Songs of a Rebel

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?
	Czeslaw Milosz

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’:

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.




Of Journeying between Worlds

A Review of Nitoo Das’s Crowbite by Basudhara Roy

Title: Crowbite

Author: Nitoo Das

Publisher: Red River, 2020

In her essay, ‘Woman and Bird’ in What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, poet and essayist Adrienne Rich describes her sudden sighting of a magnificent great blue heron, a bird she has never seen from close quarters before and this brief encounter leads her on to a dialogic exploration of  “all the times when people have summoned language into the activity of plotting connections between, and marking distinctions among, the elements presented to our senses”, of the potentiality of making such experiences the means of interpretation of poetry and life. Concluding the essay, Rich writes:

“Neither of us—woman or bird—is a symbol, despite efforts to make us that. […] I made no claim upon the heron as my personal instructor. But our trajectories crossed at a time when I was ready to begin something new, the nature of which I did not clearly see. And poetry, too, begins in this way: the crossing of trajectories of two (or more) elements that might not otherwise have known simultaneity. When this happens, a piece of the universe is revealed as if for the first time.”

One of the apparent reasons that this essay comes to my mind after reading Nitoo Das’s third collection of poetry, Crowbite, is of course the fact that both these writings are undeniably watermarked by the experience of birdwatching. Nitoo Das, professor, bird watcher, bird photographer, and poet with many anthologies under her belt,  profoundly echoes Rich’s idea of poetry here – “the crossing of trajectories of two (or more) elements that might not otherwise have known simultaneity” and its revelation of a piece of the universe that has been scarcely perceived in the same way before.

As powerful as they are beautiful, as experimental as they are traditional, and as astounding as they are soothing, the thirty poems in this collection will take the reader on a journey that begins concretely in place and culminates in an existential place-less-ness that haunts both without and within. Close attention to topography is an important feature of Das’s poetry and each poem in Crowbite is testimony to the poet’s intimate communication and engagement with the landscape of her hometown in the hills. While even a cursory glance at the titles in the book reveals an intense grounding of most of these poems in a physical locale – like Mawphlang, Laitkynsew, Tawang, NEHU, Ka Kshaid Lai Pateng Khohsiew — all poems here are undoubtedly contextualized in a well-defined geographical space. Arne Naess in Life’s Philosophy writes, “There is a telling German word, Merkwelt, for which the closest English equivalent is “everything that a definite being is aware of”. When it comes to landscape poetry, Das’s Merkwelt is profoundly rich and she can penetrate the ostensible and concrete in it to arrive at the unusual and remote. In the poem ‘Root Bridge, Mawlynnong’, for instance, roots find their being in a metaphor from the world of fiction:

These roots are words that many hands have looped into a tale

With dangling subplots, conflicts, an infinite resolution …

In ‘Spotting a Spotted Forktail’, the “yin-yang bird” acquires an unusually graphic description:

He sprints

like the scattered prints of a newspaper.

he is a chess game speckled

with dots. A zebra bird

with strategic fullstops.

A monochrome

forktrailing a contrast

where the Rhododendron drops.

There are many markers – geographical, cultural and linguistic – with the North-East manifesting a presence as a protagonist within this collection. The poems themselves take on the serenity and wonder of the landscape they describe. However, it won’t take the reader long to realise that Das’s poetry, though, it stems from a territorial response to being and belonging in physical space, enacts itself essentially in the mind. Her landscape, rich though it is, telescopes almost inevitably into her mindscape and it is from this that her images acquire their rich visceral quality.

Examine, for instance, the opening and closing poems of the collection. The opening poem, ‘Mawphlang’ begins with a physical forest that threatens constantly to slide inwards:

The forest is something indecisive

between twig and soil.

It is an old woman opening

her mouth. She has nothing to reveal.

The closing piece, ‘The Cat’s Daughters’, as surreptitious, as mysterious and as metaphysical as the cat itself, closes with a journey that is decidedly inwards, a call towards primordiality, a return to the womb:

We imagine
our mother aging. We worry about her. She tells us:
If the basil dies and the milk curdles, come
save me. And so,
the basil dies and the milk curdles
and we go off on our travels. No,
we marry neither the merchant
nor the river prince. We birth
neither pestles
nor pumpkins. We want to find
our mother, see her silver eyes, touch
her old fur,
kiss her fish-mouth again.

It is this essential spatial tension between the landscape and the mindscape that accounts for a very different sense of temporality in Das’s poems, a fact that strikes one quite early into Crowbite. Though these poems are nourished by a deep affinity towards the natural world, the temporal rhythm they owe their allegiance to is neither chronological nor geological but purely intellectual, something I would call, mind time. Whether, it is observing a forktail, a leaf, a waterfall, an elephant, the rhododendrons, a painting or even a bus, Das’s reflections follow their own trajectory, their unique ratiocinative beat and it is through the subconscious meeting of these trajectories that her powerful poetry is born.

Poems like ‘Leaf in My Room’ and ‘In Which Mawlynnong is a Fractal’ are brilliant poetic ratiocinations explored through questions and answers. While in the former, each answer leads to more questions and in the latter, the questions don’t stop for answers, in both the poems we are brought only and amply close to the understanding of language’s failure to ask or answer, and in turn, to know or mirror the world. And this overpowering awareness of the powerlessness of language to make sense of the world is perhaps what bestows its greatest strength to Nitoo Das’s poetry.

Devdutt Pattnaik, a mythologist, in his article ‘The Song of the Crow’ writes:

“The word ‘why’ is translated as ka in Sanskrit, the sacred language of Hinduism. Ka is the first consonant of the Sanskrit language. It is both an interrogation as well as an exclamation. It is also one of the earliest names given to God in Hinduism. During funeral ceremonies, Hindus are encouraged to feed crows. The crow caws, ‘Ka?! Ka?!’ It is the voice of the ancestors who hope that the children they have left behind on earth spend adequate time on the most fundamental question of existence, ‘Why?! Why?!’ In mythology there is a crow called Kakabhusandi who sits on the branch of Kalpataru, the wish-fulfilling tree. The tree fulfills every wish but is unable to answer Kakabhusandi’s timeless and universal question, ‘Ka?! Ka?!’ “

Though the eponymous and incredibly moving poem ‘Crowbite’ in the book is engendered within a different cultural mythology and worldview, the crow remains here, as elsewhere, a “cawcawcaw of black” a cry connecting the soul to the Earth, a question-mark on civilization, a suspicion, a misgiving, a patch of darkness on the possibility of knowledge, an epistemological interrogation, a stark reminder of human vulnerability. In the closing lines of the poem, the crowbite that pursues Bhobai like both prophecy and legacy, becomes a metaphor not just for creative freedom but also existential freedom. It is freedom from civilization and its hierarchies of truth and knowledge, a crossing over of boundaries – from physical to metaphysical, and an affirmation of the ultimate embodiment of the world. Bhobai the man becoming Bhobai the crow acquires an in/sight that is terribly human and yet beyond the scope of the average, fallible person:

I went wherever I wanted to. I looked at people’s eyes and knew their secrets. I sang songs with the fishermen. I bathed in the sacred river and flew away from their temples before they could throw stones at me.

A word must be spoken for the publisher, Red River, whose superb designing of the book immensely succeeds in drawing attention to the tactile and visceral quality that inhabits these poems. Not to be missed are the remarkable illustrations by the poet that by bringing in another dimension of visuality and experience, lend a sinewy force to the overall interpretation of Crowbite – a collection that will as swiftly make a home in the readers’ hearts as it makes its way to their shelves.


Basudhara Roy is Assistant Professor of English at Karim City College, Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, India. Sheis the author of two books, Migrations of Hope (Criticism; New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, 2019) and Moon in My Teacup (Poetry; Kolkata: Writer’s Workshop, 2019). Her second poetry collection, Stitching a Home, is forthcoming in 2021.