Arrow is a debut volume extraordinary in ambition, range and achievement. At its centre is 'Dear, beloved', a more-than-elegy for her younger sister who died suddenly: in the two years she took to write the poem, much else came into play: 'it was my hope to write the mood of elegy rather than an elegy proper,' following the example of the great elegists including Milton, to whose Paradise Lost she listened during the period of composition, also hearing the strains of Brigit Pegeen Kelly's Song, of Alice Oswald and Marie Howe. The poem becomes a kind of kingdom, 'one that is at once evil, or blighted, and beautiful, not to mention everything in between'.
"‘I grew out of all this / like a weeping willow / inclined to / the appetites of gravity’: as soon as I first read these lines from Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Kinship’ as an undergraduate, they became for me a meditation about surviving violence and paying attention to the new hungers and desires to which I had begun to lean, which is what Arrow is about." Sumita Chakraborty
Seamus Heaney Poetry Prize Winner 2021
Near the centre of Sumita Chakraborty’s debut collection Arrow, the reader encounters a set of prose poems whose titles declare them to be ‘essays’: on the order of time, on devotion, on thunder and on joy. While I wouldn’t say these are the best poems in the book (if only because such a distinction would make very little sense in a book of such consistent quality, and whose constituent poems work together to form a totality of such richness and ambition) I would suggest the reader pay them particular attention. They are, in a sense, representative of Chakraborty’s unique voice: a voice distinguished by its remarkable ability to combine the intellectual with the emotional, the abstract with the somatic, the essayistic with the lyrical. Chakraborty’s range of reference is impressive enough (Stendhal, Barthes, Spinoza, Foucault, Stevens and Dürer all receive at least a passing glance in these pages) but what makes these poems the miniature masterpieces that they are is not their display of knowledge, it is their display of thought: Chakraborty does not use her intertexts for their own sake but as stepping stones or footholds in her own dazzling logical trajectories. In her essay on devotion, she writes ‘in the business of poetry, you are Death’s Fool’; a thought like this, gem-like in its clarity, may have been arrived at through Dürer and Stevens, but it is pure Chakraborty.
Elsewhere, the collection vacillates between extremes of loquaciousness and concision. ‘Marigolds’, the books opening poem, is eight pages of linguistic magma: studded with just enough solid matter to let the reader know that something is happening beneath the poem’s surface, while remaining inscrutable in its own unpredictable flow. A sequence of poems each titled ‘O Spirit’ are stripped back to their most essential mechanics (some are as brief as two lines, but still manage to contain Chakraborty’s characteristic mixture of rigour and surprise). These extremes represent attempts to make language commensurate to the violence that is Chakraborty’s subject matter. In the book’s final sequence (a long text made up of small fragments) neither is abandoned (though Chakraborty is a poet with no compunction about exposing language’s inherent capacity to fail) but they are somehow combined to create a language that might just be enough.