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:
with mouths of myrrh
each of us alone – though
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”