In American auteur Jim Jarmusch’s mid-90s neo-Western odyssey, Dead Man, a young accountant named William Blake (Johnny Depp) is flung into the heartland of a North America intent on existential drama and ominous symbolism. The naming of the character is intentional; William Blake is subjected to episodes as seeped in mysticism and surreal flavor as the eponymous English poet. Guided by his Indigenous comrade, Nobody, Blake embarks on a voyage through transcendence, one where the same author’s musical poetry is framed against a startling guitar soundtrack from rock’s eternal maverick Neil Young.
Reading Rohan Chhetri’s Kundiman Poetry Prize-winning Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful (Tupelo Press), it’s this landscape from Dead Man—a backdrop etched in stark tones of repentance and salvation, a narrative that dabbles occasionally in nihilism but always tends to veer for the poetry—of which I’m reminded. Like Jarmusch’s unflinching cinematic gaze, Chhetri’s collection is a continent of simmering dissent and failed revolutions, of searches that aren’t meant to lead anywhere specific, and remembrances that send anguish shooting through the skin like errant telegrams.
The Indian-Nepali poet knows this landscape well. He knows the orphaned yell of border towns and the familial legacies that singe like winter bonfires. He comprehends that very specific mien of urban loneliness and the touch of a lost lover. Across the collection’s four sections—Katabasis, Locus Amoenus, Erato, and Grief Deer—Chhetri explores the sweeping gamut of these literary concerns, at times more influentially than others.
Walking through the collection, I’m awoken to another cinematic resemblance. It’s the Bengali dissident directors Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak who come to mind, Chhetri’s poems forging a generation-hopping alliance with their New Wave depiction of lands portioned through partition, the rising tenor of Marxist revolution, human beings being swallowed by the mouth of the city, and relationships fraught with a communal amnesia.
It’s easy to see why Chhetri’s poems evoke the lure of cinema. They’re rich in detail and profuse with imagery. They paint portraits, allowing the reader to glide their hand over the textures of the coat and the fabric of that explicit sadness.
In “The Singing Bone,” he writes:
In terror, we listen to the clean music of bones.
Later, through a rift in the curtains, we squint into the mist
But cannot see the past from a man
Blowing the trumpet of a suicide’s hollow shinbone.
Chhetri remains aware of poetic traditions ancient and past, and the contemporary poet’s role in breathing new life into them. The ode, the lyric, and the tercet all make appearances, with the poet taking them in brave directions, contrasting them against the audacity of hybrid pieces sophisticated in their construction and resonance. In “Lamentation for a Failed Revolution,” which derives its antiphonal structure from the Moirolói and the ritual lament tradition in ancient Greece, he writes:
—long summer of bullets
One July morning a caesura in the terror a lull
In the pelting
Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful is unwavering in its archiving of grief, be it the tragedy of a fallen friend (“Sebastian”), or the foreboding tenor to the story of a parent who may or may not have fallen to the regime, even while the other parent waits, not knowing (“Father, Farther; 1986”: “meanwhile/ my mother’s waiting/ begins & in her/ wait a blue chasm opens”).
The momentum to the collection’s cadence stalls in parts but is rescued whenever Chhetri reaches for the wide open prairies of the land. Consider this, from “The Indian Railway Canticle”:
… I heard a couple make love
inside a coarse blanket on the upper berth. Then arriving
home, always the bruised sky of dawn telling me
something I knew, for a moment, then didn’t.
Or this, from “Restoration Elegy”:
Like an old croon of a ghazal in praise of alcohol
remembered only in a regressing sadness now.
In the half light, walking up to your apartment,
the fog looms over the ridges…
I find the collection’s insistence on grief and pain overwhelming at times. Or perhaps it’s where we are in the world right now and the yawning nature of our past few seasons of desolation. Chhetri’s gift for the turn of phrase or beauty of language is never in question, but the collection’s tangible anguish might have proven to be a touch smothering, if not for the light. And light there is—bleeding through the cracks in an evening; flooding through the dioramas of a life lived in exile, and thus in a sense, free; existent as the wild shaman who knows the world to be wounded, yet comprehends that the song must be sung loud.
I derive the greatest amount of pleasure perhaps from the section titled “Erato,” where the vulnerabilities of human skin are allowed to mingle with the giddy sadnesses and tenderness of city life. “New Delhi in Winter” offers a portrait of the love-hate tendency that we all possess toward our cities, to the human relationships that blossom within them like wildfire:
In the daylight I felt dizzy with fear
of running into her. This vast city
open to invaders and vagrants for centuries
now small for two.
Or this mellow tango from “Dissociative Love Poem”:
We held ourselves like windows in a blizzard.
Mornings we were made of mist and rain.
I drank glad from your mouth some dark
Song fated to be oraled into our children’s blood.
Adding the city of Houston to his personal cartography, Chhetri realizes the tumult of the latter-day exile, a William Blake of the now destined to travel and travel, never to arrive. The city becomes a fragment—as much concept as reality; within it, the human longs for other places and other bodies and other memories, while the city keeps accruing all these lost prayers within its bulging mythology. Chhetri articulates this existential spectacle with care and beauty in “The Intelligence of Hunger”:
Where I live now every sound I make is a half-note
of loss. The bare mountain withstands, drought-
ridden, the Pacific breaking froth at its feet.
The wind rasps through the chaparral & I think
of the fire followers waiting in their late style
of hunger. The giant coreopsis that will bloom
for three bright weeks in April. I wanted to write
about these. If not love. Wildflowers, not grief.
The much-awarded Chhetri, most recently a recipient of a PEN/Heim grant for translation, is a bright star on the literary firmament. “We are each given heaven for brief so heavy,” he writes in the collection-closing “Mezza Voce,” hinting at the perilousness of love, of that rare beast called happiness. “I wanted to be both the hunger & the clarity,” he remarks earlier in “Recrimination Fugue,” which almost seems to be an antecedent rejoinder—this fact that beauty will often be nothing but longing, but man, such delectable longing.
At its best, Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful remains a startling elegy to pain and its tributaries. Concurrently, it exists as a fierce gatherer of the things that hold weight—the tremors of love and the debris of nationhood, the consequences of desire, and the palpable fire of borderfolk, family included. An act of war then, but perhaps more persuasively, a song of hope.
What I would in turn hope for Rohan Chhetri is this then—that he extracts every bit of redemption from the lost and the hurt. But that he also remembers to allow the light in, to let the “in transit beautiful” of things to prosper across wild savannas, making this whole communal charade of ours somewhat worth the while.