Book Review

Noise and signal are parts of the same phenomenon, but signal is the information the perceiver wishes to detect. Noise is the random fluctuations that occur to hinder the perception or interpretation of the signal. Both are natural processes we take for granted in daily living. Jhilam Chattaraj is an academic and poet from Hyderabad, India. Her book Noise Cancellation brings this phenomenon to our immediate senses, but she proactively “cancels” noise.

The word “cancel” has negative connotations in today’s world. It invokes “cancel culture,” where offenders of various speech codes are penalized for their violations. This definition is heavily normalized by social and corporate media and serves the purpose of navigating political agendas. These agendas lay stress on collective empowerment of the marginalized and steer the dialogue against potential harm caused by offenders. Although this is not the strict sense the book invokes in “cancellation,” media suffocation is critiqued in the poetic volume composed by Chattaraj. “Noise” is a useless distraction that chokes original meaning and humanity. Chattaraj celebrates our living realities as opposed to politicized humanity. Sudeep Sen describes the collection as “urgent, visceral,” and these words mutually reinforce the book’s direction. Aesthetically, Noise Cancellation depicts universal human genuineness, invoking a sentiment from Neruda’s 1971 Nobel Lecture that poetry is about what we all hold in common. Its confessional altitudes enrich and liberate the human experience.

Chattaraj’s poetic themes include death and mourning, love, faith, the city, fruit, insects, and the commonality between these concepts. It seems that the signal is found by detecting the common thread that ties all these phenomena together rather than the senseless particulars. In “Poets of the Pandemic,” she writes, “In the age of the virus, / they observe slowness.” Rather than observe slowly, the poets celebrate slowness. The noun presents us with the phenomenon rather than its descriptive qualifier. To perceive depth, one must follow carefully; thus, motion slows, and the poets qualify observation in their writings. Chattaraj leads this reader to reflect on Wordsworth’s description of diction in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads:

. . . to choose incidents and situations from common  life,  and  to  relate  or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same  time,  to throw over  them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in  an  unusual  aspect; and, further, and  above  all, to  make these incidents and situations interesting by  tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of  our nature: chiefly, as far as regards how we associate ideas in  a state of excitement.

Here the democratic diction of Romantic poetry is sufficiently described. However, Noise Cancellation is not Romantic by any stretch, even if it invokes such articulation. Chattaraj writes of the academic halls, but she does not use high language to convey postmodern themes. Noise Cancellation offers allusions to John Donne (“Flea Falling”) and Osip Mandelstam (“Final Feathers”). Still, these literary references are couched within other poems about food, city, insect life, and the intimate feeling of being a dog, among different empathic human experiences. “The Boy Who Loved the British” is a private, personal reflection, but “I Will Fall Sick if You Photograph Me” portrays the tribes of the Andaman Islands. The personal and historical meet in collaboration with documentary reference, but each poem is democratic. Readers can relate and understand using the textual notes in the back of the collection.

The collection does not easily couch itself in conventional categories. It is a distinct humanist verse tinged with erotic sensibilities. For instance, in “Lipstick,” the feminist poet evolves from an “ethical citizen” to “a brown girl, allergic to pink,” thus developing from the neutrality of information to an actual human with emotion and sensibilities. In our advancing information age, “slowness” means noting the merely human from categorization. We resist categories though it is clear we also easily fall into them. In “Lipstick,” societal expectations from family are defied. These expectations try to confine her womanhood. Yes, she will be subject to the male gaze; yes, she will look slutty; and yes, she will post to social media as we are wont to do in the 21st century. However, her defiance is protest for the right to be happy and independent. Anything to get a dopamine fix in a world that is excessively political. Her rhetoric invites inquiry into why the politics are invoked in the first place. Oppressive social conditions restrict the flow of our independence into life itself. The poet uses poetry to defend her decisions, thus in this political rebellion, the “personal as political” is a social statement. We humans are so contradictory! However, do we not have reason to simply live?

Stylistically, this book eludes the usual modes of critical analysis. More Wordsworthian democratic than academic; not Romantic, but postmodern themes interspersed; a focus on the body as more than a physical thing, as a realm of being and presence oriented to the world; poetry on dying and accepting death; love, the city, fruit, insects, how a common thread ties these things; all in this singular work of sublime independence! The poems aren’t lyrical but thoughtful. If readers seek cosmopolitan poetry that won’t preach but slowly uncovers layers of life and yearning, they will find a lot of intertextuality in the book. Emotionally, the book ranges from existential rage to stoic calm and acceptance. Lines are constructed with economy, and the device obscures nothing. Noise Cancellation describes the collection’s intellectual character without pretension. Poetry is a tool of self-discovery in a world that claims individual beings and blurs group duty. Perhaps the poetic example of this fact is “Canine,” artfully referenced by the cover. In the poem, the canine is a wanderer living freely without categories of knowledge.

Bruised air holds my words up to sentences,
they don’t ache for meanings —
ears stunned at mossed corners
in coitus with machines,
yet I go nowhere.

This perspective celebrates experience, making a mongrel an animal of beauty and poetic charm. Noise Cancellation doesn’t indict or preach but offers reflections on how we relate to a world overburdened with solicitous messaging while struggling with each of our contemporary concerns.

About the Reviewer

Dustin Pickering is founder of Transcendent Zero Press. His reviews and articles appear in World Literature Today, The Statesman (India), Huffington Post, and Café Dissensus.