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In a Boston Night

 

 
Sasenarine Persaud
 
Confluence Magazine

Persaud’s intellectual engagement with India defines his imaginative landscape

In a Boston Night is Sasenarine Persaud’s seventh collection of poems. Also a novelist and short story writer, his awards include the K. M. Hunter Foundation’s Emerging Artist Award (1996), and the Arthur Schomburg Award (1999) for his literary aesthetics which he refers to as Yogic Realism. Persaud’s fiction was shortlisted for the 1997 Journey Prize (Toronto) while his poetry was nominated for the 1998 Canadian National Magazine Award, and twice (1989 and 1998) shortlisted for The Guyana Prize for Literature.

A recipient of several fellowships and scholarships, his most recent was the Leslie Epstein Fellowship at Boston University, 2005-06. Persaud’s work has been included in major anthologies such as the Anthology of Colonial and Post Colonial Short Fiction (Houghton Mifflin, Boston & New York, 2006 & 2007), The Journey Prize Anthology: short fiction from the best of Canada’s new writers (McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 1997), The Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse (Oxford University Press, 2005) and The Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories (Oxford University Press, 2000) among others.

Persaud left Guyana joining a growing community of migrant Guyanese writers in Canada, mainly Toronto, before moving to the USA, where he now lives in Tampa, Florida. It is Boston however that is the focal point of this collection, and as the blurb on the back cover of the book reminds us, it “deftly threads his reflections about places, events, and histories” which include “a conflict between Anglo- and Franco-Canadians at a Brookline art exhibition; the ‘Boston Tea Party’ as a symbol of resistance to American English, subtly underlined by the description of a Walcott reading in an overflowing university hall.”

As Persaud recounts, “In a Boston Night” came about as he was on his way to a literary party at the house of the poet, Robert Pinsky. “It was early evening going across the river from Boston/ Brookline where I was staying and dark when returning. It came to me as we were crossing the river that I would write a book of poems, that a book of poems was being gifted to me. My best books of poetry have all come to me this way, in an instant even before writing the first poem knowing that a book was upon you, a gift of the ‘gods’ or the Muse if you will.” In “Green Line, Boston,” Persaud writes: “You are searching/ the night for the perfect imagery. You are/ that which we see, cannot get, cannot be.”

Inter-woven with all of this in the poem “In a Boston Night” (and throughout the book) is poetry about love and desire in its erotic sense as much as in a broader sense i.e. desire and “want” in the sense of love and also in the sense of “fame”, “recognition”. The poem ends with the persona’s voice repeating the voice of another: “I want it now. I want it all, every time, and/ if you will you will. If you must you must.”

This collection contains various ‘voices’, which are easy to confuse with the poet’s, especially in some of the poems such as “Revision, World War II”. The book is a richly nuanced, multilayered collection of voices that speak with equal ease of “a wasteful war could buy/ healthcare for the nation,” (“Backing the Charles”) or of “gulab jamuns soaked in red wine” (“Boston Cheek”).

“In a Boston Night” also references Derek Walcott’s In a Green Night and the poet’s own engagement with Walcott in several ways: styles of writing, on craft, and as symbol of the Establishment and the so-called School of “new formalism” as well as his ‘quarrel’ with Walcott’s quarrel with Naipaul, which is described in the long poem “Audience: Walcott in Boston”. Persaud is also writing about his engagement with language (English versus American English versus Caribbean English etc) and aesthetics.

In a Boston Night is packed with allusions and inter-textual cross-references to other works, writers, mythologies; and of course his favourite subject, Hinduism and/or Indianness. Even a casual reader of Persaud’s poetry cannot miss this element in his poetry. The third line of “In a Boston Night” refers to “a Krishna-blue bulb.” There are several deeper references to various aspects of Hindu philosophy and aesthetics. Challenged at a conference of mainly Caribbean scholars at the University of Miami to define his ‘Indianness’ manifest at the center of his work, Persaud replied that if you took Indianness/ Hinduism away from his work it could not exist, that he could not exist. This is not unusual among poets and writers; one would not understand a lot of Eliot without Christianity. But for someone who has never been to India, Persaud’s intellectual, philosophical engagement with India defines his inner self and imaginative landscape.

In an essay entitled “Kevat: Waiting on Yogic Realism” Persaud defined yogic realism as a continuation of a literary tradition going back centuries and which has at its core the concepts of yoga. Yogic Realism, in a nutshell, in the words of Persaud is “the application of the spirit of yogic principles and forms, the application of Indian philosophy and concepts, to writing...where the writing is serving as a conduit or yoga for union with the divine spirit/consciousness -- not yoga serving ‘art’.” This concept of art and the imagination at the service of a higher consciousness is not confined to Indian thought though its philosophy is more congenial to such endeavors. 

Reflecting on Persaud’s concern with life, art, language, it is worth pointing out that when they come together in words that achieve an unity with ease as in “Christmas” where “… the Florida sun rubbing our heads/ like Granny’s hand as she poured fresh coconut oil, in our hair…” or when he urges Bostonians: “Do not grow older by a second/ do not let spears grow into leaves/ and goodbyes and the rustling/ of dresses; a friction of summer trees.” (“Spring: Toronto-Boston”). Here the images are free, unselfconscious, not weighed down by the message.

In a Boston Night has many poems dealing with what Persaud refers to as his “odyssey” includinghis past life in Guyana and his travels through North America. The poem, “Odysseys, My Love” depicts his own journey away from home, his keeping faith: “I have kept faith, I tell you – Ulysses’/ Nothing and Rama’s knowing Hanuman’s/ Chest, when opened to Sita, is a flower/ Still scented and waiting your touch.” Interweaving his own persona with that of the protagonists of Greek and Hindu mythologies, placing himself alongside the Greek hero Ulysses (Odysseus) and the divine Ram (Rama), Persaud is placing his personal exile in context.

Unpacking his richly layered text would indeed be a challenging assignment for students of literary criticism. For readers who simply enjoy words, settle for not wishing to ‘understand’ the meaning of everything, I direct them to “Her Dancing On Leaves: Re-reading Palace Of The Peacock:” “An exile is always lonely, I would/ call after your back, we tend to look behind once/ in a while. I head outside instead, the Boston snow/ like white sands on the edges of a tropical forest –/ I went there once, enchanted. I loved – was born there –/ a shout rang out. We died and yet we lived and lived again.” The nature of exile, the role of language and poetry in defining a new personal identity are common among creative writers and thinkers, but more so among exiled poets. Poetry is not only the way home; it is also a way of coping with the loneliness of exile.

Shanta Acharya

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The Tampa Tribune
Poet Inspired By Love, Politics

Sasenarine Persaud spends his days working as an analyst for a major banking firm.

The job is a paycheck, he said. Writing poetry and fiction is his passion.

Persaud, 51, was born and raised in Guyana, where political tensions inspired him to begin writing. He spent years as a working writer in Canada, winning awards such as the Ontario Arts Council Award for Fiction and Poetry. He then moved to the United States, where he found it difficult to support himself by art alone. Persaud has published two novels, a book of short stories and seven books of poetry. His latest poetry collection, In a Boston Night, was published by TSAR publications and is available at all major bookstores.

Persaud lives in New Tampa.

When did you start writing? I have been dabbling with writing since I was a teenager. I got started, without realizing it, by writing to various pen pals. I just kept writing.

Growing up in Guyana, Indian culture and life were trivialized, ignored, made invisible. As a teenager, I saw this. This, and the study of English literature, helped me see how writing could be used to record the culture and lives of the Indians.

Did you study writing?

I have a master's in creative writing from Boston University.

What inspires you?

Love, politics, the world in which I live, everything around me inspires me, especially the quirks in society: the environment, nature, art, literature, science, space, issues of race and politics. I have a poem on my Web site and blog www.poets-and-co.blogspot.com/ on President Barack Obama and race which would not be popular. As a poet and a writer, truth, not popularity, concerns me.

What is the most challenging aspect of trying to make it as an author?

I write because I have to write. I will write, regardless of whether there is recognition. In many ways, I have made it. My work is taught and studied in schools and universities in the Caribbean and in several colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada.

How much time are you able to dedicate to writing?

I have a full-time job. I write around this job. I generally write in the early mornings. I leave evenings for e-mails and correspondence. But this is not a strict rule. I don't set myself a specified amount of time every day when I have to write.

Are people at your day job surprised to learn you write?

Most have been. Many are very surprised at how much I have published.

Did you enjoy the book signing?

This was a first. I've never been to an author event without reading from or formally talking about my work. It was good to talk to other authors. Overall, it was a positive experience.

What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Believe in yourself. Live life fully and consciously. Read widely on every topic, and above all, write. Don't be afraid of your voice, and don't be afraid of your vision, even when it goes against conventional thinking on writing and literature.

— Sarah Rothwell

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Khaasbaat
A native of Guyana, Sasenarine Persaud of New Tampa is an author of 10 books of fiction and poetry. He has worked as a writer in Canada before moving to the United States. Among his awards include the K M Hunter Foundation Award, the Arthur Schomburg Award and fellowships from the University of Miami and Boston University.

The crucial point of the book of poems is Boston but it's fascinating how Persaud also brings in Mumbai, Tampa, Toronto, and Georgetown into the mix. In a Boston Night is a must-read for fans of Persaud and a welcome read for those new to this talented poet.

Nitish S. Rele

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Stabroek News

Personal odyssey

 

Among the most recent new books of poetry is In a Boston Night  poems  by Guyanese poet and fiction writer Sasenarine Persaud, published by TSAR in Canada in 2008.  It was one of the many launched in Georgetown in August during Carifesta’s book fair. The poet took part in the festival and personally presented his book in which there are repeated references to his long absence from home. There are several other allusions, intertextual cross-references to other works and writers, to mythologies and to one of his favourite subjects −  Hinduism.
Persaud left Guyana a long time ago and joined a growing community of migrant Guyanese writers in Canada, mainly Toronto, before moving to other places, including Boston, USA and Tampa, Florida where he now lives.  This collection comes after nine other books of poetry and fiction, and after his receipt of such awards as the KM Hunter Foundation Award and the Arthur Schomburg Award. 
In a Boston Night has many poems dealing with what Persaud refers to as his “odyssey” including his past life in Guyana and his travels through North America.  These are mixed with the cross-references such as ‘Audience: Walcott in Boston,’ various hints of Naipaul, engagement of the Ramayana and other Hindu texts, and autobiographical pieces such as ‘Half A Life’ (which has its own faint echo of Naipaul).  This poem, ‘Odysseys, My Love,’ is a very good representative of the selections in the book because it includes many of the things Persaud does in several other poems there.  He makes use of his own journeys, his absence from home, his religion, interweaving them with the Greek and Hindu mythologies, often placing himself alongside the Greek hero Ulysses (Odysseus) and even the divine Ram (Rama).  
Ulysses finally returned home after twenty years at war and wandering at sea.  After victory in the Trojan War, he was punished by the vengeful sea god Poseidon, who was angry at the defeat of Troy.  He was made to wander for ten years, enduring and surviving many dangerous adventures in his attempt to sail home.  Ram was maliciously exiled from his rightful inheritance of the throne of Ayodhya and spent fourteen years in the forests and other lands.  He endured adventures including the battle against Ravan (variously Rawan, Ravana) and the rescue of Sita from abduction.  Ram’s triumphal return to his kingdom in Kosala, Ayodhya, is celebrated at Diwali.

Interestingly, Ulysses’ heroic story is narrated in the great epic The Odyssey while Ram’s heroic exploits are told in the epic Ramayana, a book sacred to Hinduism.  Ulysses survived with much help from other gods who helped him fight Poseidon.  Ram received immeasurable assistance from Hanuman and other deities against Ravan.  Persaud places his own migrations away from home in a similar context, describing his autobiography as an odyssey.  But while there are nostalgic references to Georgetown and Guyana, where there is also a place called Ithaca, he also alludes to the crossing of the Kala Pani.  Persaud is, therefore, also talking about an exile from India.  He mentions the hazardous leaving of India alongside Ulysses and Ram’s hazardous labours, including details of the attack against Ravan and the torching of the city state of Lanka.  The poet, then, is concerned with his having been torn away from the seat of his religion, the heartland of Ayodhya.  
In this poem, he keeps repeating that, despite separation, he has “kept faith.”

Odysseys, My Love
It was easier for Rama
Or Ulysses, whom you may know 
Better – I too have kept faith
With Ithaca having never returned

In an hundred years or more, Hanuman –
Who? That one you may call
“the monkey God” was neither monkey 
Nor man: my tail lit by a king’s pride

Is torching a city, the yellow-red flames
Visible across the gulf.  Why did we 
  leave?
Or was that I, I, I – thin lipped men
Promising forests teeming with parakeets

Beyond the Kala Pani. Ulysses consorted
For seven years with swine loving women
Made music on calypso’s bed.  Still
I have not returned after fourteen years
And you will now understand that 
  question:

What is our Ithaca, where our Ayodhya?
Georgetown, where red samans fall
on Main Street, and cassia-golden rods
rival the midday sun, and sugarcane

swaying to the dholak of coconut palms,
where the sweeter-than-honey sapodillas
ripen and fall on an evening
bed of waiting toast leaves?

I have kept faith, I tell you – Ulysses’
Nothing like Rama’s knowing Hanuman’s
Chest, when opened to Sita, is a flower
Still scented and waiting your touch.

This keeping of faith that is repeated in the poem has other meanings.  The poem, after all, is a love song: to a woman, but also to Guyana? to India? to the Hindu faith?  He refers to the love between Ram and Sita and hints at that between Ulysses and his wife Penelope.  In circumstances of great adversity, including their separation and what happens as a result of it, Ram kept faith with the faithful Sita, never giving her up.  In fact, the story of Ram and Sita is one of faith, purity and conquest of good over evil.  
Similarly, in twenty years of separation, the Greek couple kept faith with each other.  The poem makes reference to a few of ULlysses’ adventures, including his encount-er with the sorceress Calypso who seduced him and turned his men into swine.  He could have continued his surrender to her sweet charms and remained on the island “making music in her bed,” but he was resolved to get back home to his wife and managed after a while to devise a way of outwitting her. 

But the poet missed an irony.  While Penelope kept unshaken faith in her husband, fighting off powerful and importunate suitors, he showed little trust in her.  When he finally returned home, he did so in disguise, sneaking up to spy on her, to make sure she had been faithful to him all those years.
Quite out of line with the rest of the poem, and quite unnecessarily, Persaud betrays a trait common in his early poems but much less evident in these, his later ones.  It has to do with unhelpful detail, such as his mention of “Ulysses, whom you may know better” and “Hanuman − Who?  That one you may call the monkey God” in a kind of subtle contemptuous reference to western ignorance of Hinduism as against a common embracing of the Greek myths.

The poem ‘Odysseys, My Love’ places the poet in these mythical, archetypal (heroic?) contexts.  He exploits the use of the term ‘odyssey,’ which is derived from ULlysses’ other name, ‘Odysseus’ and well settled in normal English usage to articulate a personal journey, a personal faith, to articulate issues of migration and ‘exile’ in a love poem. 

Al Creighton

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