There is a feel good factor about Gauranga Mohanta's collection of prose poems A Green Dove in Silence. A neat jacket, crispy pages, lucid translation, handy size, hardbound—everything about the book, including the stated hybridized form of prose-poems highlighted in the color coded title seems fresh. The poems read like prose; well they in their justified block paragraphs even look like prose. The absence of versification, however, does not make them any lesser poems. Prose-poets, if there is any such label, have all poetic raw materials in their arsenal: symbols, metaphors and metonymies, images, alliteration, pun, allusion and the rest of the gang of figures of speech. Practitioners of prose poems push the limit of poetry by exploring human consciousness without positing it as a metrical composition.
Such experiments can be traced back to 19th century France when figures such as Aloysius Bertrand, Baudelaire, Mallarme, and Rilke were busy capturing the ephemeral, fugitive contingency in art through a momentary experience that is not constrained to its given moment. Baudelaire, for instance, revolted against the straitjacket of classical French versification to create by his own admission “a poetic prose, musical without rhyme or rhythm, supple and jerky enough to adapt to the lyric movements of the soul, to the undulations of reverie, to the somersaults of conscience.”
Prose poems thus act as a bridge between Romanticism and Modernism: the subjective introspection in free verse became further rhyme-less in search of objective correlatives to give vent to the external chaos. The genre-bending attempt became particularly popular among some American writers as David Lehman in his 2003 anthology of prose poems has shown. Lehman includes even works of Emerson and Poe as prose poems. The imagists of course are the other contenders of this hybrid genre as they too tried to subvert the strict code of versification. Tagore toyed with the idea in his Lipika, but was hesitant to call them poems. Perhaps the most obvious instance of prose poems that my generation grew up with is Khalil Gibran's The Prophet. Gibran's reflection on his loneliness as an immigrant in the US forces him to paint his emotions in words. Prose poems, by design, are primarily about seeing and feeling.
Gauranga Mohanta tries to do the same. He wants us to take pulse of the universe with some chosen images. There are forty prose poems in A Green Dove in Silence preceded by a note from the author, a foreword by the translator and a critical piece on the poet. All the poems have been translated from Bangla; the poet himself has translated thirteen of them. The first piece describes the encounter between a water bird and a colorful fish. The narrator immerses in water like a pankauri (a little cormorant) and sees the fish that is about to be consumed by death. Thoughts prey upon the mind that turn the meeting into an overture of life and death: “The supernatural bond between a pankauri and a fish makes an intense colour. This colour is essential for extending the self before death. My blackness is tinted with the wealth of a pankauri. In my prayer there remains a surpassing ray given off by miraculous tail and fins” (1). The placement of the poem suggests that the author is using the idea of nuanced consumption as an essential creative act in order to set the tone for the other poems.
The power of Mohanta's poems lie in the multiplicities. They drift in different layers of time and space. His poem “Orchid and Inner Scene,” where the mid-flight reverie prompted by the image of an orchid in a mirror reminds him how the machine is making him cross the mighty Jamuna below while taking him away from the Phuljor river of his native village.
Mohanta has the poet's eye for details. The selection of subject matter is refreshing to say the least: the whirling of a whistle cork, the geometrical patterns of lotus, or the vibration in the air. He is particularly obsessed with place names. His thoughts cast anchor in different parts of the globe, making him a thought trotter. Most of his poems are reveries. The title poem is Keatsian in scope. It reminds one of Nightingale that faded into the wood. Mohanta conjured the winged creature and cloaked it in words. There are meditations, reflections, real and imaginary journeys, engagement with abstruse and abstract thoughts. The notable absence is that of politics. The bio of the poet as a civil servant is clue enough for those who want to understand why.
I have not read these prose poems in their original Bangla. Looking at the translation alone it is difficult to discern the merit of some of the poems. There are times when 'prose' takes over and 'poetry' is sidelined. One wonders, what makes these lines a poem?
“ … A sense of emptiness complicates life's meaning. As emptiness does not have well accepted meaning, it is fairly difficult to discover exact form of suffering.
Is life a meaningless prolonged speech? Sometimes I think to wipe out some words or remove the complete sentence. Sometimes I think there is meaning even in meaninglessness. Humans cannot go through all experiences of life” (“The Tale of Ever Flowing Life” 12-13).
Surely, the lines above read like a personal narrative, an essay. I think this is a classic example where poetry is lost in translation. Prose poems tread a fine line between two genres. The lines excerpted above have little to hide as they reveal a personal opinion in a straightforward manner. Although the overall quality of translation is quite lucid, in moments like these, as a bilingual reader I craved for the original Bangla. The book would have done well to incorporate both languages to cater to both local and global audiences.
The cover design by Jagdish Shankar featuring Rituparno Basu's art has the childlike simplicity that suits the general mood of reverie. The production of the book, done by New Delhi based Rubric Publishing, is superb. The jargon-laden critical piece on the poet's other work, translated from an article in Bangla, seems a bit out of place. It ruins the freshness of reading, and in my opinion it should go as an appendix in future productions.
The writer is Professor of English, University of Dhaka. Currently on leave, he is the Head of the Department of English and Humanities, University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh (ULAB).