I would like to argue that Rohan Chhetri’s poetry collection begins at the cover: Jesse Mockrin’s painting Some Unknown Power (2018). In it, the three main subjects, all of them independent hands, find themselves center stage, embroiled in some action. One holds a lock of hair and another holds the scissors that cut it, but the third hand is the one that demands attention. It holds the body from whom the hair is snipped. It seems like the hand attempts to keep the body in place for the act. Or, perhaps instead, the hand graces the body with some comfort in a moment of rupture and change. This is the introduction to Lost, Hurt or in Transit Beautiful. It comes with the promise of encountering this difficult world, and at the same time, reminds us that there is still some solace to be found.
This seemingly loaded consolation bears its fruit in each stanza that Chhetri pens. He brings out a complexity by being in conversation with a sub-continent that is mired in multiplicity and tradition. He talks about the singing bones of shamans, railways, border songs and border crossers, and about a nation and its grief. He borrows from not only his lived experience but also from Greek practices and Hindu myths to make his richly textured lyric. But what connects them all in one mosaic splendor is the willingness of the language to move from pain to sweet delivery. He writes “The body itself has no use for hope. / It hardens in grief to live beyond hope.” The body that lies beyond hope that Chhetri points towards is also the body that a reader gets to lean on as they experience his art. It is a body of history and language that provides the foundation to the more imminent questions around our being. It is to call for recovery after the scissors have snipped the hair because grief, sorrow, and pain are not just single moments in time. They are like “a mute girl say grace over dinner in a language / so heavy with hands, her face closed in a busy silence.” They linger, remain in our memories. They seek recognition. Through metaphors, Chhetri’s poems lend visibility to grief and solace.
All the poems in his collection begin with a reference to a body of kings with immense power, bullets, concrete, rivers, fathers, angels or the dead. These subjects grip the poet and put him firmly in a particular time and space. He then moves into the emotional center of the piece by navigating the effect these subjects have. In one of my favorite pieces, “The Indian Railway Canticle,” Chhetri loads us in a metal box. We know what surrounds this metal box — the land, the wind, the people, their issues, and the poet who reads L’Étranger as he tries to get home. Whether it is the poem by Charles Baudelaire or the novel by Albert Camus, the answer is left to an inquiring imagination. It then moves through metaphors like “blind rage of birth,” “nursed that silence to sleep,” and “the same diameter of horror,” only to land at “Then arriving / home, always the bruised sky of dawn telling me / something I knew, for a moment, then didn’t.” The ending asks us to confront the fact that in our lives, we will sometimes be mired in the sense of loss. When we look too deeply into what we have lost, we inevitably eclipse the little joy that we have witnessed, even if those moments of delight have been accidental, small, and rather insignificant. The poet rightfully calls into question: are our experiences of loss just grief, or is it beauty in transit?
So when we arrive home, when we are at the end of the journeys we take, when we recognize our loss and our beauty – what happens then? As Chhetri comes to the end of his collection, he puts forth his claim that “We are each given heaven for brief so heavy / We put it down dance small around it.” At the end, we can take to our feet, find our beat, look to the sky and shake our bodies. We can realize that sometimes this so-called unknown power of our own light and small being can move us and those around us.
Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful
By Rohan Chhetri
Published October 1, 2021