Matt Mooney’s Review of Shyam Sunder Sharma’s ‘Adrift’





Lieutenant Colonel Shyam Sunder Sharma, Shaurya Chakra is a decorated War wounded veteran. An avid poet, keen birdwatcher and nature lover, Shyam is a widely travelled person who has served all over India and in the UN Military Mission in Somalia. He holds a Bachelor of Arts Honours and a Masters degree in English Literature.  He is a single parent to two daughters, two dogs and a cat. His poems have been published in a number of anthologies, magazines and e-zines in India and abroad, some of these being: The First cut,  Poetry in the Park Collection No 3 – A New Ulster Poetry,  A Poetry Collective in Athlone,  Camel Saloon, Mad Swirl, Hans, Lakeview Journal, Earthen Lamp Journal, Episteme and Setu. Shyam was a guest poet at the Fermoy International Poetry Festival in 2013. His first poetry compilation “Adrift” was published in February 2019. 

Matt Mooney’s Review of Shyam Sunder Sharma’s ‘Adrift’

Shyam’s book of poems with its attractive sea blue coloured cover depicting a boat out at sea suggests the title ‘Adrift’ very accurately. Immediately we think of our own lives drifting away before we ever begin to explore the story of his journey. In the title poem the poet is grappling with:

‘these post midnight hours preceding dawn’

They seem to say to him:

‘stay adrift, midriff
kick off weeds which cling
uplift, do not swim’

‘your entity is in staying afloat
there is nothing for you ashore’

In it he opens windows on his own life and the world as he experienced it growing up in India and living through a brilliant military career at home and abroad. The colour and vibrancy of his country and its way of life according to its customs and religious traditions on the banks of their sacred river, the Ganges, carries us on in wonder from page to page.

His parents’ lives feature in it too adding further to his authentic recording for the reader of the history of those painful times of transition in India. In ‘Baggage Inventory’ we learn that for his part in the action he possessed the President’s Medal for conspicuous bravery and a wounded in action medal:

‘my glistening medals and manhood ribbons
the dull Shaurya Chakra, soaked in blood
the Parakram Padak in close trail
the rest, motifs and bars
tags of places and operations’

‘My Mother’ celebrates the life of his hard working mother, keeping the family going in body and soul. The history of that time which included her father’s brutal murder is entwined with his story of her life.

‘always mending
torn clothes or relationships
everything was hers to repair’

‘Refugee before nine
escaping the calamitous
Hindu-Muslim mayhem
landing up in this India
with her father still jailed
in the new born Pakistan
he had to be smuggled out of Lahore jail
by his Muslim comrades
and packed off to India in a goods train’.

Narrative poetry full of the history of a nation coming to us loud and clear from his pen in New Delhi. Shyam describes her father’s fate in the troubles:

‘her father was burned alive
by a frenzied Hindu mob
demanding another division of Punjab’

In the last stanza of this moving tribute to his mother after her death there is a stark reminder of the tragedy of war. ‘Hidden in a nook’ among her treasures was:

‘A pink handkerchief
with fine flower embroidery
wrapped in which were
the charred remains of
her father’s wrist watch

‘Adrift’ hunts from beginning to end for the meaning of life. Even inanimate objects are a major source of his attention. They becoming living things at his Midas touch. The most outstanding subject matter for a poem in this vein is his ‘Un-Nailed’:

‘Prised free
after what seemed like eternity
the hunched over nail
began to dream again’

We begin to see here hints of our own desires to be needed and useful.

‘No wings or legs
nothing to propel
except dreams
and an iron will
the nail lay there waiting
to be arrayed again’.

I admire the subtlety of this metaphorical poem. Its concepts gives one new reasons not to forget to focus on simple lifeless things now and then in our quest for answers.
Kavanagh spoke with reverence of ‘a green stone lying sideways in a ditch’ and Shakespeare ‘found books in the running brooks, sermons in stones and good in everything’.
The imaginary dialogue in ‘Driftwood and the Stream’ reminds me of the latter. Speaking to a piece of driftwood the stream said:

‘Don’t you have a motive
a purpose or an aim or
should I say a destination
the stream gushed and gurgled’.

In the final lines Shyam lays down the basis of a new and challenging debate. Here one feels that a philosopher as well as a poet is at work. He questions the beneficial outcome of movement:

‘Both the kinetics of consciousness
and the potential possibilities
in being stationary are eventually
one and the same’.

In a section on the night and darkness he deals with the subject of sleeplessness and the dreams that follow when sleep comes. I can hear the words of Chris Kristofferson’s song ‘Help me make it through the Night’ or the haunting melody of ‘Old John of Dreams’ sung by Christy Moore telling us to:

‘Yield up the night time to Old John O’ Dreams’

Shyam is tortured by sleeplessness in his short poem ‘Sleep, the Elusive Bitch’

‘There are such long nights

when the rum wears off
sooner than the dark outside’

In another poem on the same theme he says:

‘Betwixt twilight and dawn
sleep dies a thousand deaths’

We feel great empathy with the poet when he declares:

‘There are nights
when my dreams are shred
bloodlessly on my empty bed
in such rags I dress myself
and pace the darkness of my heart’

There is nothing new in this for those who grapple with their thoughts, their realities and regrets, between midnight and dawn but Shyam says it so succinctly we experience an intake of breath on its impact and import. It’s in stanzas like that he shows how powerful a poet he can be. He can be quite Shakespearian at times. His honesty makes him so.
In ‘Pregnant Night’ he spells out the truth of the matter for us:

‘whilst on a sorry night
it is a minefield
full of past sins
regrets and could-have-beens’

He displays a balance in this book too between poems of near despair and greater possibilities for us all beyond the rainbow. ‘Got a light? I must reignite’ falls into the latter category. His narrative, story teller style, suits this poem beautifully. A nomad, a weary wanderer, happens on a stranger sitting on his haunches by a hearth-less fire and he asks him if that was his fire. The stranger’s reply was:

‘No, we bear our own fires
until extinguished
then like ash
we are scattered

No this fire is for
physical warmth
if you are cold within
you must reignite’.

Here as elsewhere in ‘Adrift’ we are borne aloft by a well woven fabric of words and images telling simple truths in parable form, a magic carpet not beyond our concepts of reality and dreams. Yet we are unsure of our final destination and Shyam remains true to the title of the book in the way this fact is restated in his poems consistently. For example ‘Gulliver’s Departure’ is a highly entertaining evocative poem in memory of a big brother figure in his life yet when he dies there is the uncertainty of his destiny after his death:

‘he was never into books
yet he was Gulliver
and us children were his Lilliputians

more like a one sided wrestling match
us kids pinned down under one muscular arm or leg
the first one to break free gets a treat’

Mixed beliefs as to the destination of his spirit are evident in the final stanzas:

‘with stoic faces
all of us, siblings and cousins
cremated him’

‘remnants immersed in the Ganga
at Hardiwar, the Gateway to God
if there is one
the agnostic in me
kept mum.

Time and time again the poet indulges in self-cross examinations, a kind of general judgement, which lead to self-deprecatory results at times, even though his honesty is admirable. Maybe this is due to his military background and his Spartan training as a young soldier.
‘Inheritance’, an appealing and thoughtful poem, illustrates this. Karma, a word or concept of Hindu/Buddhist origin, here means good or bad luck, viewed as resulting from one’s actions.

‘your wholehearted acceptance of karma
whilst I am always ducking
feinting a punch
pouncing for an undercut
whenever life looks the other way’

Elsewhere in a short finely crafted gem of a poem ‘Shadow Boxing’ the poet gives us a strong warning not to lower our guard in life, that even shadow boxing can be dangerous!

‘Never ever lower you guard
even when you box
didn’t you know
even shadows hit back?’

No room for complacency here. We read into this that in telling us to be on guard for our own good he himself has learned these lessons the hard way.

On the softer more romantic side of things Shyam poems are not found wanting in depth or in finesse coupled with the not unrelated hard edged poems, yet tender at the core, on aloneness and loneliness.

In ‘Meeting Point’ the poet cleverly and successfully mimics a poem of the same title by Robert Service thereby proving the universality and agelessness of love’s chagrin. The pain is the same except that the lovers are different and meeting in a different age. Both poets are honoured by the exercise. Shyam builds up an electric atmosphere line by line. We feel we are voyeurs there waiting for the scene to come alive at least if not explode from the tension building up between the main players in the restaurant. Even the camels idling on the wings after crossing the desert seem to be waiting awkwardly for something to happen as well:

‘The small talk is over
eternity sits tepidly
in the coffee mugs
that sit silently

as silently as them while
the camels wait in the lounge
they fart and squirm
kick sand under their feet
and the sand blows
blow by blow
blowing to smithereens
this meeting’.

‘Aloneness’ is a poem that finds a place in the reader’s emotions by the strong symbols he uses as his tools to convey the context in which he writes, one of which is an Indian crane:

‘aloneness is a Sarus
silhouetted against the sunset
aloneness is a distant violin played
in C notes’.

If he never wrote another line in this definitive poem for him I would find his message in those lines of distinction for I would see and hear the same things he saw and felt in my own human heart.
In ‘Adieu’ he lays bare the great love that troubled him so much and here we see how it ran out of steam, like as if it had gradually dropped into the growing chasm between the two lovers:

‘The signs were all there
so were the words
and the pregnant pauses
in between the sighs’

His pain and his loss is well reflected in:

‘Loving never comes easy
living is not just breathing
I shall bury my feelings
in an unmarked grave’.

Even Yeats didn’t put his love for Maud Gonne so strongly or Hamlet for his Ophelia.

There are definite strains of existentialism running through the philosophy of his poems in ‘Adrift’. Human existence is under the microscope here. It’s definitely on the table for discussion all the time and there is a lot of Shyam himself coming through.
‘Unpunctuated’ is a case in point. It’s singular in this respect, in its every line. His poetic inclination towards self-flagellation is part of it:

‘the reluctant lover
the zero ambition
the daydreamer’

but it is in these arresting and memorable lines depicting the condition of man, drifting on to God knows where, that he gives us the best wine of the first compilation of his poems:

‘I am the desert wind
lugging sand from
one dune to another’

No matter how much I delve into this treasury of poems from faraway India I still find gems and nuggets that claim their right to be noted. In a poem aptly called ‘Doodle’ the poet says:

‘I am an illegible scribble
an abstract doodle
or an incomplete etch’

‘Crucifixion’ is a land mark poem in this compilation. It rings as true as the toll of a chapel bell or a call to prayer from a mosque. We have only to look around us to see the signs of unspoken loneliness, the endured and baffled long term suffering in people’s faces, borne for the most part with courage and bravery:

‘sometimes, the crucifixion
is being alive’

‘some hang by silken threads
life can be a long Friday for some
resurrections are extremely rare!

‘Blurred Timelines’ is a simple, strictly paced poem to convey the atmosphere of timelessness, an example of well managed onomatopoeia and of dovetailed eye catching images, capturing both picture and sound in an echo of the India of our travel brochures in the section of the poem on ‘Delhi Summer – Pre Monsoons’.

‘Forever yoked
a lone bull trudges along
over the Yamuna
in endless jams

Shaatak! Shataak! Shaatak!
the whip goes
the Yamuna barely snakes forward
neither does the traffic as

Shaatak! Shaatak! Shaatak!
raindrops whip
the Yamuna and him

a dead river and the undead
trudge on
unmindful of the lashing’.

I will lean on the bridge over Shyam Sunder Sharma’s Yamuna river in New Delhi and I will rest my case as I watch the world go by, the world of the author of ‘Adrift’, who gifted it to us wrapped up in the finest of poems fresh from India in this his first compilation.

Matt Mooney. Born in Kilchreest, Co. Galway in 1943, he has lived in Listowel since 1966. His four collections of poems are: Droving (2003)Falling Apples (2010)Earth to Earth (2015) and The Singing Woods (2017)Winner of The Pádraig Liath Ó Conchubhair Award 2019. (Filíocht/Poetry). Poems published in: The Amaravati International Poetic Prism Anthology 2018The Galway Review AnthologiesFeasta, First Cut, West 47, Duilleoga, Striking a Cord, The Applicant, Poetry Breakfast, Poems on the Edge. One of his poems appears on the syllabus of a number of UK Primary Schools. His poems have been read on: RTE Radio, Wired FM, Radio Kerry.

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