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URBANIGMA or The Modern City Condemned…

By Kirpal Singh, Literary Editor, The Times

The city has always had its admirers and critics. Lewis Mumford’s mammoth
book THE CITY IN HISTORY bears ample testimony to the function, role,
growth and significance of the City in human civilization. The great culture of
the ancient world – certainly of the Western World – was enshrined in the
great City-States of Rome and Greece. Today the city has come to symbolize
progress and development: almost every nation under the sun boasts of a
capital city – the pride of its attempts to come to terms with modern
technology. For the City is the prime achievement of human technology – of
natural resources harnessed toa distinctly man-made end.

But the City brings with it numerous problems. There is a growing feeling
among many scholars of human nature that man is perhaps attached to
earth (hence “mother earth”) in more ways than have been taken noticed of.
The City is constantly seen to threaten this link – to tear man away from his
roots (or to use the term bandied by everybody, grassroots). Man’s bond to
nature – and through this bond man’s relationship with God – undergoes a
crucial transformation in the City. And this transformation is not always

Our poem for this week is a furious condemnation of the City – and of the
kind of urban sprawl the City encourages. The most striking thing about the
poem – evident as soon as one reads the first line – is the heavy, hard hitting
severity which the writer directs at what he so aptly terms “Urbanigma.”

by Samu Batara

shifting mass implosion

rushes madly from countrysides
into incredible stowing
of gigantic clumsy rabble,
a well-trodden runaway welfare
into a staggering insect colony
a human anthill
veneered with manifold puzzling enigmas,
stinking battlefield of terror,
tumult, blazing and looting;
huge pole of blight,
and stifling traffic jams,
the omnipresent dazing crescendo of noise,
a ruthless foe.
a volcanic crisis-loaded junction
in moral affairs,
still a vast crawl
where nation’s breath estimably flows.
a concrete thicket
with futile, bored, fateful lives:
status breeding rigid tenseness,
a forfeiture of oneself;
schools become anarchical congregations
of straggling kids
of appreciating the loveliness
the scheme of creation
being denied manifold experiences
drawing closer to God. (Samu Batara)

Rarely is a poem so dominated by polysyllables that even the reading of it

becomes tedious. There is a force in all this: a force which triumphantly
concludes by a “drawing closer to God” through its very negation. The
vehemence within a country (such as Papua New Guinea) stresses his
underlying conviction that the road to progress, seen in such harsh terms as
traffic jams and human ant hills, is paved with hellish rewards.

It is the language of the poem which fascinates me: Take the opening line,
shifting mass implosion and see how it gives the lie to the implied scientific
civilization which the rest of the poem is going to condemn. The phrase
conveys the sense of violence, the kind we associate with neutrons and
protons and electrons (if I’ve got my physics right – through the rightness is
of less importance than the sense of it). “implosion” – what a word in the
context of city-living. Implosion implies a collapse, but a collapse inwards, a
kind of crumbling forced from the outside (from the mad rushes of the
madding crowd’s ignoble strife”- but here the reverse rush takes place,
giving even greater emphasis to that loss of “appreciating the loveliness”).
Shall we say, in a technical sort of way, that the linguistic violence – surface
structure – serves to reinforce the thematic violence – deep structure?

Just one more instance of this quite intense use of language will suffice to
illustrate the poem’s strength. Take the phrase “of straggling kids.” Now,
straggling suggests a growing outwards, a spreading which is marked by its
untidiness – and how precisely such an image fits in with the idea of school
kids who have become “anarchical congregations” (that religious
terminology notwithstanding). There is, therefore, a density about the
language of the poem, which not only underlines the density of urban living,
but also paves the way for a sympathetic reading of the writer’s misgivings.

Several lines stand out in terms of their imagery: ”a volcanic crisis-loaded

junction,” “status breeding rigid tenseness,” “the omnipresent dazing
crescendo of noise,” etc. It is not possible to discuss all of them in detail
here. Suffice that “Urbanigma” feels and reads what it means. Someone said
a poem is a happening – well, how about fitting that definition into this

(The foregoing literary review was published in The Times (of Papua New
Guinea), on its literature page, on Friday, November 19, 1982)