moment in many different forms and ways.

The poet identifies here as a silent observer, seeing a mirror of her emotions in the natural world. She discovers the cracks in reality and fall right through them. The following poem turns into a dialogue with transcendence, a re-connection with the universe.

Each Friday evening, we squeezed

The purple Grapes of Faith,

And each Saturday she read

All one hundred and fifty Psalms,

Head covered with the saree scarf

Her Godly body swaying slightly

Lips moving in whispering prayerful devotion. (“Light of the Sabbath”)

The poet wants her poems to be infused with not the rising flames but the ringing voice of the love and light. Its rhythm is adequate, too, and the poet paces his poems like a ride rippling with energy, hurrying to ecstasy, slowing to anguish, and always come from deep inside. Her delightful haiku is articulated through the swirls of light.

Summer solar lights

Block out the virus and gloom

Fairies dance around 

Or 

Bought five solar lights

Dimmed is the darkness of night

Backyard blazes bright.

Everything she loved is the past in its crystalline abstraction. Yet she laments at times, “I’m afraid to look back, / I don’t want to turn into a pillar of salt.

Such writings have the immediacy of personal experience. It’s a style that strengthen the poet’s strengths, which include storytelling – she is wonderful at borrowing narrative into anecdotal poems – and the skilful association of words, sentences and stanzas. The poet asserts even if you do not manage to light up the poem, “Don’t worry, when the light wants to come in, /It will knock.

Saranya Subramanian, in her Foreword, has rightly pointed out, “Her grounded tone, dry humour, and absence of pretence is resoundingly reminiscent of Nissim Ezekiel’s writing. Known for single-handedly revolutionizing Indian poetry, Nissim Ezekiel isn’t the Famous Poet here; he exists in these poems simply as Kavita’s father. The simplicity of these poems—the way they are written in a colloquial voice—makes it apparent that Kavita the Poet carries her father’s words with her all the time.”

The faint light touches of the anecdotal details and recoil of the words in each line in the following poem, capture the spirit. She is nearly flawless in her ability to capture the character, ambiance and textures of the locales.

Grandmother took me to the old synagogue

Walking down the pot-holed sidewalks

Of a noisy Bombay street, close to her home, 

Every square inch populated with humanity.

The oil lamp in the very old synagogue

hung high from the ceiling.

For a few rupees we could keep the light burning (“Give me Oil in my Lamp”)

Her poems offer a spilling forth of life rooted in memories in ways that yield to the particulars of imagination. The poet is a keen observer of things which are unheard or unnoticed. The following poem is ingrained in nostalgia, memories entrenched in the canvas of her mind.

Believing mine to be lost

Somewhere between my Grandmother’s house

And my parents’ home during the backing and forthing between

My mother mourned the lost gold,

While I lamented an aunt’s lost love’ (“Chain of Events”)

Poetry reveals our true face behind the mask of the immediate. The words of her poems are, as if, born from and go towards silence, conjuring images of the past events. Her poetry proposes slowness and calm, quiet recollection. And at times the poet is talking to herself or any of us, as the poem quietly advises and reasons. Her poems are always starting over and seeking to find a balance between the conventional path and nonconformity, between love and angst.

I still sing *The Shema.

Taught in childhood by faithful ancestors

With powerful voices driven by dogged faith

The burden of history shaped by suffering. (“I still sing The Sheema”)

There is a flicker of life at the edges and the poet gleefully accepts the real meaning of identity. Her poems weave joyful words with ease and poise and are characterized by their succinctness.

In this Haibun, the aesthetically ingenious wonder, not only for the ways it confounds and delights but for the way it sings in defiance of commonness, of ordinariness.

Someday, a great artist might paint a picture of the beautifully designed Challah bread, fit for the Louvre. Noah’s Ark could be drawn in the shape of the Challah Bread. Both are symbols of peace

That sweet Challah bread

With sweetness of love baked in

She is an artist (“Rainy Day Challah Haibun”)

If you look at poetry, no part of a poem effects the functions in separation. Each one works against a backdrop set up not only by the poem itself, but by all the literary and artistic conventions of our culture. The poem here is a form of silence and survival. The deft touches are at times imposingly stylish and charged with proper sensibility.

Like my ancestors.

Pressing seeds into verse

To preserve a story of survival

Not just on Saturdays. (Shipwreck)

Kavita’s poetic response is a possibility of mind, a different way of inhabiting culture in real terms. Poetry is meant to be read and heard. This book stands out for its sheer promise, clarity and startling originality that lingers with you for a longer period. We feel a powerful sense of connection in the end.

The cover art is elegant. I am sure this slim, profoundly alluring collection of poems, titled Light of the Sabbath will go the distance and warrant a wide appeal across the poetry lovers.

Bio:
Gopal Lahiri
was born and grew up in Kolkata, India. He is a bilingual poet, writer, editor, critic and translator and published in Bengali and English language. He has authored 8 volumes of poetry in Bengali and 15 volumes in English and jointly edited five anthologies of poems in English and published one translation work. His poetry is also published across various anthologies as well as in eminent journals of India and abroad. He is in the panel of reviewers of Indian Literature of Sahitya Akademi, (Print journal), Muse India, Kitaab (Singapore) and Setu (US) online journals. He is the recipient of the Poet of the Year Award in Destiny Poets, UK, 2016. He can be reached at glahiri@gmail.com

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