Just follow the Signs
Reviewed by Kavita Parwani Talib
Title : A City Full of Sirens
Language : English
Author : Sanket Mhatre
Genre : Poetry
Publisher : Hawakal Publishers Private Limited
Year : 2023
Pages : 86
ISBN : 978-81-960065-4-9
Price : INR 350.00
A poem is a glimpse into you. A book of poems is like opening a crumpled piece of paper that you are, and allowing someone to read over your creases whilst they quite literally, iron out their thoughts as they make space in between your lines.
A City full of Sirens is a city, in the form of a book of poems.
Each poem is a handwritten letter for the universe disguised as a wound, a flower or a piece of sunshine through the window; an answer, a question, a glimpse into everything that speaker of these poems has felt or experienced.
At first, it looks like a petite book. But as soon as you begin to read, you know it packs in a punch. It has a strikingly elegant cover designed by Subhash Awchat. An abstract graphic depicting perhaps the snarls of traffic and the red batti vehicles caught in its web. It is a city featured in its urgency, tempered by the restlessness of unfinished business.
Mhatre’s first book, co-written with Rochelle Potkar, received the prestigious Raza Foundation Grant at the Jaipur Literature Fest. A well-known poet, Sanket Mhatre’s poems have been featured in many global anthologies and journals. He is also known for curating multilingual poetry performances through Crossover Poems, Kavita Café – a digital platform and now more recently with Navakora – a collaborative event with well-known actor and poet Spruha Joshi, Aditya Davane and Prathamesh Pathak, that is gaining recognition all around. He writes in a narrative style of free verse that leaps at you, straight-faced, jagged-edge in its diction. Mhatre’s poems talk about loss, love, and learning. With each poem, the sirens get louder, and the message clearer. If you only learn to listen!
The title is intriguing, and I did theorise as to why the author chose it. I think the ‘siren’ is more of a figurative sign. It could mean the city is a person. These are the signs that we recognise, which become milestones along the way. Mhatre weaves his way like an astute navigator aka ambulance driver taking you through this city, enmeshed in his psyche. He creates a mind map with his poems. Following the signs, and reading the letters, each unfolding poem finding coordinates, and unearthing a truth. For everything here is a matter of life or death, and mostly love, losing and finding love, reminiscing, awaiting it, unearthing a new poem from within, and then fine-tuning it.
With each poem, the sirens get louder; the message clearer. If you only learn to listen!
A City Full of Sirens is the poem after which the book takes its name. It is replete with cross references and analogy – about mother and the city, perhaps finding resonance by their life-giving nature. The simultaneous detection of Cancer and Covid-19; or we humans as catalysts of destruction, action and inaction, deterioration and downfall, and memory and medicine – all of these themes are organically woven together. A poignant poem that draws you into its spell of contradiction of what gives life, also takes it. Hauntingly expressed,
“she deserves a Sunday with a beginning, middle & end
an unclogging of mind with the forests of her childhood
ultimate exculpation from all traffic jams, under
illegitimate Saat bara of a river rechristened as a gutter…”
Mhatre is a bilingual poet, writer, and columnist. He writes both in English and Marathi and his poem Anuvaad, is a vivid, light-hearted depiction of how language is a means to make meaningful connections. In the said poem, he writes,
“Translation happens when two languages make fervent love
on the creaky charpoy of literature”
and he continues,
“one language climbs atop another in a feverish, teenage frenzy
as if to make love
instead they trace one on the other
with chalk-like hands on the slate of their chest
celebrating the akshar and the alphabet
the shabd and the word
Redefining the age-old alchemy, not known to any linguist yet
They giggle, knowing they were born from the same birdsong
One language yields,
her letters part to reveal the honey within.”
Garamond, Letters, Kisses of cotton are poems wrapped in sentences that play, tug and undo your heart into a shamble of feelings that tumble like pearls into the open. Like a skilled craftsman, he has beaded you in, into straight, untangled verses.
As you long to be understood, you are suddenly convinced that someone understands. And that the silence of the written, unspoken word connects us in unseen, inexplicable ways. That the gnawing in your heart, gnaws at everyone. You wonder if Mhatre is secretly writing to you. How did he know what you were feeling? Was he there, when you first felt grief? Or when you got infatuated by a loved one’s numbness, shrouded in sadness? Had he been watching when you broke your heart? Trying to love? Had he been holding your hand? When you were watching a loved one on a hospital bed? Did he read all your half-thoughts? Was he writing/watching you all the time? You wonder, each time you trudge through one of his poems.
His words make you shuffle uncomfortably. As you would in your mind, when you face the awkwardness of endings, the abruptness and unfairness of illnesses and accidents, and the brutality of being finite – in our interactions, our relationships and our final goodbyes.
Mhatre’s words pierce into your silence. And somehow the deep throated wail of the siren seems like it is your own. You will suddenly become aware how you unheard the sirens and yet went full throttle in their aftermath on the path they had cleared for you.
Then there are poems in which Mhatre talks about finding a poem. For him the phenomenon of writing a poem is like finding love, only truer. At first when I read, I thought this poem was about finding love. In a way, it seemed more sacred about finding that poem inside you. He writes in Dissolved,
“Words that can germinate under your window
attract butterflies which can perch under your eyelids
borrow a little of what you saw in every land
a tiny rainbow you held back once
a part of my scent
when I spoke to you last;”
Some of my other favourites that animate his poetry process are, Rain Being,
“I was never the rain
Until you cloud-burst me with words.
You gave me the first drop.
It’s my turn to take you in.”
Vertical Forests, is an ode to the yet unwritten word, sowed, that will later take seed, and grow into the morrow. It charts a connection from the birth of an idea in the writer’s subconscious, and the subsequent journey into the mind of the reader.
The Festivals of Mind, is a poem that celebrates the genesis of a poem in the mind of the poet, its birth, its unfolding on paper like the de-creasing of it and the joy of it being shared.
About Mhatre, perhaps I could use some of his own words to describe him.
“You liquefy words, turn them into rivers, take them to the sea, watch them mate, and return to your desk. To write. To oscillate.
What you leave behind is what rebirths after your desert pages: rain.”
Mhatre speaks of encounters with words, people, and moments.
As in, Morphing Into Everything, he writes,
“I could shape shift, turn into a word, vaporise on her lips”
And in Half/Written,
“ finding missing pieces
A corner of lips/reserved
Even before/you knew
this half/was always given to you
even/before we met.”
In A Kiss Of Cotton, he writes,
“her embrace is what cities are made of
with enough room for a child to grow”
And you wonder what exactly are cities made of? Is her embrace tightly-fitting like Mumbai or generic like any city; and how much room is enough for a child to grow?
Instances on a Sunday Afternoon, dramatically captures the countdown to the rendezvous in striking phrases;
“A prisoner awaiting an ambrosial embrace
in this evermore season of deep prolonging
Clouds are inverted commas.
Carrying the weight of unspoken words.”
And then his poems take you through love and loss and his words will stay with you as you recall instances that you may have felt, being described accurately, like in the Shape Of A Wound, he writes,
“The wound is a shape of a goodbye
… and the first chaos after your return
And in Bed No 187,
“She smiled and wrapped her wrinkles around me.
The only gift she could give before going to sleep.”
In closing, Mhatre’s words are powerful and they conjure strong images. As the reader, you will reflect, ponder, and introspect upon the poems in The City Full of Sirens because the poems are about awakening in you, what otherwise numbs you, a reminder to feel more, rather than less.
Kavita Parwani Talib is an Architect by profession & writer by intent; she is based in Mumbai, India. While the pen brings clarity to thoughts, the pencil helps build them. While both know no real limits, they both bring creativity to the fore. Be it transforming space or simply punctuating space and exploring it through work & writings. Her book reviews have been published in The Tint Journal, The Quiver Review and the Infinite Sky. Her poetry has been featured in Ephemeral Elegies, The Piker Press, The Chakkar, EKL Review (Issue 6), and an anthology, ‘Tears of Swords’. She has been a part of Samyukta poetry’s online festival – Anantha 2022, & Orange Flower festival.