Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Past Recaptured, The Present Apprehended In A Fleeting Life

The Womb of Memory by Dibakar Barua. 64 pp. World Parade Books. $12.95 (paperback)

Reading Dibakar Barua's poetry collection "The Womb of Memory" put me in mind of the French novelist Marcel Proust. Proust's exploration of the power of memory to spark long-buried experience had its most famous treatment when he recalled his entire childhood village upon eating a madeleine cake. Barua, a native of Bangladesh and a professor of English at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, California, depicts moments of sudden memory evoked by everyday sights and sounds. 

In "Monsoon," the tapping of a keyboard brings to mind rainstorms, with the poet "reliving scenes that put me inside a hum/of quiet explosions–a slant rain or a burning house popping like twigs..." Food from the past brings forth a stream of associations: "Chopping the chichinga/picked today from an Asian market/a touch of something so close and so forgotten for decades..." Sometimes he has to tease out the past, as he writes in "Sleepwalk," "with buried things that burrow/up to the rim." Barua possesses a keen recollection of figures from the past, whether it's his father whom he imitated "with a matchstick in my lips/for your Capstain cigarette" or his Aunt Lina who "died still young" and for whom he felt "a sly love" at 11 years old. 

Not every poem in the volume is devoted to the past; those taking place in the present show a sensuous apprehension of the world: "This seasonal profusion of pale purple/so luminous in the sun/stains the tar pavement below." The beauty of the world is paralleled by a sense of empathy for all creatures. Viewing a crushed, bloodied rattlesnake from a tour bus window brings forth a "self-conscious shame" that "no one will come/to greet or help him; no one stirs/from the mirror like windows." He imagines a victim who disappeared during a war: "...I often imagine your last fear and pain/see your round face and lively eyes/bloom quietly a moment among bayonets." Human aggression, passed from generation to generation, is lamented: "...young men contract a blindness from their Rough-riding feckless fathers; raw carnage/Etches, in acid, the crimson clouds of history."

This sensitivity toward all beings is made all the more acute by an awareness of the impermanence of life. In "Hospital Roommate," a dying young man makes a deep impression with his "laser like gaze/coming at me from the wall mirror--/a curious and unflinching look." Recovering from illness, the poet, after a fitful night, is fanned by his wife "cooling a bilious fire inside" as "A hum in my ears now sinks/into the skin of memory and time; an enveloping calm drops like silk./I begin to stir in the astonishing silence/of knowing this life will end." This realization, obvious yet startling, closes this powerful collection.

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