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Collected Poems

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Creatures Great and Small

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Manohar Shetty

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Manohar’s Menagerie

Ever since the publication of his first book more than three decades ago, the animal kingdom has been intrinsic to the poetry of Manohar Shetty. Creatures great and small have long inhabited his poems—from the “yoyo” and “jiggling asterisk” of a spider to the “bowtie” of a “gowned” bat; from the “emerald embers” of fireflies trapped in glass jars to ants with their “bodies like puffed rice” and the statues of elephants “inlaid with their own ivory”. From “domestic creatures” such as the cockroach to holy “visitants” in the form of a cobra, this collection puts together Shetty’s menagerie culled from his five volumes of poetry with the bonus of a clutch of new, unpublished poems.

The birds and beasts peopling these pages are extended metaphors reflecting not only our own fraught, parallel lives, but about a natural world that needs to be preserved and treasured for its own sake. As Shetty puts it so memorably in the poem “Cheetah and Snow Leopard”, “it took an age for you / To shed your fur / And stand on two legs / But just a day or two / To ambush forever / The streaking arc / In the blurred forest”.


EXCERPTS


Fireflies

Outside, they were flashing streamers.
But straying indoors like wavering lanterns
Into widening shadows thrown by excited
Nets of caps and blazers, we caged them
In grass-crammed bottles, the tops
Punctured for air, and watched them
Stare like luminous dials.

I had imagined burning crystals
Or tips of emerald embers,
But found a softer substance—
Soon dimming—the insects, worried
By coarse hands, the walls of glass
Baffling their tiny wings,
Wilted to lifeless specks.

I had felt nothing then,
Only a small pang for the loss
Of a schoolboy’s ornament. But now,
Travelling my daily groove
In the hunt for food and habitat,
I remember their trapped blank lights.


Bats

After dark, no longer hung umbrellas,
Black bulls’-eyes or wrapped
Shut as catatonics, they swept
Through moon-gilded windows,
Gliding across the walls
Like giant bowties; over heads
Sleeping in new rows,
Dreaming of creaking capes,
Catacombs, crimson teeth
Dipping into sweet veins.

Awakened by the whooshing shadows,
Blood rising at their inverted lives,
With towels and blazers we slapped
Them to the cold floor: they flapped,
Toes twitching, the rowing tracery
Of wings grounded, huddled,
Pouting foxfaces startled
By the stark lights. Later, we heard
Of their soundless cries.


Cheetah and Snow Leopard

Ambergris is scented waste
From the hunted whale.
And that pearl is fretted
Whole to radiance
By a mollusk. .
The finest silk is spun
From a sluggish worm.
And it took an age for you
To shed your fur
And stand on two legs
But just a day or two
To ambush forever
The streaking arc
In the blurred forest,
And to corner
Those spoors, rare as
Four-leafed clovers,
In the red snow.


Born Still

You will only be heard
When the noise
Has died down
And the air so clear
You can hear
The soundless
Soundtrack of bats,
The cutting edge
In a swaying blade of grass,
The memoirs of elephants,
The beat of a moth’s wing
In a distant whirlwind,
The snap of a lizard’s tongue,
And the gossip of
Ants in the kitchen.

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