After reading Ravi Shankar’s latest poetry collection, The Many Uses of Mint, I was reminded of the words from George Orwell writing after World War II: “One ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language….” This sounds eerily familiar with our current state of the world. We need our poets. I think Ravi Shankar is one of the best. His vocabulary is vast. His words are sewn together like a professionally tailored suit. He has much to teach us about life if only we have the patience and courage to listen.
The Many Uses of Mint is decorated with brief references to literature, music, and art. I believe, however, the work holds a deeper meaning that touches on delicate issues of the human experience. Shankar guides the reader through a spiritual journey broken up into seven parts: Homage, Pataphyics, Singularities, Voyages, Post-patorals, Carnal Nature, and Phrase and Contour, a collection of new and selected poems from the last twenty years.
In the collection’s introduction, the poet Arundhathi Subramanian writes: “the poetry asks some old questions about being human,” explicitly, human suffering. There are no facile inquiries in this collection. Shankar hits the reader smack in the face in poems like “South of Hebron,” where a boy is burdened by “being made unwanted in a land you were born in,” or in “Before Sunrise, San Francisco,” where “The weight of your existence/roughly equals the martini glass/in front of you.” Then there is the cold reminder that we are flesh and blood and will, one day, return to the earth as dust. The poem “Dark,” explains: “…& when I walk, I listen for gravel to crunch/underfoot so I don’t end tooth in bushes,” and again in “Blood” that states: “not wrung from turnips, no denser/than porter, it flows filtered forward/pumps from valves until it clumps,” and finally in “Buzzards” that acknowledges: “The closer to death the closer they come/waiting on wings with keen impatient/perseverance, dark blades lying in wake.”
But we are not only matter, but spiritual as well. This brings us to the crux of the collection, I believe, which can be found in the poem, “Lake with Human Love,” where Ravi writes: “imbuing the mortal life with divine purpose.” I think we have lost that as a society. I find it especially true after observing or personally experiencing for myself all of the nasty, ungrateful, bigoted, and all around contemptible individuals this world has recently produced. Not that bad behavior has never existed; read your history books and you will find plenty; it is just that bad behavior is growing. Much of this behavior, if you are not experiencing personally, can easily be viewed on any television news network, or social media platform.
Viewing the world through the lens of a television, a mobile phone, or some other kind of electronic device, can be formidable. Many of the leaders we are supposed to look up to can barely put two sentences together. They speak like children, and children, I am ashamed to say, is what many of them are. But blame does not just fall on the politicians. Society, too, is to blame. We use personal computers, laptops, mobile phones, and other technologies to track social media. We often spew nonsensical attacks on our government or share our own unintelligent thought in the comments section which does not help find solutions to challenges such as COVID-19 or systemic evils like racism. We refuse to wear a mask because we are self-centered. We riot in the streets and damage commercial properties which does not honor the life of George Floyd or influence local authorities to prosecute Derek Chauvin to the full extent of the law.
Society needs to stop playing politics and stop bickering with one another. Society needs to focus their energy on healing the soul of America. Our leaders do, too. I think that if we strengthen our spiritual nature, then human suffering could be borne with strength and hope, not despair and misery. One place to start is by picking up a copy of The Many Uses of Mint. Read it. Meditate on its meaning. Share it with a stranger. Above all, let it draw you out of chaos and decaying language, and rejuvenate you with intelligent words of hope and exuberance. As the poem “The Spirit Level” encourages, “Let’s each become/our own best product. Let’s love one another until we die.”
Matthew A. Hamilton holds an MFA from Fairfield University and a MSLIS from St. John’s University. He is a 6-time Pushcart Prize nominee. His stories and poems have appeared in a variety of national and international journals, including Atticus Review, Coe Magazine, Noctua Review, Burnt Bridge, Boston Literary Magazine, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Muddy River Poetry Review, and Tuck Magazine. His chapbook, The Land of the Four Rivers, published by Cervena Barva Press, won the 2013 Best Poetry Book from Peace Corps Writers. His second poetry collection, Lips Open and Divine, was published in 2016 by Winter Goose. He and his wife live in Richmond, Virginia. Visit him here.