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Essay

John Barton on Sandra Kasturi's "Old Men, Smoking"

(How Poems Work, December 2005)
Like the title of a realist painting–say a work by Edward Hopper, who gave apt shorthand titles to his canvases (“Drug Store,” for example, or “A Woman in the Sun”) that summarized the landscapes or cityscapes, people, or moments he wished to frame–the throwaway evocative power of Sandra Kasturi’s title anchors her poem. Its power is reechoed throughout in phrases like “these old men who smoke” and “these men,” even in “they”–smaller and smaller skipping stones from which meaning devolves. And yet, like the old men she describes, Kasturi’s title is reticent. It betrays little or nothing of her themes….

Like the title of a realist painting–say a work by Edward Hopper, who gave apt shorthand titles to his canvases (“Drug Store,” for example, or “A Woman in the Sun”) that summarized the landscapes or cityscapes, people, or moments he wished to frame–the throwaway evocative power of Sandra Kasturi’s title anchors her poem. Its power is reechoed throughout in phrases like “these old men who smoke” and “these men,” even in “they”–smaller and smaller skipping stones from which meaning devolves. And yet, like the old men she describes, Kasturi’s title is reticent. It betrays little or nothing of her themes.


Like the title of a realist painting–say a work by Edward Hopper, who gave apt shorthand titles to his canvases (“Drug Store,” for example, or “A Woman in the Sun”) that summarized the landscapes or cityscapes, people, or moments he wished to frame–the throwaway evocative power of Sandra Kasturi’s title anchors her poem. Its power is reechoed throughout in phrases like “these old men who smoke” and “these men,” even in “they”–smaller and smaller skipping stones from which meaning devolves. And yet, like the old men she describes, Kasturi’s title is reticent. It betrays little or nothing of her themes.
Kasturi states her subject to be old men smoking and builds a portrait of elderly men who “stare into the distance,” whose eyes are “turned that strangest of blues by the sea,” who “never grow older or die,” who are “immune / To cancer, to weather,” and who “never really smile.” They are revenants from “past incarnations,” even the bewildering embodiments of myth. What they smoke may symbolize powers stolen from higher beings. Kasturi is haunted by their ubiquity at street corners and in neighbourhood cafés. Though they appear to be distant presences who “never really see you,” she distances herself from the appealing intensity of her foreboding by ambiguously opening the poem in the second-person singular or plural and, perhaps hoping to find strength in numbers, exhorts her reader (or readers) to share in her obsession. She only moves into the more vulnerable first-person plural (never the singular) in the poem’s final three lines, once she is reassured that the smoke the old men exhale obscures “truths / We cannot bear to know.”
For Kasturi, these old men are as inscrutable as their truths are dangerous. As a defence, she demarcates and maintains their unknowability:
bq. > The poet writes in a language the old men do not speak.
> They mutter in a language that is foreign wherever they live (a language the poet may not speak herself).
> Though humans who garden, they are characterized as amphibians and reptiles.
> Their immunity to women surely applies to the poet.
> Unlike them (based on real evidence except the precedent set by the oppositions proposed above) the poet might not yet be old.
These oppositions permit Kasturi to uphold and explore the old men’s otherness. The closest she comes to enunciating or identifying with their secrets is to visualize the cleansing “wash of history” they experience, but she quickly shies away.
Set into motion by its title, Kasturi’s poem mimics the wave movement of history. A deft ebb and flow of sentences and sentence fragments is channelled through couplets whose Möbius-strip-like rise and fall is made more vertiginous by every line beginning with a capital. The consequent surge in aural and linguistic intensity gives voice and shape to Kasturi’s anxieties, transforming foreboding into awe, even amusement (“Such guileless crocodiles!”). The poem crests at “humming in the voices of God” and, along with Kasturi, we all go under.