Picture of a lost man

The Poetry of Manju Kanchuli

© Rachel Amtzis, 2013. MK PLM.

The poetry of Manju Kanchuli addresses the absent other. The voice behind her poems initiates dialogue that turns on itself in interior awareness. Although the emotions and the shaping mind accessed in solitude configure a world unto itself, the voice that emerges is not an echoing self. Out of the reconciliation of feeling and consciousness Kanchuli speaks as a woman whose independence is established on the basis of her creative enterprise. It is from her inner depths that she speaks, and that inner awareness gained allows her to speak significantly, not only to her self, but to (and for) the absent other, whether it be a man (‘Picture of a Lost Man’), a woman (‘Maria, I Am Always With You’), or the world at large (‘Waiting for the Millennium’).

In ‘Picture of a Lost Man’, a man is caught up in political and social action, in seeming accomplishment defined by speed, acceleration, and the doing itself rather than the outcome. The female narrator witnesses but stands apart or is kept apart from these events. When they meet the woman asks:

“Where are you going?”
Branded by fear of delay . . .  rivers ran with hurricane velocity
. . . Like a bubble in its midst . . . How your sea was lost!
. . . Meeting, with only a hermit's dim eyes
. . . eyes spoke, you didn't
“The river could not reach the sea, the sea was lost in the river”

Successive stanzas end with refrains such as: "The plan couldn't come to fruition, the plan was lost in the planning" until we realize that the man defined by his action and the woman by her witnessing are hopelessly out of sync. His plans fail; her voice is not heeded. In the end the woman to succumbs to silence. The habit of not being heard has held back her voice. Whenever they meet the question arises:
“Where are you going?” but their paths do not converge, their lives are of no use to each other.
Steps withdrew, mind didn't. Lips . . . spoke, I didn’t
I kept concealed . . . the sketch of your compulsions
Even though I met you several times
I couldn’t reveal it to you

In ‘Maria, I Am Always With You’, the writer expresses her solidarity with a woman prisoner of conscience. In the successive traps set by a brutal patriarchal society, Manju Kanchuli evokes the situation of the woman punished for rebelling, at the same time reclaiming for her her lost innocence. Interweaving images of victimization and of innocence, Kanchuli ameliorates and condemns in language both elusive and exact. The hypocrisy of men who speak out for women is also identified:

By those very hands raised up for you and me
I’m extracted like honeycomb
By the very hands which beckon ahead
I’m barred from the path
By their feet which dance beside me
I'm repeatedly tripped
By the hand that shakes mine I'm struck by blows

This is followed by the hypocrisy of those who preach society’s values:
. . . by priestly hands in nightmare unbearably
we're drawn and clutched . . .
. . . sitting wide-eyed in the classroom chair
I read their morals spelled out on the blackboard.

Admitting the disadvantage of her voice against the powers that be, Kanchuli offers it nonetheless with the admonition that it combine with voices of other women and thereby gain strength – strength gained through the willingness to name oppression whenever it occurs. Kanchuli sees this exploitation not only as social fact, but as a socially sanctioned, personal and sexual realization. The only response is witnessing and solidarity with all woman, and especially those who bear its greatest burden.

In ‘Waiting for the Millennium’, Kanchuli widens the range of her witnessing and identification to include all the disempowered: “My universe lacks this century/ This century is yours”. Simply characterizing the world situation at century’s end (“When will we be done with these skirmishes!”) she identifies force and counterforce within historical movement:

With the left hand raised for construction,
how the other is demolished
Civilization's debris spread over the earth's surface . . .
. . . Small cottages destroyed by fire
Here and there encampments meditating
Memorable heaps of ash!

Within the archeology of her history of the present moment, the call for a savior is undermined even as it is preached: “Who will conceive today's Buddha/ from the child of a fabricated father/ and from another envisioning, today's Gandhi!”). The insight unearthed is that the messianic impulse is done in by the dominant self-defeating forces that engender it and the images that represent hope are hollow, short-lived and cancerous:

though they have Gandhi's fingers and Buddha's palms,
the tiny arteries within and splinters of bone destroyed. . .
. . . new fingers have begun to sprout
. . . in small acrimonies like bursts of firecrackers
Again the ravaged air asks for liberty

After depicting the millennium: “As if were an accident/– a death/that was contracted for” Kanchuli can no longer remain without hope and thus heralds an outcome to be welcomed by all:

Wick, light of peace, to the mountain height
unabated wick, light of a river overflowing
light of the solar world over the pillow at the head of the bed
light of immense ideological dedication
light of struggle/ protected from time immemorial
undivided wick ­– millennial light!

In her poetry Manju Kanchuli senses herself marked by the age, her culture and society and most readily by the hand of men who make use of privilege, knowing well the situation of woman in their country. Her vision is one that offers forbearance to her oppressors, solidarity to other woman and consolation to herself (and her readers) through the restorative powers of language.

© Wayne Amtzis

Source: Adapted from the Kathmandu Post Review of Books

• poems with audio • articles with audio

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