the forest i know
HarperCollins Publishers India, 2021
Available on Amazon Reviewing Editor: Priti Aisola
Re-reading Kala Ramesh’s book, the forest I know, in order to review it, I was filled with both awe and trepidation. It is a daunting task to review a book that is the culmination of 15 years of published poems – tanka, tanka sutra, tanka doha, cherita, haibun and tanka prose. In each poem one discerns the sure touch of a masterly poet-craftsman, who combines sensitive observation with depth of thought expressed in simple language. And her tanka shows this better than I can:
in the hands
of a master craftsman
and strings become
a resonant sitar
In Kala’s hands, words, sense perceptions, reflections, images, metaphors and rhythm come together to become ‘a resonant’ tanka.
Her book covers a range of themes: a quest for meaning, stillness and its contrary, pain in a relationship, the parting of ways, expectations and disappointment, disillusionment and a re-gathering of hope, the predicament of an urban woman, village women and their life stories, childhood, motherhood, maternal love, old age and its accompanying loneliness and other challenges. And as one reads and re-reads her work, one finds that her poems conceal as much as they reveal, veil as much as they unveil, from the reader the mysterious workings of a poet’s sensibility.
At the heart of this ‘gathering of verses’ is the quest ‘Who Am I’ (the title of her tanka sutra in the book), and this gives spiritual depth, poignant beauty and a gently pensive mood to many of her poems. This book traces her journey from the feeling of being ‘nowhere’ to a quiet spectacle of ‘the cranes once again colour[ing] the sky’. She moves from the desolateness of ‘nowhere’ to an image that symbolizes positive change or the hope of making a fresh beginning.
Quite a few of Kala’s poems are firmly placed within the Indian cultural context. For example, there are references to aum, Lord Yama, sacred basil, yoga, raga, veena, ektara, rangpanchami, just to name a few. This enriches, extends, and deepens the scope of tanka, a poetic form that is 1300 years old. In her tanka, idea and image coalesce to create a ‘polished’ beauty like ‘a glistening raindrop’. (Using Kala’s words here.)
It is a pleasure to read several instances of tanka prose in Kala’s book. In a style that is lucid and spare, attentive to detail, yet restrained, the prose piece culminates in a tanka (occasionally tanka intersperse the prose) where idea and imagery both extend and crystallize the theme/s explored in it. The tanka complements the prose and, along with the title, makes the whole work a wondrous, organic whole.
Sensitive and complex themes are handled with fluid ease and a sure grasp on craft. Love, longing, loneliness, aloneness, past hurts, forsaken dreams, the courage to forge ahead to enjoy ‘greener pastures’, memories of kids’ childhood, physical and emotional pain, death of a loved family member – it is not easy to explore these themes within the limited and stylized space of a tanka, tanka doha or tanka sutra. Yet she has done so with exquisite success.
A very tenderly sad and unforgettable tanka on the theme of death of a loved one is:
a yellow leaf
settles on its own
we ask the doctor to remove
grandma’s oxygen mask
In her creation, tanka doha, Kala ‘pair[s] tanka together to tell a story effectively’ and develop a theme more completely. I will choose one, which illustrates this aspect of her craft very well.
trying to merge
with twilight’s oneness … but
inside my chattering mind
on a forest trail
as leaves change colour
I bend to watch
the walking meditation
Here the narrator wishes to lose her separate identity and blend ‘with twilight’s oneness’ but a dual challenge awaits her: the monkey’s endless chatter plays inside her ‘chattering mind’, making it seemingly impossible for her to blend into the soothing softness of twilight. From a feeling of frustration in the upper verse there is a subtle shift to a note of hope in the lower verse: whether she can meditate or not in order to become one with the object of her attention, at least she can observe ‘the walking meditation/ of insects’ and immerse herself in it. And the entire theme unfolds through images, some of them timeless and universal – the ‘forest trail’ that provides the context for the lower tanka is the trail that could lead to awareness of the inner self if one is not led away by the alluring sights and sounds along the way.
Each tanka prose piece leaves a deep impress, however I will select just one of them to show you how Kala brings together multiple aspects of a single theme to elicit a sensitive response from the reader. In Tangled Strands (p. 3) Kala (the narrator?) shows us her neighbour – a reticent, lonely old woman with expressive eyes. And then comes the revelation that she’s ‘been hearing soft sobbing every night’, which ‘made a lullaby of sorts’ as she would drift into sleep. This is followed by the final scene of ‘a crowd around her [neighbour’s] gate’ and the news that she ‘had died in her sleep.’ This builds up to the final unsettling disclosure: ‘It was whispered that her only daughter had not visited for twenty-five years.’ Only a masterly storyteller knows how to create the portrait and life-story of a person in such few words and allow the reader to experience the old woman’s poignant situation. The tanka that is linked intimately with the prose, and yet shifts to another level of awareness about life, mystified me and me sit up –
from a branch
silver threads stretch
into the unknown …
a search for keys to open
spaces that have no doors
I asked myself: what is this frantic or flustered ‘search for keys’ and what are these spaces that they seek to open? Is it the spaces of the heart where one can walk in if one knows how to love unconditionally?
Through this review I can offer a prospective reader only a very fleeting glimpse into Kala’s book.
As I walked quietly through the forest I know, I realized that each poem is a unique tree with its own unique trunk, branches, roots, leaves and flowers (if it is a flowering tree). Each has its own singular mood and aura. And a single reading is not enough to help one become familiar with the voice and beauty of each poem-tree.
Whether one walks into and through this forest ‘barefoot’ or with footwear, one must do so with an open sensibility in order to receive its varied offerings.