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Collected poems by Sujata Bhatt (Carcanet, 2013)

Our Poetry Library Book Club as part of Poetry International, 17th-21st July 2014, looked at the work of one of the poets appearing at the Festival, Sujata Bhatt, a truly international poet. Bhatt is is also celebrated for the sensuality and eroticism of her poetry which made her the perfect poet to get to know during Southbank Centre's Festival of Love.


Sujata Bhatt was born in Ahmedabad, India, in 1956. She grew up in Pune, India, but emigrated with her family to the United States in 1968. She studied in the States and received her MFA from the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. She now lives in Germany with her husband, the German writer Michael Augustin, and their daughter. She is the recipient of various awards, including the Commonwealth Poetry Prize (Asia) and the Cholmondeley Award.

She was poet in residence at the Poetry Archive and on their website it says that 'For Bhatt, language is synonymous with the tongue, the physical act of speaking. She has described Gujarati and the Indian childhood it connects her to as "the deepest layer of my identity". However, English has become the language she speaks every day and which she, largely, chooses to write in. The repercussions of this divided heritage are explored in her work, most explicitly in 'Search for My Tongue' which alternates between the two languages.' In this poem she says:

 You ask me what I mean
 by saying I have lost my tongue.
 I ask you what would you do
 if you had two tongues in your mouth,
 and lost the first one, the mother tongue,
 and could not really know the other,
 the foreign tongue.
 You could not use them both together
 even if you thought that way.

This long poem, 'Search for My Tongue', was choreographed by Daksha Sheth and has been performed across the UK and internationally.

She has published six collection of poems with Carcanet Press, including Monkey Shadows (1991) and Augatora (2000), both Poetry Book Society Recommendations; and A Colour for Solitude (2002), which deals exclusively with the life and work of the German painter, Paula Modersohn-Becker. Her latest collection, Pure Lizard, was published in 2008 and was shortlisted for the 2008 Forward Poetry Prize (Best Poetry Collection of the Year).  Her Collected Poems was published by Carcanet last year and was a Poetry Book Society Special Commendation.

Critical responses

Kathryn Maris in Poetry London reviewing Pure Lizard:
"What is great about Bhatt is her startling knowledge of international poetry and art: contemporary, ancient and in between.  She seems to have been influenced by everyone and everything. One can see Cavafy, Li Po, Rumi, Akhmatova, Jorie Graham, Fiona Sampson and Selima Hill in her poems - and that just begins to scratch the surface. Her subjects, too, are infinite. Name a topic and you'll find it... Poems from this collection have been published in India, Russia, the United States, England, South Africa, Portugal, Canada and Greece. The poems understand other cultures; and other cultures apparently understand them."

Gillian Allnutt in Poetry Review in 2000 reviewing Bhatt's collection Augatora:
"As a reader and especially as a reviewer, I'm intolerant of poetry I cannot understand, intolerance of my own ignorance or stupidity. But I never mind not fully understanding a poem of Sujata Bhatt's and I think it's because I don't feel mocked by it. I believe it will sit and smile and wait until I am able to grasp the depth of its simplicity. It's not that I haven't read enough books, rather that I haven't yet lived enough lives."

We looked a five poems from across Bhatt's Collected poems on the theme of Love.

1. Love in a Bathtub page 174
From second collection Monkey Shadows 1991. This poem was selected by Southbank Centre as one of the 50 best contemporary love poems and Sujatta Bhatt read the poem at the 50 Greatest Love Poem reading on Sunday 20th July in the Royal Festival Hall.  The full list of the 50 best contemporary love poems can be found on Guardian website here.

1. Do you want more detail - what the bathtub looked like, what exactly happened in the bathtub?
2. The poet is imagining being old, remembering the bathtub with her partner. Do you find that sad, happy?
3. Would this be a very different poem if it was about a brief fling/one night stand in a bathtub?
4. Is the fact that the bathtub was in Belfast significant? (poem published in 1991 - Belfast Good Friday Agreement 1998)
5. Would you have chosen this poem as a great contemporary love poem?

We have a cassette which includes Sujata Bhatt reading "Love in a bathtub" Selected poems Published: Huddersfield: Smith Doorstop Cassettes/The Poetry Business, 1991.

2. The Stinking Rose page 225
From third collection The Stinking Rose, 1995.
We listened to the Sujata Bhatt reading the poem on her Poetry Archive CD.
Sujata Bhatt : reading from her poems  
Published:  Stroud, Gloucestershire : Poetry Archive, 2005 
1. "Everything I want to say is in that name". What do you think the poet wants to say?
2. I, my, you, your, they, us, his, her. This poem seems to contain many people. Is this useful to the poem's theme?
3. What effect does the alliteration have in this poem? [Alliteration is the repetition of the same sounds or of the same kinds of sounds at the beginning of words or in stressed syllables of a phrase - Wikipedia]
4. The poem refers to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet: "that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet", and perhaps also to Blake's The sick rose: "O rose thou art sick. / The invisible worm, / that flies in the night / in the howling storm: / has found out thy bed/of crimson joy: / And his dark secret love / Does thy life destroy." What does it achieve to refer to the work of other poets? Are there any more poems referred to in the text [Duffy's "Warming her Pearls"?]

3. Eurydice Speaks p62
From first collection Brunizem 1988

The myth of Eurydice and Orpheus can be read on Wikipedia here.

1. What do you make of the opening of this poem? (Very unexpected, funny?)
2. Has anyone been to Maine?  Do you recognise this description of the place?  Is Eurydice happy there?
3. The seagulls and fish that Eurydice likes taking photographs of, do you think they could be a representation of something else? (Seagulls = Gods/men, fish = mortals/women?)
4. What do you make of the final line of the poem?  (Is it just about Orpheus not following the instruction or about him not listening to her as well?)

4. A Colour for Solitude page 402
From fifth collection A Colour for Solitude 2002
Paula Becker met the poet Rainer Maria Rilke at the artist's colony in Worpswede in 1900 and began a passionate relationship which lasted until she died. When they met Becker was betrothed to the painter Otto Modersohn, and married him some months later. Rilke then married Becker's close friend, the sculptor Clara Westhoff, and the two couples maintained a complex relationship. Unfortunately, Modersohn-Becker died in 1907 due to complications from childbirth. Rilke bought one of the four canvasses she sold in her lifetime. She is now considered one of the most important European artists of the period. Rilke wrote one of his most famous works "Requiem" in response to her death.

1. This poem contains many questions. How does that work with the theme of the poem?
2. Do we need to have some understanding of the Becker/Rilke story in order to appreciate the poem?
3. Is the poem painterly?
4. How do you feel about Rilke having read this poem?

5. The Mammoth Bone page 362
From Bhatt's fourth collection Augatora (2000).
1. Who brought the mammoth bone home?
2. What impressions do you get of him from the poem?
3. Why is it important to the couple that the mammoth "lived a good life / a long life"?
4. Do you like the final image of the bone as a dog? Is it significant that the bone is under the poet's desk?

Please search the Poetry Library Catalogue under All Authors to find books and recordings by Sujata Bhatt for reference and loan:

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