When Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar published The Madwoman in the Attic in 1979, their focus on how women writers were limited by patriarchal stereotypes of female embodiment represented a landmark recognition that writing is hardly apolitical or objective. Decades on, we understand that canonical writing was formed by predominantly male ecosystem of publishers, translators, and critics. However, tension remains in how to deal with the problematic legacy that our literary forebears have left us—how do we acknowledge ‘canonical texts’ as meriting analysis, while simultaneously remembering and honoring those rendered invisible and pushed to the margins by the historical prejudice. Out of this quagmire emerges Rita Banerjee’s debut collection, Echo in Four Beats. A reflective book that questions the status of canonical writing, its multilingual intertextuality belies a poetic voice that dances between criticism and innovation of poetry to restore female voices to literary canon. Concerned with language as political signifier—which is to say how language connotes, inscribes, and affects how one is perceived—it retains a feminist approach to historical texts.
Subdivided into four sections, Echo in Four Beats is, as suggested by its title, concerned about the Ovidian myth of Echo and Narcissus. In the classic tale, Echo’s misfortune begins when she tricks the goddess Juno so that her sisters—who had slept with Juno’s husband, Jupiter—can escape. Cursed by Juno to repeat only the words of others as punishment, Echo later fails to approach Narcissus, a beautiful man Echo has admired from a distance but never spoken with. Terrified, Narcissus runs away from Echo while Echo herself wastes away from heartbreak, leaving only her voice behind. In Banerjee’s collection, this myth is visited in a poetic sequence titled “Creation Hymn,” “Sustenance Hymn,” and “Destruction Hymn,” where a process of erasure is enacted upon a translation of Ovid’s The Metamorphoses to create a personal version of events. This technical restriction enables Banerjee to honor and resist simultaneously the restraints that Juno imposed, while creating a lyrical and haunting voice that speaks for both poet and muse. The reader is rewarded with thematically resonant poetry that can be easily attributed to the original myth such as the following fragment from “Sustenance Hymn I”:
Her voice, her bones,
shapes of stone heard
by everyone: sound lives in her
Based on the titles alone, one might say that the process of creation and destruction is a kernel around which the collection is formed. However, the hymnal sequence is compelling for other reasons, namely that of transformation. Consider how the detachment of the sequence vanishes when one reaches the segment titled “Destruction Hymn I,” where the introduction of a first-person perspective creates a personal voice, breathing life into the poem. Its immediacy and intimacy signals that a female voice has been discovered, delivering retrospective justice to Echo who was consigned by Ovid to a mute end, embedded within and serving Narcissus’ larger narrative. Banerjee’s I retrospectively fulfills the promise raised by the very first section of the sequence, “Creation Hymn I”:
she, who cannot be
silent, might learn how
to speak first herself
The desire to amend history, therefore, is an impulse that the poetic voice of Echo in Four Beats keeps central to its work, emerging from the feminist recognition of the marginalization of women in literary works. However, Banerjee never loses control of her grasp for reinvention: in the opening poem of the book, “The moon had jackknifed,” Ovid’s myth is given a new ending. Banerjee describes via the use of past tense a man who dissolves into “a lovely blank” at the touch of the moon. Such evocative imagery strengthens the poetry, as it does in the lines “the orbs splitting yellow/ spoke of oblivion,/ his eyes glimmered,/ the moon understood.” By suggesting the contours of the original myth, Banerjee positions her collection as an alternative chain of events, picking up where Ovid leaves off when the male figure fades away.
Nonetheless, Banerjee does not limit herself to interacting with creative works solely inspired by the myth of Narcissus and Echo. Echo in Four Beats is redolent with rich allusions to a wide range of writers and artists. The poem “Please Listen and Do Not Return,” for instance, critiques F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck for their female characters, who are conceived as extensions of desire and utility to the narrative’s male protagonists. The title therefore is a blunt warning not to repeat the mistakes of these protagonists, situating the poem as a post-script to the original works. Yet, one might wonder why Banerjee engages in intertextuality and ekphrastic writing. This question is answered in Banerjee’s collection by a poem called “The Figure,” which asserts that despair results from the desire to quantify things that exist beyond our capacity for description. Instead of starting with a question that would premise, and therefore demarcate understanding, the persona of the poem singles out the act of enlightenment:
I only understood by casting you
first in flesh, then in clay,
and finally in frail, sea-water words.
You tendered there—
adrift on the tide
This process of creation in reverse, from flesh to water, generates solace while never revealing what the narrator knows. Only the foreword, with a line by the Japanese literary figure Jun-ichirō Tanizaki (“We find beauty not in the thing itself/ but in the patterns of shadows”), and a line on the repairing of old wounds (“…heal the lines/ between blue and continent”), suggests that the original question is about beauty and meaning that cannot be quantified by categorization and description. This explains why the poem quoted above focuses on the growing transience of the figure’s form, instead of explaining the figure’s gradual dissolution. Only by creating, not explicating, can the speaker grasp an elusive meaning.
The focus on blurring and subverting boundaries is why praise for Echo in Four Beats focuses on the “post-national” nature of the collection. In the second and third sections of the collection, for example, a large number of poems deal with foreign travel, going beyond America to engage with nations such as India or Japan. Some of these poems take a step further into the conceptual realm, when Banerjee translates into English a poem first written in another language by her own hand. These poems—namely “A Water’s Sound” and “One Night”—position Banerjee in the dual role of poet and translator, inviting us to consider how translation and writing are closely intertwined. While the work of the original poet is crucial, the inclusion of both translated and non-translated versions of the same poem makes the argument that lacking translation, we lose not only the basic contents of the poem but also the nuanced explanations of cultural signifiers and references that exist only in the original language. Some slippage is of course inevitable, but Banerjee reminds us that there is still value in attempting to translate.