By Dustin Pickering
How much do poets and dentists have in common? Well, since poetry is the act of metaphor it can be argued that any profession is akin to poet. In this particular instance, however, I would like to argue that poets are sayers and certainly need clean teeth when speaking lucidly and fluidly. Also, poetry is often like pulling teeth…or is it? Does it come fluidly? Does it work its way into your mind and heart with ease? Prosperio Saiz in The Bird of Nothing writes, “The rhythmic flow of poetic saying—not the said—pure and simple.” This implies that poetry is indeed flowing, something easy and fulfilling. This statement also illuminates the nature of poetics and its relation to poetry. Poetry does not know rules, laws, and concrete guidelines. This is why it adapts to the modern world. Poetics attempts to box poetry in, to define it as a certain thing. Often poets and scholars interpret poetry by describing its qualities and comparing poems. Such work is part of a conversation. However, poetry as its own conversation cannot be crammed into a specific arena. You simply cannot make poetry, a round peg, fit a square hole.
The work of Kiriti Sengupta, a dentist by day, shows the reader how poetry can both define itself and envision whole realities without leaving the world behind. In The Earthen Flute, Sengupta’s poem “Kajal Deeghi” reads:
“I was inquisitive,
Water here didn’t look black,
Nor would I call it green
The lake seemed deep…
Her profound eyes resembled
The nest of a bird
The water in the lake
They house, and reflect…”
The first statement of the poem indicates a state of mind, a natural curiosity. We are following these impressions in their ambiguity because, naturally, ambiguity leads one to ponder. James Baldwin wrote in “A Talk for Teachers,” “Children, not yet aware that is dangerous to look to deeply at anything, look at everything, look at each other, and draw their own conclusions.” He further explains that education often leads one to see the society one is educated by critically, to turn on it for its inconsistencies and fabrications. One etymological root of education is “educare.” This word signifies a “drawing out.” Perhaps what this means is that something deep within, hidden by alternative forces prevailing, is in need of rescuing from the individual mind. This is the sanctity of individual identity, one’s right to decide upon matters with personal conscience: the inner logic, brutal and often disconcerting because it even disrupts our own notions of things. He He We are led through Sengupta’s own child-like wonderment as he attempts to discern the lake. Does this poem classify as surrealism, impressionism, some modern school of poetry? I honestly have to say no. The way each image twists and turns, perhaps due to its translation, from ambiguity to an unexpected consolidation of objects that have nothing in common superficially, can only be the work of a poet-magician who seeks to grasp the external/objective world by poetic analytical absorption. Sengupta’s classical curiosity brings him to ambiguity and finally to poetic revelation.
Note the use of eye imagery. The lake adapts human qualities. The reflections on Kajal Deeghi’s waters are not reality itself, but they resemble the truth of a world undefined. Like Narcissus, who is in love with his image in the water, the poet in these lines falls in love with reflection, his own. Everything in this poem is in the realm of seeming. In other words, the reflections are gesturing to another sense. I am reminded of Henry David Thoreau’s discussion with his love interest in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. He asks her to put her hand in the lake, telling her “Being is so much more interesting!” What the lake here houses is “Being.”
Is Sengupta more of an observer or an analytical poet? The distinctions are blurred in several of his works. For instance, in “The Encyclopedia” (My Glass of Wine, page 26) Sengupta compares the city of Madras to an encyclopedia. “I have not reached yet / the science of you…” This poem reflects an honest humility in seeking understanding. In essence, Sengupta recognizes the depth of the city and the knowledge of it he lacks. Although he knows it exceedingly well, he is not yet aware. The prose leading to the poem discusses the city’s luminous culture, its diversity of foods and history, and its historic values. Sengupta proudly exclaims his joy at the democratic nature he experiences in Madras. He embraces its traditions, its variety, and the teachings he draws from it. In this chapter of My Glass of Wine, Sengupta focuses on the humility his profession expects and the work it requires, but he also reminds us again that appearance is a deceptive thing. To base one’s assumptions on a quick glance is foolish. The author’s judgments of Madras reveal that he has observed in detail, revealing himself to be a man of the world.
Emerson distinguished between Thinking Man and Man Thinking in his essay “An American Scholar”. The difference indicated is between a man who is aware of his place in the world, and one who is flowing with the transitory nature of life. An American Scholar is one who knows and appreciates his specific place in the world. Sengupta writes, “A name is expected to be the gateway of the personality, and individuality.” This snippet of wisdom clarifies that identity is something through which we perceive. Again, take a look at the poem “Kajal Deeghi”. Perception as a mental phenomenon and an external concrete reality are confounded. We ask, which of the two are dominant? Anthony Storr, British psychoanalyst, writes in The Dynamics of Creation that humans are restless animals with huge brains that require continuous stimulation, and our nervous systems are invigorated by this sensual interplay. Storr writes, “The capacity for abstraction gives man a sense of mastery over that from which he is detaching himself.” Perhaps Sengupta’s analytical approach to Kajal Deeghi serves as mastery over his own curiosity, a curiosity which leads him to self-reflection through the otherness of the world of experience.
My own experiences with Kiriti have varied in nature. We exchange ideas, discuss life and literature, and occasionally bear our souls to one another. Kiriti is a genuine man and harbors certain traits I have found in other authors. In the process of preparing his collection Reflections on Salvation, he messaged me to say I had not done enough work on it. He reminded me that he cared for my book, published by his own Chitrangi Publishers. He asked questions that seemed to imply I took too long in doing the work he requested or that I neglected my duty as publisher. I have been in publishing long enough to know that the more serious an author is about a book, the more sharp his or her temper and expectations can rise. I called Kiriti later that evening and let him know I had been at work on the book and had other obligations keeping me busy, but that I cared about the book’s production. I poetically added that bringing a book into the world resembles the process of childbirth. The travails experienced by a mother provoke agony and impatience.
Naturally Kiriti was apologetic. When the collection of prose poems came out, the new genre of “flash wisdom”, named so by doctorate in linguistics Mary Madec, was born. I was surprised by the book’s reception. I understood that Sengupta is magical about attracting and keeping fans who love him for his spiritually practical vision. The book became a bestseller on Amazon within days as a new release in Indian literature, topping several books by renowned authors and translators.
In this fabulous collection, Sengupta writes:
“They say, God dwells within; it is then the mortal exploration of the resort where salvation is largely seen!”
This is the final statement of the collection of “flash wisdom”. Jesus Christ is recording in the Gospels as saying that the kingdom of Heaven is within you, and also that his Father’s house is many mansions. Keats wrote in one of his letters that most people prefer living in the basement to exploring the many rooms of the mind’s mansions. Again, Sengupta’s profound poetic character aids in is discernment of these truths. The foreword by Casey Dorman is both critical and eye-opening. Dorman, an atheist, writes, “…Sengupta’s message is an expression of the spirituality of faith in the material world.” I probably couldn’t have expressed my own sentiments concerning the collection better. Salvation, says Sengupta, is not a state for which we strive. Rather, it is a display external to our inner worlds and their dialogues. How often are we led astray today by angry voices or the pledge of self-doubt?
Of course, Sengupta is especially friendly to budding authors. James Baldwin wrote in Autobiographical Notes, “Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent.” I can testify to this essential truth—myself having been harassed for creating works of art, misunderstood, during times of plight. The encouragement of mature writers who have established their name in literature is something we must not overlook. It seems rare that a poet would reach out to lesser known poets to firmly pull them up the rungs of the ladder. Many writers will advise the public about their craft through books, and speak candidly about their struggles. We do not hear stories of those writers who extend themselves freely to those they admire below them—because, honestly, this is a rare trait today. There are thousands of budding poets looking for publishers and assistance in breaking through. The world today has produced the capacity for anyone to publish a book cheaply or to start an online journal, so the number of poets is soaring. However, the number of success stories are small in comparison.
When we spoke in the beginning of our relationship, I asked a candid question. “Kiriti, are you by any chance a homosexual?” He answered, not in the least offended, “No, Dustin, I am happily married. Why do you ask? Is there something that made you believe so?” When I showed Kiriti an interview between me and my friend Susan Summers for Austin Public Television, he commented that I looked beautiful. I am perfectly comfortable with compliments, but because of my experiences with gay men flirting with me I thought I had put together a serious picture of his intentions. He responded, in kind, that he “took a liking to young authors.” That explained it.
The small book A Freshman’s Welcome serves as proof. The book is an interview with budding young author Tanmoy Bhattacharjee. Mr. Bhattacharjee released a collection entitled Heights of Life. In A Freshman’s Welcome, Sengupta discusses the poetic process with him. Mr. Bhattacharjee states as a final note, “Effort is useless until it forms fruitful action.” Bhattacharjee admits that he benefited immensely from the study of English literature, but that literature is more the fruit of one’s visions of the world and the personality of the poet. I recall a statement made by a pessimistic poet in defense of his work that poetry emerges from “the personality of the poet.” In A Freshman’s Welcome, the intentions of our noble dentist are again revealed in its epigraph: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” The craft of writing is one of the deepest forms of brotherhood, and writers pursue this noblest profession with only small amounts of appreciation.
Sengupta is certainly equipped with the prerequisites to take young poets and writers under his wing. With a bestselling trilogy, a collection of verse that demonstrates outstanding use of metaphor and technique, and the latest bestseller Reflections on Salvation which created a new genre, Sengupta has certainly performed well as a poet and writer.
I was puzzled at first when he asked me to write a review for his trilogy. However, I committed to it and saw it published in Lost Coast Review. I interpreted his message as sagely religious, questioningly materialistic, and metaphorical. I describe at length the Hindu meditation practice and how it compares to the Biblical symbolism of The Garden of Eden. This interpretation is obviously my own. This reminds us how equivocal and splendid Sengupta’s verse and prose is. From it, I was able to delve into deeper metaphors and see similarities between Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. Casey Dorman, editor at Lost Coast Review, emailed me with applause. It isn’t a coincidence that even he, an atheist, is touched by the thoughts in Sengupta’s writings.
The trilogy is united by the common theme of the living experience. The Earthern Flute, aptly named, is its own metaphor about folklore and deep earthiness. I connected Sengupta with one of America’s most acclaimed poets, Lorna Dee Cervantes, to write a blurb for the book. Cervantes, who is no stranger to these requests, has said she will only blurb a book she absolutely loves. “These poems dwell a language beyond the many borders of languages,” wrote Cervantes, a Chicana poet who has read at Library of Congress as one of America’s top 100 poets writing today. Imagine if she can enjoy the cosmopolitan nature of Sengupta’s poetry, then so too can the readers of this essay!
Reflections on Salvation, published by my own Transcendent Zero Press, is nothing short of groundbreaking work. Any publisher would envy its credit to their list. Although the book appears as a series of prose poems, again appearances are deceiving. The book is a humorous and thoughtful picture of life, of God, and of religious truths and the theology establishment. Kiriti Sengupta, as a true poet and genuine man of spirit, asks that we his readers learn to see and experience things in new ways. He provides signposts. It is our destiny and calling to step beyond, see the open sky, and jump for gladness.
Wordsworth, in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, describes the cultural environment of his world. In 19th Century England, we see in his descriptions a world not unfamiliar. He is irritated by overstimulation through junk journals and trash media, and he seems especially offended by his fellows’ consent and contribution to it. This is the world today as much as then. Watch your local news and you hear of violence, warfare, local scandals, irritating discussions of national politics, commercial after commercial designed to exploit your feelings of helplessness and discontent, and of course the inevitable shallow inconsistencies. As an American of the Twenty-First Century witnessing a useless debate between two completely distracted candidates for President, I cannot say these things matter to me any less than they did for Wordsworth.
Wordsworth offers hope for those who see through this madness. He describes poetry as seeking the eternity of the mind, of use of democratic language that speaks directly to the “elementary feelings”, and of a celebration of the unique individual. I see something in human nature that distracts itself from its own depths, that turns on its own good will, and uses its own ignorance to dominate others. Perhaps this is where we have all gone immeasurably wrong. Yes, this problem is an immortal malaise.
Nothing true can succumb to this. Sengupta is highly aware of the limited and exclusive rights our frail world permits. The tagline for The Reverse Tree states: “trespassers won’t be prosecuted…this is all about you & me!” This is another example of Sengupta reminding the reader of his intimacy, of his private thoughts opening between himself and his equal partner the reader. His email signature reads, “My readers are my roses…” In the text of The Reverse Tree, we are faced with a sympathetic and honest portrayal of a transgender sex-worker named Lara. His approach to understanding this desolate woman is the same he expects in his readers: an honest openness, slow judgment, and willingness to understand. The human world should be as diverse as the world of flora, and in fact biodiversity is a friend to the survival of species.
His discussions with Lara leave him with his own questions. He wonders why anyone would want to marry a transgender woman who was born a man. This perplexing stranger showed Sengupta the strength in the human spirit. “Living as transgender is not an easy task, to say the least. I have seen Lara managing the role of female that she was not naturally bestowed with, but she was a free spirit who took up the challenge with enthusiasm.” [Page 19] This testifies to our author’s willingness to step out of his natural human prejudices to see the goodness and strength in a person who represents something profoundly unfamiliar.
In a recent article in Tuck Magazine, written by Kaushik Acharya, we are presented with an approach to The Earthen Flute as Sanskrit literature. Acharya writes, “Sanskrit literature deals with religious and spiritual subjects and themes. We can analyze the world through visions, one is practical and the other is spiritual.” The article further says that Sengupta’s poems are relevant to Sanskrit for “spiritual tone and wisdom”. A central concern of Kiriti’s has been the nature of translation. He discusses this in an article for Lost Coast Review. He questions if translation is a major obstacle to getting Bengali poetry into English readership. These problems of translation are frequently discussed among poets. To commit to a proper translation, an understanding of culture is necessary. No translation is exact and may not accurately represent the intended meaning. The bounds provided by each language are strengthened by their unique characteristics. Perhaps Bengali and English poets are too linguistically different to effectively communicate this way. In spite of the considerable cultural differences, with Bengali a deeply mystical language and English more directive driven, commonality can be found. This challenge may reveal questions more intimate to human nature than expected. Translation between cultures is poetic itself because it is analogy—an analogy that compares and contrasts ways of life, manners, and histories. It is an act which makes one mode of thought into another to communicate things which are blurred by the “falling tower of Babel.”
At last I come to the powerful review of Reflections on Salvation written by Sunil Sharma. In his short commentary he writes, “Through the book of ‘random’ thoughts, Kiriti undertakes and destabilizes the very act of hermeneutics and sets up the democratic right of the well-informed reader to assert their right and autonomy of their objective reading of a pluralistic text.” I believe this summarizes the entire body of work provided by Kiriti Sengupta.
(Dustin Pickering is founder of Transcendent Zero Press, a Houston, Texas based publishing company responsible for the award nominated literary journal Harbinger Asylum. He is a published poet internationally. In 2013, he was a featured poet for Houston’s most popular poetry reading series Public Poetry and has been nominated to feature for 2017. Pickering has published Reflections on Salvation, a bestseller by Kiriti Sengupta. His own books are available on Amazon.)