Book Review by Basudhara Roy
Title: Song of a Rebel and Other Selected Poems
Author: Bina Sarkar Ellias
Publisher: Red River, 2020
With what word to reach into the future,
With what word to defend human happiness --
It has the smell of freshly baked bread --
If the language of poets cannot search out
Standards of use to later generations?
For centuries, poets have vested ardent faith in the ability of poetry to not just effectively describe the world but also to contour, transfigure and transform it by its disruptive power, its clairvoyance and its messianic faith. In light and dark, hope and despair, and accomplishment and loss, poetry has stood firmly beside life as a pathfinder and witness, leading it to refinement and wisdom. Questioning the world’s logic, battling its ideas and speaking truth to power, poets continue to be its “unacknowledged legislators”, speaking eloquently and memorably on behalf of its disillusionment, rage and suffering, and leading the way for constructive social action. Bina Sarkar Ellias’ Song of a Rebel and Other Selected Poems is a fine collection of fifty-one poems that engages with the injustices of the world in this fiery spirit of moral questioning.
Poet, writer and art curator, Bina Sarkar Ellias is the founder, editor, designer and publisher of International Gallerie, an award-winning global arts and ideas publication from India. Song of a Rebel and Other Selected Poems is her fourth collection of poems, her earlier collections being The Room, Fuse and When Seeing is Believing . An experienced art-critic, her poetic voice draws richly from her committed engagement with art and her poems have found a home in many languages of the world through translation.
“It happens that we live in a world fraught with fragility,” writes Ellias. “There are certain forces that prefer to divide and disrupt humanity and there are certain forces that feed our souls with peace and serenity. Through time, the poems in this book arrived unannounced as all poems do; each time, it was an outrage or a helplessness that compelled a response to assaults on humankind by scheming minds.”
In putting forth a narrative of megalomania and oppression, the book, indeed, documents the keen angst of a sensitive and thinking mind in a callous, unprincipled world. Here are poems that emerge, wave-like, from the depths of fury and despair to speak out against the looming issues of our times – cultures of dictatorship, suppression of the forces of democracy, stifling of plurality, erasure of rights, jingoism, colonisation of nature, blatant capitalism, identity-conflicts and violence against women, amongst others. Ranging from the sufferings of Syria, Zimbabwe, Kashmir, Bangladesh, Istanbul, Baghdad, Lahore, Manchester, the Indian farmers, the Rohingyas, Nirbhaya, our imprisoned student activists and so much more, Ellias poignantly conjures before our eyes a global collage of infringement, discrimination and injury.
In Ellias’ poetic narrative, the only division that exists in the world is between the callous and the compassionate. The former dwell in an unending wilderness – “these minds/ that cannot/ decipher/ the essence/ of humanity/ these minds/ that are mowed/ and manicured/ to erase all/ reason;/ that believe/ a gun or grenade/ can complete/ the circle/ of life; can part/ the sea/ of reason so the/ bludgeoned brain/ and sterile heart/ may cross.” (‘If it’s Not Me, it Will Be You’)
In ‘Cement in Our Souls’, the poet laments the world’s stark sterility – “the dignity/ of life drowned/ in a desire so distant/ from Van Gogh’s/ lust for life/ or Monet’s tranquil pond/ so far from/ Hiroshige’s pastorals,/ so distant/ from Tagore’s/ Song of the Road/ so removed from Lennon’s/ Imagine./ must we celebrate/ concrete?/ must we be robots/ and cement/ our souls?”
For the committed activist that Ellias is, a poem is no leisurely arrival into the world but an urgent statement of its status, “an invasion of clean air.” (‘This is Not a Poem’) Her language, in its fidelity to the colloquial rhythm and its determined, energetic flow across difficult sentiments does away with all impediments of punctuation so that the overall impression that the book offers the reader is one of a tremendous, roaring waterfall intending to sweep all in its restless questioning. Note the primal power of ‘Assault’, for instance, a poem worth quoting in its entirety:
assaulted by malls and high rises
that tower like beasts on the streets
suffocating your breath assaulted
by robotic yearnings for more and
more assaulted by neons that wink
and beckon like lecherous pimps
on the wayside I navigate the city
walking warily through mine fields
of consumption that suck the
energies out of every cell, every pore
of my untrained body that craves to
curl into a cave of nothingness.
The beat of the poem fills one with a sense of desperation, exhaustion and collapse – the exact emotive signification of the idea of ‘assault’. And yet, in the midst of this roaring disquiet, the poet does not fail to remind the reader that her chosen genre of protest is poetry and not prose. Every now and then, she lets fall a rhyme for the perceptive ear and as her lines flow relentlessly, often unforgivingly like rain, the chaos of the world is watermarked by the poetic faith of hope’s resurrection. Mark the following lines in ‘Manufactured Fear’:
i do not dread
fear that is force-fed
into my flesh
fear of who i am
and who i cannot be
fear of flags
that dictate my identity
fear of food
that betrays my religion
or my lack of one
is seen as blasphemy.
Ellias’ images are assiduously wrought as she consistently attempts to summon both shock and tenderness to her verse. In ‘Intangible Knowing’, conformity is the myopia of those who live “barren linear lives” with “mathematical/ precision,/ and weigh/ life’s moments/ with the entitlement/ of acquisition.” In ‘This Skin of Freedom’, freedom is the fragile skin that all have the right to lay claim to. Rivers become arteries in ‘Ode to Bangladesh’. ‘Call of Resistance’ visualizes the hammering of the coppersmith barbet as a ceaseless call of resistance. In ‘It Was Then’, Shaheen Bagh and Mumbai Bagh are “sister fields – fertile/ with bloodied wounds” that blossom “when the fires of hate/ had burnt them.” The poet selects her allusions from a sprawling cosmopolitan canvas of art and life as she steadily links minds and agonies across the cultures and conflicts of continents in a seamless whole. In ‘Ode to Utopia’, utopia assumes the form of a diffuse oneness of mind – “it was as if raag bhairav/ was in dialogue with/ Mozart’s Nocturne/ and a shamisen strummed/ to the tinkle/ of the African kalimba -/ it was as if/ spring had migrated/ into our lives/ for permanent/ residency.”
Making way into the world of Song of a Rebel and Other Selected Poems is to be receptive to the poet’s testimony of the acute disjointedness of our times and the imperative for healing through acknowledgement of the need for dissent. In ‘Rebel’, the poet compares the rebel to “a tired/ moth-eaten/ leaf/ that once/ knew/ its green/ shield/ could battle/ arrogant winds/ that swept/ over its/ tree abode.” It is easy and legitimate, perhaps, to bow down and give in to helplessness and dismay in the face of the rampancy and ruthlessness of our times. However, as Ellias reminds us, the act of resistance is a duty both civic and humane:
life can be bitter –
but you can dwell
with love and courage
if you repel.
life can be better
if you repel-
life can be better
if you rebel.
In ‘books’, the poet writes, “a book is a river; a voyage into the unknown/ on a paper boat.” Bina Sarkar Ellias invites her readers to make this voyage with conviction and faith in the possibility of a better world. To rebel, as her poems point out, is no more a philosophical choice but a compelling necessity given the depravity of our times. We are living through an important moment in history dominated by tales of “tattered democracy” and “new age fascists” (‘I Hear’). The choice is no longer between whether to rebel or hold on to silence but overwhelmingly now, a question of life and death.
Song of a Rebel and Other Selected Poems is a wake-up call to humanity worldwide to adopt defiance as a mode of life if being is to chosen over annihilation.
Basudhara Roy teaches English at Karim City College affiliated to Kolhan University, Chaibasa. Her recent (second) collection of poems is Stitching a Home (New Delhi: Red River, 2021). She loves, rebels, writes and reviews from Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, India.
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