Surendran, C.P.

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Nationality: Indian. Born: Kerala, 1959. Education: University of Delhi, M.A. in English literature. Career: Lecturer of English, Calicut University. Since 1986 journalist, became senior assistant editor, Times of India.



Posthumous Poetry. New Delhi and New York, Penguin Books India, 1999.

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There is a big city feel about C.P. Surendran's poetry. He is cut off from family, alienated from religion, living on his own, sharing the disillusionment and disquiet that can accompany modern freedom, skepticism, and individualism. Life appears to consist mostly of drink, drugs, and lust. He was introduced by Dom Moraes as being fiery, raw, and filled with loneliness, alienation, and anger. A journalist, he brought a hard-boiled, disillusioned tough-guy attitude to the Indian poetry scene. His half of the Gemini II volume begins with a reply to Wallace Stevens's famous "Sunday Morning." In Surendran's version there is only flesh, as opposed to the earth on which it lives. There is an ambiguity throughout the poem; its subject may be the speaker's vision of the world as a place of flesh and lust, but the poem may also be about a violent relationship with a woman. The poem is both a reply to Stevens's hedonism of the imagination and also itself a metaphor in which man's violence toward nature is repeated in his relationship with women. In the first stanza there is a pun on "sole"/ "soul," which reappears later in the volume: "Heel in my hand, / I outstare the sole of the beast / Twisting in my fist." The implication is that the soul is where we touch the earth (the bed); there is only the flesh upon the physical.

Many of the poems use religious titles—"Renunciation," "Annunciation," "First Signs, Last Rites," "Requiem of the Rose," "Lazarus"—but they do so ironically. They offer a portrait of someone with a Roman Catholic background who is familiar with the classics of modern literature and who lives by himself with his cat after the breakup of his relationship with a woman he still desires. Life feels meaningless. Religion and notions of the spirit are no longer believable, yet human relations have failed, and he is left with his anger. In "Surprise" we read, "I'm leaving, she says" and "The day falls from the cross / Dies on the floor." His salvation and redemption from life die when she leaves. He drinks too much, making meals for himself is disagreeable, and he knows that eventually he will die. In "Renunciation" he wakes up to "breakfast for one. Beer and wine… Lunch is a conceit of three, My cat, / Your snapshot, and me." He often speaks of himself as dead, or he imagines his death. He cannot be like those in the past who lived among large, extended Indian families and who as they grew old accepted their role as elders to be cared for. Seeing old people, he knows, in "Geriatrics, Geriatricks," that he does not want the humiliations of age, with its "meekness without remission … The emptying avenues of flesh and bone … Take me, dear Lord, / before my time." Weekends alone are hell. In "Saturday Poems" he "sits, wishing / Monday were here." He watches television, gets drunk, "remains / Bedridden, thinking of her thighs." He "wants Monday like a woman." These are poems of the anguish of modern urban secular life, with its expectation of fulfillment and experience of dissatisfaction. This is the world of unrest that Hindu and Buddhist spirituality try to avoid.

Surendran's solution is, rather romantically, found in poetry. He has made clear his poetic purpose ("therapeutic") and his assumed readership. He has said, "The dangerously funny thing about arty-farty writing is that it is not meant for your consumer: the salaried man or woman who is pretending to have a good time in the big bleak cities of India, but is unable to make sense of his huge spatial and temporal dislocation." According to Surendran, "I am seeking a whole new constituency of readership," and he says, "My poetry understands and respects that I write to heal, not impress." His manner is aggressive and attention getting and the argument minimal, but he has a clear notion of what he is doing.

The ironically titled Posthumous Poetry is prefaced by Surendran's explanation that the poems are "posthumous" to the breakup of his marriage, the collapse of communism, the failure of the Naxalites, and the betrayal of revolution by friends who have chosen to go abroad to earn money. There is an inconsistency in this, for he claims that he was always skeptical of politics, ideas, and life, so that such betrayals should not have shocked him. In fact, they should have confirmed the correctness of his skepticism. In addition, Surendran's poetry tires through the continual use of a heightened voice and through a style in which many sentences are fragments intended as images or in which an extremely abbreviated speech conveys macho knowingness. The repetition of telegraphese can be as artificial as any older poetic diction. Surendran's introduction to Posthumous Poetry claims that "all tragedies are trite; there's no grief death cannot resolve," which is itself, depending on how one reads it, trite or false. In the face of such a disillusioning world, he claims that only poetry is true, absolute, "like dead men talking."

Surendran's manner is off-putting. The introduction to Posthumous Poetry, for example, is a digressive attack on everything: "If Christ were to swim on the cross again, how many of us would watch Him without a remote in hand? The question applies to Catholics as well." Even the title of the volume, justifiable in itself, has its element of sensationalism. What has died are a former marriage, his belief (which he claims never really to have had) in ideas and politics, and the radicalism (which he supposedly never believed in) of his friends. In the first poem Surendran explains that he is trying to "get one word right … But death doesn't matter. / It's metaphor." There is not only metaphor, but there are also rhyme and harmonization. The "metaphor" of the concluding line rhymes with the unusual "Ms Christopher" in the first line and with "matter" in line four, and the r sound is also at the "right" at the end of line three. This is lyric poetry disguising itself as popular tabloid sensationalism.

The second poem of the volume, "Goal Keeper," uses the problems of an athlete as a metaphor for man in the universe: "Implosion of all time in a moment's dare / And miss; a whiff of eternal loss." Surendran uses images from modern culture, including television, and he combines the characteristics of modern urban life with the eternal problems of being human and with our relationship to the world in which we live. Posthumous Poetry claims that in a world of nothingness, disillusionment, boredom, failure, and death there can be no answer except to tell the truth in poetry that challenges erasure.

—Bruce King