Michael Scharf on Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih’s latest collection of poems
It’s not surprising to find Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih writing Haiku and Senryu in his latest collection of poems, Time’s Barter: moving among genres, within and outside of poetry, has been a hallmark of his career.
In Around the Hearth—a book that can be found in most houses in Shillong, and, also, with some frequency, across India, in Wales, and in the U.S.—Nongkynrih retells Khasi myths in beautifully-paced prose that brings Khasi origins, ethos, and mythology to life. He has written a groundbreaking study of foundational Khasi poet U So-So Tham, co-edited the major English-language anthology of poetry from India’s North East, Dancing Earth, and provided the text for numerous children’s books. Nongkynrih’s previous collection for HarperCollinsIndia, The Yearning of Seeds, collects much of his English- language verse up to the point of its publication.
There are two poems in The Yearning of Seeds that formed my impressions of Nongkynrih’s voice, and that help underscore the achievement of Time’s Barter. The first, “Blasphemous Lines for Mother,” I have written about elsewhere. What it does, at its shocking crux, is bring Khasi idioms into English in an offhand manner that’s at once intimate and eerily defamiliarizing. Both languages seem to shatter for an instant and fall to the ground at the poet’s feet as he voices inheritances.
The other, “Bangladesh Impressions,” conveys the promise and excitement of first crossing a border fortified in the imagination over a lifetime. In juxtaposing the poet’s impressions with his guide’s, Nongkynrih brings charged expectations into a very amusing, yet also quite moving, homeostasis:
Dhaka University: a huge colorful pandal,
giant loudspeakers, musicians, folk-singers
and a thousand-strong crowd, humming.
Have we come to a carnival?
But Murasingh said, everyone is a poet.
Bangladesh produces poets like paddy.
A park of trees, birds and lovebirds.
Wall magazines, photos of past festivals,
dead poets, living poets, news stories,
comments and reviews. Murasingh revealed,
next year our photos will also flower here.
It is this laconic, not quite cynical, resigned yet nevertheless still searching sensibility that Nongkynrih fully realizes in Time’s Barter. Given his ability to convey multiple competing impressions within a few lines, Nongkynrih’s turn to Haiku and Senryu in the collection makes sense.
The time of the book passes in and around Shillong, where Nongkynrih lives and teaches (at NEHU, the North-Eastern Hill University), often on commutes to and from work and its environs. The book begins with multiple images of plums and cherries, a meditation on the nature of promise, mixed in a manner similar to “Bangladesh Impressions”:
watery taste—shouldn’t have been plucked
on a rainy day.
Fructification, with its possibility of neglect and of rot, has long been associated with poetry; Nongkynrih extends the metaphor with a vividness, and an only-partial acceptance, that underlies the collection as a whole:
by the highway—how else can I
describe my haiku?
The poet of Time’s Barter is self-consciously ageing (“rainwater gurgling/ gaily in the gutter—/ how can I run so low?”), yet is still in contact with youth—both his own, and that of others. He seems to be moving in first or second gear most of the time (Shillong’s traffic is notorious) and the familiarity of the scene affords deep glimpses into its character.
In one poem, soldiers in green, with their consumption of land, are unfavorably compared to a particular kind of crawling insect. In another, a rooster appears on top of a Cathedral, and its symbolic incongruity is quickly and humorously explained. Right at the book’s center is an unforgettable description of Shillong on a winter evening that I will leave to readers to discover. Its perfection is dazzling.
As the people, places, and things pass by, the truths accrete, sometimes sardonically:
the hill will flatten
because of you.
sometimes with a foreboding kind of wonder:
that blue light behind
dark clouds, whose world, luminous
above this night gloom?
sometimes with an ironic transcendence (in which I hear echoes of “Blasphemous Lines”):
professor and mechanics
whiskey and grilled pork.
One leaves the book with the sense that its time and tradeoffs are eternal.