I must confess that I read these books out of order, or at least not in the order that I recommend for other readers. Both of these books were released in the last year and one is actually quite long for a book of poems, at 173 pages. This is an enormous output for a contemporary poet, a cursory polling of my bookshelf reveals most of my poetry collections to be in the 70-page range, and some poets can spend up to a decade polishing a collection. I see these two books by Yuyutsu Sharma, A Blizzard in my Bones and Quaking Cantos, as a depiction of a journey more akin to sagas in lengthier tomes such as Dante’s descent into the Infernoor Milton’s description of a Paradise Lost than as typical volumes of modern lyric verse. Strangely, it is the poet’s journey to a foreign land that initiates inner searching and the poet’s return home that prompts outer travels to seek healing with brethren.
My recommendation for readers is to begin with A Blizzard in my Bones. It is the longer of the pair, but it is a good entry point as I believe this to be the beginning of the journey. In the initial cycle of the book, “Asleep Like…”, a black shape pours forth from the narrator’s grandmother “its flame/burning the walls/of her throat.” It is the search for this black shape that prompts the narrator’s journey to New York City. Soon he is entering “a Babylon/of wandering winter spirits/and wavering speeches” in which he experiences “the Subway’s odor/tingling the lonely/walks to Washington Square.”
While there are many discoveries inside New York City that take place in the book, the narrator’s self-discoveries are the most compelling. He once again sees the black shape, this time “a black bird like Anne Sexton” in “Luna, Fish on Long Island Sound”, a poem about discovering oneself in love. In “The Aging Translator of Mallarme” he explores how others see him. Through the Ginsbergian howl “The Scream, Subway Avatars” the poet begins to find himself in the city, particularly in the grimy dark. A process completed in “Your Name” as the narrator describes a tongue that “licks sadness/out of my life’s numbered streets” thus melding himself with the cityscape. The book does not end with this immersion though, eventually the poet leaves New York to return home with the strength of the city.
Nepal in the aftermath of horrific earthquakes is the setting of Quaking Cantos. Just like the black shape fleeing his grandmother prompted the journey inward, it is this tragedy that moves the poet towards the suffering Nepali people. Quaking Cantos is my favorite of the two books because it allows the poet to display the kind of compassionate craftsmanship such a subject demands. The most stunning accomplishment of this book is the poet’s ability to use short lines to convey the physical and emotional devastation in the wake of a natural disaster. Here is an example of this from the poem “Nipple”:
“a baby crawls
on the cold
The short lines slow down the tempo of the poem so much that the reader almost feels as if they are crawling with the baby through the rubble. In poems like “Bhaktupar” and “Sunya” the abrupt lines create the very effect of the debris they describe, an accumulation of unexpected objects lying on top of one another and sometimes mixing together. Sharma is gifted at an enjambment that reflects the destruction of the scene, evident in the poem “Course of Courage” which describes “buildings about to tumble/into the grand jaw of Time.”
In his outward journey, the narrator often fixes his gaze on the NGOs that have descended onto his country in the wake of this crisis. Throughout the book, he amusingly calls such organizations “Compassion Inc.” In “Quake Relief” a lamb starves under a sign in which an NGO is seeking blood from donors. The stark imagery of an animal suffering under such an appeal raises legitimate questions about the abilities and methods of these organizations, particularly their blindness to the everyday life of the Nepali people. InQuaking Cantos, Sharma brings this life to the epicenter of his collection, creating “a song/of human lives/crackling.”
In A Blizzard in my Bones the narrator begins picking up the inner wreckage of his life. It is only through this process that he is able to confront the outer wreckage ofQuaking Cantos and raise up the lives of the Nepali people. This is not a perfect journey, there were some sections in both books that could have been truncated and others that could have gone deeper. If you only have the time or budget for one of these books, I recommend Quaking Cantos, though both of them stand on their own. Regardless, Yuyutsu Sharma is an essential voice whose inner and outer struggles are worth chronicling. I am glad to have spent some time traveling with him, and I think you will be as well.
Benjamin Schmitt is the Best Book Award and Pushcart nominated author of two books,Dinner Table Refuge (PunksWritePoemsPress, 2015) andThe global conspiracy to get you in bed (Kelsay Books, 2013). His poetry has appeared in Sakura Review, Hobart, Grist, Wisconsin Review,Two Thirds North and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and daughter in Seattle where he also reviews books, curates At The Inkwell’s Seattle reading series, and teaches workshops to people of all ages. Learn more athttp://bens25.tumblr.com/