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Guest Review: Vadher on Indian Poet Narayanan's Latest Collection

Snehal Vadher reviews

by Vivek Narayanan

In Life and Times of Mr S, Narayanan’s second collection of poems, at least two features of his work become established. The first is Narayanan’s deft style in which lived experience is rendered through a densely sensuous and abstract language. This feature reaches an apogee in the scintillating last poem, ‘That Touch Otherworldly…,’ where he writes, “and I swam/ swam in every direction burned/ in pinpricks/ wrung hollow by the night/ and I was one among the ants/ signalling to them/ and even the light green of/ my shirt hurt me…,” (re-)creating the experience of feeling an unborn baby’s kick from outside

The second feature of Narayanan’s work is the relentless reworking of fixed forms, as was amply evident in his first collection, Universal Beach, where he explored the idea of a sonnet of variable line length. This trait becomes more involuted in Life and Times of Mr S, as form, if there has to be one at all, requires excavation by the reader, who has to rely on the most apparent characteristic of the poems: repetition of words. An attempt to note down the repeating words reveals several variants, suggesting the idea, a central one, of repetition as not simply a limiting factor but as one that generates and keeps the tension between the limiting and delimiting tendencies within each poem. Narayanan quietly announces these ideas in ‘A Brief Explanation of Mr S’s Accent,’ when he writes, “Close attention to its/ timbre might allow a new faith in the fact of/ continuous revision.” 

Revisioning and re-creation are traits observable in the constant modulation of voice that occurs in most of the poems in Life and Times of Mr S. Consider ‘Mr S, On First Looking into Parthasarathy’s Cilappatikaram,’ where Narayanan writes: 

which is to say tragedy always in the guise of a stranger an anklet

like some kind of fake identikit

which is to say Mr Subramaniam our friend our friend in our

own image without rein of horse-cart without ticket

to space station

which is to say nevertheless let us not mask our bourgeois difference

which is to say not without the ability to register a certain daily

grateful quota of iota pleasure 

Overlying the connotation of avant-garde play with form (for readers familiar with Narayanan’s work, especially his interest in the Oulipo*) and the Whitman-like expansion of lines (a fact that becomes tangible in reading out the poem), are two other voices audible in this excerpt. One is the echo of chant, referring by default to the Psalms, created by the initial rhyming phrase “which is to say.” The second one is the mock-heroic voice of adventures in the novel form, like the voice of The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman and All About H. Hatterr (the all-encompassing title of Narayanan’s book is a more direct reference to these books) evident in the lines “Mr Subramaniam our friend our friend in our/ own image without rein of horse cart without ticket/to space station.” This of kind of modulation or layering of voices gives rise to the shifty, Gogolian Mr S, the very nature of whose being is play, beginning with his name, which has at least ten versions: “Mr Sub-sub,” “Subraman-i-am,” “Subbu,” “Meester Subra-Teste,” “Subramanearlyunpronounceableanian,” “Subby,” “Master S,” “Mr S,” “Subramaniam,” and “Mr Subramaniam.” It is through the ever-modulating voice of Mr S that Narayanan’s poems achieve a wonderful balance between the playful and the serious, making the book not exclusive to readers of “experimental” poetry but relevant for any reader engaging with contemporary realities. It allows him to write on one of the oldest issues of India in a liberating yet honest manner, in ‘On the Necessity of Speaking of Caste:’ “Always/ the coast of saying too much versus/ the inland of saying little. Often/ the boast of castlessness/ cast about while coarsening/ the mixture in tentative/ proffered proof, corset-/ ripping, habit cleaning, cross-/ questioning each minutae of/ self performance for evidential/ taint…” 

Life and Times of Mr S achieves a playful engagement with cultural and linguistic pluralities we use to create ourselves and it should be read for its bold exuberance, not without self-doubt, in attempting to acknowledge and accept them all.

Snehal Vadher studied Comparative Literature and Creative Writing at universities in the UK. He teaches literature at school level and conducts creative writing workshops in Bombay. Some of his short short fiction can be found online at nthposition and his poems have appeared in issues of Nether magazine and in the latest issue of Almost Island journal. He maintains a blog ( where he writes about poetry and other literary things.

* Narayanan has reviewed a book of essays by Jacques Roubaud for Eyewear:
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