One of the most pervasive images of acrobatic ability is of trapeze artists dangling from the crossbar, leaping and shining through the air, and eventually landing gracefully on a parallel crossbar. To train the body to perform such death-defying acts must batter the muscles, sinews, and bones of the artists. Such endurance is honed for those few moments of perfect grace and agility: when the hands connect to something solid and the crowd is on their feet. Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s poetry in Acrobat, available now from Archipelago Books, has that same leaping energy and agility in its imagination which demands not only the reader’s attention, but earns it.
Nandana Dev Sen, the collection’s translator and Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s daughter, writes the introduction to Acrobat. This introduction provides a warm and informative sketch of the poet’s life — including her many contributions to literary scholarship — in addition to providing the lens through which a reader might understand the collection. “Poetry,” Nandana writes, “was not only Nabaneeta’s ‘first confidence’ — her first allegiance, her first love — but proved itself, time and again, to be her unwavering life partner.” Poetry is not just craft but companion, a collaboration between poet and form. This spirit of collaboration is evident in the translations themselves, conducted between mother and daughter, from Bengali to English, which demonstrate how poetry is a community in every aspect of its conception. For women in particular, the community of poetry offers refuge. “Poetry is a means of our survival,” Nabaneeta insists, detailing how many village women use oral songs to communicate their struggles and triumphs, “it is a window through which we can breathe.”
The poems of Acrobat teem with life. Flowing through five distinct sections — The Unseen Pendulum, I Cage Language, Sapling of a Heart, Do I Know This Face? and Sacred Thread — the poems connect through the exploration of the responsibility one owes others, whether that be a lover, a mother, a child, or a tree in the backyard. “Sound: One” is a blueprint for what poets owe to their craft: it identifies something tremendous bursting from nothing, or perhaps from plain sight, waiting patiently for the poet, or for love, to unearth it.
Despite the connection and community that poetry offers, Dev Sen examines the alienation that persists throughout life in “And Yet, Life”: “Poetry flies away as well, / if you let go of the thread — / […] / The poet floats in an infinite void, desolate, / like a spacecraft disconnected from earth, / with no destination.” What exceeds this insular pain — always existential, always present — is the act of reaching out. “Stay close. I’m scared. / It feels as if this moment is not true. / Touch me —” the speaker in “In Marriage” pleads. Like a skilled trapeze artist, launching from one cross bar to another, Dev Sen recognizes that in order to reconnect again, one must first let go. And the rewards of that connection are sweet: “Whenever you love me, even God… / Yes / Whenever,” the speaker says in a state of bliss at the end of “A Poem for My Lover.” The clever ellipsis and unresolved sentence heightens the emotional intensity of the poem, hinting at an ecstasy that the concluding affirmation grounds in a sweet composure. Many of the poems are short and concise, leaving a swatch of blankness on the page, and I can’t help but imagine that this empty space contributes to the collection’s effect; each blankness is a severing of connection that the next poem reinstates, rejuvenates.
Acrobat by Nabaneeta Dev Sen is a tour de force collection of poetry from a master of the craft. Not only is the collection expansive in subject and image, but ambitious in feeling. Reading the collection, the reader becomes the acrobat, leaping between the poems and the worlds Dev Sen creates within them.
To train the body to perform such death-defying acts must batter the muscles, sinews, and bones of the artists. Such endurance is honed for those few moments of perfect grace and agility: when the hands connect to something solid and the crowd is on their feet. Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s poetry in Acrobat, available now from Archipelago Books, has that same leaping energy and agility in its imagination which demands not only the reader’s attention, but earns it.