The poetry we have reviewed this year has been strangely, wonderfully relevant, almost prescient. Jericho Brown’s ‘The Tradition’ exposing the murderous cruelty of US racism, Jo Lilley’s ‘Endings’ questioning extinction at the start of the pandemic caused in part by the trade in endangered species. The toll of Covid-19 has been more than lives lost and its impact on mental health will probably take longer to overcome so Onkar Sharma’s collection of poems investigating suicide published in July is overdue in the poetry catalogue.
“Songs of Suicide” was inspired by his mother’s mental health problems bravely outlined in the introduction. Suicide is a growing problem and one not readily or easily handled by poetry. It is a brave decision to make it the subject not just of one or two poems but a complete collection. The sensitivity of such a complex and significant mental health issue is such that the outcome, no matter how well intentioned, could easily be mishandled or misunderstood. So, the fact that this collection of poems adds to our humanity in the face of an issue widely and often dismissively misunderstood is a notable achievement.
The poems in the collection investigate different aspects of or perspectives upon the tragedy of taking one’s own life, affording a variety of insights which enable us to expand our understanding and ability to empathise. The opening poem ‘Panchatatva – The Five Elements’ reconstructs a fundamental of Hindu theology, the five aspects of God, into five situations in which an individual is driven to suicide. A fired executive contemplates leaping from a bridge, a failed student prepares to hang herself, a farmer is driven to a cliff edge by the drought failure of his land. In ‘Live-In No More’ a man cuts his wrist following a conviction for rape and in ‘Cocaine Queen’ an aged model compares herself to the women adorning the roadside billboards. (The implication for society’s facile standards of beauty does not need to be stated.) If these seem bleak and unpoetic topics, they are not. The subject may be grim, sad, painful, but the poems take us to an area of what it is to be human and help us to find something more than mere sympathy.
In “Sensitive Mind” Onkar examines the torment of mental illness as it drives its subject to self-immoliation and elsewhere poems examine the impact of poor mental health and self-harming on those close to a suicide sharing vicariously their suffering. That impact often causes people to question the apparent selfishness of the suicide but in many poems Onkar challenges the view that concern is missing outlining the practicality of death and the love and concern for others that often accompanies a seemingly distanced and disconnected act.
'please feed the moti on time so it doesn’t die
please water the plants so they don’t dry
please open the piggy bank when i’m gone
please get yourself an iphone from amazon
to my lovely sis, that’s my last gift'
The title of another poem presents us with an alternate view often not recognised, ‘Let My Journey Be My Destination’! That essentially Indian approach to our fragile and suffering existence leads to a uniquely compassionate and understanding grasp of what is easily shelved as just mental illness.
This collection begins with five poems re-working a key aspect of Vaishnavist Hinduism and, inevitably, similar cultural references run through the collection so it is appropriate that Onkar returns to them in the final poem ‘A Jilted Bitch’ which places suicide in a sympathetic context it needs if we are to makes sense of it and make positive inroads into improving mental health in an increasingly fragmented and distorted world.
'my search to seek meaning in life
was like discovering music in commotion
salt in sand and water in parched land'
Inevitably, the subject matter of this short collection of poems published in Kolkata by Hawakal and distributed by Amazon risks being too challenging to the potential reader. They dare to approach daunting realities. But disheartening they are not. There is a current of humanity running through them no doubt deriving from his own experience and the ancient culture they reflect and they really are uplifting empathetic poems. Their appearance is timely. You should read them.