Book Review: A Sky Full of Bucket Lists by Shobhana Kumar

That’s why Kumar’s haibun is a performative mimicry of the catastrophic inequities of our age.

By Ashwani Kumar

Shobhana Kumar’s book of haibun poetry A Sky Full of Bucket Lists is structurally and aesthetically a microcosm of the aporetic experiences of our post-modern conditions. With exquisite control over the compositional movements of the language, she expresses the splintering of the self and society in an avalanche of unconventional imageries of our collective predicament.

Revolving around what she calls “remnants of yesterday”, her poetry dwells in polymorphous voices of bodies—human, non-human and aliens of various sorts. With chiselled cinematic syntaxes and auto-fictional memories, her poems speak of haunting experiences of familiar-unfamiliar voices of life, love, loss and death.

With “sandalwood, rose water, and jasmine fragrances”, A Sky Full of Bucket Lists is also about a bold and experimental language of poetry that bids farewell to stereotypical linguistic and aesthetic constructions of reality. Consider the opening poem of the collection Think of Master Stroke. It is about the schizophrenic experience of “bodies without organs” as French cultural theorists Deleuze and Guattari have argued.

This book of poems, as Kumar says, “regales the visitor with anecdotes of a time” and “the odour lingers long after the cleaning”. In the poem Spaces, she plans to decolonise our archival memories by owning a library in which she “builds each (room) with character that mirrors the inhabitants in different rooms. Ebony shelves in the master bedroom. Coloured panels for the daughter. The son’s deliberately asymmetrical; where poetry settles into uncomfortable corners”. This narratorial voice, with recurring attention to transitional spaces of similarity and differences, makes her poems a makeshift place of healing at the intersections of the worlds of haiku and fictional prose.

As we face the severe second wave of the pandemic, her poems eerily allude to the blurring of binaries of living and non-living. For instance, Kumar, in her poem Stopper, invites us to experience surreal horrors of our times by inhaling “a miasma hovering around the patients, their clothes, beds, and even on their faces. You can’t put a finger to it; it is not the smell of the streets. Neither is it the odour from their wounds. It feels like a heavy cloud, dragging every happy emotion as it moves from one patient to another”.

Exploring logological truths of death in her poem Post-mortem, she says in a deconstructive tone: “Today, he caresses a stray strand of hair from his wife’s forehead as he leaves. He slips from the fourth floor, trying to save a fellow painter from falling. They want to file a report saying he was an alcoholic. She spends the next five years fighting to prove he was not”. Here, you notice the alchemical power of irony in her poems with a silent ferocity, reminding us about Eunice De Souza’s poetic craft of using irony for undermining binaries of social and linguistic experiences.

With child-like curiosity and clarity, she sees her poems as “anonymous, unclaimed memories” from our existential histories, as she says in the poem Being. For her, “forgetting becomes a habit”, a sociological and clinical habit of wondering about the mysteries of “Blue Mountains of Nilgiris”.

Poet Adil Jussawalla tells us, “Every poet has at least two voices: a literary voice and the one in which (s)he normally speaks.” Kumar speaks through what literary critic Eric Griffiths calls the “printed voice” of everyday speech. Her poem Lockdown Learnings is acutely political and confessional. It speaks of our hidden guilts and fantasies of auto-annihilation as “Nothing has changed for the poor. And we, the only ones who have time for poems in lockdown. I wonder if I will remember this pausing when the madness resumes.”

Her poetic language announces itself as a semiotic spectacle. It swoops down upon us like a wild beast, leaving us bewildered and redeemed at once. In this counter-discursive moment, ‘hoping against hope’ becomes potentially a powerful ally in resisting grief and gloom. That’s why Kumar’s haibun is a performative mimicry of the catastrophic inequities of our age.

I am particularly delighted that Red River has been publishing poetry with anamnestic experiments with genres and forms, and also helping us recover forgotten literary fonts in Indian poetry. To conclude, you must not only read Kumar’s poems, but also ride with her verses because as she says in the poem Barter: “After the rains, the ride on the highway is magical.”

Enjoy the magical ride of haibun poetry through the hilltops, nondescript villages and paddy fields where “a group of women get ready to plough the soil” while enjoying the scent of ageing palm trees lining the sky—a sky full of bucket lists!


Ashwani Kumar is a poet, writer and professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. The review of the book was prepared for its release at Anantha: A Festival of Poetry in April

A Sky Full of Bucket Lists
Shobhana Kumar
Red River
Pp 86, Rs 230

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