What Else Could It Be by Ravi Shankar. Carolina Wren Press, 2015.
Reviewed by Annie Zinnen
In a masterful crescendo of lyrically entwining verse, Ravi Shankar’s “What Else Could It Be: Ekphrastics and Collaborations” demonstrates an almost alchemic combination of numerous authorial voices. Exploring the nature of collaborative writing, Shankar and the contributing poets braid their voices together to create vividly experiential work that leaps, drifts, glides, and slams off the page.
The authors experiment with numerous poetical structures, repetitious constructs, and grammatical flow. In an attempt to capture the sinuous beauty of artistic collaboration, Shankar and his compatriots weave meticulous patterns of language that range from smoky and discreet to explosive and raw. Indeed, his poem with Priya Sarukkai Chabria, “The Perils of Homecoming,” clearly captures the message of this collection of poems: “Aren’t all dichotomies birthed from a whole?” This book seeks to find unity where would normally exist dissonance; combine elements that might otherwise reject each other or dissolve into nothing.
Throughout “What Else Could It Be,” the poets specifically tread the same path of lines: “Yes, Lycra can improve your performance”; “Burnt-out taxis rust like lozenges on a tongue of rain”; “the discordance between thinking and thought”; and “The castle looms blue upon the porcelain plate.” Although not all poems directly address these exact quotations, fragmented distortions of each image form a mosaic pattern throughout the pages. In “Over the Counter” (52), a collaborative work with Melissa Stein, there is reference to an eponymous “porcelain plate” and a tongue that “can be bitten.” Each poet refracts the general themes of the overall work like viewing Shankar’s original quotations through a prism. Each time porcelain, tongues, dissonance or Lycra finds its way onto the page, it builds upon each previous iteration or mention like a hormone building up in your body. In “Architect Attacked by a Goshawk, or the Unsilent Night” (66), Shankar and Phil Kline refer to “participants carrying boom boxes and amplifiers that play one of four different parts that interact with each other.” This image acts a vital representation of the sense of layered meaning that stacks up with each flip of a page.
In conjunction with the theme, the style and technique of the verse reflects an often frenetic, deeply ekphrastic (as the title implies) view of the world. Lines often stretch across the page, mimicking an almost stream-of-consciousness narration that seeks to follow a thought through to its fullest moment of completion. Similarly, the experimentation with structure and form often complicate the understanding of a piece. In “Untitled (1958),” Shankar attempts to capture the essence of a painting by Mark Rothko. The structure of the poem mimics the painting itself in a long column text not unlike the thick black strokes of Rothko’s piece.
This does not bar “What Else Could It Be” from a few missteps. In the “Process Note” at the end of the book, Shankar explains that the repeated lines found throughout the book were inspired by the poem “Algorithm, Will you Dance?” (47) This poem was created in “collaboration” with Google Translate and serves as a fascinating examination of literal and metaphorical translation. It may have benefited the book to place “Algorithm, Will you Dance?” as the first poem to more clearly guide the reader’s expectations.
While populated with many highly successful pieces, a few of the more experimental works fall a little flat. Specifically, “Artificiere, Firework Drawings” (41) pushes the boundaries of poetical structure to middling effect. Although this poem attempts to bridge the gap between art and language, the awkward meld of graphics and a standard poetic stanza highlight, rather than eradicate, the difference between these two mediums. Shankar accomplishes this much more effectively in “Untitled (1958),” in which he imitates the painting by Rothko in a less literal fashion but nevertheless unifies art and language. Some of the figurative languages trips over itself by verging beyond experimentation into absurdity. In “Heirlooms” (12), Shankar and Terri Witek describe the screech of an owl as “one seven-tongued sound.” The description gives the reader pause as they try to comprehend a somewhat nonsensical description of the ubiquitous hoot of an owl. Similarly, the line “Like cranial nerve ganglia behind an ear cleft/With Bell’s palsy” from “Frame and Snare Drum” (25) fringes into the nonsensical with a slightly exasperating simile.
However, “What Else Could It Be” is ultimately a highly successful cooperative effort that beautifully conveys the power of collaboration. It serves as a picture book without pictures, a wonderful method of transporting the reader to another realm of blue porcelain and rusty taxis. The seamless dialogue between the poets—and between art and language—flows in an infinite loop of unified voices, demonstrating that the true power of collaboration lies in its ability to take two distinct and striking pieces and let them amplify each other into an echo that transcends themselves.