Book review

Pandemic and poetry

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These are the times of sudden deaths and harrowing distresses experienced by almost everyone in the society in the backdrop of Coronavirus Pandemic.

How the humankind will come to terms with this situation and be resilient, is a big question.

Bishnupada Sethi, a well-known civil servant and poet, who writes both in English and Odia language.

He has a number of poetry collections to his credit: Where Shall I go? My World of Words and Beyond Feelings.

He was instrumental to popularize Mahima philosophy in Odisha by extensively writing on it and by preserving Bhima Bhoi’s birthplace, Khaliapali, Sambalpur district of Odisha.

In Odisha, poetry writing by the civil servants is not something uncommon but rather a convention.

Poets like Ramakanta Ratha, Sitakanta Mahapatra, J.P.Das to name a few who were civil servants like Bishnupada Sethi.

But what makes Bishnupada Sethi distinguished from all others is in terms of context and presentation of real life.

In this context Raj Kumar, a well-known critic, in a book discussion on the author, says, “Their poetry is abstract, mythical, unreal, patronizing.

On the other hand, Bishnupada Sethi’s poetry is real, contemporary and down to earth.” In the context of introducing Beyond Here and Other Poems, the poet writes in the backside of the cover page, “There are individuals inside the book who are in dialogue with me.”

Pandemic Covid-19 is an incident of such great magnitude in recent history which has emotionally broken people across the globe.

Pandemic and its devastating effects have already started surfacing in the pages of literature.

Bishnupada Sethi’s Beyond Here and Other Poems is an example of that.

The poet has so skillfully captured various shades of life adversely affected by Covid-19 in this collection of poetry.

In one of his poems “As I draw a deep breath” the poet sees a gloom that has descended with the spread of Covid-19 and continuous lockdown that followed.

The poet can smell the ‘stench of death’ in every breath that he takes. This ‘unnerves’ the poet and is ‘gripped by fear’.

What makes him even more fearful is to find no one to mourn over the dead.

The poet recollects ‘the tradition of lament singing’ in the society, where even the death of a calf is being lamented.

But the Corona Pandemic has been so devastative that there does not seem to be anyone left to lament over the dead.

In the lines, “There is no one to do a favour- By lamenting singing” the poet persona seems to be disturbed to see such a deplorable condition of the society.

In “Beyond the Lock Down” the poet tries to capture the unbearable pains of the migrant labourers.

The poem captures the plight of the migrant labourers in various cities, who were compelled to travel back to their villages barefoot under the scorching heat. Displacement and migration are not happening for the first time.

Natural calamities like cyclones, drought etc. have compelled people to move from place to place in search of ‘work, food and rest’.

The words ‘hurt and benumb’ reveal how the poor people have always been the victims of these natural calamities.

However, the ending of the poem is very powerful. It sees hope against hopelessness, strength against helplessness.

The poet persona seeks for strength and courage to overcome the arduous journey and reach to a place where he can sustain the life of his family.

His desire to see ‘his dear ones smile and grow’ fills him with determination and strength to fight.

“Cheering up the Brave hearts” is a poem in tribute to the brave medicos and paramedics who have lost their lives by battling heads on during the spread of pandemic.

Indeed, the medical professionals were ‘brave hearts’.

When people were coddled at homes, these brave hearts were treating the Covid-19 patients by risking their lives. Many of them died to save the life of others.

So, the poet persona salutes them saying, “We stand to cheer up the brave hearts.”  By seeing the medical professionals selflessly working to save lives, the poet is comforted knowing that human civilization will surely win this battle however formidable it might look.

The last two lines of the poem, “We shall have the conquest, with science as a weapon” speak a volume at the backdrop of India’s desperate response to the pandemic by imagining it to disappear by beating thali, burning the candle, etc.

Rather the poet is convinced that with our scientific approach to Pandemic, human civilization will surely conquer.

The poem “Where are the Children Gone” rightly describes how pandemic led to a situation which pushed everyone to confinements.

Poet grieves over how the children have disappeared from the streets and park. So also, the elderly people are missing from public places like parks.

There is a sense of abandonment and barrenness all around.

The line ‘the silence is eerie’ reveals how silence caused by pandemic can be really frightening and terrifying.

Here ‘silence’ has caused grief, panic and deep pain all over.

The only sound which could be heard was the occasional sirens of ambulance carrying the Corona patients.

People were left with no option but to stay huddled in their havens, at homes.

In “My Chase with the Monster”, the poet uses the metaphor of a ‘monster’ to refer to the powers of darkness and negativity.

In a fearful time like this, the poet encourages people saying, ‘life is a great gift’. It needs to be celebrated by doing good and being kind to each other.

The poet is convinced that victory surely belongs to life; monster of death cannot rule over people.

The spread of Pandemic, lockdown and its social, mental and economic pressure caused by it subsequently, is certainly more than a human mind can bear and comprehend.

Bishnupada Sethi has taken recourse to poetry to express mixed feelings: frustrations, hopelessness, determination, hope, all in his poetry.

Surely poetry could be a kind of therapeutic agency which gives scope to the poet to express.

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