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  • Writer's pictureAmber Shockley

Other People's Poetry: "National Grief" by Rohan Chhetri

NB: The fine folks at Tupelo Press sent me a free review copy of Chhetri's collection, Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful. That, of course, has not colored my look at the following lines in any way. I do what I do.

I'm taking a section from smack dab in the middle of this poem - that's when the music of it dawned on me.

near the old mausoleum in Delhi, the day

a man died in a stampede outside a bank.

In a lab in Berlin, scientists tickled rats

til they giggled to their little deaths.

One morning in early November, stunned

silence sealed the air of fall, as if

some brute had risen to power.

*cracks knuckles*

Now, before we get to the music, let's take a look at couple lines in particular.

Can you guess which?

Yes, it's the bit about the rats.

In a lab in Berlin, scientists tickled rats

til they giggled to their little deaths.

If you're a regular reader of my critiques, you know that I tend to rave on and on about tension. Tension can be created through irony, as it is here. That irony (tickled, deaths) is masterfully magnified by the drop, not just of a line break, but of a new stanza. We have to sit for a moment with scientists tickled rats in our brains before we move on to find out the disastrous result.

Again, tension through irony is masterfully magnified through use of not only giggled (not "laughed"), but also little deaths. Chhetri has taken, of all things, rats, and made them as endearing as possible. Disney, take notes.

I must also quickly note the references to the Holocaust - a lab in Berlin, sealed the air, as if some brute had risen to power - offered deftly, with the care and subtlety of an experienced poet. Let this note serve as a bridge to the music, which Chhetri uses here, in part, to connect ideas.

Okay, the music.

Tension there, too.

Weaving like discordant threads, we have dulled, dampened sounds - n - d - m - b mixed with the hissing sounds of s and, I would argue, f as well.

Run through the sounds in each group and notice the differences. Notice the shifts your mouth - your whole mouth - tongue, lips, teeth, palate - make through the pronunciations, the varied placements. Though the sound groups are worlds apart, neither group offers comfort - they are distant, yet alike. Like a blunt instrument and a blade, both are meant to murder.

And they do.

When music is written as tight as this, it sort of forces us to stumble through the poem at a discombobulating, too-fast pace. We're traveling through it on music alone, sensing the meaning there, but only just. Was that a tree on the side of the road, or a standing man? In any case a tall, dark thing. In this way, the clever poet all but forces a re-read.

A re-read is a close read, and we poets like that.

On a second read, the images and happenings come into clearer view, yet are no less rushed and discombobulating than the sounds - in a good way, in a way every poem should discombobulate.

In fact, I think this post has been brought to you by the word discombobulate.

In a multi-trauma world full of ragged travelers seeking every avenue of balm and distraction, Chhetri stands as tribute to the valor and beauty of sitting with discomfort, with pain. Such valor is necessary if we are to survive.

Please pick up a copy of Rohan Chhetri's Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful from Tupelo Press and pause for a while to read it.


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