Shankar, Ravi. The Many Uses of Mint, New and Selected Poems 1998-2018. Canberra, Recent Work Press, 2018. RRP $14.95. 208pp. ISBN: 9780648257943
The Many Uses of Mint collects together new and selected poems by Ravi Shankar. Published by Canberra-based Recent Work Press, this handsome volume introduces the reader to the dazzling breadth of Shankar’s oeuvre, spanning 20 years of writing and editing, with poems dating from 1998 to the present. The volume is divided into seven sections: Homage, Pataphysics, Singularities, Voyages, Post-pastoral, Carnal Nature and, finally Phrase and Contour. These loosely conceived thematic divisions signal both the breadth of Ravi Shankar’s interests and the depth of his writing. He has previously described himself as a ‘highbrow populist’ (Ram) and, in many ways, this remains an apt summary of Shankar’s referential style.
The Many Uses of Mint is peppered with dense allusions to literature, music and fine arts. Homage begins with a quote from Walt Whitman, ‘All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses’. Guiding the reader through this onward and outward journey, the poet traverses continents and diverse cultural territories. One moment he models a poem on Christopher Marlowe (‘The Flock’s Reply to the Passionate Shepherd’), the next he pays homage to Frida Kahlo (‘The Two Fridas (1939)’), and then for an encore he reworks Lord Byron (‘Lines on a Skull’). In a kind of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man variant, Shankar recalls how he was busy
working on some
math problem or pining over the redhead I was smitten
with, carrying my dog-eared copy of Sylvia Plath,
dreaming myself a writer before I had even written
a stanza worth rereading (‘Thomas Jefferson in Kathmandu’ (6-7)).
Shankar has tenaciously pursued that dream; The Many Uses of Mint gives the reader a strong sense of the tenacity and omnivorous reach enfolding diverse traditions, Western and Indian, shaping his literary output.
Music is a strong note throughout this collection. The book begins with an upbeat poem about ‘sexy / and slightly sinister’ (1) Prince (‘The Utopian’); a quote from John Cage provides an avant-garde kick-off to ‘As Slow As Possible’. There’s an elegant homage to Frank Sinatra titled ‘The Day the Voice Died (1998)’:
wouldn’t it have been perfect if Blue Eyes
came on the jukebox and a busload of bobbysoxers
poured in (25)
And then there are the visual arts. In ‘The Tub (1886)’, Shankar references Edward Degas—‘Drawing is not what one sees but what one can make others see’ (17). The parallels with writing poetry and the capacity to help readers envision the world anew, revealing the mundane as marvelous, are clear. ‘Sea Watchers (1952)’ tackles Edward Hopper’s haunting, iconic painting of a couple gazing out to the ocean beyond, separated by the immensity of their own interiority. There’s a sadness pervading the work. Shankar writes that the beach is ‘gull-less, garrulous only on the clothesline / where orange and yellow towels flutter dry’ (18). In ‘Maine Islands (1938)’, a painting by artist and poet Marsden Hartley, known for his roughly rendered landscapes, provides inspiration. Shankar pithily describes
the horizon bathed blue when clouds shrink
above the serrated treeline & below the chunky, brown
& slate, grainy, Cezannesque earth (22-23)
As we have seen, Shankar’s poems are sometimes prompted by other people’s attempts to represent the world—whether literary, musical or artistic. He is constantly chasing clarity, hoping for an epiphany or maybe just a sliver of enlightenment. He goes to ‘the other side of the world’ and still ‘can’t see clearly what has succeeded and what failed’ (‘Thomas Jefferson in Kathmandu’ (8)). He stands in the ‘sticky pre-dawn’ at Angkor Wat as the temple ‘thickens with tourists of every flag’, all waiting for their sunrise (‘Sunrise over Angkor Wat’ (92)). In Phnom Penh, he watches ‘Burnt-out taxis rest like lozenges on a tongue of rain’ (‘The Theory of Radioactivity’ (175)). He has a kind of habitual restlessness, constantly ‘journeying’. ‘To stand still is to petrify’, he warns in ‘Funk and Wag: Revivals to Schopenhauer (2012) (29)’. The reader senses an enormous emotional toll to this peripatetic life.
But, at the same time, Shankar relishes being elsewhere, for the sheer adventure the world offers. In ‘A Square of Blue Infinity’, a homage to American short story writer and humorist O. Henry, he writes:
From where I’m sitting,
there is no dark, the whole sky
is lit up like a stadium, a thick braid
of traffic forms then unravels,
the Cisco Kid has just traversed
an arroyo to find his cheating lover
and next to me a gaunt woman mouths
lyrics, slowly, to a song I cannot hear. (36)
In the end, no one can confine this poet to a specific place. Shankar has a complex relationship to his country of birth, the USA, and his Indian background, a complexity he navigates through poetry. There’s a tension in his work between a proclamation of self as tabula rasa and a recuperative and somewhat fraught relationship to his beginnings. In an interview he once referred to his ‘attempts to integrate my Indian heritage and my American environment into some cohesive sense of self’ (Ram). That attempt at integration sometimes involves a moving away from strictures of commonplace expectations, ‘exploding the sacred / into a storm of shrapnel’ (‘Funk and Wag’ (30)). At other times, that grappling with identity is cast in more black and white terms. In ‘Pyramid Starship’, Shankar contrasts ‘afrofuturists’ whose ‘tight-weaves braid a distant, blacker dimension’ with ‘whiteness’—‘mayonnaise slathered on bone white bread’ (53). In ‘The Cyprus Problem’, he observes ‘too loud lager louts whitish as mussels tugged from shells’ (95). These images of nauseating whiteness speak to the racialised politics of writing as a ‘TamBram’ (‘Sam the Super’) but refuse didacticism.
Some of Shankar’s poetry explores childhood. We glimpse the boy who resists his parents plans for his future, plotting his own escapes:
what time is it in the mind of the knock-kneed Indian boy who waits for the light to change so he can check the comic book store to see if the new issue of the Watchmen, which he will read while his parents quarrel about his future, is currently on the rack (‘Notes towards Timekeeping’ (55)).
Here he observes his younger self and his refusal of his parent’s demands from a distance, the passage of time providing an almost elegiac lens.
Shankar’s parents entered into a traditional arranged marriage. The poet expresses both a deep ambivalence about his Tamil-Brahmin father and a touching sorrow for the predetermined shape of his younger mother’s life: ‘Finding out she was betrothed, my mother bawled / in the high branch of a banyan tree’ (‘Immediate Family’ (63)).
In the section ‘Singularities’, there’s a poem titled ‘Exile’. Here Shankar refers to himself as ‘dispossessed, though not quite, because I never owned what has been taken from me’. This is a lament of unbelonging and also a recollection of racist stigmatisation as a child in Virginia:
Even as a child when I was slurred in school—
towel head, dot boy, camel jockey—
none of the abuse was precise (61)
Shankar refuses to be tied down either by other people’s plans or by belittling jibes. But that does not mean that he is unaffected by them.
A strong sense of being ‘extraneous’, of being ‘honed in aloneness’ (‘Exile’ (61)), is part of a more general longing that imbues Shankar’s work. It is the longing of a man who frequently sees himself as an outsider but who is also desperately in love with the world and its tangible offerings.
Ravi is a man who wants. He stops to stare at a girl undressing in her window (‘How the Search Ended’); he pens ‘an Ode to Quickies’; he tries to persuade a paleontologist to leave aside her bones for his (‘Paleontology’s End’); he contemplates betrayal (‘Thought at Night’) and celebrates the rice and beans pleasures of ‘easy domesticity’ (‘Home Together’). In ‘Symbiosis’ he writes of ‘the way the cracked curb / appears granular in sunlight’, of how the sheer density and fullness of the world exceeds our attempts to describe, to name and to classify—‘with obstinate grace things slip name’s knots’ (44). Again, in ‘Blotched in Transmission’, he describes the impossibility of writing, of how experiences will inevitably ‘slip through the noose of language’ (48).
But this poet is determined to try to describe the richness of the world and its multiple offerings. In ‘Spangling the Sea’, he remarks on ‘the kaleidoscopic plenitude that yaws and rolls’ (49). He observes the ‘feathered audacity’ of the peacock (‘Peacock’ (107)), bumblebees who ‘dance an alphabet of honey & wax’ (‘Bumblebee’ (110)), the transient beauty of a double rainbow (‘Double Rainbow’), the spectacle of fireflies as ‘night falls moonless in a bindweed field’ (‘Fireflies’ (116)). In ‘Crossings’, he celebrates the threshold ‘Between forest & field’, an enchanted space where ‘boundlessness opens’ (99). He meditates on darkness, creating a sensual geography with ‘a flavor close / to anise, a texture plush as peat moss’ (‘Dark’ (104)). For a moment we too are in New England, tasting, touching our surrounds.
Shankar is unafraid of profundity. His being in love with the world inevitably conjures the sadness of separation from it. We are, in the end, carrion for buzzards with their
dark blades lying in wake
until age or wound has turned canter
into carcass (‘Buzzards’ (106))
He grapples with the immensities of the physical universe – ‘the smashed up bits of asteroids and comets / orbiting a planet’ (‘The Perils of Homecoming’ (178)), with the fine line dividing ephemerality and permanence.
As part of this pursuit of worldly complexity, Shankar loves to play with words and form. He revels in texture and patterns. This immersion in language can be straightforwardly alliterative as in ‘Rodeo Cowboy No. 1 (1978)’:
In a dervish
of dust that disquiets
the limbs (21)
Or it can be far more complex, informing the structure of a poem. Thus, in ‘Conjoined’, he writes about connected twins who worked as sideshow freaks or circus spectacles. The poem is structured so that stanzas sit separate but next to each other on the page. They can be read across or down. These separate stanzas are, literally, conjoined, with intermittent centred stanzas so that the pattern of the poem is one of separation and coming together, mimicking its subject matter.
To give another example, one of my favourites, ‘The Melancholy of Shadows at Dawn’, is a reflection on the banks of the Pearl River. The second stanza is a reversal of the first stanza—form mirroring subject matter—and together they provide a meditation on the rippling contours of dissolving identity:
I can barely see myself reflected;
my lover, daughters, mother plunge
through me, wispy as shepherd’s purse (73)
These poems point to Shankar’s dexterity with form. But they are never merely clever. The experimentation does important work—it is both playful and poignant, encouraging the reader to see afresh.
Shankar’s father used to send him newspaper clippings about computer classes at the local polytechnic, claiming ‘It’s never too late!’ (Livingston). He performed once, to his son’s amazement, as an amateur magician. The young Ravi was his ‘caped and turbaned assistant’, tapping on boxes and saying magical phrases (‘Sam the Super’ (65)). That son, turbaned or not, has retained a magic touch. Shankar knows that writing is not simply a way of reflecting the world. It’s an art and an artifice that makes others see—momentarily gifting them his generous perspective. Like a painter, he revels in both the light and the darkness. He aches to create something new, ‘steps the likes of which / had never before been choreographed’ (‘Movements’ (24)). In this wonderful collection, we have the privilege of reading these original creations and of being privy to the sheer breadth of this man’s imagination.
Ram, D. ‘Riding the boat (interview with Ravi Shankar)’. Jacket, Jacket magazine, 16 March 2002, http://jacketmagazine.com/16/dev-iv-shank.html (accessed 15 September 2018).
Livingston, R. ‘Interview with Ravi Shankar’. The Best American Poetry. July 24 2008, http://thebestamericanpoetry.typepad.com/the_best_american_poetry/2008/07/interview-wit-7.html (accessed 15 September 2018).
Rozanna Lilley grew up in South Perth, the youngest of five children. Her parents – Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley – were both left wing radicals and writers. They moved to Sydney in Lilley’s last year of primary school. After school, Lilley attended a drama school and was in two feature films: Journey Among Women (1977) and The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1978). Lilley has worked as a social anthropologist at universities in Australia and Hong Kong, returning home when her second child was born. Lilley then completed a second PhD in Early Childhood at Macquarie University. She has published creative non-fiction and poetry in national newspapers, literary journals and edited collections. Her latest book is Do Oysters Get Bored: A Curious Life (2018, UWA Publishing)