My experience with long-distance trains in India began when I moved to Bombay for college at the age of eighteen. It was a three-day-long journey.”
Leena Soman Navani: Traveling by rail in India is such a particular experience, and is a prominent part of India’s story as depicted in literature and film. What’s your experience and how did you go about fashioning your memories into this specific poem? What aspects felt most urgent to capture and how did this dovetail with your craft?
Rohan Chhetri: The rail journey is definitely an enduring symbol that fuels a lot of Indian narratives in art and cinema. For this very reason, I resisted writing this poem for a long time for fear of reducing it, not so much for the white gaze but against my own specific experience of it, which is personal and connected to a certain time in my life. Trains appear a lot in my work, but here I wanted to write a sustained poem from the inside of the journey itself. To accommodate the dizzying variables of the long-distance train journey in India, I had to generate a rhythm, guide it with music and craft, and ride it relying on that momentum to take me somewhere.
My experience with long-distance trains in India began when I moved to Bombay for college at the age of eighteen. It was a three-day-long journey, from the railway station near my border-town home in Bengal to Bombay, spanning over five state lines. The poem for the most part describes this particular airy and blue segment of time I spent on the train three days and two nights at a time, several times a year, and what I observed. After a while I realized these “segments” had started blending into something continuous like a long spot of time, so every time I took the journey it felt like I was resuming something familiar. This poem is a composite of this experience largely, and other inter-city train journeys from my hometown.
LSN: I was especially moved by how the form resembles the “boxiness” of a train and the laddering of tracks articulated in the first line. The alternating indented lines help create a rhythm, the canticle of a train’s movement and the poem’s title. Can you touch on form? Did the poem always look like this or did this structure come about in revision? Also can you talk about the word choice “Canticle” in the title?
RC: I wanted to mimic the particularly incessant music of the trains and the rhythm of the tracks. I needed the tone to be cantatory, to be guided by a kind of “controlled association” so that it would allow me to access disparate memories. The task of curation is narrative. I left the task of culling, and choosing what to include, to the rhythm and music determined by the syntax of the very first line, which isn’t a sentence as much as a fragment. Stanley Kunitz says this beautiful thing about the original rhythm of the poem that not only belongs to the “subject matter” of the poem, but to your “interior world.” Accessing that rhythm, he says, leads to a “quantum leap of energy,” a rhythm you can ride on and rely on to “carry you somewhere strange.” The indented lines made sense in the way journey narratives work where one thing happens and then another and another, and I wanted that movement to be jagged, and in terms of shape literally look like the “ladder tracks.”
LSN: There’s such a sense of controlled duality in “Canticle”: the firm but quick turn in the pacing of the farmer, the herd of elephants crossing the tracks vs. the way we slow down to observe the beauty of the woman in the niqab for several layered lines. Likewise, what’s happening aboard the train with the speaker vs. what the speaker observes outside the train—landscape, weather, history, and the present colliding. Harmony and cacophony, knowing and not knowing. How is the poem’s I metabolizing these moments? How did you come to manage these robust tensions?
RC: The pacing of the poem itself is determined precisely by the halting, belated, laboring pace of the trains in India. As I said above, I wanted to bring into the poem the experience from inside of that “boxiness.” But in the non-AC compartments that I traveled in, there is also a certain permeability to the elements that keeps you alert, vulnerable, and at the same time gives you access to life and spectacle in all its wide-ranging variety, possibility, and strangeness. So there is definitely that “duality” of being boxed in and at the same time being permeable. Of what the speaker “sees” from the window of the train, and the “felt” outside, the immediate weather and landscape, and the “inferred” social and the political landscape, all of it in tension with what is happening aboard the train compartment itself with the speaker inside it. And there is a point where all of these collide as the speaker watches the woman in the niqab on the train platform and at the same time watches the men in the compartment watching her through the window, and here the outside and the inside from the poem’s vantage point collides too, pulling in a centripetal swirl the past and the present, the political and the historical.
At this point, the poem itself collapses into a sort of false ending, attempts once more to regain its momentum, but history rears its head in the name of the stations, because, well, once you see it history is unavoidable. The poem veers into further imagistic disparities that finally taper into an image of conjoining in the “couple making love,” and then an image of severance with the “leper” and the “untouchable” radiating “horror,” ending finally in the speaker’s homecoming.
LSN: Whereas “Canticle” is dominated by sight (though there are plenty of other sensory details), the language of “Bordersong” prioritizes scents that travel downwind. There’s something more haunted and haunting about this, perhaps knowing the origin of scents but not always seeing them, and their ability to travel and linger. Yet both poems also hinge on the importance of sound, from the titles to the use of repetition/refrain. How do time and sensory detail operate together in “Bordersong,” and perhaps differently from “Canticle”?
RC: In “Bordersong” I wanted the olfactory mode to be a medium through which I could tell the (his)story of a place, a community. The anaphoric repetition and the subsequent variation to that pattern pointedly implies the structure of “song.”
There was a year between the writing of “Canticle” and “Bordersong,” but around the time I started working on “Canticle,” I started becoming interested in infusing heavier music and patterning into my narrative poems. Some texts I was reading at the time, like Briggflatts, and some of Pound’s Cantos, and Cathay, were significant in causing me to turn that way.
In terms of sensory detail and time, I was trying to use olfactory details as a kind of formal constraint to piece together the images from a politically turmoil-ridden decade during my childhood, and to encompass some of the varied geographical and cultural complexities of living in a bordertown. Hence the poem begins with the warm smell of the bakery, takes the reader through an array of smells from the burning flesh masked in the cloying incense from the cremation grounds, the smell of tea leaves in their first flush, the fragrance of talcum and attar from the brothels across the border, to finally the smell of rag smoke from a silent torch rally.
LSN: “Bordersong” turns on (the aftermath of) a vivid, violent image, and the poem’s speaker is part of a communal voice rather than an individual I which seems to highlight the impact of conflict on communities. The poem is peopled, but the people are blurred together as groups, with the exception of the Rimpoche, the two Liberation Front Leaders, and the young martyr who are singled out. How did the voice and the different characters come about for you?
RC: Unlike in “Canticle,” I wanted the poem to speak through the town’s collective and communal voice. I use this voice in another poem that just came out from Southern Humanities Review called “Lamentation for a Failed Revolution,” where the antiphonal section modeled on Greek lament traditions uses a similar choral voice, albeit a solely female one. “Bordersong” is populated by types rather than singular identifiable characters (except the Rimpoche referring to Guru Padmasambha, the legendary eighth-century Buddhist teacher), right from the young boys visiting the brothels across the border to the young martyrs they (possibly) become in the end, to the women silently marching in the rain, and the beheaded liberation front leaders. There is also a constant intermingling of two “states.” This border-crossing is played out through shared mythology, history, religion, including the border between the animal and the human world with the elephants foraging in the fields at night.
LSN: Are both of these poems part of your forthcoming collection? How do they speak to the book’s larger themes and concerns?
RC: Yes, “The Indian Railway Canticle” and “Bordersong” both appear in my forthcoming collection from Tupelo Press/HarperCollins. The latter is part of the “Locus Amoenus” section in the book. “Locus Amoenus” means “pleasant place” in Latin, and is a trope identified in Homer, and Ovid, and later in Renaissance poetry; it denotes an idyllic place of pleasure and safety. Ovid frequently inverts this trope, turning the idyllic and charming place into a setting for unspeakable violence. I wanted to envision the bordertown in an Ovidian sense of abundant beauty which is always under the shadow of violence—not just as a marginal place ravaged by political turmoil as the “center” and the media see the region.
LSN: Which aspects of craft come to you more intuitively and which do you have to work harder for? Is it different for each poem or is there a pattern to your process of drafting and revision?
RC: In general, narrative comes easier to me, although these two poems are an exception to that rule, as the rhythm and music were built into the composition. Music takes a while sometimes and in my most narrative poems comes through revision. But the forthcoming book is also formally restless and has equal parts traditional lyric poems, fractured sonnet crowns, hybrid forms, prose poems, and straight narrative poems. Formally the book traces my own growth as a poet since my first book.
Rohan Chhetri is a Nepali Indian poet based in Houston. He is the author of Slow Startle (Emerging Poets Prize, 2015) and a chapbook of poems, Jurassic Desire (Per Diem Poetry Prize, 2017). His second book of poems (Kundiman Poetry Prize 2018) is forthcoming in 2021 from Tupelo Press in the US, and HarperCollins in India. His poems have appeared in New England Review, TriQuarterly, Vinyl, Prelude, Literary Hub, Poetry Society of America, & has been translated into French for Europe Revue and Terre à ciel.
Leena Soman Navani writes poetry, fiction, and criticism, and her writing has been featured with Ploughshares and Kenyon Review among other publications. For her work across genres, she’s received support from the National Book Critics Circle, Catapult, Brooklyn Poets, BOAAT, The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Visible Poetry Project, and the Bennington Writing Seminars, where she earned her MFA. Twitter: lsoman