In Atlanta Review, it’s all poetry, all the time. No visual art or prose (save for the editors’ introductions and contributor notes) finds its way into this journal. With all this space, the editors will consider up to five poems by a single author for a given issue, and they take pride in publishing the works of both new and established authors. The editors evidently prefer brief works and excerpts: in such a small space, 59 poets (in addition to Kabir, Tukaram, Akho and Nandeo, who turn up in translation) and 92 poems appear. On its website, the journal is described as “a haven for our common humanity, the things that unite us across the boundaries of nation, race, and religion.” Each Spring/Summer issue therefore devotes space to literature from a single nation.
In this issue, material from India is featured, in the form of poems, contributors’ notes, and a detailed introduction by the India Section Editor Bhisham Bherwani. Some of the Indian poets, all of whom write in English here, have also published in Gujarati, Hindi, Malayalam, Oriya, Kannada, and Marathi. They are notable also for their collective accomplishments in law, business, law enforcement, medicine, journalism, the visual arts, and political activism. They were chosen by Bherwani, himself an award-winning poet, from those who “came of age after 1947,” the year of India’s independence and sovereignty. Six of the twenty-one modern Indian poets are recently deceased.
Bherwani’s introduction promises “erotic love poetry,” and the statement of welcome by Editor Dan Veach refers to “the sultriest love lyrics you’ll ever see.” But unless the mere inclusion of the terms “shivalingam” and “crotches” are counted (in two brief and witty works by Eunice de Souza), the eroticism sprinkles rather than saturates the selections. References to the polyvalent spiritual tradition of India, as expressed in its architecture, music, costume, and customs, far outnumber mentions of deflowering, breasts, or thighs. But more prevalent still is a penetrating tenderness for everyday experience, as in E.V Ramakrishnan’s “Calligraphy”:
My daughter stands sharpening
the pencil: a summit of graphite
emerges from the shavings of wood.
As her crawling hand builds
a word letter by letter,
a letter by its curves and strokes
and each letter by its awesome
turn and steep climb,
the fine tip of keenness spends itself
in the deviant ways of transcribing the banal.
Travelers to India will find much in this volume that rekindles a sentient memory—sandal oil, squatter toilets, coconut trees, giant Buddhas, a faded sari in a field—or the shock of seeing temple rats, elephants and monkeys up close and personal, with nary a fence to protect them (or you). It cannot be easy to make a limited selection of poems to transmit a vast culture, but the works here invite further exploration of the people and ways of India. The 17th-century saint Tukaram, a devotee of Krishna, is represented with seven poems, translated by both Arun Kolatkar and the late Dilip Chitre. Some spiritual teachers say it is human ignorance that led us to agree to leave the presence of God to enter the fallen realm of earth, and here Tukaram describes an attempt to honor a commitment made in blithe ignorance:
Today, I face the toughest test of life:
Whereof I have no experience,
Thereof I have been asked to sing
I am the innocent one asked to sin,
Without a foretaste of what I must commit
I am just a beginner, untutored in the art,
My Master Himself is unrevealed to me.
Illuminate, and inspire me, O Lord.
Says Tuka, my time is running out.
(translated by Dilip Chitre)
“The Poetry of India” section is bookended by groupings of poems from America. The editing is artful, placing translations of two short poems by the 12th-century Korean poet Hyesim between the India section and the concluding modern American poems and leading up to the international feature section with three poems about India—one about Ravi Shankar’s music, one about Indian women washing clothes in a pond, and one about touring India, by the poets Lavinia Kumar, Sankar Roy, and Mark Aiello, respectively.
Translation, an interest and specialty of Veach, figures prominently throughout. The hallmark of all the works in this volume is their accessibility. The translations, no less than the poems of contemporary Indian and American writers, make good on the editors’ online claim that the Atlanta Review is “real poetry for real people.”