Review Short: Shastra Deo’s The Agonist

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Shastra Deo’s first volume of poetry, The Agonist contains many poems about corporeal life, and about the separation of bodies, problematising the connections between body and thought. The poems often turn the inside out, as it were, opening up a poetic anatomy of internal organs and interior life. They dwell periodically on in-between states – to some extent symbolised by skin, space and emptiness – and they persistently return to tropes of rupture and penetration. As they explore such territory, they tend to alienate usual notions of humanity, asking the reader to consider whether their mind/body assumptions hold true – and intimacy itself is sometimes viewed askance through such perspectives, as in the lines: ‘You may be forgiven/ for thinking that love/ is a butcher’s ritual’. For Deo, it is not so much that the human body has a life all of its own, but that the flesh ‘speaks’, as it were, of human experience and human circumstance in lateral ways.

To give a couple of early examples, the opening poem in the volume, ‘Five’, addresses ‘what lived in the space between/ our bodies, our words’ and the second poem, ‘Scorched Earth’, sets ‘The body/ and the space it occupies’ alight. Following Emily Dickinson’s examples in her poems ‘One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted –’ (quoted by Deo as an epigraph to one of her sections) and ‘I dwell in Possibility –’, this poem imagines the body as a house. While Deo’s metaphorical and metaphysical concerns are generally very different from Dickinson’s – Deo’s is dominated by the evocation of certain kinds of burning – she is, like Dickinson, interested in notions of haunting and absence: ‘your heart is a house/ with the doors left open’, and there is a ‘stranger roaming the hallways’. Because the narratives in ‘Scorched Earth’ are not explicit enough to give the reader the full context for such expressions, it conveys a sense of scorching and damage, and of failed relationships, while challenging the reader to connect with its uncompromising tropes.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-2
Number of pages2
JournalCordite Poetry Review
Publication statusPublished - 2018


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