Echo in Four Beats by Rita Banerjee (Finishing Line Press, 2018)
Review by Greg Bem
For every moving shade,
there was a jewel,
a bunt cake,
tea with honey,
found them dead in a village
near the Ganges,
in some bastard king’s chest
(from “Pygmalion & the Slippers")
Rita Banerjee’s Echo in Four Beats is a positive book. It is a book about positivity. It is a book about attraction. As much as it reflects the complex curiosities of the poet herself, this short, four-part poetry collection also reflects the curious ways extremely otherly and othered objects and cultures carry capacity and phenomenological connection with one another. East to West. The ancients to the contemporaries. Language and translation. These juxtapositions are arrived with Banerjee’s poetic presence, not quite lyrical, not quite narrative, not quite conceptual, which provides appropriate spaces and ranges to explore rather fully a world of integration.
At its core, the book is about Ovid’s myth of Echo and Narcissus, which serves as a fitting allegory for poetry in general, but also the landscape previously-described. A dualism within the speakers of these poems is a dualism of acceptance and rejection, of sequences of flight and iterations of home. There is sexuality and there is the sterility of that reflective promise. But complexly, Banerjee’s work carries that sterility into discoveries and modes of joy, fervor, and the interrogative push towards the refresh, towards the new, towards the validated and the enlivened.
We were like that—lanterns in the midday sun,
laughter against a white-noise wind, tongues
circling salt-water stories, cliffs cocooned by the afternoon, cameras
catching harbor fish, reptiles, serpents, impossible possibilities--
Much of the experience where these transformations are derived, carried by the mythic allegories the poet’s subtle adaptations of ancient lessons, is tangibly encountered in place and culture. While the back cover of Echo in Four Beats contains a quote by Jaswinder Bolina describing the book as “post-national,” I believe the antithesis is far more obvious. This is a book collecting poems that encounters and elevates individual nations, individual cultural histories, and appreciates them through their intertwining. In the ways the otherness in Echo and Narcissus is an otherness of affection and difference, so too is the distinct origins of the spaces and roots presented in this book.
The curses (or constraints) of the mythological beings further iterate a substantive metaphor in Banerjee’s voices, which identifiably rely on the power of other people, other poems, other traditions, and even other languages to thrive. The occasional poem in Japanese and Hindi, as well as pulled in language from European languages (most commonly French) are important examples of graceful appropriation. There is accountability, responsibility, and a joyful positioning of attraction towards those spaces that existed before and separate from Banerjee and this book, and while the messiness of it in totality may appear “post-national,” I would use other, more appreciative words like “subtle” and “hazy” to describe the effect of the poet’s language on the embodied elements of multiple cultures.
from all four directions, in the sky’s
dance, the world appeared
unreal, and in each broken piece of water,
the moon remained, laughing--
(from “One Night” (translated from the Hindi by the poet))
Multiplicity is an important element of the book’s core for multiple reasons. Structurally, I found the book’s four quarters (or sections) of the book to parse the book’s fluttering, experiential nature in a way that complements rather than detracts. For the general reader, the book's sections are not entirely explained. Though there is a slight haze surrounding the segmentation, a general thematic trajectory brings the writing across culture and geography. The book opens with sequences of predominantly American writings (inclusive of music) that then move through glimpses of Japan and India. Within the last section Banerjee wraps the book up with a presentation of miscellaneous musings, though their collection at the end appears as a symbolic gesture of dissipation. Additional complexity to structure is added through a handful of erasures responding to A.S. Kline’s translations of The Metamorphoses, a handful of “mis-translation” poems riffing on the likes of an abundant variety of thematically-relevant sources, including a Romani folk poem, a Hebrew prayer, and a poem by Baudelaire. These fragments of voices, echoing across the cultural spectrum we all must, in reality, understand, elevates and amplifies and contributes to Echo in Four Beats.
In Nevada, the stars throw
down their silver bounty
to the bear dancing on one leg,
and when the sky comes down
to devour us, it rains in quarters.
Those outside (external) images and ideas, while symbolic to the nature and inspiration of the book, do not completely overshadow or displace Banerjee and her own cunning use of language. I found most of the poems within the book that appear to lack direct references both compelling with memorable. The poet’s mind-shifting language include lines and stanzas incredibly capable of existing within their own, engrossing centers. Indeed, they emerge and disappear calmly, like distant lightning, and drag on, their memories moving from poem to poem, creating causality and a sense of overlapping resolution. Though not entirely sonic-oriented to be considered lyrical, these fragments within her poems are concise moments of implanting. They score and scourge, and represent, as objective language, as a sense of craft. And that craft moves along beneath the narrative trajectory of the book, a bubbling sense of the underneath, a layer of Thanatos and the urge toward definition and stillness.
In sum, Banerjee’s Echo in Four Beats provides a poetic space somewhere between engrossing and lightly attractive. That positivity moves from theme and culture to the language within and beyond. It’s a pleasurable space that will hopefully serve to inform, serially, a future for the poet and her mind’s next conjured spaces of communication.
We will supplicate, sublime, and let
our bodies dance through reverence.