Book Review: Srividya Sivakumar and Paresh Tiwari’s ‘The Shape of a Poem: The Red River Book of Contemporary Erotic Poetry’

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By Dustin Pickering

As Srividya Sivakumar and Paresh Tiwari’s anthology, The Shape of a Poem: The Red River Book of Contemporary Erotic Poetry, heartily admits through many of its poets, the erotic stimulates the imagination but is something that remains unfulfilled. It contrives distance through longing. It does not situate necessarily with the body alone, but also the earth and Nature. An anthology purporting to celebrate the human form, The Shape of a Poem accomplishes so much more in the age of social restrictiveness. As the editors comment, we live a period of isolation and politicalization of the human body. Language is the facet of our personal celebration of self as well communal organization. The political class exploits language often to demean the human form and society for personal aims of power. These poems, carefully selected from across the globe, share the erotic impulse in common, and as poets these works embody language in form of common experience.

Who am I to comment on the sexual nature of longing? I am a person who experiences the rivers and geometry of being, and the lightning, dreams, and frustrations of lust. The erotic stimulates and heals. It separates us from one another and unites us to the natural world, but through its sometimes troubling vision it also bridges gaps between individuals. Baisali Chatterjee Dutt writes in “The Mere Memory of You”: “My cunt throbs with memory.” A powerful statement of longing in spite of the lack of satisfaction! Memory is the essence of longing. Sanket Mhatre writes in a similar thought in the poem “Hours”: “To create a fire that keeps purging the years that went by.” Several poems in the collection celebrate the void in our humanity, the desperation of obscured or thwarted longing; these poems invigorate beauty and de-politicize human nature albeit through reclaiming human society as something of purpose. Shalini Pattabiraman writes, “…all that is lost, finds a new home / somewhere.” Although the introduction seems heavily ‘political’ the statement is timely and suited for contemporary thought on matters of the body. The volume includes important poets such as Kashiana Singh and Keki Daruwalla. Daruwalla offers “The Night of the Jackals”, what he calls his “doomed love poem.”

Erotic needs can be embarrassing, and also engaging. Lines from Kunjana Parashar in “Nag Panchami,” “We yoke like two snake-heads / in ancient ouroboros, / circumambulating the temple / of our own slick bodies” engage the reader with mystical cosmic vision. “Yoke” is an exotic word used to describe sexual contact, but the choice of word conveys sensuality. Even the sound is powerful and direct; the word grants the reader a sense of sudden motion. What we witness in a poetics of eroticism is the human touch spoken through the deepest solitude. Poems in this nation-spanning book are frank about guilt in sexual matters, naiveté, and the need for touch. Some poems celebrate the mind’s needs as well, but overall, these poems are natural visions of the body. The Shape of a Poem opens with a wonderful set of poems by Aakiriti Kuntal who explores the geometry of longing and human touch. This is a fantastic way to introduce a collection with such a title. Shape is center to body image, and as the editors write we are still a long way from accepting ourselves physically. The movement against body shaming is contemporary. The uniqueness of the human form is degraded through bullying, harassment, and general neglect of one’s own physical space which is often the result of social isolation. These poems collect a universal sense of the erogenous zones we each embody as part of a unique creative experiment we call “Life.”

Each poet’s section begins with a note containing biographical information and the poet’s thoughts on the meaning of eroticism. Living itself is erotic as many of these poems suggest. Prathami writes in her note, “To be erotic is to be free and safe.” This statement reminds us that eroticism is a state of being, not necessarily an act. It is conditional on one’s being.

The Shape of a Poem is not without precedent. The editors open the anthology by voicing their gratitude for several anthologies of such import and maintenance.  Sam Hamill’s book The Erotic Spirit: An Anthology of Poems of Sensuality, Love and Longing carried its scope across the ages, and other anthologies mentioned convey the feelings of the subcontinent. The editorial intention is not fresh, but what we see uniquely in this collection is poetry of the covid era speaking deeply across continents. It seems that Indian poets are the most represented in the book, but that doesn’t detract from the universal scale contained therewith. The Shape of a Poem explores language as erotic across continents in an era when human beings are at their most desperate loneliness of spirit and body. Certainly, poetry speaks to the loneliness of heart we all experience. There are only a few poems that suggest the erotic can also be healing. Fulfillment of the erotic impulse is contrary to its power. Its power is distance, longing, and deep harmony with being. Although several poems address beauty and desperation in eroticism, there are not too many writings concerning how such an impulse can heal. In what ways can sensuality heal the human spirit and mind? Perhaps this is an error of our times – seeking without finding.

Srividya Sivakumar and Paresh Tiwari in editing this volume explore the human form in ways that perplex with imagination. Poetry comes from depth of spirit, something imparted to its progenitor by nature. The creative impulse itself is sensual. This book also includes line drawings by Paresh Tiwari, thus accentuating the simplicity and charm of the volume. In creating this anthology, the editors rejoice at life in the dark.

Bio:
Dustin Pickering is founder of Transcendent Zero Press and editor-in-chief of Harbinger Asylum. He featured for Houston’s popular reading series Public Poetry in 2013 and was a Special Guest Poet for Austin International Poetry Festival that same year. He was shortlisted at Adelaide Literary Journal’s short story competition in 2017.

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