Mani Rao lights lightly on the eternal themes
By Cyril Wong
The first thing that comes to mind upon reading Mani Rao's latest book, echolocation, are Sapphic fragments. If echolocation refers to the way high-pitched sounds are emitted and their echoes interpreted to determine the direction and distance of objects, Rao’s imagistic and emotionally-electrified statements are precisely these passionately projected sound waves searching the dark to ensnare some sense of an object, except this object is akin to that logocentric centre – rightly elusive.
The second thing is Anne Carson’s poem, “The Life of Towns”, in which the poet shows how nothing holds together; “nothing” referring, of course, to everything important, denoted, for example, by such signifiers as “life”, “love”, “society” and “language”. Very seldom does one come across the poet that dares to play out these uncertainties for real in the arena of her craft. Anne Carson is one. Mani Rao is another.
The latter lines up statements like stark slashes of paint across a canvas. They are neither gnomic nor do they pretend to lavish the reader with a suggestively identifiable, autobiographical backdrop. They seem to be ongoing, like life as it unfolds in the present, lined up like stairs but leading into an unknown future. Check this out:
One may accuse the poet of merely playing with arbitrary juxtapositions of ideas with each new passage or sentence that jumps out at you like a shark’s fin. But plenty of the lines can be read as individual poems resonant with the surface complexities of an autobiographical context, or philosophical and emotional impressions precisely rendered in an instant:
I imagine the poet like a swordswoman in a film walking in graceful leaps across the surface of a lake. Since her previous collections, Living Shadows and Salt, Rao seemed to have become more confident in her leaps from idea to idea, context to context, although the ghostly trail of a narrative thread about the dynamics of a relationship and a corollary questioning of the self is revealed under the poetically complex skin of the lines.
A poet’s poet, Rao presents with echolocation a collection for those of us tired of the conventional logic in much of contemporary poetry written today. More than merely impressionistic, the touch-and-go effect of Rao’s lines allow the reader to fleetingly see and feel it all and more in just a few naked words sans the need for descriptive explanations. In reading the works of popular poets nowadays (think Billy Collins, Sharon Olds, John Burnside etc.), one realises so much effort is spent setting/resetting the mood, tone or philosophical/ideological groundwork, which can become too familiar or tiresomely predictable over time.
Switch from that to reading a collection of poems from someone like Rao and one realises that even if there may only be so many themes available for poetry, Rao shows that there are always refreshing, exciting ways and permutations in how they may be articulated anew.QLRS Vol. 3 No. 4 Jul 2004