Oct/Nov 2022  •   Reviews & Interviews

Representations of Masculinity in Rohan Chhetri's Poetry

Review by Ankush Banerjee

lost, hurt, or in transit beautiful.
Rohan Chhetri.
Tupelo Press. 2021. 60 pp.
ISBN 978-1946482549.

"The war works with unparalleled diligence / Yet no one gives it a word of praise."—Dunya Mikhail, The War Works Hard

Rohan Chhetri's second book, evocatively titled lost, hurt, or in transit beautiful (2021), makes significant moral, intellectual, and psychological demands on the reader, who is rewarded by dizzying, startling, and at times, horrifying insights into the human condition. Chhetri often traps the reader in structures of language so striking, wounds so deep, and images so stark, that following the mythic trail of language becomes more wonder than choice, more compulsion than desire. The tropes he uses—the myth, desire, borders (both geographical and existential), masculinity, and even heartbreak (a cliché assuming almost an epic, surgical urgency in his poems) are easy to employ, though difficult to master. But Chhetri's mastery is assured, in amalgamating rather alloying various strands of a thought, an image, an idea, a myth into expansive, large-hearted supremely ambitious canvasses of poems that simultaneously embody the complexity of a research paper, the effortlessness of song, and the meticulousness of a novel, though all of these may not at first be easy to grasp together. And that is because, like all "great poetry," or even, "good poetry," it demands a "willing suspension of disbelief" (yes!), but also a willing suspension of our notions of what language is and can be made to do.

The Tupelo Press cover of the book has an inset from Rubens' 1609-10 painting, "Samson & Delilah." We see a close-up of Samson's hair being snipped while his head lies in Delilah's lap. The use of this painting betrays a masculinity that sets the tone of the collection. Throughout the book, we are met, at times unexpectedly but always movingly, by ghosts, shadows, and apparitions of fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, and even heartbroken masculine-figures, caught up in and grappling with challenges much larger than themselves.

"Lamentations of a Failed Revolution" (pp.7-11), from the first subsection Katabasis (meaning, descent or retreat), sketches in painful strokes, and thereafter, deconstructs the anatomy of violence, of repression, and even of resistance, and their after-effects on people in general, and men, in particular. It begins,

"...long summer of bullets
One July morning a caesura in the terror a lull
in the pelting A man woke in the shape of a crosshair
looking for a pharmacy He hear it before he..."

and suddenly, gunfire interrupts, before the man's ear is blown off, "black blood sluicing down an eye / His open mouth vacuum." Sudden, violent actions have the power to startle, to shock, to horrify. But a slow, deliberate churn of narrative, trundling forward with each stroke of image—"open mouth vacuum," "fistful of pipelines," "twisting the asphalt beside his head his / hand clutching dust / body splayed fossil-ripe"—achieves a more devastating and permanent effect, given it is not one violent action or a sequence of violent actions, but a long, arduous take, akin to a Bela Tarr shot, wherein an explosion is caught frozen right before it achieves critical mass. That cliffhanging anticipation of doom, of fall, of a terrible secret about to be revealed, but just about, is one of the lasting qualities of Chhetri's poems.

Likewise, "Father, Farther: 1986" (pp-22-27), another long poem and presumably a companion piece to "Lamentations..." is part of second subsection Locus Amoenus (meaning an idealized place of comfort). "Father: Farther: 1986" meditates on fathers and sons, and the pathos born from dislocation, from migration, from having to send away a son far away from violence's macabre arc, only to realize what has been gained in the process will never really compensate for what has been lost, and perhaps can never be retrieved. The speaker's grandfather had...

"...his feet
noose-tied through a ceiling fan hook
yanked upside down is stripped naked
water-boarded pummeled in the chest
in the stomach Later they'll feed him
fresh shovelled earth..."

But, at another time, when the son is too drunk to even remember any of this, at precisely...

"that moment Grandfather's
eyes blink open tears have rivered down
his forehead in a pool of red on the floor
he's been weeping... as he remembers
he's sent him slow son across the border
where rifle barrels calcify in the long rust of evening."

One meets the "grandfather-figure" and "grandfather-figure" in "Dasãi" (p.32) and "Toward Some Dark" (pp.47-48) respectively. In "Daśãi," the Nepalese equivalent of the Hindu festival of Dusshera, we meet "great-grandparents" who are "alive, giants walking the earth still." The family gathers for a celebration. "This is the day that brings the branches back to seed, the blood back to earth. Nine goats fattened all summer are slaughtered one by one for the feast." It starts like a celebratory poem, something to rejoice, be happy about. But soon enough, we come across great-grandfather, "old doctor," who paces the yard waiting for his eight daughters to come home. The part of the poem that holds, the lacrimae rerum, or, "the tears of existence" follows soon after, when "his wrinkled face dappled in light pouring through palm trees... begins to believe this will go on forever." [emphasis mine]. We are left with an image of this unarguable patriarch gazing into the bright fields, at that "straw-head," with great-grandfather's old shirt buttoned up on a stick cross. We will never know what becomes of the great-grandfather we see waiting to rejoice and lord over his proud and lavish household. But the suggestion of a straw-head, "leaning halfway in the shock of yellow maize," achieves something heart-wrenchingly yet fleetingly poignant—it places a traditionally-strong, masculinist figure within the crucible of its own fundamental vulnerability—that of mortality, of its inevitable transience. The tragic effect Chhetri achieves here is part-Marquez, part-Kiarostami, and it lingers uneasily long after. Primarily, because an image of a seemingly towering man contemplating his own mortality amidst fields of yellow maize is irresistible, but also because it captures the absurdity of ritual and tradition—those very cultural constructs fashioned into society by patriarchy's strong arm—in whose anticipation we (and the "great-grandfather) wait, but which never fructify.

As if these were companion pieces, we encounter the "grandfather-figure" in "Toward Some Dark" (pp.47-48). However, here he appears more as a ghost, as memory, as a dying man, too embarrassed to bequeath a little money "he's squirreled away/ in a tin box." The image is imbued with pathos. There is little we can do except look away. He is not the towering patriarch here. Rather, he comes across as petty, irritable, almost a little scared at the thought of death, "pleading through/ the final hours to please pull the fucking shroud/ off his head."

What do poems such as "Dasãi," "Toward Some Dark," "Lamentations of a Failed Revolution" and even "Father, Farther: 1986," seek from the reader? And conversely, what can and should the reader take away from them? The answer to this lies in seeing these poems sketching, searching, imagining a particular type of masculinity—fractured, reshaped, and re-imagined—under the umbrella of relentless (state-sponsored) political violence, and the helpless urgency it brings with it.

Men do not remain what they were supposed to be; they are coerced into compromised subject-positions and irremediably altered. RW Connell, in her seminal book, Masculinities, has observed in this regard, "the constitution of masculinity through bodily performance means that gender is vulnerable when the performance cannot be sustained," for instance as a result of oppression, violence and aggression. "Bordersong" sketches scenes from a village situated close to an unnameable border whose structures of feeling, to use Raymond William's term, are embodied not in song, but in smell (downwind the "bakery" with its "butter sesame," downwind of "incense," of "burning flesh masked in clarified butter," "musk of flensed pelt," "talcum & attar"), are imbued with a certain edginess, uncertainty, and suspicion. It is place reminiscent of "the putrid summer of the old revolution" when "two severed heads of the Liberation/ Front leaders" were "hung from a branch of the guava tree." As if mysteriously...

"one night, truck after stealth-green
truck full of families packed to the hull
like horses for the New World."

Within the timbre of such "Bordersong," only "the women marched in gunmetal silence... rhyme of slogans/ plucked from their cleaved tongues." The men folk, perhaps, have been jailed, killed, or have disappeared. Chhetri whittles images of out words, wounds out of silences and pauses, to build a place, and lets us get lost in its eerie calm, albeit the undercurrents of turbulence, both past and present, are never far away.

We move from what I call the "grand-father" poems carrying the terrible knowledge of those (i.e., the grandfather and father figure) who are the "lost, hurt," or in the process of being translated into something other than themselves, to the poems in the subsection titled, Erato. The speaker in these poems seems younger, more vulnerable, and perhaps acutely self-aware. Chhetri's speakers are not cardboard cut-outs, stock-characters, or glitches in the normalcy paradigm; rather they become the receptacle through which the issues, conflicts, and subject-positions absorbing the poet are succinctly explored. The astutely titled "Poem with Ritual, Broken Guardrail, Imaginary Novel, & Curse" (pp. 37-38), charts the anatomy of a slowly souring love-relationship with a terrifying myth in the backdrop, in the recollection of which the presumably guilty but nonetheless helpless speaker takes emotional refuge. Chhetri demonstrates both the power of myth to functionally and morally illuminate life, and the aesthetic efficacy of the elliptical narrative drawn by a painfully self-aware speaker, whose conscientiousness, though moving, will not save him from gut-wrenching guilt, or from the self-knowledge that acceptance (of one's own culpability) does not always amount to forgiveness, or closure. Thus, these lines...

" I resented her but knew the blue arm
of frost was all mine, growing inside me. I'd seen too much
Sucked on broken spears from frozen waterfalls when stranded in
thirst, seen black bears bounding the trails when it grew dark..."
...come to a sudden close with, "I didn't sign up for this, she said / and drove away".

...articulate the helpless of a man who is incapable of love because of his exposure to the violence of various kinds. In "New Delhi in Winter" (pp. 35-36), the speaker observes...

"I remember thinking then, This cannot be
the worst of my days, but mostly I remember
myself in some variation of afraid.
Why, I can't tell.
I had a job, an apartment,
& a woman who claimed to be in love with me
less & less each day."

...and that later, "one of us would be called first/ to initiate the slaughter." A sense of impending fall, the melancholy of a waning love-relationship pervades through these lines, until we reach towards the denouement, where the speaker reflects...

"the body itself has no use for hope.
It hardens in grief to live beyond hope."

These lines behold a peculiar vulnerability on part of the speaker. The speaker is by turns assailed by self-doubt, hope, self-knowledge, and helplessness. There are times we assume this imbues him with a certain cathartic wisdom, but are soon enough surprised to discover otherwise. However, this does not preclude a feeling of being unsettled. Because in the end of "New Delhi in Winter," when the speaker says...

"And the only real use of narrative is to cheat
that ancient urge inside us, pale animal
with its face resembling the inside of our death
masks, its long unheeded, persistent murmur
clearing into a deafening verdict: Leave."

...we are sure what he/she means—indicating a predilection for self-preservation, and cutting one's losses from the sinking ship of a love-relationship. However, we don't know whether the speaker will be able to come good on his own advice/observation, and such ambiguity makes this poem so powerful.

"The Singing Bone" (pp. 5-6), one of Chhetri's most celebrated poems, is a devastating meditation on, presumably, a father's suicide after his wife's demise, as reminisced by the son, long after. When we meet a shaman in the beginning, "blowing the trumpet of a suicide's hollow shinbone" in the beginning, followed by "twenty years will pass before I understand this music," we know something uneasy, and unnerving shall be revealed to us. And soon enough, we know of...

The old house replaced
By something modern, architecture standing in
for a woman's death. Her husband's slow breakdown
Coursed for months, the clocks telling him to jump
off a cliff, the second marriage hurried in mourning.

The layers are slowly unpeeled, memory becomes the slow burn of remembrance and understanding; though such understanding does not translate to amelioration of pain, only its placement in realms of acceptance-proper, when the speaker reminisces...

"Caught in the downpour,
We stood under eaves of caves...
We hollowed hovels out of lantana brambles
Where we spoke in voices of already grown men." [emphasis mine]

To answer the question—who are the lost, and hurt—the speaker trundles further, and deeper, when he reflects...

"My history of nausea in the cold half-
Light of childhood, where did it come from?"

And he answers the rhetorical question with, "Mother/ or the long descent in the old manner of hell." A lesser poet would have stopped here. But the speaker goes further, or rather, comes nearer, when he informs...

"the shaman returns the next morning for alms...
we circled him,
the mystification undone in daylight. Just a man bruised
from the cold, with children starving somewhere
in the mountains across the border, as we sit here
goading him to reveal to us the singing bone."

He somewhat sabotages the shaman, who also happens to be, if not the source, then the trigger of the myth. We wonder, whether this means the myth, too, has been sabotaged; whether memory, too, is suspect—the ailing, liberating condition of post-modernity. In the process, he also confers on himself, an "already grown man," a peculiar vulnerability born from the need to recall, construct, and seek. In sabotaging the source (or trigger) of the myth, he sabotages himself, but this only reveals his vulnerability, which translates into an unusual sort of authenticity.

Chhetri's poems are as complex as they are rewarding; as brutal as they shine a light towards a peculiar humanity. In these poems, men remain men within prescribed boundaries; beyond these, they become myths;. Likewise, boys are taught early the fragility of masculinity when subjected to transience and violence, and how heartbreaks are a pathway to both guilt and painful self-awareness, both leading to, hopefully, self-preservation.

These poems fashion a new sort of interpretation to the myth of a mighty Samson losing his hair—and through that loss, the corresponding loss of his superhuman strength—and becoming susceptible to being lost, hurt, or in transit (to something more human, and hence) beautiful.


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