Kamala Das has justly been called a confessional poet. The confessional poets, beginning with the American Robert Lowell, have a capacity for relentless self-analysis; and the tone, in which they write, strikes the reader as perfectly sincere. One of the critics, who spent three days with Kamala Das at the latter’s residence in Malabar, tells us that the term “confessional” for Kamala Das’s poetry is perfectly appropriate because she frankly and frequently confesses in her poetry a large number of things exclusively related to her own self. Kamala Das really dissects and probes her own female psyche, and her “self” emerges powerfully in her poetry. She has described candidly, and without the least concealment, her traumatic experiences of love-making and of the sexual act. Indeed, poetry provides her with the strongest possible outlet for her pent-up feelings. Poetry for her is something deeply personal. In an intensely confessional tone, she gives us descriptions of her bodily experiences, her joys, and failures in love and sex, and her own attitudes towards her husband and towards other men with whom she has had sexual relationships. She has revolted against the traditional restraints under which women in India have always been kept. In lines that have often been quoted, she has expressed her resentment against those restraints and has frankly, challengingly, and almost shamelessly, described her sexual experience with her husband:
You were pleased
With my body’s response, its weather, its usual shallow
You dribbled spittle into my mouth. You poured
Yourself into every nook and cranny you embalmed
My poor lust with your bitter-sweet
Juices…….(From The Old Playhouse)
Kamala Das has accepted the Darwinian view of the physical evolution of man. This acceptance on her part has led to her adopting the twin concepts of the struggle for existence and survival of the fittest. But what may seem to be a contradiction in her, also believes in the spiritual evolution of man. In a poem entitled Brings No Loss, she treats death as a temporary phase that brings no loss. In the poem entitled Ghanashyam, she speaks not only of physical evolution but also of spiritual evolution. Her poems on the Radha Krishna myth specifically indicative of her faith in the spiritual evolution of man. In a poem entitled Radha, she speaks of spiritual love and evolution through self-surrender. Radha in this poem represents the spirit of surrender which is the very first step towards spiritual evolution.
While this critic has emphasized the spiritual aspect of Kamala Das’s poetry, though not ignoring the physical and sexual aspect of it, most other critics, regard Kamala Das’s poetry as largely devoted to her confessions of her sex-life. In the popular mind, Kamala Das’s poetry verges on the pornographic because she goes to the extreme in her frank treatment of sex. She unhesitatingly and fearlessly employs certain words -which even a male author would shrink from employing, and the use of which by a female author certainly shocks the average reader. For instance, in a poem entitled The Looking-Glass, she says that a woman should give to a lover all that makes her a woman, that she should give him the scent of her long hair, the musk of sweat between her breasts, the warm shock of her menstrual blood, and all her endless female hunger. Elsewhere she makes use of such words as ‘pubis” and “public hair”, and often alludes to the male sex-organ in explicit terms.
She has dwelt at length and in many poems upon the humiliations and sufferings which she has experienced and which are the slock themes of confessional poetry. Her frank admissions and bold treatment of her private life are perfectly in keeping with the nature and themes of confessional poetry. Her repeated references to her Nair heritage and her Dravidian skin are part of a persistent effect to define her identity. She has created personal mythology in her poetry to define that identity. Sexual humiliation becomes a central theme in her poetry. The poem entitled The Old Playhouse is a variation on that theme. This and other poems tell us that all her quests for love ended as disasters of lust. The sterility and the “vacant ecstasy” which are the theme of the poem entitled The Dance of the Eunuchs correspond to her own feeling of persecution and inadequacy which dwell in her, and which represent a continuous state of personal crisis.
Like many other confessional poets, Kamala Das regards the outer world as hostile to the world of herself. This hostility receives full treatment in her poem entitled The Suicide which, by virtue of its title, its mood, and its theme, contains the most vital elements of confessional poetry. Here the conflict is between the world as it is and the personal experience of the poetess given in terms of the symbols of the body and the soul. Suicide occurs to the poetess as the only means of escape from her predicament. Finding it impossible to bring about a harmony between the outer world and her inner self, or between her soul and her body, she thinks of blowing up either of the two:
If love is not to be had
I want to be dead, just dead.
To her, death has none of the attractions of a mystical experience. She finds death desirable because her life is not going to be “redeemed or made new.” The escapes, which she seeks through sexual relationships, are also suicides in the sense that they can bring about a temporary merging of the dualities within oneself.
Kamala Das’s poetry represents also the constantly shifting moods of confessional poetry. One of her longer poems, entitled Composition, expresses such diverse moods as a passionate attachment, agonizing guilt, nauseating disgust, and inhuman bitterness. While celebrating her most sublime experiences in this poem, she also becomes aware of the most mundane feelings as their counterpart. She does not try to idealize or glorify any part of herself. The same strategy is noticeable in the poem entitled Blood where self-questionings and self-assertion intermingle to constitute the dominant confessional tone.
Kamala Das’s poetry removes skin after skin from over her psyche, and in the manner of confessional poets like Robert Lowell, it has been an effort to remove the mask which covers the poet’s actual face. In other words, Kamala Das has torn away the mask from her face and exposed the reality about herself to our view without feeling in the least embarrassed in the process.