A timeless immediacy: Shahr-E-Jaanaan: The City of the Beloved by Adeeba Shahid Talukder

At this moment, as the world grapples with a rapidly spreading virus, two contradictory impulses can be observed: borders are being reinforced around nations in the interest of isolation from without and within, while simultaneously, we are observing unprecedented international scientific collaboration. On the ground level, class differences and prejudices can be augmented and yet, to defeat COVID-19, it will be necessary to rise above them.

On the individual level, to get through the difficult months ahead, those who find their regular lives upended are looking to find ways to occupy, distract and comfort themselves. That is, however, not always easy. If some avid readers are finding themselves struggling to settle into a novel or a work of nonfiction, that’s where poetry can offer respite.

But how are we to read poetry in a time of disruption, uncertainty, and exceptional circumstances? Do we look to contemporary voices, or to those from the past—classical themed works that have echoed down the years, the centuries, speaking to love and loss, peace and war, and everything in between?  Shahr-E-Jaanaan: The City of the Beloved, the new collection by Pakistani-American poet, translator and ghazal singer Adeeba Shahid Talukder, offers, in its own unique way, a blend of both. This collection, reaches across vast distances to call on traditional tales, and iconic Persian and Urdu poetry, and bring it home and into the present day, into the lived reality of a young Muslim American woman’s experience of life in New York City.

New York City. When Talukder composed these poems, and when I first read them, who could have known that before I would write my reflections on this book, NYC would have become the epicentre of a global pandemic? In some ways the altered circumstances imbue certain pieces with a new aura; in other ways, nothing changes at all because so many of these poems deal with those elements of growing up and coming into one’s own that are at once smaller and greater than any global catastrophe.

In her Preface, Talduker acknowledges her influences, a litany of prominent Persian and Urdu poets who have formed and informed the way she views the world. They include Mirza Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Allama Iqbal, Mirza Sauda, Noon Meem Rashid, Ibn-e-Insha, Agha Shahid Ali and more. Her intimate knowledge of the literary traditions and poetic forms is evident and effortless, but her objective is broader. She seeks:

to defend and decolonize this universe—its beauty, its grandeur, its intellectual feats. At the same time, I defy the patriarchy of it, the patriarchy with which so much of literature is cursed.

That is an admirable objective—to honour and challenge a world so thoroughly dominated by the male voice. And yet it is that strong modern feminine presence that makes this collection so powerful.

Written over the span of a decade, there is an ongoing theme, developed throughout the course of Shar-E-Jaanaan, of a young woman’s experience navigating the dynamics of her immigrant family and their expectations, coping with questions of identity and self-esteem, exploring sexual independence and romance, and, finally, falling in love with a white, non-Muslim man. While grounded, or often returning, to an urban American setting, she effortlessly draws on the beauty, passion and tragedy of classical imagery and legends, passed down in Persian and Urdu poetry, often writing in response to specific lines or images from the ghazals of Faiz, Ghalib and others. However, rather than being restrained by her benefactors, she is buoyed by their legacy. The result is a work of remarkable elegance.

The first poem “When in the dark / my mind brightened” opens with a stark confession that sets the tone for the collection that will follow:

I realized I could no longer
wait to be beautiful. Thus, I pushed
bangles upon bangles
onto my wrist, rubbing
my hands raw with metal
and glass.

Each time a bangle broke, I watched
the blood at my veins
with a grim face,
feeling more like a woman.

It ends with the speaker’s mother, facing her maturing, possibly troubled, daughter with terror. The first section, “The Wine Cup” returns to the tension between mother and daughter through a sequence clearly set in Manhattan that closes with a classic maternal concern: You’re getting older, and there are such few boys.

Traditional elements, and poetic influences become more evident from the second section on. Her notes at the end of the book introduce the stories from which she draws inspiration and acknowledge the poetic lines woven into, or referenced, where relevant, so familiarity with Urdu literature is not necessary, but some background would certainly further enrich the experience. She calls on several epic themes, with the seventh-century Arab legend of the ill-fated lovers Laila and Qays notably surfacing in a number of pieces. In this tale, when Qays, a poet, is forbidden to marry his beloved beauty, he takes to running through the streets calling her name and composing love poems. His erratic behaviour earns him the nickname Manjoon, or madman, and he is forced into exile.

Other poems incorporate lines, or images drawn from one or another of her literary touchstones. In the light of the current state of the world, “If It Were (after Ghalib)” seem especially poignant now that I return to it:

The hospital sheets cover my face. No one sees. My eyes are closed, my
hands spread like a hem. The walls white like jasmines.

I sing: I would die happily, if it were once.

The patients’ quarters are hushed but I can hear his breathing, the
way he smiles into my neck and ear. In each room, his bulk rises
and falls beneath the thin blankets. In each room, his face in the blue
light. I scream and scream.

His arrow was half-drawn. The liver aches, anticipating its touch.

The scale cannot measure my weight. I am a goddess; the sickle moon
and East River are mine to feed. I shred all the roses, let the torn petals
fall all over the tiles.

The true context of this poem will later come clear in the titular sequence, “Shahr-E-Jaanaan: The City of the Beloved”, the centrepiece of the book . It opens with a reference to the events that followed the assassination of Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, on December 27, 2007 and its very personal impact, halfway across the world:

At December’s end Benazir died
in a suicide attack.

                             Men burned

tires, cars, banks,
petrol pumps and factories

Perhaps in grief.

The nights in New York
were clear, cold

and I read Faiz
in a way I never would

again. In Washington Square,
the benches were empty.

What follows is a harrowing account of the speaker’s descent into madness, accompanied in her mania, by God and her poetic saints, culminating eventually in hospitalization and echoing back to the poem I quoted above. It’s devastating, horrifying and strangely familiar, but on my first encounter I did not recognize it for what it really is.

Talukder’s poetry frequently captures the dramatic sweep from ecstasy to despair, an element I read as an attraction to the  heightened intensity of desperate romance, loss, madness, and suicide (real or threatened) that features in so many traditional Asian legends. I could not help, for instance to note how often reference to the story of Laila and Manjoon appears. But until I read an interview with the poet, I was unaware of her own personal bipolar history and her desire, through her writing, to break down some of the misunderstanding and stigma she has faced. Looking back, that explains some of the unspoken level of attraction I felt to these elements in my initial reading, for I, too, am bipolar—this kind of emotional instability is more than poetic for me, it is real. I’ve known madness and hospitalization myself.

This is a collection that came to me, unexpected, through a publisher’s inquiry. The appeal was, first and foremost, to the language and the poet’s connection to Persian and Urdu literature, something my travels and connections in India have started to bring to my attention. The true beauty here, though, lies in the fluid crossing of borders—of language, nation, era and gender—not as an act of re-imagining or re-purposing, but a full-bodied act of translating a rich literary heritage into something new, vital. In this respect, among the illustrious Urdu forebearers of this young Pakistani-American woman, the late Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali holds special relevance. His body of work spoke to both sides of his life and identity, to both of the homes he knew, but he was able to address that space where the two meet—the hyphen.

The maturity and diversity displayed in Shahr-E-Jaanaan is impressive, a testament to the many years over which it came into being (her first book, What is Not Beautiful was also written and released during this period). In our rapidly evolving new world, Adeeba Shahid Talukder is a poet, and performer, to watch.

Shahr-E-Jaanaan: The City of the Beloved is published by Tupelo Press.

Letters to a distant shore: A Kinder Sea by Felicity Plunkett

I have spent most of my life landbound, far from open water. As a result, oceans and seas have always held a special fascination for me—those distant horizons, blue fading into blue, and endless watery expanses. Similarly, poetry inspired by ocean imagery has invariably captured my imagination and that’s what I suspected Australian poet Felicity Plunkett’s new collection, A Kinder Sea, with its stylized black and white wave-decorated cover might offer. And it does, but of course it is so much more. It is a rich and generous exploration of an ocean of skeletal fragments, human longings, and loved and forgotten souls.

Written over a period of seven years, the poems in this book seem to come together around their uniting element in an organic, interactive manner, forging connections and participating in debate with one another along the way. There is a clear sense, then, of a creative ebb and flow that runs through the collection. Referring to Paul Celan’s depiction of poems as “making their ways to readers like letters in bottles,” Plunkett describes her new work as “a book of unspoken hopes, un-mourned losses, of mute and unprayable prayers and letters never sent.”

If the poems that comprise A Kinder Sea arose, as their author indicates, over time, in conversation with one another, as missives in search of readers, they also exist in dialogue with artists and poets from whom Plunkett draws inspiration. Early on, Celan’s quote referring to poems as bottled messages, serves as the epigraph for the multi-part piece, “Glass Letters”. Twelve aching, embodied and intimate poetic communiqués follow:

This morning want-of-you has left me.
I test for its absence, press bruises, look clear

in the sea’s flat glass. No sign of storm’s spines:
sharp possibilities. Disturbance has bled

itself out. Shaken wordless, I wash syllables
in salt, trace remembered promises to

the place where they rolled in foam. You
erase waves from our correspondence:

excise agitation.

The palette she paints from is one of varied, often melancholy colours. Poets, most notably Emily Dickinson and Celan, but also Rilke, William Carl Williams, Sylvia Plath and others offer epigraphs, allusions and inspiration, alongside the likes of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave and Neil Young.

Felicity Plunkett writes with a formal sensibility and delicate precision, her language seems to register, not simply in the ear or the imagination of the reader, but on the very surface of the skin. One senses that each word, each line has been carefully honed to cast a reflection at once sharp and shifting—much like the surface of the sea. As in her award winning debut, Vanishing Point where flakes appear as a recurring image, in A Kinder Sea, there is, apart from the obvious connecting feature, a bone-level awareness and an existential grammar awash in the waves—the abstracted self as body and language. Consider the hospitalized speaker’s lament in “Songs in a Red Key”:

Conduct a river in plastic over
my shoulder through an elbow’s fold
My shroud stretches to fray
translucent at its seams, rolled
soft by the smooth stones
of a queue of injured
bones: white-gowned, awkward

-ly sheeted  nativity
angel, nameless, I shepherd
drip chamber and tremble-wheel
trolley across night’s locked ward
jitter this tangle through
silence: my hubris muted
below drug’s sea levels

Or the epistle to a secret, perhaps doomed, addressee in “Strand”:

Nothing to say when words lose their letters
in winter. Letter’s spines dismantle
in my silent hand.

I hear your name in a dream of sea. Dream
my secrets fall from my mouth, braced
neat as pearls

Broken mirror, split salt, opened
umbrella. Salt rain broke and I thought no
harm could come to you.

But, of course, the sea is the primary note sounding through this collection, sometimes as a passing metaphor, sometimes as a broader backdrop, and in one set of poems, as a vast, inviting, yet often unforgiving space that has drawn daring souls to adventure, even death. The sequence “In Search of the Miraculous” contains some of my favourite pieces: “Equal Footing Mermaids” honouring Donald Crowhurst, the British businessman who died competing in a single-handed round-the-world yacht race in 1969, and “Disappearing Act” in memory of Dutch-born film maker and performance artist, Bas Jan Ader, who was lost at sea in what would be his final performance, an intended solo voyage across the Atlantic. These poems speak to the romance of the sea that has always held a particular allure, in art and literature, for a landbound soul like myself.

A Kinder Sea has rightly been referred to as a masterpiece. It is certainly a testament to Plunkett’s ability to evoke recurring themes in a constellation of image and form that remains fresh, never predictable. And, like the ocean itself, there is an unmeasurable depth to this collection, one that invites slow, thoughtful engagement.

A Kinder Sea by Felicity Plunkett is published by University of Queensland Press.

Rules of radiance: Calling Over Water by Priya Sarukkai Chabria

implacably the seasons turn, in me no movement.
dust on pen and inkpot, dust on scissors, knife, rocks.
dust pales lampblack, dust in my mouth, am i made
of dust alone? Lord blow on me, scatter grace
that falls as words on these empty pages.

– from “On Writing Poetry – 2”

Armed with all the classic tools of an age-old trade at her disposal, the speaker above, weighed down by days, weeks, months of silence, is left beseeching the gods of inspiration to set her words free. There are perhaps few writers who would not appreciate her anxiety, but a special force charges this passage which comes toward the end of the central movement of Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s new release, Calling Across Water. This collection of poetry is the fruit of more than a decade and spans themes that move from the intimate and vulnerable, through questions of the nature of creative expression, into a thoughtful wandering  poetic travelogue. For the acclaimed Indian poet, novelist and translator it is a deeply personal journey.

The first section, “Unravelling” traces her mother’s illness and death. It begins, simply with a phone call—one line alone—“The floor churns into a vortex” and ends in the darkened waters and distorted landscape of a world without a person whose absence consumes so much space and defies words. My own mother’s death is but three and a half years fresh right now and I understand this series of poems so completely that it is both painful and beautiful to read them, and it has taken me almost three months since my first encounter to be able to gather a few thoughts of my own. To this point I have only been able to share online the pieces that have shaken me to the core. Like this passage:

She holds me for the first time
my skin puckered by her fluids, her face
a chandrama of love, lantern to my life

I hold her for the last time:
Moon rubbed up from last night’s ink
before she blows past the horizon.

— from “Archiving Mother”

As we gathered around my mother’s bedside in her final hours, I was acutely aware of the sharp reversal of roles, as I caressed and kissed her pale forehead and told her again and again how much I loved her—as I once had to my own children, and as she had to me and to her grandchildren. The circle of life.

Intrinsic to Chabria’s cycle of mourning is a strong recurrence of natural images, calling to mind womb-like rhythms, echoing the symbolic cords that continue to bind us to the woman who brought us into the world, who nurtured us with stories and songs. The questions then, become, how do we witness a loved one’s passing? What are we to give back to the universe in return for a mother’s love? And how do we honour maternal energy, whether we ourselves have children or not? In this respect, “This Is Us”, my favourite piece in this entire collection, is for me, simple and perfect:

the sky of our body flutters
over the ailing
while their unheard
words open like jasmine
through our inkiness

this is us:
sieves through which they pass
as the lips of the horizon part

this is us:
singing remembrance
with mouths of myrrh
each of us alone – though
love’s phosphorescence
rims earth’s darkness

this is us
doing our best

The second movement of Calling Over Water, “Are There Answers Without Questions?” presents a play of queries and proverbs that explore what we can know and how or if we can find expressions for the myriad of emotions and experiences that trouble us. Despite the title, there seem to be more questions than answers, along with compilations of linguistic weapons and tools, and quotations for guidance. Of course, woven into this series of unconventional poems is a sense of the inadequacy of language to open the wounds with which life marks us.

The third and longest section of this collection—“Travelling”—is comprised of a sequence of poems inspired by travel across Central, South and South-East Asia. Here the canvas expands as the poet turns her attention to the patterns of nature, the humanity of distant cityscapes, and the monuments of history, drawing astute and careful reflections. A sensitivity for the spirit of others, in the present moment or captured in the facades of weathered antiquity, surfaces repeatedly as one follows this eclectic tour:

The curator points his singing mobile to rectangles of salmon
pink stone slotted in a bare garden. ‘This was her stage, and that

her makeup room, she strolled here composing
poetry.’ In a corner the crumble of the gardener’s hut where

children’ laughter ran barefoot. We climb though pensive
rooms with shifting amplitudes of shadow but no trace

of indolence’s velvet smear. On the terrace a grey cat slips
down the stairs like water in a drain. Below,

leafless trees cordoned by crowns stand in mist.
Relentlessly the present pulses into the past.

– from “Rai Parveen Mahal”

Chabria, who has translated ninth-century Tamil poet, Andal, and reimagined classical Indian mythology into speculative future worlds, has an especially acute ability to engage with the past and allow it to reverberate with our present times. Her poems—not only in this final movement but throughout this finely crafted symphony—function as memorials on multiple levels that invite the reader to penetrate, with their own experiences and memories, spaces they may know well as readily as those they have never seen. That is to answer the poet’s call:

Memories, like photographs, live
in the continuous present though
their grains alter each time you enter.

Make yourself into a memory.

– from “Dunhuang”

“what I am is a window”: At An Hour’s Sleep From Here by Franca Mancinelli

as the world was collapsing
at night I would walk among the clods of dirt
over a hill on which you cannot tell
if it is slowly swelling into a mountain
or swallowing you up in its hollow

now a light lifts the soil
or is it the whirl once the foot touches
the rolling grains of earth within the darkness.

from On the Train of My Blood

I first came to know of Italian poet Franca Mancinelli in late 2018, when a collection of short, delicate prose poems called A Little Book of Passage arrived at my home, an unanticipated yet welcome surprise courtesy of translator John Taylor and Bitter Oleander Press. The shifting, transitory quality of these fragmentary pieces spoke to me immediately and I knew I had encountered a very special poetic voice. Imagine my delight, then, when I learned that our paths would cross last February in Kolkata where she was set to spend a month or so as Poet in Residence. Missing India and the City of Joy most acutely at the moment, it has been no small comfort to spend the past few weeks immersed in her most recent release in English translation. At An Hour’s Sleep From Here: Poems (2007–2019) comprises Mancinelli’s first two collections, Mala Kruna and Mother Dough, and is based on the revised versions included in a similarly named Italian volume, along with Out of Focus, Out of the Fire, a sequence previously published in a different version at the online site On the Seawall. As with A Little Book of Passage, this is a dual language Italian/English edition, again translated by John Taylor.

An extended conversation between poet and translator, together with translations of the longer prose poems included in the Italian edition of At An Hour’s Sleep and several other unpublished pieces, can be found in a special focus on Franca Mancinelli in the Autumn 2019 edition of the journal, The Bitter Oleander. This interview offers a window into her perceptive and intuitive approach to the creative process, an articulation the grounding of the writer’s place in the world. She speaks of an early awareness of an otherness, a feeling of somehow being set apart from her peers, that drew her to sketch out her thoughts in words as a way of trying to connect:

I believe that writing is a form of re-union: a way home, a possibility of returning to the original unity. The “fracture,” “fissure,” or “crack” that marks our identity as something separate and distinct belongs to us as a distant inheritance, received when we come into existence. It seems so essential to stay in the world that we are led to experience this fracture, while forgetting it. One who writes is, instead, called to perceive it clearly, with all the pain that it brings, along with grace. I think I started to experience it in childhood. It was like an extended solitude. A sort of condemnation and at the same time a salvation from whatever happens in daily life. The fracture can be opened as a refuge that preserves us, from which we can look out at everything flowing by in the splendor that belongs to life, in whatever form and state it presents itself, even in its most destructive and distressing appearances.

Reading the poetry of Franca Mancinelli one cannot help but recognize a kind of quiet urgency motivating her perpetual need to re-connect—this is writing as a vital act, as necessary as breathing. We all breathe as long as we are living; she seems determined to slip into the spaces between breaths and take us with her:

like stubborn insects
we keep flying against this
light that will not open, that smashes us

how much longer will we beat
on the windowpane separating
oxygen from the heart?

from Mother Dough

*

Mancinelli’s debut collection, Mala Kruna, opens At An Hour’s Sleep from Here. Originally published in 2007 when the poet was but in her mid-twenties, (the title means “Little Crown” in Croatian) this work contains four sequences that call into a shimmering, striking relief images from childhood and early adulthood, first encounters with love and passion, and, in the final sequence, The House in Ruins, intimations of a darker, wiser maturity. The central sequences The Sea in My Temples and On the Train of My Blood are especially powerful—the first conjures a dreamlike landscape within which the boundaries between the self and the lover and the natural environment blur:

at night an estuary your arms
are oak branches
a bottomless sieve
bright plummeting pebble
clump of dissolving dirt

I’ve always been here
at life’s onset
looking at these things
moving in your eyes.

The second sequence sounds the alarm, crossing into that space in which the relationship, now wound too tight, distorts, pains and eventually becomes undone. The separation is slow, the hold that the “he” has on the speaker is insidious, threatening her ability to maintain a separate agency:

one can breathe from his mouth
like someone drowning and walk
stepping on his feet
yet the legs would like to float
like seaweed to the sound of his voice

and he keeps pushing the cradle,
his body like a thumb.

Passage by passage, she traces the conflicted emotions that accompany her effort to “undo the dress that the lips / have sown stich by stitch.” It is an agonizing letting go—recognizable, raw and real.

Mother Dough, Mancinelli’s second collection builds on the same imagery and themes—especially intimacy and self-identity—but with a new confidence. Still searching, still questioning, still exploring voids and spaces that overlap, the poet’s voice has a stronger presence, one that is evident from the opening poem:

a spoon in sleep, the body
gathers the night. Swarms buried
in our chest arise, spread
their wings. How many animals
migrate within us,
passing through our heart, halting
on the curve of a hip, among the branches
of the ribs, how many
would rather not be us,
not be ensnared
between our human contours.

The poems that follow are tightly honed with an often disquieting beauty. Unexpected images are merged with an assured hand, lines trespassed with such ease that one is frequently called to read and reread each piece to soak in its delicate incongruities. The flow of images draw on nature—animate and inanimate—and experience—physical and spiritual—but her observations are fleeting, ephemeral, tenuous marked by a continual opening up, a breaking apart, an aching thirst. A restlessness. A transition from one state to another. Throughout her work, the notion of metamorphosis plays an important, if sometimes unsettling, role. This transformation is often expressed in a fracturing of the body, natural features and objects as part of a constant process of reconfiguring and reimaging, and reflects the poet’s search to understand in her own place in her body and in the world. Intrinsic to her poetry, then, is an abiding existential uncertainty, a continual reframing of Being—a gathering together of explorations into the ongoing process of coming into being, ever sensitive to the elemental, fractured and fragmentary quality of the self.

At An Hour’s Sleep From Here is a beautifully presented volume with an illuminating introduction by the translator. Mancinelli’s verse is spare and fragmentary, and as such, whiteness—a representative silence—becomes an essential element. Few of the texts extend for more than ten lines; blank pages set each sequence or section apart. This minimalism is more than a form of poetic expression—it is a searching for meaning, for an understanding of how it is that we create a space in an unstable order of things. A searching we are invited to join.

At An Hour’s Sleep From Here: Poems (2007–2019) by Franca Mancinelli is translated by John Taylor and published by Bitter Oleander Press.

Travel, writing and poetry: A link to my new poem at RIC Journal

I have a new poem up today at RIC Journal.  I’ve called it “Indian Autumn Elegy.” For some reason, this most recent visit to India, my third in two years, has so far resisted my dedicated efforts to capture it in prose. At least not for this blog.  As I process my cumulative experiences, not simply in India but in the other countries I’ve spent time in over the past few years, South Africa and Australia, I am coming to understand that much of what I want to draw to the surface belongs to another, longer dedicated writing project. One that has long been a vague intention but is now beginning to fill empty pages.

In the meantime though, there are reflections and observations too restless to wait, and those seem to be slipping into poetic exercises.

Like this one.

The first sketches of this poem were composed last month, on the train between Delhi and Jaipur. It speaks to a recognition that something I have often told myself I was seeking through travel—a kind of validation I hoped I might find by losing myself in a crowd—is neither necessary nor possible.

“Indian Autumn Elegy” can be found here.

“We are creatures of this world”: Reflections on Atmospheric Embroidery by Meena Alexander

I have numbered these pages
And find the ground very uneven

—from “Indian Ocean Blues: Solitaire”

Meena Alexander’s name was unknown to me until she passed away almost exactly a year ago, as I write this. Sadly this is not an uncommon occurrence, that we come to know a writer only after they have left us. This book, Atmospheric Embroidery, came to me from a friend who slipped it to me before I was about to embark on a trip, assuring me that the slender volume should not impact my carefully measured effort to keep my bags below carry-on weight restrictions. I carried it with me through the narrow congested streets of Kathmandu, read it in the air as the snow-capped Himalayas drifted away to my right on my return flight to India, felt the rhythm of its verses play against the rocking of the train from Delhi to Jaipur, and returned to it yet again after a day visiting the forts standing high above the marvellous “Pink City.”

I am writing this review, or response, in Kochi, deep in the south of India where I feel that, in large part through my engagement with these poems, the inability to read and write that has plagued me in these recent months is starting to thaw. Isn’t  that one of the gifts of poetry? Its capacity to spark, rekindle, and loosen a flow of words?

Meena Alexander was born to a Syrian Christian family in the Indian city of Allahabad in 1951, and raised in India and in Sudan. She would spend most of her life living and teaching in New York City, but her writing speaks to a sense of displacement, of distances crossed over oceans and desert sands, in a language that is sparse, yet fierce in its beauty and, at times, its brutality. Drawing on the diverse cultural and linguistic  influences that marked her experiences, her poetry almost seems to hover above the page, unwilling to be closely fixed to any one space or time:

Be fearless with destiny
you whisper to me
it too is an accumulation of longing.
A sideways swipe at the stars.

We are leaving one
Language for the other,
Always and ever—
What crossing enjoins.

—from “Indian Ocean Blues: Syncopation”

Although she was also well known for her prose, it is in the lyric form of poetry that Alexander found her preferred and greatest personal and political expression according to a memorial published at Scroll.in after her death. Poetry allowed her to steer away from the commercial expectations postcolonial writers from the Indian diaspora often face to appeal to the interests of western audiences. The portraits she paints are far more complex, both on an intimate and and broadly focused level:

She plumbed the depths of bodily trauma and memory in her lyrics, essays, and memoirs. Yet her work ranged from these deeply personal experiences to issues of global trauma and violence. She remained committed to a vision of gender, religious, and racial justice and used the symbolic form of poetry to envision cultural hybridity in India and the United States.

This present collection, published in 2015, is the final work published in her lifetime. Her poetry, which is finely honed, clean and spare, needs to be read with attention as much to the words and phrases, as to the silences—listening to what is not said, to what must be imagined. That is, her poems need to be returned to repeatedly, their treasures open up with reengagement.

Certain pieces of poetry or artwork stand as starting points or inspiration in many of the poems, as do her own experiences in India, North Africa, and the US. As well as the lives and stories of others on the margins, today or in the past. Movement, chosen or forced, from one place to another, the sense of being far from home or not really knowing where home lies, where one belongs, imbues her poetry with a restlessness, sometimes wistful and nostalgic, sometimes angry, and, as in the cycle of poems inspired by drawings by children from Darfur living in refugee camps by the Chad border, filled with sorrow, fear:

I am singing, stones fill with music.
Do not touch my hair, I cried. They forced me
To uncover my head then beat me when my veil slipped,
Not the pink one I am wearing now, with stripes — this
My aunt gave me. I am not an animal,
They are more free, birds in the trees, horses too.

—from “Green Leaves of El Fasher”

At the heart of this collection is the 14 piece cycle “Indian Ocean Blues.” She notes that this poem arises, in part, from the annual journeys she would undertake across the Indian Ocean from Sudan, where her family was living, to visit India. She recalls the power she found in Aimé Césaire’s Cahier de Retour au Pays Natal, and his Corps Perdu—how she “could hear the waves beat in his lines.” She listened to music while composing the work to mark a rhythm and provide solace and inspiration. Finally, she draws on the Ramayana, taking Sita, cast out by her husband Rama, the earth opening up to provide her refuge, and imagines her in Manhattan:

Rama cast her out,
Lava storms cooled her
Dirt cloaked her,
A shimmering stole.

Days later, on Dyckman Street,
As cobbles crack
She slips into a manhole,
Waves at me.

This cycle of poems evokes childhood adventure, historical passages, Hindu mythology, desperate refugees and contemporary migrants. Spanning half a globe, temporally unbound, this is a piece that speaks to an Indian poet weaving memories and reference points into an idiosyncratic song of loss, longing and new connections.

Reading Atmospheric Embroidery on my third trip to India in two years, my longest yet, I am finding echoes of questions I ask myself as I try to figure out what draws me here, to a country where I have no roots, from a country where, if I were to be honest, I have no particular roots either. If Meena’s family followed her father’s employment to Khartoum, my family followed my father’s insistent desire to be as far from others as he could comfortably manage. My parents started their lives in Toronto and New York City and ended them in a little cottage outside a small village across the continent from all extended family. The forces that lead to displacement  work in multiple directions—permanently, temporarily, haphazardly. At an age when I should feel settled I am more restless than ever, spinning some kind of uncertain tapestry of my own, now with yet a new companion—this book.

Atmospheric Embroidery by Meena Alexander is published by Hachette India and by Triquarterly.

Instructions for interacting with the material world: A Users Manual by Jiři Kolář

You can always be assured that a hardcover release from Prague-based indie publisher Twisted Spoon Press will be something very special. All their books—dedicated to bringing both long neglected and contemporary writers to English audiences—offer work that is unique and engaging, but they really put a little extra effort into their beautifully presented, typically illustrated, hardcover texts.

Like Jiři Kolář‘s A User’s Manual.

One of the most important Central European poets/visual artists of the postwar era, Kolář (1914-2002) was best known internationally for his innovative collages, but within Czechoslovakia he was a aligned with other politically defiant artists. He was a member of the avant-garde Group 42 until it was disbanded after the Communists came to power and, when the police discovered the manuscript to his controversial collection Prometheus’ Liver, he was arrested and labelled an “enemy of the state.” His poetry and artwork reflects his view of the society he saw around him.

This most unusual—and handsome—volume pairs 52 “action poems”, written in the 1950s and 60s, with images from “Weekly 1967,” one of his  series of collages created as a running commentary on each week of a year. First published together in this form in 1969, the resulting book is not only very entertaining to look at, but characterized by a sly creative energy and a devious wit. Each poem in A User’s Manual presents itself a set of instructions, often nonsensical, that mimic the form of communist dicta. Week 13, “Path,” for example, directs the reader to:

Go
empty-handed
on foot or by train
to a town
where you know no one
and spend three days there
When hungry
ask for bread
when thirsty
ask for water
Spend the night where possible
and every day ask
nine people about a person
with the same name as yours
with the same destiny as yours

The collages that accompany each poem are constructed from newspaper clippings, documents, cut outs, patterns formed with words or musical notation. Some are dedicated to individuals (sometimes presented as a profile portrait), others have a stark political feel, and yet others are abstract patterns. Together with his instructional verses, the effect is an elevation of the everyday and an imagining of a specific way of reacting to the world. As Ryan Scott explains in his Translator’s Note, in this work, Kolář is explicitly engaging with the materiality of language. He is inviting direct interaction with the immediate surroundings by calling attention to “the locus of speech, action and things.”

“Homage to T. S. E.” opposite an image titled To Michel Butor

As unusual as they are, many of the poems are oddly practical enough that they could serve as inspiration triggers. The language is spare, reasons and explanations are not offered, but therein lies the charm. Some are even strangely beautiful. Like Week 47, for instance, “Poem of Silence: For Emil Juliš”:

Collect
a pile of pebbles
and from them compose
anywhere

and with a title
pebble by pebble
as word by word
line by line

as verse by verse
a poetry poem

Exiled to Paris in 1980, as were many artists of his generation, Kolář returned frequently to Prague  after the Velvet Revolution, and spent his final years in the city. But born of a response the restrictions imposed under Communist occupation, A User’s Manual stands as a creative act of rebelllion that seeks a certain dignity in absurdity.  It makes a wonderful read, a fascinating visual experience, and would be a fine gift for an artistic friend.

A User’s Manual by Jiři Kolář with illustrations by the author, is translated by Ryan Scott, and published by Twisted Spoon Press.