Books From The Pantry: A Raga for George Harrison by Sharmagne Leland-St. John: Reviewed by Neil Leadbeater

Native American author, concert performer, lyricist, artist and filmmaker, Sharmagne Leland-St. John, is the Editor-in-Chief of the 19-year old literary and cultural arts journal Quill & Parchment and the founder of fogdog poetry in Arlington, WA. Widely anthologised, her recent publications include Contingencies (2008) and La Kalima (2010). She has also edited Cradle Songs: An Anthology of Poems on Motherhood (2012) which won the 2013 International Book Award Honouring Excellence in Mainstream and Independent Publishing.

A raga is a melodic framework for improvisation akin to a melodic mode in Indian classical music. Like scales in Western music, a raga helps to define the mood for a piece of music but it does so in much more detail. Traditionally, each raga came to be associated with a particular emotion, often with a time of day and season. In A Raga for George Harrison, the season is very much autumnal because several of the poems have an elegiac atmosphere about them.

Reading these poems we take a walk through the artistic, cultural and political history of our times. In a general way this is particularly apparent in ‘Hey, It Was the Sixties!’ but in a more specific way it is apparent in the series of poems written in memory of writers, musicians and artists and individuals who were caught up in the fight for social justice. Of the former her subjects include George Harrison, the musician, singer, songwriter, and music and film producer who achieved international fame as the lead guitarist of the Beatles; model and film actress Claudia Jennings; singer-songwriter Janis Joplin; author Virginia Woolf; the poets Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg and the record producer Paul Allen Rothchild. Of the latter, her subjects are the poet activist Garcia Lorca who spoke out against the brutal regime of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco; Hector Pieterson, the South African schoolboy who was shot and killed during the Soweto uprising when police opened fire on students protesting about the enforcement of teaching in Afrikaans and Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash, a Native-American activist who was murdered in 1975.

Delving beneath the surface, many of these poems have connections. Both Janis Joplin and Claudia Jennings struggled valiantly with their addictions and died tragically at a young age. Paul Allen Rothchild produced Janis Joplin’s final album, ‘Pearl’. Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf took their own lives. Hector Pieterson and Anna Mae-Pictou-Aquash were young people who were caught up in the fight for social justice and also died at a tragically young age. For Leland-St. John, there is an emotional connection as well. She knew some of these people personally and all of them, in one way or another, left an impression upon her as they have on us. Collectively, they defined the age in which they lived and died.

Here are the opening lines to ‘Pearl’, Leland-St. John’s eulogy to Janis Joplin:

They came to mourn
They came to cry
They came to wonder
How someone so young
Could ever die

Several of the poems in this collection are enhanced by Leland-St. John’s use of exotic language. In ‘La Kalima’ she writes of ‘silk saris whispering raginis / pitched to sultry winds’ and in ‘Daughter’ of ‘bushel baskets / brimming with love’ and ‘pots of kohl / and pomegranates,/ towers of silk and / lumps of myrrh.’ The collection in itself amounts to a travelogue of exotic places taking in countries as far apart as Switzerland, Japan, India, Egypt and Peru.

Colour comes as no surprise, given Leland-St. John’s deep engagement with ekphrastic poetry and appreciation of art in general. The poems in this collection are dotted with ‘blue fire escapes,’ ‘ochre meadows,’ ‘apricot blossoms,’ and nasturtiums that are ‘the muted colour of Devonshire cream’.

Culinary delights come to the fore in a number of poems as Leland-St. John draws together all the senses into a heady cocktail of delight. In ‘Nasturtiums’ she writes:

I always used to cook with flowers
when my life was simpler
and my thumb greener.
Squash blossoms dipped
in a rich cornmeal batter were a staple
at my dinner table.

Ever since I was a small child I have been attracted by the vivid colours of nasturtium flowers growing in kitchen gardens and have always thought it amazing that beauty as bold as this should thrive so well in poor soil. This is why Leland-St John’s poem ‘Nasturtiums’ has such a special resonance for me. I like the way she describes this ‘Indian cress….with their asymmetrical / celadon leaves’ and how their flowers ‘tantalise, tease / with their piquant promise’.

Time and again, Leland-St. John reminds us of the potency of all the senses in evoking memory and uses this to great effect as the starting point for several of her poems.

Variety is key to this collection. In addition to the eulogies that open this volume, Leland St-John writes lyrically on subjects such as love and loss, and also with considerable humour in the sensually charged ‘I Said Coffee’ and ‘Things I’ll Do Now That He’s Gone’ which is a poem that finds strength out of heartbreak for a lost love through the medium of humour:

I’ll have an affair with Bob Dylan
I’ll lose 10 more pounds
and become famous for something truly inane
It could happen you know

Reading these poems has made me very conscious of the way in which Leland-St. John captures the emotional mood of each piece early on and proceeds to build upon it in the body of her text. This is particularly apparent in ‘There Were Dry Red Days,’ ‘Daughter’ and ‘Michael,’ a poem written for the producer Michael Butler who brought ‘Hair’ from the Shakespeare Free Theatre to Broadway. Lost love is recalled in ‘All He’s Left Me’ and the poignant poem ‘Tiny Warrior’ speaks of the loss of her infant son, Nikolai, ‘Who never saw the spring’. Later in the book, spring returns in ‘Apple Blossoms’ where Leland St-John evokes a wonderful sense of innocence conveyed through the employment of short lines and a simple rhyme scheme.

Part of the appeal of these accessible poems is that they come straight from the heart with an emotional pull that is strong enough to engage the reader without being mawkish or in the least bit sentimental. The conversational tone makes for a dialogue that is both compassionate and compelling. It is also very positive in its affirmation of life: ‘World I love you! Life I love you!’

Sharmagne Leland-St. John: A Raga for George Harrison, (Allahabad, India), Thompson Press India Limited. 2020. Available via Amazon.

You can find more of Neil’s work, including his own poetry, and reviews, here on Ink Pantry.

Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014), Sleeve Notes (Editura Pim, Iaşi, Romania, 2016) Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017) and Penn Fields (Littoral Press, 2019). His work has been translated into several languages including Dutch, French, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.

Leave a Reply