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Poetry is often narrative and draws from our interaction with the ambience to which poets take us. However, in any good poem the description presents us to a metaphor and ambiguity, a threshold to an excitingly refreshed and unfolding world. Jessica Mookherjee has an uncanny way of taking us to such a place amid questions and marvels.
UK-based writer and poet Yogesh Patel MBE shines a spotlight on her as part of this column which connects us to Global Indian poets who are making us proud in the field of English literature. These poets enjoy esteemed achievements, awards, and critical acclaim.
Jessica Mookherjee is of Bengali origin, lived in Wales, London and now Kent. She is published in many journals: ‘Agenda’, ‘Poetry Wales’, ‘The North’, ‘Rialto’ and in various anthologies including Bloodaxe’s ‘Staying Human’. She was highly-commended in the 2017 Forward Prize and ‘Tigress’ is her second collection (Nine Arches Press, 2019).
A little help from the Poet:
“In the poem ‘Amrita’ – yes, sadly, the gods did not look after ‘us’. However, unseen in the background were the Welsh neighbours, in the ‘Principle Boy’ the kid realises parents are children too. There is some fierceness in the core of becoming because it is about the exuberance of living, even when life is tough. Perhaps the ‘Climb’ can also be both beginning and end because we are all on our way to becoming while we still have breath.”
Most of us wake up in three dimensions. In your poem ‘Burst’, you bypass the fourth one – whatever that is, instead of it being time – and wake up in the fifth! What follows is a typical Jess style: engaging storytelling, approachable poetry, but very deceiving if treated as a simplistic ride. A vivid description populating the narrative creates rhythmic pacing, leaving us in awe. How does Jess create these poems of the fifth dimension?
You’re quite right that it is somewhat deceiving if you believe I was in the Fifth Dimension. The poem ‘Burst’ employs Ted Hughes’ instructions for poetry, which is ‘imagine what it’s like… [to be a tree, a fox etc] and then write about what that feels like’. He says kids know instinctively what it is like to play these games.
In this poem, I am imagining what it is to die, or not exist. I use the “Fifth Dimension” to take the reader immediately somewhere they cannot have been. I wanted to show what it might be like to lose attachments to everything, not just people, but concepts and even an idea of self.
Originally, the poem was one long sentence with no stanza breaks, so I experimented with stanzas to give more rhythm and breath, which I think make the last words on the line stand out. I wanted to end in silence, as the title ‘Burst’ is a formation as well as an ending. Also, if we think about facets of consciousness, we are only limited by our imaginations in reaching for reality.
The collection ‘Tigress’ rests between the lines of madness, science and magic.
A poem of the title ‘Tigress’ is a subtle, disturbing, psychological study. It tests the relationship from your mother’s perspective or inner devils. You also write about your father’s eccentricity, but respectfully, with a lurking love for him in the background. When poets write such biographical contents, what are the risks? How does Jess deal with what spills from it in actual life?
‘Tigress’ is about ‘becoming’. It is biographical only in that our histories make us who we are in part, but only in part. We are self-narrators. The collection is about self-creation through trauma and myth.
The Poem ‘Darshan’ is probably the best exemplar of the collection, as it deals with borders between story and trauma, the links between extreme situations and belief and the role we give all our creators, be they gods or parents or countries. The risks of laying out our biographies are that people will define us by them, so I prefer to be authentic rather than factual.
The poem ‘You are in the Hard Places’ is about a boat ride I took in Estonia, but it’s also about how I, as a woman, can identify with mythic heroes, who are often male. Our journeys are full of cultural expectations, but as a child, I didn’t understand what those expectations were, perhaps because my mother and father were too preoccupied with her illness to explain them to me. Through neglect, I was free to explore rather than be caged, although that is also a double-edged sword, eg ‘Mother’s Day’.
A rich tapestry of poems you explore takes you through migration, heartbreaks, relationships, myths, mental status, childhood struggles – in fact, the broad aspects of life, deploying every context in their ambience, making them players in the drama you create. Who is the core Jess here, from whom readers can begin their journey? How?
Perhaps the best I can do with a question that big is ask the reader to decide and go along with the ride and connect with their sense of becoming too, maybe they can question how they were created.
The poem ‘The Truth’ is a start. Perhaps I’m still that child trying to find some magic in the world of lies, myths and people I encounter through life, and like the kid in that poem. Perhaps I get it all wrong, but in its wrongness, there is some bigger truth.
I also hope through reading ‘Tigress’ people will also see a type of fierce kindness in the world, where people are connected.
Yogesh Patel MBE runs Skylark Publications UK as well as the non-profit Word Masala project to promote South Asian diaspora literature. He is the recipient of many awards, including as Poet of Honour at New York University in April 2019. By profession, he is a qualified optometrist and an accountant.
In this regular series for ‘iGlobal’, he will profile Global Indian poets from around the world.