Portraits shine in exploration of death and melancholy
By David Fedo
The Bearded Chameleon
Chris Mooney-Singh's new collection of poetry, The Bearded Chameleon, may be the first adult book of published verse in any language whose title poem refers to a lizard (more on that curiosity later). Yet, the best poems in this handsomely produced book are about those creatures at the upper end of the Great Chain of Being—you and me.
Singaporeans have known the affable Mooney-Singh, now in his mid-50s, as the burly, bearded and turbaned Australian convert to Sikhism (he resided for some years in India, and is part of what one reviewer has characterized as the 'reverse' diaspora), as well as the indefatigable organizer of and participant in regional poetry slams; the head of the Writers Centre, Singapore and of the now-defunct Writers Connect; a devotee of the ancient musical instrument called the rabab; an anthologizer of Christmas poetry; a widower, now married again; and, most recently, a doctoral student back in his native Australia. However, he has retained his ties to Singapore and launched his new book at the 2011 Singapore Writers Festival. Admirers will recall that Mooney-Singh's first major work of poetry, The Laughing Buddha Cab Company, was published in 2007.
The Bearded Chameleon, co-published in both Singapore and Australia, is a mostly entertaining and engrossing collection, divided into three parts and comprising 36 poems of varying lengths. Almost all are set entirely in India; Singapore is completely absent. The poems range widely, from sketches of individuals ('Apartment of a Bombay Millionaire', 'Mrs. Pritima Devi', 'Advice from an Uncle', 'Mr. Chopra'), to landscape portraits ('Punjab Pastoral', 'Abstract Studies with Monsoon Green', 'Aubade with Marshland'), and to urban impressions ('Indian City', 'Indian-Made Foreign Liquor', 'Indian Standard Time'). Many are relatively short, and readers can hear Mooney-Singh's colloquial and at times playful voice throughout. Although his subjects are often serious, he seems to be having fun with much of his work, just as I have been told he did in his poetry slam readings. In fact, in the very first poem in his collection, 'Punjab Pastoral', we find the poet defecating beside an irrigation canal, where "no mermaid [is] singing". Undoubtedly, in this anti-pastoral, the mermaid has a good reason to stay away.
Despite the overlay of Sikhism, the religion founded by Guru Nanak Dev in the 15th century—it is the faith of some 26 million people, 75 percent of whom live in Northern India's Punjab region—The Bearded Chameleon touches only lightly on the core Sikh issues of belief and justice. What occupies Mooney-Singh's overriding interest in Part 1 of the collection is, instead, death, which is the jumping- off point for six of the 14 poems. Most of these concern the sudden passing of Mooney-Singh's first wife, Peggy Kaur, to whom the book is dedicated. 'Casualty' (which the poet says is "after Federico García Lorca," the great, martyred Spanish writer), is the first, and Mooney-Singh thrusts us immediately into the surreal scene:
The opening passage, in its in medias res bluntness and repetitions, is typical of Mooney-Singh. He gives us very little of the woman's character or circumstances of her death, except that it seems to have occurred unexpectedly in a taxi. Only in the penultimate stanza does the poet bring himself into a relationship with the woman, who we now assume must be his wife:
The beauty of the language (I especially admired the "dove-soft spirit flying up") and the restrained emotion of 'Casualty' (was it some accident, or perhaps a stroke?) is sustained in 'After the Taxi Halted', one of the best poems in the book, where Mooney-Singh elaborates in the opening stanzas:
There is that dove once again—perhaps the soul being called up. Again, we are in the middle of dying, of death, but this time the poet is present. The stark and haunting image of his presumed wife dying in a stalled taxi, unnoticed by those in the surrounding traffic, reminds me of Auden's great poem, 'Musée des Beaux Arts', after Brueghel's magnificent painting, where Icarus falls from the sky in an open seascape, the 'splash' going unseen and unheard by the indifferent ploughman and everyone else.
Yet Mooney-Singh struggles to find a sunnier conclusion:
Although the poet says he "would like to confirm this", yet the best he can dole out "is some wishful thinking." And the last line:
The vividness of the poem—his wife, now imagined to be on the "Other Side" (the poet's description of heaven), strolling about with those "who need not talk with their lips"—combined with the sadness of the loss but the hope for something else, make this a work of uncommon poignancy and, ultimately, beauty.
This loss is sustained in 'Steel Kiss' and 'Pink Silk from Punjab', where the memories of the poet's late wife are almost overwhelming: in the former it is an old cup taken from her suitcase, with her lipstick mark ("two firm petal prints") remaining; in the latter it is the "scent of her [now] gone from my hair", at the same time the poet is "sweating her at night through my pores", with thoughts of their last vigorous lovemaking:
Finally, there is the exquisite 38-line 'Gone', with Kaur once again the subject. In the work's last six stanzas, the poet wonders where his lost wife was from, why she had come to the earth, and where she now has gone:
In these brief stanzas, colloquial and quietly dramatic, Mooney-Singh probes the mystery—call it the melancholy 'unknowingness'—of death, which Shakespeare's Hamlet in his most famous soliloquy calls "The undiscovered country from whose bourn/ No traveller returns." There are no religious answers, for Sikhs or, presumably, for anyone. How does death come? Where do the dead go? The poet concludes his poem no closer to a resolution, which remains elusive to the end:
Part 2 is made up of 'profile' poems, and 'Mrs. Pritima Devi', a 133-line cry from a woman damaged by her cruel husband and a victim of India's indifference to a suffering wife, is one of the most powerful works in The Bearded Chameleon—a dramatic soliloquy of anger. Mrs. Devi, made sick by a bad marriage, has run away from the abusive Mr. Devi and her home in Delhi, leaving her young boy behind; she is now a public school teacher, one of many who "slog like peons", and is confessing her sad story to another teacher, "a modern Western person—/someone from abroad," who can understand her plight:
Mrs. Devi's mother and father have warned her: "Learn submission—it is still First Lesson/for an Indian wife", but she will have none of it: "It is not over, Biba, struggle, fight!" Yet the road is far from easy:
Mrs. Devi has "met more women/also swept beneath the family carpet", but she is adamant:
It would have been easy for Mooney-Singh to have allowed this poem to slip away into yet another routine feminist's screed, one of hundreds or even thousands thrown to the wind in an unfair world, but the poet has created in Mrs. Devi a feisty, glittering personality who we sense can match up to the injustices of husband, family and country. And her apology to the Westerner in the final stanza ("But you have heard enough on your first day./I humbly beg forgiveness from you, Sir.") also demonstrates both her sense of balance, and her humanity. She will survive.
I also admired the humorous 'Advice from an Uncle', about an "ironical" relative giving counsel to his "MBA-fresh, Harvard-hyped/nephew" about the ways of the real world, where bribes "are bad, dear boy,/but we must get our job done", and 'Mr Chopra', a portrait of a financial consultant just 35 years old, who employs "psychic forecasting" in making his deals, and whose success has brought him both wealth and admiration:
But there is little mystery to the long poem, 'I Come in Winter to a City Without You', which constitutes all of Part 3, and which is written for Mooney-Singh's current wife, Savinder Kaur. This is a lament of longing, of a lover separated from his beloved, a delicate and deeply felt poem of passion, but not without a hint of uncertainty:
In this unnamed city, presumably Melbourne (Mooney-Singh is now studying at a university there), the poet-student elaborates:
What sustains the love is the couple's imagination; as the poet writes:
As for 'The Bearded Chameleon', the aforementioned eponymous poem which appears as the twelfth selection back in Part 1, Mooney-Singh presents this jaunty autobiographical lyric in 40 two-line rhymed stanzas, but despite some of the cleverness, it is not, I am sorry to report, the shining light of what is otherwise an excellent collection. The poet equates himself with the bearded and mutable lizard, but neither creature really comes to life, and the lines seem, for the most part, static and surprisingly conventional:
Although Mooney-Singh does provide the occasional footnote in this book, readers unfamiliar with Sikhism will want and, at times, need to keep Wikipedia on hand, and in the lizard poem there are no annotations. (As I discovered, the above-named Ranjit Singh [1780-1839] was the first padshah or maharajah of the Sikh Empire.) But the rhymes in this poem often feel awkward or forced, and the sentiments about the perceived clash of cultures ("I've learned your culture-blending knack./Have I moved up, or ten lives back?") which appears to be the theme, are not very convincing. In short, I liked the title but, regrettably, not the poem.
All in all, I believe that Mooney-Singh's talents are best demonstrated in his sharply drawn and vivid narratives of people, in good circumstances and bad. The Bearded Chameleon reminds us, notwithstanding the lizard poem, of just how compelling these talents are.QLRS Vol. 11 No. 2 Apr 2012