Rooting for Neruda's Images

A brief review of Robin Ngangom’s “The Desire of Roots” 
Chandrabhaga Publications, Cuttack, 2006

by Soibam Haripriya 

There are many ways of exploring belongingness. Some do it by seeking the desire of roots.  Others do it by identifying the 'otherness' in the desire. Robin Ngangom's The Desire of Roots still remains just a desire, a longing for the labyrinth terrain of the 'known' by the same roots. This desire of roots does not find the roots but creates new ones. Like the auxiliary roots descending from a canopy of branches belonging to an aged banyan tree. The roots in the air seek to unite with the mother roots beneath the earth, their home. These auxiliary roots become trunks which will again sprout roots from above. Reading Ngangom's collection of 48 poems, I am left thinking about these auxiliary roots and how they have been nurtured and fostered. In these poems, I find the familiarity of an aura and the scent I experienced when I first read Neruda in college.
as if suddenly the roots I had left behind
cried out to me, the land I had lost with my childhood
and I stopped, wounded by the wandering scent 
The poems in The Desire of Roots have uncanny affiliation to roots, both in terms of “the form and the essence”. More specifically with the Chilean poet's Sonnet VI: Lost in the forest, of Pablo Neruda's (1)  'One Hundred Love Sonnets' or perhaps even the section from his collection 'Memorials of Isla Negra' (Memorial De Isla Negra), entitled, 'The Hunter after Roots'. One could perhaps see in Neruda and his poems a situation of being  in  touch  with  blood,  in  touch  with  the  despair experienced by his country. It might not be preposterous to see if Ngangom sees in Neruda a mentor, both being in turbulent times of history of their respective places.

“The desire of roots” as the name suggest indeed tries to seek the roots, whether in remembering Pacha (2) and his lonely end or evoking the imageries of places like Tura (Garo Hills), Laitumkhrah (Shillong) in Meghalaya. The collection of poetry under two headings: ‘The book of lusts’ and ‘Subjects and objects’ is based on an imagery of friends, revolutions and “goodbyes” as distinct from farewells. A poem in the first section  immediately  reminded  me  of  Neruda’s  La  Poesía (Poetry, translated by Alastair Reid) not only because both  share the same title but also because of a continuity in the ideas expressed in both. In Neruda’s ‘La Poesía’ poetry comes searching  for  the  poet “And  it  was  that  age …poetry arrived/in search of me” whereas in Ngangom’s ‘Poetry’ the character in the poem stands out like a protagonist in a play. As poetry resides within, he/she wishes to express and let the ‘gnarled men and wrinkled women...” know “...what matters if I can’t explain to them’. Other titles also could be seen as belonging to a spectrum of ideas that can be seen as either “continuity or an inspiration”.  Neruda’s ‘I explain a few things’ from his Residence on earth, (Residencia en la tierra, 1925-1945) can be interestingly juxtaposed with ‘I am unable to explain’. In the former, Neruda explains or seeks to do so the reasons his poetry talks neither of lilacs nor of dreams but rather of bonfires devouring humans and the latter where Ngangom  tries  to  explain  to  his  daughter  about ‘war  of freedom or liberation’.  One cannot help but also compare Ngangom with Neruda, wherein both not only gives a slice of pastoral life but also refer to the cyclical chronology of events; of  history.  Neruda  talks  about  history  that “passes  in  its carriage, collecting its shrouds and medals, and passes” and Ngangom’s “ossuaries of natives and masters as the old herald a  new  history/  not  knowing  why  they  merely  repeat themselves”. One may also find resonances of themes and ideas as in Neruda's, “I explain a few things”, where the lines…
“You will ask why doesn’t his poetry
Speak to us of dreams, of leaves
Of the great volcanoes of his native land 
Come and see the blood in the streets
Come and see the blood in the streets” 
The last poem in the Ngangom’s collection ‘Last words’ where lines that seem to emanate the same idea appears as...
“They whispered among themselves
How come his poetry is riddled with bullets then? So I said:
I wanted my poem to exude a heady odour
But only the sweet taint of blood or burning flesh emanates from my poem.” 
It is not surprising then that the second and last section of the collection -‘subject and objects’ quotes from Neruda ‘When the rice withdraws from the earth/the grains of its flour/ when the wheat hardens its little hip joints and lift its face/ of a thousand hands/I make my way to the grove where the woman and the man embrace…’ Akin to Neruda who sought inspiration from the everyday things like artichoke and his green heart, it is heartening to read Ngangom drawing another tangent from oils and lentils evoking  the  political  situation  in  the  uncertainty  of  its availability in the stores which he effortlessly does so in a poem  in  this  section, “The  strange  affair  of  Robin  S Ngangom”.  He did have his last words in the last poem of the book, “Last words”, when he wanted his poem “to fall like pebbles into a pool” but ended up breaking his “words on hostile surfaces”. However his last words too seem to be heavily  influenced  by  poet/s  from  whom  he  sought  his inspiration like Neruda who wishes for the rain to repeatedly splatter its words and hence his last words end not as his own but the words of many others who had wrote of their times and turmoil.


1   Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) born Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoaltoi, is considered to be the greatest poet of the 20th century. His funeral in 1973, three years after receiving the Nobel Prize for literature, is remembered for being the one major instance of Chileans' resistance. The funeral was transformed into a public protest against the coup hatched by Chile's military establishment.

2   Pacha was one of the most celebrated writers in recent times. He is known for his monumental work Imphal Amasung Magi Esing Nungsitki Phibham (1972) for which he received the Sahitya Akademi award in 1973.


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