the forest i know - review by Jenny Ward Angyal. Ribbons, Winter 2022

Updated: Mar 27

The River Keeps Giving

Jenny Ward Angyal A review in Ribbons: Winter 2022

the forest i know: a gathering of tanka verses, Kala Ramesh. HarperCollins India, 2021. ISBN: 978-93-5422-758-5. 166 pages, 5.0 x 7.75 inches. Paperback $11.34, Kindle eBook $7.99,

to become

that glistening raindrop

a long journey

as I sit polishing

each thought into a poem It is no accident that this book moves from maya (“illusion,” the title of the first section) to oneness (the title of the final section). The fundamental illusion under which human beings labor is the illusion of our own separateness from all that is. If you can transcend that illusion and “become / that glistening raindrop,” you will also understand the interconnected stories in everything. And if you are a poet like Kala Ramesh, you will polish those stories into poems.

I undo

my shoelaces

and stand barefoot —

the stories

in each blade of grass

the forest i know, which represents about 15 years of polishing thoughts into poems, offers more than 150 individual tanka, 5 tanka sequences or sutras, 11 tanka pairs or dohas, 27 tanka prose works, 9 haibun, and 7 cherita. There’s an equal richness of themes and stories —stories of childhood, womanhood, family, marriage, divorce, love, and loss—together with wonderment at our place in the universe.

While many of the themes are universal, the book was unmistakably written by a woman—even before the first section, as a kind of verse preface, there are two tanka sutras entitled “garbha: the womb” and “Ah Woman . . .” And other poems throughout the book explore the intimate, lived reality of being female:

a sudden spurt

of warm feeling ...

my blood

from a womb

I knew nothing about

millions of eggs

in a female foetus ...

the egg

my daughter releases

was made in my womb

In a very concrete way “millions of eggs” explores the themes of time, change, and continuity that run like a river throughout this book. Mother, daughter, and granddaughter are literally one flesh, and yet each individual becomes a series of different people as she moves through her lifetime, while somehow mysteriously remaining herself.

on the verge

of recalling childhood

I dip into sleep

trying to make a straight line

curve into a circle

The tanka’s first three lines are straightforward—that struggle to hold on to fading childhood memories. But what are we to make of the last two lines? If time is linear, an unreturning arrow from past to present to future, is it only memory that tries to curve that straight line into a circle? Or could it be that time is cyclical?

is time always new .?

then what was that river

that passed

by you yesterday

in which I’m standing now

Note the curious punctuation at the end of line one. First, a space, letting time and the line flow onward. Then a period, shutting down the flow, followed immediately by a questioning of that full stop.

This tanka is both the first and the last tanka in the sutra called “Ah Woman . . .”, pulling the sequence around into a circle as it explores the stories of women with whom the narrator senses her own continuity despite their differences.

Like all good tanka, Kala Ramesh’s tanka are often composed of images not easily explained or paraphrased, yet deeply resonant:

the river

has no shadow

to call its own

the leaping shadow of a fish

escapes the hook

For all its philosophical depth, this is a book of poetry, not logical argument. Maybe we are fish swept along in time’s river, or beating upstream against the current, powered by memory. But like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, do we see only shadows, and not the reality behind them?

In the forest i know, explorations of time and change are often interleaved with poems that explore themes of oneness, the identity of the transient individual self with something larger and more lasting.

easily drawn

into the stillness

between stars ...

I look for those spaces

within me

One entire section of the book is called “within and without,” and there is a strong feeling that inside and outside are “not two”—a steady pull towards stepping beyond our habitual dualistic thinking:

stepping beyond

what has no beyond

in my mind

that flower lives forever

I know not where

For a moment we leave behind time’s river and its inexorable movement through the duality of life and death, and enter instead a place where “that flower lives forever.” The poem conveys a sense of unfathomable mystery—“beyond/what has no beyond”—along with the stubborn struggle to capture that mystery in words and images, no matter how inadequate. In one haibun with the distinctly Indian flavor that adds so much to this book, a wise man sits in silence under a banyan tree for forty-five minutes while people wait for him to speak; at last, he says simply, “the birds have said everything I wanted to say today.”

However, the poet continues to try, even while acknowledging the impossibility of competing with the message of the birds:


all over my poems ...

the birds

in the sky leave

no trace

Readers will be grateful for her ongoing efforts; the fingerprints remind us of our humanness in the face of mystery, and lend a light touch of humor and humility to so many poems:

on a forest trail

as leaves change colour

I bend to watch

the walking meditation

of insects

Here the poet turns an observation of a common insect into a meditation on the value of slipping out of one’s small self into something larger—or slipping smoothly out of this life into the next:

set into motion

each raindrop


toward becoming one

with its image in the pond

Pausing for a moment from examining theme (which I believe is Ramesh’s greatest strength as a poet), we might look briefly at her creative use of space in tanka. In the poem just above, the indentation of the first three lines creates a cascading effect, like the tumbling, racing raindrops. Similarly, in “fingerprints,” discussed above, the uneven indentations of the last three lines create the effect of erratic, darting flight across the page, with the brief final line leaving only a small trace on the paper.

The prose passages in her haibun and tanka prose show similar attention to craft. Sometimes the “prose” is actually free verse, prose poem, or stream-of-consciousness: “my sunset years caught in an orb-weaver’s web the silver thread sways a single breath starts and ends from where to where?”

“A single thread from where to where”—how and where and when does a human lifespan begin and end? Or does it have a beginning and an end? We can only wonder—and marvel at the beauty of that silver thread. Following the long, winding strand of poems through the forest i know, the reader will travel forests both known and unknown, within and without, accompanied by a poet who explores with deep gratitude what it means to be human.

I gather

one moon after


into my hands ...

the river keeps giving ***

Written by Jenny Ward Angyal, this review was published in Ribbons: Winter 2022.

the forest i know was launched at the prestigious Jaipur Literature Festival 2022 on March 12 at Jaipur Clarks Amer. The noted author, poet, translator and politician, Mr Pavan K. Varma was in conversation with Kala at the packed Darbar Hall. Another brilliant review of this book was written by Tish Davis in contemporary haibun online If you get some time, do take a look. _()_)

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