On Kathryn Hummel’s “The Bangalore Set”

The chapbook is a multipurpose tool for poets – it’s used variously as a primer, a pilot for new and untested work, a stopgap between collections, and a reliquary for poems that will find no other place in print. As Kathryn Hummel’s recent chapbook shows, it’s also an ideal medium for short, self-contained selections or sequences of poems.

The Bangalore Set, comprising 30 poems, was written during Hummel’s 2015 residence at the Kena Artists’ Initiative in Bangalore – a city often dubbed India’s Silicon Valley. The poems were written over 30 days – and, while they’re neat and cohesive in their quality and style, there’s also a range of themes, presentations and subject matters.

Like the poems in Hummel’s debut collection, Poems from Here, the work is accessible and lyric in its mode. At 30 plus pages in length, The Bangalore Set is longer than many chapbooks, and it’s to the reader’s benefit. The poems are well-ordered, and the variations in technique and tone are keenly felt and well-used, as in “Habit No. 2: Wounded Birds”, with its use of the terza rima form and end-rhyming, and “Lament”, with its anguished contemplations (“I’m sodden sad by the thought that you too will die // one day”). There’s nothing slight, or poorly realised, that’s been retained for the sake of completeness.

Bangalore itself is at the heart of the poems. In “Urban Planning”, Hummel describes it as “a city of change unsure of what it’s changing into,” and the poems explore the tension between the modern world (“[r]ooftops and treetops” that “create a landscape of anywhere”) and its “dystopian” squalor (“Metro”). It’s a poetry of immersion and writerly detachment, that’s well accustomed to daily routines – not just the novelty of the tourist- or Kodak-moment. As in the coffee rituals of “Same Same”:

Every day they stand there / straining the edges of the street / exchanging the same hellos / with the same people passing by.

Hummel has a long association with India and Bangladesh, as a writer and ethnographer. It’s this sense of cultural engagement and familiarity that distinguishes her poems, and the Colombo poems of Fiona Wright’s Knuckled (for example), from the rightly pilloried “Baedeker poem” – nowadays, the equivalent is the Lonely Planet or Dorling Kindersley poem, I guess. And there’s something essentially personal about the poems, besides.

As lyric poems, there are hints at and deferences to the “lyric I” throughout. “Flirtation”, in its arrangement on the page, offers the back-and-forth of an SMS intrigue, that nonetheless comes to nothing (“[There is no emoticon for high horse]”). But it’s also a “lyric I” that’s conscious of its viewpoint: “I write, I said, on Bangladesh / having known a little of it / as much as can / an Australian / social scientist” (“Afternoon Swill”).

As I’ve written elsewhere, I read poetry (in part) for its memorable lines and fresh images or metaphors – and Hummel’s work doesn’t disappoint. It’s setting is geographically specific, but the atmosphere of “Saturday Night” touches on the universal:

[…] I will spend the last hours alone / until the night extinguishes herself by grinding / her ashes into the wavering Sunday dawn.

Then there’s the palpable monsoon downpour of “Waiting on the Rain”:

The beads drummed on helmets / descend onto slickered shoulders / and with them, the rain’s own / calculations of the time it will take / to fall, harm, or pass.

Fittingly, the sequence ends “in country”, without the over-easy recourse to transit lounges, flights out or homecomings – real or imagined. The reader is kept in the experience, just as the poet is. The final poem – “Brigade Junction” – leaves the reader poised at the intersection of local and universal cultures, with its references to shopping crowds, fast-food franchises, advertising neon and the neat juxtaposition or half-joke of “[t]ourists feast traditionally”. For Hummel, it’s something of an insider’s view (at least, in part) – and it’s where the sequence finishes:

A flock of foreigners / in ironed Ethnic Chic / pick over broken ground: // from the haven of Starbucks / they follow their guide / out into the jungle.

While the chapbook is also available electronically, a final comment should go to the book-in-hand, or book-as-object. Readers of Australian poetry have been spoiled in recent years by the quality of books produced by some of its most renown publishers. It’s indicative of their regard for the work and its readers, even as poetry publishing has become something of a vanity affair.

Hummel’s chapbook has been put together with thought and care – a high watermark for chapbooks. It’s bound along its top edge like a notebook or sketchpad, adding to the sense of immediacy and intimacy – as though you’re reading from the poet’s own notebook. This is reinforced by the fact that the endpapers are facsimiles of her handwritten drafts. The presentation is a point of difference for readers and book browsers that will commend it to buyers and savvy booksellers alike.

The Bangalore Set was launched in India in October 2015. It will be launched in Adelaide on Saturday, 6 February 2016. It’s available in print and from Amazon.

Ref.

  • Kathryn Hummel’s website
  • Hummel, K, 2015, The Bangalore Set, Kena Artists’ Initiative, Bangalore.
  • Hummel, K, 2014, Poems from Here, Walleah Press, North Hobart (Tas).
  • Wright, F, 2011, Knuckled, Giramondo Press, Artarmon (NSW).

 

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