Here is the third entry in my occasional series on poems about food and drink. In introducing the series—two weeks before I actually got around to posting the first entry—I noted that these poems “may centrally be about food, drink or hunger/starvation; they may make passing reference to food/drink; they may employ food/drink/eating/drinking//hunger/starvation etc. entirely as metaphors.” The first two poems I wrote briefly about in the series—Imtiaz Dharker’s “At the Lahore Karhai” and Arun Kolatkar’s “Irani Restaurant Bombay” were indeed centrally about restaurants as particular kinds of spaces; spaces that in the one case allow for a provisional declaration of community and in the other are the stage for a kind of public solitude. The poem I have for you today, Eunice De Souza’s “It’s Time to Find a Place” only glancingly mentions restaurants, as one in a list of spaces where endless prattling happens. Still fits the theme of the series though and is also roundly a poem I like a lot.
Eunice de Souza, who passed away in 2017, is not a very well-known name in the current Indian literary scene outside of the very small world of poetry. This is partly because she was a poet, and a poet who wrote in English at that—there are after all very few famous poets, and in India very few famous poets who wrote in English (as she says in an early poem, “My students think it funny/that Daruwallas and de Souzas/should write poetry”). But it is also doubtless more than partly because she was a woman. Her career overlaps with that of a number of significant male figures in the world of post-independence Bombay poetry who wrote in English—your Kolatkars, your Jussawalas, your Mehrotras—but she has never received the recognition they have. Her first collection Fix was published in 1979 (with a cover design by Kolatkar); the next, Women in Dutch Painting didn’t appear for almost another decade. A few more slim volumes came out over the next decade and a half before A Necklace of Skulls, her volume of collected—though not complete—poems, published was by Penguin India in 2009 (I’m happy to say, at the urging of a close friend of mine).
As with a number of her peers, the twilight of her life coincided with the sudden resurgence of public interest in literature as commodity in post-liberalization India (see the Jaipur Literature Festival). If—like some of her male peers—she ever bemoaned that this rising tide did not lift all older boats, especially those of poets, I’m not aware that she ever made a big hue and cry about it. Many of her poems—almost all brief; it’s a rare one that runs more than two pages—too are quiet, observational. Which is not to say that they are soothing. Whether writing about the Goan Catholic milieu in which she was raised or about relationships (with parents or lovers), her spare lines are often cutting, often savage in their very economy. There is no endless prattle in them and they rarely seek to comfort.
“It’s Time to Find a Place” is from Selected and New Poems (1994). I don’t have very much to say about it except perhaps to observe, redundantly, that it displays two of the characteristic qualities of much of de Souza’s poetry: the conversational tone (even though the utterance seems entirely interior—the poem itself another conversation “in my head”); and a refusal to be reduced to theme. It is also the poem that I’ve spent the most time counting the number of words of (I just did it again).
It’s Time to Find a Place
to be silent with each other.
I have prattled endlessly
in staff-rooms, corridors, restaurants.
When you’re not around
I carry on conversations in my head.
Even this poem
has forty-eight words too many.