Tuesday 1 September 2020

Review by Vic Pickup of "Unaccomplished Cities" by Jayant Kashyap

Pushcart-prize nominee Jayant Kashyap’s second chapbook, Unaccomplished Cities, released as part of Ghost City Press’s Summer Series (available to download for free here), is an exploration of the darkness of humanity, the impact of war and destruction. 

His ten-poem sequence revisits key points of trauma in human history — from man’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, to the ashes of Pompeii, bombed-out Düsseldorf and the bloody past of the poet’s native India.

Exploring harrowing tales of global conflict, Kashyap condenses atrocities down to single images, vividly described and highly evocative. In ‘Pompeii,’ he writes of the buried city: 

          like a body, picked from grave, bitten to cavities; 

          the city has cavities the size of women, and men, 
          bent in rituals – making love 

The juxtaposition of the entombment of people preserved in the very act of living – of passion – is horrifying and emotive. 

In ‘Death Sonnet,’ Kashyap describes a basement in Düsseldorf where the families ‘only recognised each other by voices.’ He explores the darkness ‘in which ‘deathbirds circled dark cities every night ꟷ / where even a little light meant death.’ These strong images enhance the literal and metaphorical darkness of wartime Düsseldorf in blackout. 

Life and loss are the key themes of this sequence. In ‘The Destruction of Nalanda,’ Kashyap transports us to Bihar in 1193, when The Nalanda University was burnt for the third time by Turkish Ruler Bakhtiyar Khilji. In his poem he mourns the destruction of the nine million manuscripts stored there: 

          jealousy took the toll, it was three 
          months until each page had burnt itself alive 

           — a slaughter of cultures

Kashyap describes the atrocities which occurred in his native India in ‘Aftermath of the Freedom Struggle,’ where up to two million people were slaughtered in the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan: 

          Everytime the last of the bodies comes out of the
          train, bone cracking from heat, smoke fills the sky,
          even in the neighbouring cities; the train cleared of 
          deathsmears, readied to take people home, again,
          alive from this end.

The poem ends: ‘people pray for their / loved ones: be safe. Nothing ever changes.’ The poet reflects upon the futility of life, which is echoed in the tragedy in ‘Husne Ara Parvin’ ꟷ here, Kashyap describes a mass shooting in a New Zealand mosque focusing on a woman, Pavin, who was killed whilst sheltering her wheelchair-bound husband. The poem’s final lines are deeply poignant, observing what is lost and gained:

          ... When the curfew 
          ended, the world had become both an ounce 

          more, an ounce less of love.

Despite the core themes of this sequence, Jayant’s writing is anything but bleak. To quote one of his own poems, Unaccomplished Cities retells ‘the tales all of us knew something about’ with poetry that is bold, powerful and evocative. 

About the reviewer

Vic Pickup is a previous winner of the Café Writers and Cupid's Arrow competitions, and was recently shortlisted for the National Poetry Day #speakyourtruth contest. Her debut pamphlet Lost & Found will be published by Hedgehog Press later this year.  

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