blackbirdonline journalSpring 2023  Vol. 21  No.3
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Review | Arrow by Sumita Chakraborty
Alice James Books, 2022

spacer Arrow (Alice James Books, 2022)

“Each creature in this forest was once something, or someone, else—” writes Sumita Chakraborty in “Dear, beloved,” a poem from her debut collection, Arrow. This sentiment echoes throughout the book, as transformation is present not only in the language of the text but also in the physicality of the world it inhabits. Metaphor becomes tangible as fable. Language enters etymology to provide layers of meaning to the present moment. Notably a sister’s body becomes ash and refutes the history that had provided its substance.

Thus, Chakraborty is intensely concerned with and aware of the malleability of space and the ways in which life evolves in the aftermath of grief; in “Arrow,” the speaker says, “the light we structure our lives around / lacks consolation.” The collection resists consolation but does not fall into passive despair, rather it attempts to negotiate the tension between emptied meaning and the need to make palpable signification.

Chakraborty generates this significance in meaning by bridging the space between author and reader with transparency. In “Most of the Children Who Lived in this House are Dead. As a Child I Lived Here. Therefore I am Dead,” Chakraborty writes “I am also writing this poem as a fable because at times I have been / afraid to speak of myself, and lately it has become important to me to / learn how to respect that my earliest affections for abstraction were by / way of disguise.”

The attention given to how abstraction becomes reified in the poems of Arrow provides a structure for interpreting the psychology of the text and an understanding of the speaker’s way of processing grief. In essence, the poems recreate a mechanism for re-interpreting their experience of the world. Chakraborty’s awareness of her presence in the poem—especially as a presence that is crafted with attention—deftly brings meaning and interpersonal connection to awareness of the construct of poetry itself.

In “Marigolds,” she writes: “As the stag, I fear the mouth of the rifle. / As the rifle, I point my mouth, deadly, toward you. / As the hunter, I execute myself so I may feast.”┬áThe speaker is continually re-moved throughout the collection, and with the shift in their position comes the gradation of meaning and intimacy—and inevitably power—within the fable-like world of the poems.

Chakraborty handles the collection’s exploration of how meaning roots itself in language with an incisiveness and philosophical attentiveness seen in few other poets. In “Dear, beloved,” she writes, “Sister, when you died, your bones cast an enchantment. / We made a powder of them, and I named the powder ash, / because ash is a word with neither origin nor afterlife.” This moment exists in tension with another in the same poem: “Sister, I promise. But the definition of myth is noun, / the idea that any one creature can ever hear another.”

Confronted with grief, the speaker’s need is to process the depth of separation between theirself and their sister. In doing so, Chakraborty asserts the opaqueness of perceiving another person, a failure that renders the act of knowing—and therefore meaning—as an epistemic myth mediated by personal narratives of intimacy and knowledge of the other. This half-meeting place of the limitations of connecting with another is posited as being, perhaps, at the core of grief, where the subjective sensation of being able to “hear” another is met with a silence rendered more piercingly solid than is phenomenologically experienced in life.

Such questions inevitably give rise to ontological concerns of language made into selfhood. In “Arrow,” Chakraborty writes, “Barthes called ‘I’ the pronoun of the imaginary: what is an ‘I’ to an eclipse? / Still, I do imagine, and wantonly, uninterested in fidelity, even at its most blurred. / Hear me: faith is no way to learn that you are not dead.” The existence of the I is the cornerstone of the speaker’s need to understand the ability to form meaning, and the tension between the reality of a pure I and an I made of the imaginaries of narratives and language is a central force that drives the poems of Arrow. In “Basic Questions,” the speaker says, “Daily existence, mine included, was nothing short of improbable.”

The question of what it means to recognize and continually author the imaginary fabrication of the I—especially in the aftermath of grief—is approached indirectly and directly throughout the collection. The final poem of the book, “O,” makes the claim that “Writing is knowing how to cut. // There is space in my body that did / not exist when I began this book. It / is a window.” An implicit suggestion is that life can, in some ways, be made through excision. That the pairing of language into shapes, whether on the page as a poem or in the cognitive space of thought, makes its own kind of existence.

The poems in Arrow address the complexity of existence, death, and grief with rare intelligence and singular attention to the relationship between aesthetics and meaning. In “Marigolds,” Chakraborty writes: “I myself am hells, and I prize them // as if they were the rarest blooms.” The speaker suggests that not only is the experience of grief a plurality of sufferings, but also that the self is not singular.

This idea manifests in even more vital encounters through the collection’s efforts to understand what happens to the speaker’s—or speakers’—states of being after the sister’s death. In “Arrow,” the speaker says, “Because nothing but looking seems like life to me . . . In / this I believe you and I are the same. Let us hold each other to this apocalyptic earth.” The speaker here is aware of the importance of seeing with dexterity, of being able to adjust one’s gaze in the face of apocalypse and loss, and of the impact of language on that very capability of re-seeing—whether that sight is by the recreation of the speaker into stag, rifle, mouth or by the metamorphosis of the body into text.

Ultimately, the poems of Arrow ask the reader to consider the intersections of myth and meaning in the formation of self and life. While the collection is centralized around the speaker’s need to process grief, Chakraborty is unwaveringly attentive to the role played by ideas as guides to emotions and thought. The poems of Arrow thus carry the weight of a way of seeing that understands the mutability of everything and the inevitable loss of the phenomenology of the self in the wake of such transience. The intellectual rigor and emotional complexity of Chakraborty’s debut collection demand the kind of attentiveness from a reader that only a few rare poets can generate. Like the speaker of “O,” readers of Arrow cannot leave the book unchanged, cannot look through its window and not see the world rendered prismatic.  

Sumita Chakraborty is the author of the poetry collection Arrow (Alice James Books, 2020). Her first scholarly book, Grave Dangers: Poetics and the Ethics of Death in the Anthropocene, is forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press. Her poetry has appeared in Poeetry, The American Poetry Review, the Best American Poetry series, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Chakraborty is assistant professor of English and creative writing at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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