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Anita Money: ‘Dreams that Spell the Light’







Book Review

Shanta Acharya
Dreams That Spell The Light
UK: Arc Publications. 2010
Pp- 72. Price - £7.99 PB; £10.99 HB. 

ISBN 978-1904614-61-6 (PB); 978-1906570-05-7 (HB)


A search for spiritual equilibrium


What shapes Shanta Acharya’s approach to the world is her search for spiritual equilibrium. The metaphysical nature of belief and those paradoxical truths that draw together visible and invisible are an essential part of her imaginative landscape.

She introduces this new collection with quotations from Eliot and Proust which mirror her own understanding of life as a journey of rediscovery and openness to the world, a theme explored in various poems and expressed here in lines from ‘Somewhere, Something’:

We travel not to explore another country
but to return home fresh, bearing gifts

The title of the collection comes from ‘The Wishing Tree’: ‘Mother and daughter, hands outstretched/ cast dreams that spell the light’. This image of supplication and vision seems to symbolise our human condition. Our capacity for wishing, praying and dreaming, whether prayer flags at monasteries in the foothills of the Himalayas, candles lit in churches, calligraphically scripted dreams, poems of love or individual voices rising in contrapuntal prayer, reveals our deep need to appeal to a power greater than ours and an instinct for a higher reality. This need defines us as much as our ability to reason and can express itself in magic and superstition as well as a visionary intuition of God.

It is startling to recognise how influential our wishes can be, for better or worse, in this quotation from ‘Lives of Others’ (On reading The Bhagavad Gita).

A wish, a thought, a desire,
for good or evil, fulfils its purpose
in seeking, finding a home -

After a humorous list of rituals performed in ‘Wishes’ – ‘Circled several times the sacred scarab/ climbed mountains, hugged pillars, statues;’ - Acharya concludes ‘I have learnt that wishes are milestones / on our journey back home’.

Our journey back home is the fundamental paradox: our mortality but intimation of immortality. The lament in ‘Return of the Exile’ with its subtitle from the Qur’an We are all returning is not only for childhood but also for that elusive home for which we all yearn.

Gone is the mansion, the garden I grew up in,
gone are my people, landscape of my childhood.

Acharya’s ability to handle the abstract and give substance to the negative is shown in her poem ‘Black Swans’ inspired by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s concept of Black Swans as being both those very rare events of great impact which have shaped the world and those rare occasions when what is highly expected does not happen.

What has been, what might have been
two fractured landmasses drifting in time
acquiring individual perspectives;

and again in ‘Never Look Back’ where the negatives offer a double focus: ‘Never look back at the path not taken’.

A strong sense of irony leavens the serious concerns of Acharya’s poetry and her opening poem ‘Italian Prayer’ compares the temple of Jagannatha and the Basilica of San Marco:

How does one accustomed to the cold candour of stones
bend one’s knee in reverence to the opulence of marble?

She visits the once magnificent but now decaying ‘Mosque of Wazir Khan’ and

Moving from one world into the next;
I enter paradise on earth, I am blessed.

This irony can turn its hand to a witty personification in ‘Transit of Venus’

I would never wish to be a shadow of myself,
a speck of a ghost flickering across
the lower chin of the sun.

or tongue in cheek advertisement for the ideal partner in Shaadi.com. It also raises an eyebrow in ‘Beyond Belief’ at the encounter of Captain Cook’s crew and the aboriginals in, what is now, Sydney.

The bravest among them poked at British breeches
until an embarrassed lieutenant
ordered his sailors to display their genitalia
to the Iora men assembled on the beach.
When they complied, the crowd ‘made
a great shout of admiration’ goes the British version.

There has been a development in the pitch and clarity of voice and longer rhythmic movement of prose within the mode of poetry in some of her later work. ‘The Sunderbans’, a poem in five parts, begins

A strange, wild place fed by the Ganges
sweeping across the plains of Bengal
to the Indian Ocean; here are no boundaries

Keeping fresh water from salt, river from sea,
land from water, island from island.

The geographical range of this collection and double perspective (physical and metaphysical), create a sense of space and time. There are different landscapes with different realities: in ‘Highgate Wood squirrels’, dogs, joggers and pensioners co-exist in domesticated natural surroundings but in the Sundarbans, nature is more extreme and dispossessed men and tigers roam, and all the while The Great Wall of China, exposed to the tourist gaze, outlives the human labour and sorrow of its making:

Gasps of wonder, flash of cameras, the bling-bling
of tourists, sound that light makes reflecting

Off chrome, platinum, diamond or silver;
not the silence of stones, earth, blood and tears.

……
Time sits on its haunches, Laughing Buddha;
indifferent the lofty ranges of soul mountains.

In all these journeys that universal cry persists –

Surely there is somewhere, something
that justifies our coming and going?

END

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