Sujata Bhatt, Poppies in Translation – review

“She powdered her eyelids / until they shimmered like butterflies.” Reading that, the butterflies seem to come alive and fly off the page. Such moments of startlingly vivid imaginary presence are sprinkled throughout Poppies in Translation, or rather they’re sprinkled through weaker poems and sustainedly present in some of the stronger ones.

Among the latter is the outstanding “Another Muse”, whose structure seems clearly influenced by D H Lawrence but which has a hypnotic music of its own. Even by Bhatt’s standards, the middle section of this poem is extraordinarily sensuous. What’s truly remarkable, though, is the way physical impressions are carried on the current of an equally intensely realized sense of the quicksilver movement of a mind, one caught in the moment, living through an evolving arc of sensation and thought.

“Today”, the first poem, is outstanding in a quite different way. It’s brief, slow-paced and measured, with intricately counterpointed patterns of sound. The words are spare and reticent, although the hushed tone creates a feeling of intimacy. Spareness and reserve give weight to the question “How can you be in exile / when you live with the one you love?” This can equally easily be taken as a real question (suggesting the irremediable sensation of exile) or as rhetorical (suggesting the all-healing comfort of love). No doubt both feelings are true at different times. There’s a rich play of suggestion through the whole poem, subtly sounding many keynotes of the volume, such as what it means to live between cultures; the paradoxes of being in time, living from moment to moment while carrying the weight and endowment of the past; translation as something that happens between languages and also from experience to words.

Both poems succeed so well partly because their sounds are beautifully shaped. Musicality and grace of phrasing is one of Bhatt’s gifts. Visual impact is another. A number of poems are avowedly inspired by pictures involving surrealistic distortions and juxtapositions. Others, ones that as far as I know aren’t directly inspired by works of visual art, have a similar effect, seeming like more or less surreal collages of verbal images. This works well when Bhatt trusts the reader’s imagination to feel the pressure of suggestion within the collage itself, as in the unforgettable “Where a Scorpion Sleeps – Tête Fantastique” (after a painting by Wols). In weaker poems she tries to capture a sense of Significance with a capital S by rhetorical questions which gesture vaguely in the direction of meaning without actually expressing it.

Bhatt seems to think like a native speaker in English, Gujarati and German. Her book contains poems centring on problems of translation which to me didn’t rise much beyond the level of exercises, though some readers might find them clever and entertaining and others, with experience of living between languages, might find them powerfully evocative. This long collection has room for such slighter pieces, for experiment and specialist appeal. It also has room for the lightning stroke from Rumanian into English of the first half of the title poem, with its astonishingly vibrant expansion of a phrase by Ioana Ieronim into thirty-odd lines of Bhatt.

In short, this is a book to dive into in the expectation of immediate pleasure. It’s also one I’ll return to in anticipation of widening and deepening appreciation.

I would like to thank Peter and Ann Sansom for permission to post this review, which appeared in The North 54.

Poppies in Translation, 146 pp, £9.99 pbk, Carcanet Press, Alliance House, Cross St, Manchester M2 7AQ

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