Book Review: Quaking Cantos – Nepal Earthquake Poems
International poet Sharma depicts the agony of the 2015 earthquake in moving, electric verses
As I received the book in a cozy restaurant at Tinkune, Kathmandu, I knew it was going to be an intriguing read. The title per se threw a challenge to me- how would I respond and interpret the poems with the fact that at the time of the Quakes I was out of the country, studying in North America?
That’s exactly what the international poet Yuyutsu Sharma’s Quaking cantos: Nepal Earthquake Poems accomplishes. The book succeeds in capturing the horrific events, screaming emotions and conjuring heart-wrenching visuals and recording the tremors of the earthquake in the explosive verses that will treasure the memory of the loss and lament for the coming generations.
The poetry collection consisting of 23 poems has been divided into three parts: a) I do not generally cry b) Seven Things that Caused the Quakes and c) Epilogue: A Song of Extinguished Hearths. The first Section contains eleven poems but before the poems, the earthquake photos taken by Nepali photographer, Prashant Shrestha and the poet himself ignite a peculiar gloom in the readers’ heart. The prelude per se points at the devastating event that Nepal suffered. The first section unfurls the saga of loss and lament in the very first poem, ‘Twisted Galaxies’: My bed shakes /as I prepare to reclaim/… icons of /our loss and lament.
The poet captures and laments Mother Nature’s wrath and talks laconically about a man’s run for life: “His frantic move/ to rush out of the edifice/his mad dash/ to leap out of the canopy/hammer fell,/ missing his headpiece…” The drama of humanity is exposed in the second poem as well where a person’s desire to escape in a desperate rush to flee from a natural disaster portrayed graphically.
The first chapter exhibits the central theme of humanity—humans desire to live and escape death. However, death is cruel and cold. In ‘Glint’ the poet utters a cry: “In Nawalparasi his home in the Low Lands/his wounded feet shackled in chains/buried beneath a fatal weight that/silenced the last glint of life.”
The poet makes a stark comparison between mother earth’s wrath and the love of a mother in ‘Nipple’: “The earth/ opened up/ her jaws/ and five more/The kiss/ of Death as a baby crawls/ on the cold/ chest/ of earth/ looking for/ his dead /mother’s/ nipple.” He has succinctly captured the sadness and sorrows of the fateful event. The picture he has created in his character’s move is disturbing to the stomach, making one cry over the loss of lives.
In another poem, “I do not generally cry” a Nepalese man’s character of breaking down in spite of his claims of not crying in life ever strike deep in one’s heart. Interestingly, one of the poems ‘Cosmic Sleep’ narrates a real story about the collapse of a building where Nepali Christians had gathered to worship. The pastor urged the converts to not panic or run out of the building as the earth shook vehemently. Sadly, the house on the fifth floor collapsed and the pastor along with other 40 devotees perished that day. Even the Gods could not save them from the rage of mother earth. Not only houses in Kathmandu, in Bhaktapur, Dolakha, and Gorkha people faced the similar fate. The misery of people multiplied. And the poet ends the Section writing about a lamb brought from far away in ‘Quake Relief’:
“I noticed him first –
a lamb brought
from afar, from a distant hill range…
tethered to an electric pole
in a Kathmandu back street
shrieking like a helpless hillside baby…
a brutal tug
in the voice box that could
pull a tiny river
of fresh blood out
of my own mouth.
The last poem of the first Section eerily displays how agents of human compassion can turn human beings into helpless victims or sacrificial lambs to lynch money out of their misery. Nepal even today reels from corruption and we have a million stories about the misdeeds of the living raising fortunes in the names of the dead ones.
The second Segment also consists of eleven poems and begins with a faint note: “Out from the cities /famished from/ the obstruction of/ light, air, water,/ fire, fuel, justice/I reached the deserted /crossroads at Pandu Chok/ and took a solitary path/akin to/ a faint forgotten/ note ringing /from my own heart/ in this sun-baked paradise.” The poet’s journey in the post-earthquake timeline is almost apocalyptic where a hero rises to capture melancholic stories. Not all is lost and not every verse should be sad. I’ve known Yuyutsu personally, who is also my mentor and editor, and we had often discussed if it’s possible to write happy poems in the times of calamity. ‘The Baby that became a Devi’ illustrates the point:
“Nine-month old baby
as the crumbling tin-roofed
double storey mud house collapsed.”
The miraculous baby mentioned in this verse is still alive like a miracle. Almost like hopes of those who perished during disasters. However, mother earth was gravely upset and she changed her side in sleep another time, killing many people. In ‘A Burning Sun’ a mother succumbs to death as she goes into her small shack to get a bottle of oil to massage the baby lying in the sunny courtyard. The poet then talks about his walk around Kathmandu and reveals prophesy of his family deity, Guru Gorakh Nath: “Now wherever you go /you will conquer/ and rule the hearts /of the people you meet/ along your travels around the globe.”
Moreover, the poet begins to see his world shaking—the earth’s movement is erratic. And his focus shifts to a house on the edge of the river: “The River has flooded nearly spilling onto the dried up riverbed. The house on its edge beyond the fields stay half-sunken/her private sanctuary of silence away from the noise of her children and grandchildren to light a lamp in the name of her long lost husband.” The misery doesn’t end and he paints Gundu village where people are weaving garlands of immortality. There are other cities like Bhaktapur who faced indignation from the mother earth. ‘Bhaktapur’ touches a reader’s heart:
In the nostrils
Of this satellite
City of serenity…
Now a flattened
Of light and lightning…”
Bhaktapur like several other cities has turned into a giant graveyard. The poet here is quick to metaphorically describe the moving earth as the quaking uterus: “a brutal blow that came crashing from the depths of earth’s quaking uterus.”
In the final poem ‘Seven Things that Caused the Quakes’ the poet weaves a narrative of seven possible factors that people believe might have caused the quakes: an illicit desire, the rage of a goddess as he saw lust in the eyes of a king, breaking of Rato Machchendranath chariot, a Sherpa finding a Silokpa horse in a forest, the killing of a white serpent by impudent young kids, the killing of holy cow by the Brahmins and movement of the sacred bull as it eases the balance the ball of the earth balanced the tip of its horn.
This marvelous poem sums up the whole book, giving an insight into Yuyutsu’s creative world of myth and reality. It also gives us a broader view of human greed and hunger to possess. Yuyutsu delves deep into the Himalayan mind and produces powerful and enigmatic verse.
In ‘Epilogue’ the poet has a final message:
“the ruins of sunken
lives of the civilians
along the banks of Sutluj
where once Alexander roamed
and then one day
resolved to return only
to the kiss of spidery legs
of his grand dream
the calamity of a Quake…”
Yuyutsu Sharma is a world renowned poet, popularly known as the Himalayan poet due to his works on the Nepal Himalayas. The book, Quaking Cantos – Nepal Earthquake Poems has immortalized the tragic event and captured the bitter memories of the Himalayan on a grand scale. This is a Himalayan elegy that will continue to haunt the coming generations. The poems will be engraved on the minds of the Nepalese public as well as his readers he has earned worldwide, making his message loud and clear, and magic of his craft alive in the centuries to come.
- Quaking Cantos – Nepal Earthquake Poems (Nirala, NRs 395) Distributed in Nepal by White Lotus Bookshop, Kupondole, Kathmandu or check online at Amazon or Flipcart.
Arun Budhathoki is a Senior Correspondent with Anna Note.
File Photo: Prasant Shrestha.
File Photo: Prasant Shrestha.