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Echo in Four Beats by Rita Banerjee

Published in Issue 53

Echo in Four Beats by Rita Banerjee. Finishing Line Press. 90pp, $19.99.


Echo had a body then
not merely a voice,
when Saturnia realized this
she said, “I shall give you
less power
over that tongue ––”
Echo burned with fire,
sulphur,
her nature denies it,
she is ready for what
it will allow her to do:
to wait for sounds
Rita Banerjee, “Creation Hymn II”[1]
Rita Banerjee´s debut poetry collection, Echo in Four Beats, published by Finishing Line Press, is a modern feminist re-interpretation of the myth of Echo and Narcissus from Ovid´s Metamorphoses. Echo in Four Beats performs at the intersection between classical Greek and Indic myth, gender politics, political oppression, Vedic and Buddhist philosophy, and deeply personal narratives through verse redolent with tonal originality.
The collection is not exclusively centered on the rampant narcissism of our times, nor is it just an appeal to reclaim an authentic female narrative free of patriarchal heteronormative echoes—its contemporary topical significance also lies in its rally against the discourse of capitalistic ideologies and the damaging heritage of colonisation. The collection encourages the reader to ponder the transformative and transcendental power of art and spiritual consciousness.
Inclusive, multilingual, and multivalent, Echo in Four Beats bears witness to the convergence of Eastern and Western value systems born of bi-cultural experiences. Banerjee contemplates where Indian and American cultures intersect and what they have to learn from each other.
East
She, portrait
In miniature, she
I said I had
found in my youth
a her, a when
men built dreams
West
She´s full stamped
On ground
My fingers
drew the line out
before the turtle
came to
dust to dust
my world
was thin…
From Rita Banerjee´s “Please Listen and Do Not Return”[2]
In Ovid´s retelling of the Greek myth, Echo, the mountain nymph Oread, is cursed by the Roman Goddess, Juno, (Greek: Hera) and doomed to only be able to utter the end of other people´s words. Rita Banerjee implicitly uses Echo´s fate as a leitmotiv to elucidate the plight of women, and, by extension, subaltern groups such as the colonised and the marginalised. She demonstrates how they have been forced by a narcissistic patriarchy to adopt, communicate, and propagate a narrative that is not necessarily their own. Echo is used to convey how much the female narrative, in particular, has been lost, misinterpreted, or gone unheard, and how women around the world are perceived as mere “echoes” of their more privileged male counterparts. In doing so, Banerjee mobilizes women and other marginalized people by demonstrating the value of their own blended, or even broken down languages and narratives.
Banerjee´s poem “Pygmalion and the Slippers” narrates a master and slave dialectic and conveys how constrictive adopting a coloniser’s language can be:
For every moving shade,
there was a jewel,
a bunt cake,
tea with honey,
rubies, too,
found them dead in a village
near the Ganges,
in some bastard King´s chest.
Just six beads for all
of Manhattan, just six
vowels in the bidder’s language
With the ambiguous use of the word “Ruler”, Banerjee communicates the sometimes brutal fashion in which colonised peoples were forced into submission and to speak English:
…She’s no siren,
her sin not original
but stick a ruler on her
tongue, let the ships
crash, swallow-song,
English straight
shoe lace, strung her words
tight like riding boots…
From Rita Banerjee´s “Pygmalion & the Slippers”
The title Echo in Four Beats alludes to the Greek myth and references the four distinct waves of feminism that have culminated into a global crescendo today. Hence, the fourth beat may be perceived as analogous with the fourth wave of feminism, which promises to become more intersectional, more open to debate, and more transformative than precedent waves. The cover is suggestive of The Women´s March in Washington, DC. It depicts a crowd of women cupping their hands to their mouths to enunciate and receive wisdom back. The women move and surround a reclining Satyr, the infamous Barberini Faun, from the entourage of the God of Ecstasy, Dionysus, who is narcissistically confident in his lascivious abandon and powerful aesthetic beauty. He is seemingly oblivious to the throngs of what could be revolutionary women around him, uniting to take back the mic and reclaim their own voices.
The fundamental Vedic and Buddhist religious concept of Saṃsāra, a Sanskrit word meaning “wandering,” and denoting a spiritual journey towards enlightenment through the cycle of life-death-rebirth, acts as a blueprint for the structure of the collection. It transposes onto the first three beats, which correspond with: Brahma and creation, Vishnu as the preserver or sustenance in the second beat, and Shiva, the destroyer and destructive transformation in the third beat. The fourth beat explores what liberation from this cycle of creation, sustenance and destruction might look like and the poem “Beyond Saṃsāra” ironically suggests the possibility of women regaining their freedom from past destructive cycles.
…Barberini in marble
is an absolute libertine
and just as alluring
for his self-abandon,
all passion and giddy
self-absorption––
“I´d like to be so decadent,
so free,” I jest, just by half.
Amahl returns my gaze,
Sabine breaks it, one
of us smiles through the whisper
“then be free”
From Rita Banerjee´s “Beyond Saṃsāra”
Whilst Banerjee recognises the beauty and utility of traditional forms, she plays with a multitude of poetic and thematic forms, pirouetting from the profane to the sacred, the mundane to the sublime, the broadly public to the deeply profound and personal with the ease of a virtuoso. Haiku is placed alongside sonnets and ghazals, interspersed with erasure, hymns, mistranslations and vers-libre to give birth to different metronomic languages and rhythms that create a new voice. Banerjee´s linguistic artfulness resides in her ability to translate all these foreign words, cultures, and geographies into a coherent language of aesthetic, philosophical, and political portent. As seen in the haiku “A Waters Sound” where the entrenchment of social conventions and power structures is metaphorically conveyed by the image of a deep, leaf-grown well from which potential young feminists are blocked from jumping out by the wire-meshed sky. The Japanese ideograms of the original poem drip silently down the face of the page, creating and holding a meditative space for the reader to ruminate upon the depth of the well.
Deep,
a leaf-grown well,
wise young toad
a wire-meshed sky,
never will jump
From Rita Banerjee´s “Mizu no Oto”, “A Water’s Sound”
One returns to the poems and their unconventional music to excavate epiphanies and truths, and to listen for the rhythms hidden in the tympanic architectures of the sentences.
…Crow found jazz on an island atoll,
she was praying for China Blue
when it blasted—
Crow´s heart needs a container,
innocence a hearth,
and Little Boy a beat.
Little Boy runs around hen-pen
waiting to crow like
a rooster with his head cut…
From Rita Banerjee´s “Birds on Blue”
Banerjee also challenges Western metrical forms and classical music conventions and time signatures. She opts for a more syncopated rhythm in her poems, and the counterpoint metres of ragtime and blues in so many of the voices and narratives of Echo in Four Beats fall outside of the strict European time signature.
Billy played ragtime
on the church
organ but we
lunch hour kids,
kept time by another
name. Behind St. Augustine´s
we learned to hit
the pavement, sound
like an anvil
crack
hammers hitting
steel, Billy playing
skeletons
on the fifth,
we arpeggioed
haloed, froze
on the black
top…
From Rita Banerjee´s, “The Suicide Rag”
Banerjee attempts to restore the meaning of Echo´s utterances by constructing poems through the technique of erasure. These erasure poems function as echoes and utterances of women and marginalised peoples and convey how these people have their own intrinsic value independent of the heteronormative source narrative.
He is astonished,
glances everywhere
no one appearing
Her voice, her bones,
shapes of stone heard
by everyone: sound lives in her
From Rita Banerjee´s “Sustenance Hymn l”
Erasure, semantic play, and silence initiate a dialogue with the reader that jolts us out of linguistic and semantic complacency.
Banerjee aims to break classifications that codify and separate us. She offers a prophetic vision subtlely implied by the use of a judiciously placed line break that women and marginalized people may be more inclusive and tolerant as preservers of life in all its forms.
…French: ménage a trois
Father, son, and—
popular imagination says
that we the people of kingdom come
phylum cordata class none
order lost genius some
are not people but
the feminine
noun in German has
few declensions…
The poem concludes with an allusion to George Bernard Shaw´s play “Pygmalion” where the berated and gas-lit Eliza Doolittle returns to her Professor-oppressor Henry Higgins. The final scene of the play reveals how characters are shown to be irrevocably stuck in old narratives and unable to free themselves from morally and socially encoded gender roles and norms.
But she came back,
so why fear? Goddess
immaculate, Virgin
Mary, too, her single form
In clay, her smile not unbecoming, so why
Do you bid her to speak,
to fetch a pair of shoes?
From Rita Banerjee´s “Pygmalion & the Slippers”
In “America Ode,” Banerjee achieves an almost lithurgic tone while ironically referencing the Christian prayer “The Lord is my Shepherd”, in order to comment on the dangerous liason between capitalism and religious rhetoric.
the screen
dead blue,
on late night
news, they were
showing men
raw and packed
in ice, red
not my fault
the news had said
we drank up
and kept what
thoughts we made
kept ourselves
walking through
the valley
through
this shadow
land of ours
and saw no evil.
From Rita Banerjee’s “America Ode”
This spiritual journey subsequently becomes a material one at the end of the collection. The final poem “Railcars,” acts as a concluding performance of sounds and images. In the poem, the conundrum of life in all its glory and confusion is poignantly illustrated through the everyday minutiae the speaker observes, which help create palpable sensations, lending even the roaches on the train a whimsical, magical quality:
Nainital
…Their glistening
wings smelled of gasoline,
hard metal moonshine—
Snippets of social commentary conveyed in Imagistic verse conjure up fantastical moments frozen in time:
Howrah
…printed newspapers
on cellophane, made coolies
carry blue elephants,
hand bags, attachés–
piled them high with thin
hands, keeping the weight
of worlds aloft like moons
eclipsed by immovable locks…
From Rita Banerjee´s “Railcars”
A variety of landscapes, geographies and architectures are moulded seamlessly together to signify a global point of view which attempts to unite, as the train hurtles through the sacred mountains of the Himalayas:
…no difference between
languages, signs, the names
of things, or how the dust
pools red in Ranchi,
redder in Vizag than
all the concrete steps
to my San Francisco
home—…
From Rita Banerjee´s “Railcars”
At the end, all of human life in its messy sublimity, contained in the metaphor of the chaotic medley of passengers on this train, collides explosively with the silence surrounding the Himalayas, reminding us that all that remains when we exit this world is the echo of our time spent here.
In the words of the cosmic visionary artist, Alex Grey, “the great uplifting of humanity beyond its self-destruction, is the redemptive mission of art.” Rita Banerjee will have achieved her authorial purpose if the echo created by this piece of art generates more to advance and modify female narratives in societies and contribute to the changing representation of women and other marginalised groups in the arts.
In our narcissistic times, it is important not to forget that Narcissus was doomed to become an echo of himself, fading away to a flower that had no voice anymore.
Societies may change and evolve to become more or less just but ultimately, it is not only our discourse that defines us but our actions, too.
Pauline Jansen Van Rensburg is a translator currently working on her first novel, which explores the representation of marginalised communities and subaltern narratives in post-colonial South Africa. She is a candidate in the M.A. Creative Writing programme at Lancaster University, England, a lecturer for Rhetoric and Academic Writing in the Department of Language Arts at The Technical University of Munich and the Managing Director of “The Language LaB“, a translation services company based in Munich, Germany.
Published in Issue 53

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Joe Pasternak

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