In Icelight, Ranjit Hoskote thinks by way of the heart, which is, of course, how good poetry is made. A deeply felt reflection on the ecological crisis that is at once spiritual and political, this collection of poems, Hoskote’s eighth, bears witness to the slow death of our planet.
Penguin Hamish Hamilton
What does it mean to be human at a time when the world as we know it is ending, to see that “the valley into which/ you’re rappelling/ is you”? How does one tell the story of this terrible death? Where does one find the words? How does one measure end times when “we are what we have lost”?
The opening poem, “Tacet”, offers musical silence as a way to begin: “Only the chirping of sparrows/ heard on the terrace/above the sleeping town”. It ends with a question that the rest of the poems pick up on and amplify: “Of what/ am I the barometer?” As always, Hoskote approaches the bleakest of life’s predicaments through his trademark, cinematographic images—delicate and shot through like gold, at once everyday and mysterious. A moon dangles above a boat; “a draggled wing drapes its shadow on the bell tower”; a bed stands in a “room of shimmering tides”; a panther swallows the moon…. The speakers of these poems take one long, last look at these disappearing worlds, even as they themselves fade into oblivion. The poem “Bait” describes precisely this:
The only tree of tomorrow
rises above an orange sash of sunset
pinned to the deck of a drifting boat
The last fisherman
is wading into the river
every line cast
as he splashes
towards a wave of ash
himself the bait.
Hoskote is concerned not so much with the individual self as with a composite made of up of interconnected lives that mourns the earth’s passing. There is no monolithic “I” in these poems: the speakers are various, part of an extended web of life. In “Witness”, the poet gently urges the earth to speak. In “Spur”, one meets the boy who may have climbed the spur, laying claim “to the scrubland sweating/in its shade”. In “Bookmark”, a poem Hoskote dedicates to his mother, the last thing she asks him is: “Do the parrots still nest/ in the tree outside your window?” It is a question that haunts us with its urgency and hope.
“Hoskote approaches the bleakest of life’s predicaments through his trademark, cinematographic images—delicate and shot through like gold, at once everyday and mysterious”
Hoskote draws on diverse sources for his poems, sources that range from the political to the historical to the artistic. This is something one has come to expect from him. The poem “Paishachi”, for instance, alludes to the claim by George Grierson, the founding superintendent of the Linguistic Survey of India, that Kashmiri descended from a 5th century CE successor language to Sanskrit called Paishachi, which means “the language of ghosts”. The poem also refers to the unrest in Kashmir and to Mohammad Subhan Bhagat, playwright, director, and actor, who was confined to his home by Wahhabi militants opposed to the syncretic form of Islam.
- The central query of Icelight is: What does it mean to be human at a time when the world as we know it is ending?
- Ranjit Hoskote is concerned not so much with the individual self as with a composite made of up of interconnected lives.
- Hoskote draws on diverse sources for his poems, sources that range from the political to the historical to the artistic.
The poem “Plague” re-crafts and uses lines from Jens Peter Jacobsen’s story “The Plague in Bergamo”, and the poem “Neighbours” is inspired by the work of the artist Anton Litvin. There is much readerly digging to be done, and this makes for a rich interpretative experience.
End times can teach us who we really are, especially when viewed via the lens of poetry. The poems in Icelight tell more than a cautionary tale. They reveal to us the truth that the valley into which we are rappelling is us.
K. Srilata is a writer, poet, and academic. Her most recent book is This Kind of Child: The ‘Disability’ Story (Westland).