I chose to invite five contemporary Indian female poets whose work moves me in different ways. Their styles are rather distinct from one another, but each one occupies an essential place in my continually evolving mental landscape for Indian poetry in English.
In her prose poem, “So Far, So Good,” Aditi Angiras, captures the strangeness of writing poetry and of being in love when we’re rarely in the same place. At one point in the poem she writes, “Nobody taught us how to be in two places at once. They only taught us how to fly.” Nearly everyone I know is separated by distance or circumstance when they’d rather be together, and I think Aditi’s poem will speak to a lot of readers.
Sumana Roy’s “Garlic” is layered and evocative study of the root vegetable. It pushes one to think of the “overpowering” elements in our lives. It’s visceral and alive in a way that only the garlic is.
Sridala Swami’s “Satori” is a quiet piece about time and bodies. Her words played against my expectations in a way that allowed the poem to hold multiple meanings for me which was freeing in that each of them felt true.
In Subhashini Kaligotla’s arresting poem, “Bystander,” she talks of the differing timelines each of us occupies even as we roam the same space, even as we cross paths. In the poem, the narrator is split between their awareness of disaster in their own life and normalcy in another’s. It is a haunting yet gentle piece of writing that that I resonated with as I processed a loss of my own.
In Janice Pariat’s tender “Sestina for the Guideless,” the narrator seeks someone who knows the way, someone who has traversed the path before. In a journey full of false starts, delays, and frustrations, the steadfast narrator must learn something new of themselves in order to proceed. It’s a lovely, peaceful piece poem.
I hope these poems will lead you to seek out more of their writing, and more poetry in general.
-Urvashi Bahuguna, October 2019
Read all the five poems below or separately by clicking on each link.
We came to see you at night, when the building was empty. We walked through long corridors, took several wrong turns before finding the place. Once we found it, more delay as we waited in a dim room furnished with sofa and armchairs and flower prints: an overarching pinkness.
Then another room, a brightly lit one, the antechamber in which a man sat behind a computer screen.
Every disaster requires its bystanders, those who continue on even as other lives fall apart.
Some important work occupied this man so that he sat transfixed by his screen, while I hesitated at the threshold and the others shuffled in.
* * *
In this photograph the garlic is a skull cap,
the translucent skin like fragile lace;
the cloves suburbs coming together,
as on a journey out of town;
the spine an umbrella stick,
or, as if the whole bulb was a carousel.
But garlic is not for fancy dress.
It’s the dominating partner in a relationship –
overpowering, hasty, feverish.
Its diaspora extends beyond the plate,
to fingers and the cowardly air.
Scared of none
– hot oil, knife, the dead, or digestion –
it loses its body with confidence,
not like a martyr but like a child,
hypnotised by the need for transformation.
* * *
How much the future is like a helmet
when it smashes into me.
I have turned a corner and my body
Round and routed –
I am unprepared
a candle just blown out.
As fire fixes clay
age has fixed me
and it’s fixed me good.
* * *
The first thing I do when I wake up is put some coffee on the stove. The first thing I think of is either hum an old song or you. Sometimes it’s a new poem too, but really it’s usually just a stray word pretending to be a poem like the half-size tennis ball in your desk drawer that you said turns into a towel if you put it in water and then soaks everything. Like Paterson from the movie Paterson says, poems are nothing but just some words on water.
The coffee brews slowly, the flame’s on low. It rattles sometimes like railroads. Like all mornings you wake up in your own bed, like most mornings I wake up in mine. I wish it didn’t have to be this way. The geyser clicks, I step into my pants and walk into you.
You’re reading a book with a red and white cover, I ask you if you like it. You say, so far so good. We buy each other lunch. You order me a smoked salmon egg benedict and ask me if I like it. It’s my first time eating salmon and first time eating eggs, I say, so far so good.
You’re a mouthful. I kiss you like no one’s looking. You kiss me back. I tell you about the things I don’t dream about. You tell me about dreams you do. We torch them with a cigarette and decide to quit smoking again.
What do people do with their time when they’re not in love? Someone asked me what do I do for a living. I told them I poet but I also like to breathe sometimes. I stand by my window listening to the midnight traffic. I wonder if you’re holding me tonight in your sleep. Nobody taught us how to be in two places at once. They only taught us how to fly.
At 7am the black coffee stares back at me from inside the cup. It tells me that flowers can grow faster by listening to music and that today is cheat day so I don’t have to watch the news and can pretend to be a half-size tennis ball instead. There’s some orange on the side plate. And, a slice of perfect apple pie.
Poems are easier than pie.
Unlike pies, poems
don’t have to rhyme.
So sugar, here’s some pie instead.
* * *
In a new month, early in the morning,
the colonist and you step onto shore;
now you must walk, leaving the river
and the small boat behind.
You are here to inquire after a guide,
a Laplander. But finding an empty
hut, you proceed to the next—also empty,
almost a mile distant, seemingly mourning
a death unseen. But might you find a guide
half a mile further? Third hut, near the shore?
You meet with as little success. So you stay
behind, dispatch your fellow traveller, upriver,
to a fourth, while you watch the river,
filled to the brim with blue and empty
sky. At your feet, large stones; behind
you tall fir trees scattered, fresh morning
dewed, while you wait alone ashore—
but where do you wish to be guided?
No one has returned, colonist nor guide,
And you must decide by the river
whether you’ll venture away from shore
or wait. How might it be this empty?
Not a soul whether night or morning,
the water in front, the forest behind;
though do directions—front, behind—
matter? Unaccompanied, guideless,
your path lies fresh and free as morning;
you may set the boat adrift on the river
and walk away with hands light and empty.
But you don’t, clinging steadfastly to shore,
for all ways may be taken from the shore.
You can hear the redwing calling behind
you. Are you tempted by paths emptied
of past travellers? Will you play guide
to yourself? You stand silent by the river
knowing that soon you’ll see morning
empty itself of light, water drain from shore,
mourning now for time left long behind.
Perhaps the only guide is the river.
Poet’s note: This is from a lyric narrative that’s part of a novel I’m currently working on. The narrative is inspired by “erasure”, a poetic form that takes an existing text and erases portions of the original to create a wholly new work; I’ve used Linnaeus’s travel memoir “Tour of Lapland” (1732–33).
* * *