K Satchidanandan’s poems in ‘Questions from the Dead’ tackle environmental crisis


It is often argued that poetry can be both abstract and necessary. But it is the language, sober and inventive, which infiltrates the defenses. Questions from the Dea‘, K Satchidanandan’s latest collection of poems, is about decentering the subject, unveiling authority, and seeking kinship with nature to elicit a deep emotional response in a surprisingly moving way.

To read it is to encounter reality and its hilly terrain anchored in pain. Simple and laconic, Satchidanandan’s poems tell the truth, they are not a source of comfort. This fascinating collection explores the ecological balance in particular – intellectually severe, exposed, and yet never chained by doctrine and belief – by asking troubling questions.

Here, the voice of the poet is biocentric, lively and passionate. And the emotional depth of the collection comes from working with the conventional narrative structure. We find unmistakable integrity, a thirst for knowledge and a language taken seriously. Satchidanandan is a defining poet of our time, and his visionary poetry, self-translated into English from Malayalam, crosses the boundaries between truth and reverie, light and shadow, augmenting his powerful words with sublimity and verve.

Questions of the dead courts risk both in method and in process. German critic Wolfgang Kubin rightly pointed out: “K Satchidanandan is certainly not a poet who stands apart from the world. He is a traveling poet. Poetry for him is a cry against all walls… It is his cosmopolitanism that makes Satchidanandan interesting beyond India.

What is remarkable about this collection is the poet’s love for common people and his concern for environmental degradation. Its short and declarative lines encourage reflection, even learning. The poet paints an urgent, often surrealistic portrait of the inequalities of life. The dissonance between the blustery rhetoric of modern times and the harsh realities of the world with their acceptance of obscurity is reflected in lines such as these:

Yakshis live on palm trees
Human beings live in houses
Those who live on the streets
are not human.

– ‘Those who live on the streets’.

His poems are symphonic and moving, seeking to intimately capture the entirety of human life and time. Like their subject matter, the poems are dark, yet vivid and insightful, sometimes all at once. They are anchored in the realm of nature and men. The disconnection between humans and nature is a threat to life and identity.

This time we won’t argue
I’ll trade my fruit for your song
There will be no humans
To see it or hear it.
Only butterflies.

– ‘On this earth’.

For Satchidanandan, poetry has always been the place where he sought understandings and answers that he could not find elsewhere. In one of his recent collections of poems on love and desire, The tree of whispers, he wrote, “How a bed sheet turns into / Vatsyayana in one night / Love is also meditation / in twenty-four postures.

In this collection, he combines an extraordinary literary lucidity with a visionary gaze which always questions reality without transforming it or upsetting it, and meditates on his constantly evolving methods, the tensions buried in it.

Nobody stops asking questions
just because we died

– ‘Questions of the dead’.

The poet is more confident than haughty, he does not believe in hyperbole. His poems touch the heart, the mantle, the crust, the bone and the fossil.

The one without ‘I’
To know each other
The one who does not know of ‘you’
knows others.

– ‘The secret’.

For all the subtleties, there is urgency in tone and texture. The lines that follow are visually and auditory effective, as the poet describes the brutality of humans, pointing out that nature is a victim, not shrouded in beauty and romance.

i need emergency surgery
So that I can breathe the present

– “The placenta”.

This alternation between lively essential and substance, between tip and wood, between response and withdrawal, creates constant uncertainty in our mind. The poems reflect the cue with austere and apocalyptic precision.

‘Your eyes do not carry rage, but a winter
Your perched lips no longer have a slogan
Your bare hands do not hold arms but an autumn
The world does not change.

– ‘The world does not change’.

Satchidandan weaves these themes, images and narrative perspectives into this collection. His poems always speak of the return to everyday life. The climate crisis is a failure of our system and, admitting to being baffled by humanity, the poems sound disturbing echoes of environmental destruction. The feeling of flux and disorientation is forcefully conveyed, using non-humans as agents:

Before taking over,
Earth was ruled by humans.
They had flesh and blood and bones.
They thought they were sad
They laughed, sang and even wrote books.
One day humans, using their intelligence,
Killed each other,
Leaving the land to us.

– “Before taking over”.

Skilfully navigating between sensitivity and exasperation, expectation and anguish, eulogy and funeral song, it is an intensely bewitching collection that will remain in the mind of the reader. These are essential, finely sculpted poems that position us as prisoners of wicked plans.

The bullets you consumed
have rusted in your belly
and stained the color of your blood.

Civilization looks like
as virgin as a dry river
who does not thirst for rain.

– ‘Nobody talks about you, Syria’.

Satchidanandan explores in his poems the impact of extreme weather conditions on humanity as if they were embedded in its genetic code and challenge our innate anthropocentrism. And his subtle connection to nature and people emerges with an appealing effect in his skillful writing, in which the poet employs a diverse mix of styles and techniques.

I want to die, without
leaving a single imprint,
leaving only a few poems
which do not bear the name of the poet:
like our ancestors.

The language is harsh, the images attractive, the method impeccable. Austerity tastefully evokes everyday life. The poet looks back at pain and contemplates redemption, even as he grapples with the slippery nature of truth and misery.

Then I walked towards the light
I saw in front of me
but I never abandoned my cart.
This light was a will of the wisp.
My wheel took me to a new place
before being lost in the abyss.

– ‘Wheel’.

The dichotomy of union with and disunity with what is fundamental and restorative is already present in this collection. Satchidanandan is a cosmic vision, which seeks to embrace the global continuities within which significant disturbances take place. Faced with this climatic apocalypse, he skillfully rearranges the questions of humanity’s alienation from the environment, questions left unanswered for years, unanswered.

Satchidanandan shifts naturally and exhilaratingly from the personal to the political, and his poems find a voice without relying on any rigid framework. A sense of the environment and people anchors this volume. And with laconic lines and formal play, the poems here equal room for rage and tenderness. This warm and expansive volume illustrates that poetry is for Satchidanandan a practice of daily deliverance – a form of the sacramental.

Gopal Lahiri is a bilingual poet, writer, editor, critic and translator and has published in Bengali and English.

Questions of the dead, K Satchidanandan, copper coin.


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