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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & Owner
Ray Rasmussen, General Editor

Volume 12, Number 3, September 2018
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Amanda Bell
Dublin, Ireland

Review of Rochelle Potkar’s Paper Asylum: Prose Poems

Rochelle Potkar, Paper Asylum: Prose Poems, Copper Coin Publishing PVT Ltd, 2018. (Available in India through Amazon.IN. International buyers may order through cuprumcoin@gmail.com, $12 + $4 shipping)

Rochelle Potkar has already published works of fiction and poetry, and in spite of its misleading subtitle, Paper Asylum: Prose Poems is primarily a haibun collection, with some tanka and some examples of free verse/flash fiction included.

A short, meaty introductory piece describes the writer’s first encounter with haibun – ‘sketching universes of revelations in synopsized depth – summarized lifetimes, told with lucidity, in a timeframe no longer than a page that sets tales adrift with a lingering aftertaste of haiku.’ New practitioners of the form would do well to read this introduction, which not only lauds haibun for its myriad possibilities, but also places it in the broader context of prose poetry, and discusses its place in academic curricula in India today.

Potkar skilfully triangulates the three vital components of prose, haiku and title throughout. Her hypnotic prose weaves intense narratives which are nicely offset by evocative haiku. Her vision is highly sensory, and the collection leaves a vivid aftertaste of the scents, sights and sounds of the subcontinent. To give two of very many possible examples, consider this haiku from ‘Summer Hills’:

mango harvest –
the flush of dawn
through my skin

or the haibun ‘Spice Garden’, from which the following is extracted:

People trudge mud paths to see how elaichi grows, pepper explodes, oregano erupts, chilli revolts, coriander spruces, cilantro flowers, curry leaves fester. Nutmeg, aniseed, tamarind, peri peri, and basil rub the sun, as hunger crushes the lower abdomen.

turmeric summer
the pungent skin of
her first lover

Floating in this enhanced sensory world, we are presented with a series of ‘huis clos’ tableaux – claustrophobic relationships, both in office spaces (‘Ex-Space’) and domestic settings roiling with family politics. This claustrophobia is symptomatic of the restrictive roles carved out for women in traditional family settings, and the haibun ‘Seed’ is one of the most ‘on point’ pieces I have read about the type of experiences which have lead to the #MeToo movement.

There is a strong political edge to the collection, as the writer examines issues of nationality and borders, be they in India or in relation to Brexit or Scottish independence. In ‘A Fly Lands on the Meal’, a discussion of what it means to be Indian in 2017, she concludes with a haiku about how in some cases it is impossible to remain, or be seen to be, neutral:

lynching in India
my lasagna becomes
a loaded statement

Potkar’s prose is unmistakeably Indian English, a fact which she alludes to at several points in the collection. ‘Quiet Chaos’, set in the buffer zone inhabited by writers on the international circuit, is an insightful meditation on the insecurities generated between English speakers both from different countries and from different Anglophone regions:

Thirty-five writers from different countries, we often hesitate, halt, rummage for the correct words in English, from our repertoire of language, uniquely unaccented.

A description of the brutality of ‘sovereign swans’ alludes to the depredations of the Empire, and the piece concludes with some sort of resolution, with the writer feeling ‘redeemed knowing there are a hundred ways of one language, feeling less conscious of Indian English.’

Potkar’s observation of the microcosmic in the natural world around her reminds us of how sci-fi is inspired by micro-creatures, for example in the excellent ‘Scabbard’, which contains the following description of a pitcher plant:

Its sword-shaped leaves extending a slick cover with sweet scent towards its prey. And once the prey slides inside its pitcher-like body, it is drowned in a syrupy fluid. The book says Nepenthes catches insects, but also larger species.

slingshot sky
we gather under
spasmodic showers

Paper Asylums is a worthwhile purchase, which you will return to repeatedly, as much to immerse yourself in the sensory world described therein as to engage with the challenging questions raised about the world we live in today. Proof, if one was needed, of Potkar’s assertion in the introduction that ‘the time for haibun has come.’

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