REVIEW: On Self-Reflexivity, Revision, and Indeterminacy in Arrow by Sumita Chakraborty

Updated: Oct 9

Arrow by Sumita Chakraborty

Alice James Books, September, 2020

Arrow (n.) a punctuation that refuses closure; a poetry collection to move through periods of ruin. What possibilities for change do poems offer us in times of destruction? How can poetry compel us to live in ways outside of our programmatic, conditioned desire to possess knowledge, emotional release, resolution? How can we speak in languages that refuse possession? How can poetry offer one way, “to hover in an indeterminate space between ‘certainly’ and ‘however,’” as Sumita Chakraborty asked in her 2015 review of Roses a collection of translations of Rilke?

Chakraborty’s debut Arrow (Alice James Books, September 2020) offers, to my reading body, one poetic language that lives into indeterminacy. This poet has studied and meditated long on her poetic forebearers—Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Marie Howe, Lucie Brock-Broido, Ranier Maria Rilke, Alice Oswald, and Frank Bidart to name a few alluded to in the book. This poet, through grappling with these poetic inheritances, grounds herself in lyric only to push the lyric’s forms and languages into new galaxies. I say galaxies risking that it might sound hyperbolic and contrived. I say galaxies because I am unsure that “world-building” quite captures the rattled perspectival frames that I experienced while reading this book.

Arrow is a collection of 20 poems that, as the title suggests, obsesses over the entanglement between love and violence. While the emotional genesis of the collection may be the death of the poet’s sister—lamented throughout the collection but particularly in the long poem “Dear Beloved”—words are the objects of this poet’s love. She shows this love the way two dogs might enact a love while baring teeth and wrestling each other, by dislocating words from their dictionary definitions to revise them in the light of her own fables before lovingly reopening them toward new possibilities of meaning.

Throughout the collection, Chakraborty displays a hyperawareness of her use of language. While self-reflexivity can, in less patient hands, end in an unsatisfying show of cleverness, Chakraborty pushes form to propel the poems beyond expected endings in order to channel her self-reflexive impulse into further aporias. The poems here are animals, living creatures of their own, in that they are relentless, persistent, adaptive, and enduring even in the face of all the patriarchal, human violences around them. At the macro level, this book contains an array of forms—lineated poems 8+ pages in length without stanzaic breaks, poems of separated prose blocks, short “essays” in musical sentences, a poem of re-arranged ‘found’ language from the poet’s own translations of Rilke, and a long poem comprised of three interwoven sestinas. At the micro, Chakraborty’s long, but controlled lines stretch like the gull’s wingspan over the Harbor outside my window, swooping down to make a prey of abusers in the water.

These abusers are words tethered and circumscribed to the colonial machinations of harm inherent in the English language. In the first poem of the book, “Marigolds” she writes, “I found the word spears, which I drove slowly / into my father’s ribs. He I eulogized and he I resurrected, / reaching again for the spears” (2). Chakraborty uses italics to dislocate words from the insidious invisibility they achieve through our deadening abuse of them. Italicizing forces us to look at the word more closely, as a noun. In the quote above, the speaker claims the word for herself, transforms it to defy death while rehearsing it. The italicization of this noun, this weapon, alerts us to Chakraborty’s use of language as an arsenal the poet steals from the ‘masters’ to turn against the threatening patriarchy at the center of her world. She writes from the surroundings, where she makes language to mean something beyond denotation and connotation.

Self-reflexivity fuels revision which Chakraborty enacts often through fictional etymologies. In a passage in “Dear Beloved,” the speaker invents four “definitions for the word sadness.” And in the middle of this passage, the speaker re-images her sister in a way that contains both the minute and massive in one stroke. These revised etymologies illustrate a skillful implementation of revision as a poetic technique. By revealing the process of re-imagining our relations to certain words, Chakraborty casts language into new logic. It’s as if she wants to do the impossible—give words an agency all their own. Through redefining the words she italicizes often through the collection, she deifies them as holy animals. Her imaginings offer the bodies of abusers at the sacrificial altar. The speaker as someone “who…spent fifteen years as a connoisseur of grammars of violence” sees this violence as a form of defense, a stepping stone that tries in vain to approach the asymptote of love.

The poet’s deftness with ballooning forms helps her express her own engrossing, seductive poet-logic. In “Most of the Children Who Lived in this House Are Dead. As a Child I Lived Here. Therefore I am Dead.”, she explicitly challenges the reader’s desire for the denouement. She feels the need to justify to the reader her choice of writing in the mode of fable saying, “a fable never resolves so much as re-declares its problems” (11). This moment of self-reflexivity asks us as readers to question our own desire for resolution when confronting grief and violence. This statement implicates the reader and asks us in our bodily, named selves to redeclare our own problems. The self-reflexivity invites us to reckon alongside the poet. She forbids us from walking through this book with our inherited modes of sensing. Chakraborty’s strange world of logic becomes one in which we can walk and follow Rilke’s famous words, which she cites, “you must change your life.”

Many moments in this book cause the reader to pause and radically re-imagine how we see the world. In “Essay on Joy” Chakraborty echoes the late Pegeen Kelly in jarring our modes of time-keeping when she writes, “For some length of time that a crow considers painful and I cannot measure, she caressed her lack like a lover.” (41). In “Dear Beloved,” the speaker grieving her late sister laments:

“Sometimes I think that each speck of ash

previously named Priya hums on quiet nights

in a frequency only the other pieces can hear.

Inaudible to the waking world she hums to herself.

That hum is how my blood became blue; in lieu of oxygen,

my body began to breathe in only the vibrations of the hum.

Blood has to be born into its colors. Or, more precisely,

it has to die into them.” (22-23)

The logic of poetry reanimates the dead as a speck of ash that hums. And yet, the restless poetics at play here questions the impulse to resurrect the lost through a logic of equative clauses that end, again, in death. Ultimately, though, Chakraborty’s poetics of indeterminacy charts a way into new imaginative possibilities, ones untethered from denouement and resolution, yet not defeatist. Just as her heavy allusion to poetic forebearers indicates, the book insists that we are not alone:

“The English word planet comes from ancient Greek and Latin words meaning wander or wanderer. As children and animals we live on a planet. Therefore we wander and are wanderers. The alphabets, essentially, are trees. Therefore this book is a forest. No forest is ever a forest alone.” (13)

This stunning collection turns a poet’s process through grief into an ars poetica. Where love and grief and violence and re-vision are welcomed as kin, poetry happens. Here, the act of deforming and reforming the definitions of words, re-imagining the worlds and galaxies they make, is as much an act of love as it is an act of violence. These difficult actions make poetry vibrant, and helps us “as we arrow from times of grief into—well, into more such times…” (75). For any reader or writer who wants to learn how to “look deeply enough” so that, maybe, our “heart valves start to change allegiances,” this book is a forest full of life and breath.

What I love about the strongest debut collections is being introduced to a poet’s unique constellation of inspirations, and reading poetry that emerges from one’s engagement with their own specific canon. I leave my multiple readings of Arrow, wanting to challenge myself as a writer and thinker, to push form beyond where I feel the impulse to stop, to interrogate the way I imagine the world again and again. For me, the greatest gift of Arrow is meeting a poet whose collection is quickly becoming part of my own personal canon, a forest adjacent to the one in which I live. Forests that we must keep from burning, forests that keep us breathing, too.

Rushi Vyas is the author of When I Reach For Your Pulse (forthcoming Four Way Books, 2023) and is a US-born poet of Indian descent currently living in Aotearoa New Zealand where he is working toward his PhD at Te Whare Wānanga o Ōtākou / The University of Otago. He holds degrees from the University of Colorado-Boulder (MFA) and the University of Michigan (BS). He currently serves as Reviews Editor for Gasher Journal and reviews books of poetry from Aotearoa and the US. Recent poems have been published in journals such as 32 Poems, Tin House, Landfall (NZ), Boulevard, Redivider, Counterclock, Waxwing and Adroit, among others.