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Bridging the binary

Debasish Lahiri is being lauded in European centres of poetry for his ability to bind Eastern and Western eroticism, mythology, history and art, in his quietly explosive love poems

Julie Banerjee Mehta | Published 16.10.22, 02:17 AM

Holding the reader in thrall, the poet of Tinder Tender: Poems of Love and Loitering, lifts the veil on what to me is one of the most thrilling images in the poetry of love in the English literary canon. Debasish Lahiri dedicates this collection to “The one who opened my lungs and closed my mouth”. This is Lahiri’s signature in Tinder Tender — where polar opposites are sutured in a revolutionary style. And it is this rare ability to interrogate love and longing, the primordial need for every human being to desire and be desired, through the poetic imaginaire and a newness of language, that has earned Lahiri honours in the international arena. Lahiri is the recipient of the Prix-du Merite, Naji Naaman Literary Prize and he is an honorary member of Maison Naaman pour la Culture.

Lahiri’s poems have been widely published in international and national journals. His four books of poetry are: First Will and Testament (2012); No Waiting like Departure (2016) which was shortlisted as one of the five best collections of that year by and India Today; Tinder Tender: Poems of Love and Loitering (2018) and Poppies in the Post and Other Poems (2020). Paysages sans Verbes (Landscape Without Verbs), a French translation of his selected poetry was published in May, 2021 from Edítions Apic (Algiers/Paris). Tether that Light, a collection of poems on Indian miniature paintings is forthcoming from Red River Press in November this year. Legion of Lost Letters, a collection of narrative poems on common lives in Roman Britain, is due to be published in 2023 by Black Spring Press, UK.


The poet explains why his poems are accessible and universal: “My poetry is about both common life and its rarefied axioms. The dewdrop always nests in the dust. The poems in this book are the marooning of my lines on islands, all eight of them, surrounding the mainland of erotic and amatory poetry in the West and the East. They are also the isthmus that connects, each to each and to that loom of the mainland I have been conscious of every step of my way, every moment of my lingering.”

Over the past seven years that I have been privy to Debashish Lahiri’s poetry, I have often marvelled at his effortless ease to invoke the formidable figures from Greek mythology to connect the contemporaneous with the abiding ancient. Like some innovative academics, he has masterfully sutured his regular job as a professor of English at a college under the Calcutta University umbrella, to his life as a poet. I suspect this poet has so completely immerse himself in the waters of the Aegean that he is able to connect disparate histories and geographies of encounter, breaking through all boundaries of time and space. This is perhaps Lahiri’s greatest contribution to 21st century poetry: That he has enabled the seamless ligature of opposites not just in content but also in style and form — the ancient with the modern in mythologies, geographies, histories and the pastiche of free-flow verse, blank verse, the occasional iambic pentameter, couplets, offering his felicity and fecundity to the global wealth of the genre.

When I asked her the reason for Lahiri’s global outreach in his poems, contemporary French poet Cécile Oumhani, who is familiar with Lahiri’s work, said, “Debasish Lahiri’s poetry attracts us into a rich and complex world. The poet immerses us in a myriad places, which he makes vividly present for his readers. We follow his wanderings in Bow Barracks, Chowringhee or Madurai, Istanbul or Paris. We are drawn into a maze of places, where echoes resonate beyond centuries and borders. Time flows like the Vaigai River, where Lahiri catches the reflections of poets of the past. Indeed time and space are brought together, obliquely highlighting more metaphysical preoccupations that concern humankind in general. Lahiri’s interest in art should also be mentioned. The figure of Van Gogh is also a powerful presence in several of his poems.”

In Tinder Tender, possibly the most mythic, erotic and memorable third volume of poetry, love leaps like a hart at times, and buries its bruised heart under the Earth at others. The oppositions in the state of loving, a performative act, thus yo-yos between ecstasy and estrangement, never letting go of the reader’s attention or interest. In the intimate encounters which the poet shares with a curious reader, where the body becomes the location for philosophical and mythological musings, and the body parts of thigh and breast and manhood are invoked, in the style of renaissance blazonry, the performative act of making love is celebrated by marrying both grace and wicked, tongue-in-cheek glee. The intricately crafted poems that imprint themselves by virtue of the veracity in the images: “on Spring’s stained-glass morning”, “where a shuttle of grass has woven a quilt for words”, are some abiding pictures that stay with the reader long after the book is gently put back on the shelf.

Tinder Tender is clearly a trajectory of love: A celebrational and a confessional. A Sea View and After Anacreon are the first lap of the journey. The image of the Isthmus, a narrow strip of land, is also a signposting of the poet’s seeking a connections between binaries. I asked him if he is suggesting that love is the isthmus between impossibilities. “The existence of an isthmus is itself tenuous, even geographically speaking. It is always up against it. The possibility of it being able to bridge impossibilities is thus even further withdrawn from any tangible success. Love, I argue is an act constituted in spite of such odds, such impossibilities.”

What about grief, when love cannot endure, I ask. “Grief is never far away. The two, love and grief, walk the same perilous road. But grief is an inevitability love is well aware of and its destined failures are not compassed by grief, but always go beyond,” says Lahiri.

Voluptuous at moments, almost spiritual at others, the reader is led to a library of erotic and elemental poetry that walks the shelves, and talks the talk of T.S. Eliot, Rainer Maria Rilke, John Donne, Dylan Thomas or Pablo Neruda, through the appropriately arranged and meticulously organised sections of the collection. After a brief but useful, revealing and charming introduction, eight tightly woven, meaty sections follow — Parables, Rites, Ars-Erotica, Demesne, Isthmus, Proverbs, Tangents, Ascent-Descent — where the poet evinces his role as an intrepid innovator.

“I have looked at the Sea

Over Helen’s shoulder for centuries”,

states the poet, reiterating this image of looking back in the first poem of the collection A Sea View.

How did the poet make himself comfortable in this loitering with the maverick Eros, the Greek God of love? Says Lahiri , who began to write poetry when he was 16: “I have always been a bit of a loner and I’ve felt that it has served me well when it came to looking at love in its most intense, but obtuse manifestations. I’d been writing love poems off and on for over four years and ultimately they came to a head where I could actually anthologise them. Thus Tinder Tender happened,” says the poet-academic.

With his newest book of poems, Tether that Light, to be launched in less than a month, poet Debasish Lahiri has perfected the art of capturing the soul of his readers with the skill of a wizard as he demonstrated in possibly the most inventive of his collections — Tinder Tender. In this latest accomplishment, he looks East, and pays tribute to the extraordinary beauty and mystery of the Mughal, Rajput, Pahari and Deccani paintings by which he has been inspired.

Ranjit Hoskote, award-winning poet, cultural commentator, curator, says of Lahiri that he demonstrates, “a gifted literary imagination that does not mechanically describe and annotate, but rather, animates and brings diverse new energies to bear on the work of painterly imaginations that have gone before.”

An imagistic poet who corrals the most tumultuous moments like a hanging, with the magic of the 16th century Milanese painter Caravaggio, in the gripping lines of Dawn Watch, Lahiri’s exceptional mastery as a poet is majestically signposted.

How slender

this charmed shape of air,

lately a man,


chaste as his red tulip coat,

naked as his thoughts

that were in need of dawn light,

his philosophy perhaps,

now hanging

as his own death disguised.

This is one Indian poet to watch. And Lahiri is on the way to lighting a global sky full of stars from India.

Picture courtesy the author

Julie Banerjee Mehta is an author of Dance of Life and co-author of the bestselling biography Strongman: The Extraordinary Life of Hun Sen. She has a PhD in English and South Asian Studies from the University of Toronto, where she taught World Literature and Postcolonial Literature for many years. She currently lives in Kolkata and teaches Masters English at Loreto College.

Last updated on 16.10.22, 11:55 AM

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