Author:

Monsoon Poem

Because this is a monsoon poem
expect to find the words jasmine,
palmyra, Kuruntokai, red; mangoes
in reference to trees or breasts; paddy
fields, peacocks, Kurinji flowers,
flutes; lotus buds guarding love’s
furtive routes. Expect to hear a lot
about erotic consummation inferred
by laburnum gyrations and bamboo
syncopations. Listen to the racket
of wide-mouthed frogs and bent-
legged prawns going about their
business of mating while rain falls
and falls on tiled roofs and verandas,
courtyards, pagodas. Because such
a big part of you seeks to understand
this kind of rain — so unlike your cold
rain, austere rain, get-me-the-hell-
out-of-here rain. Rain that can’t fathom
how to liberate camphor from the vaults
of the earth. Let me tell you how little
is written of mud, how it sneaks up
like a sleek-gilled vandal to catch hold
of your ankles. Or about the restorative
properties of mosquito blood, dappled
and fried against the wires of a bug-zapping
paddle. So much of monsoon is to do
with being overcome — not from longing
as you might think, but from the sky’s
steady bludgeoning, until every leaf
on every unremembered tree gleams
in the abyss of postcoital bliss.
Come. Now sip on your masala tea,
put your lips to the sweet, spicy skin
of it. There’s more to see — notice
the dogs who’ve been fucking on the beach,
locked in embrace like an elongated Anubis,
the crabs scavenging the flesh of a dopey-
eyed ponyfish, the entire delirious coast
with its philtra of beach and saturnine
clouds arched backwards in disbelief.
And the mayflies who swarm in November
with all their ephemeral grandeur to die
in millions at the behest of light, the geckos
stationed on living room walls, cramming
fistfuls of wings in their maws. Notice
how hardly anyone mentions the word
death, even though the fridge leaks
and the sheets have been damp for weeks.
And in this helter-skelter multitude
of gray-greenness, notice how even the rain
begins to feel fatigued. The roads and sewers
have nowhere to go, and like old-fashioned pursuers
they wander and spill their babbling hearts
to electrical poles and creatures with ears.
And what happens later, you might ask,
after we’ve moved to a place of shelter,
when the cracks in the earth have reappeared?
We dream of wet, of course, of being submerged
in millet stalks, of webbed toes and stalled
clocks and eels in the mouth of a heron.
We forget how unforgivably those old poems
led us to believe that men were mountains,
that the beautiful could never remain
heartbroken, that when the rains arrive
we should be delighted to be taken
in drowning, in devotion.

At The Rodin Museum

Rilke is following me everywhere
With his tailor-made suits
And vegetarian smile.

He says because I’m young,
I’m always beginning,
And cannot know love.

He sees how I’m a giant piece
Of glass again, trying
To catch the sun

In remote corners of rooms,
Mountain tops, uncertain
Places of light.

He speaks of the cruelty
Of hospitals, the stillness
Of cathedrals,

Takes me through bodies
And arms and legs
Of such extravagant size,

The ancient sky burrows in
With all the dead words
We carry and cannot use.

He holds up mirrors
From which our reflections fall —
Half-battered existences,

Where we lose ourselves
For the sake of the other,
And the others still to come.

Turning Into Men Again

This morning men are returning to the world,
Waiting on the sides of blackened pavements
For a rickshaw to carry them away
On the sharp pins and soles of their dancing feet.

They must go to the houses of their childhoods
To be soothed. They must wait for the wheels
To appear from the thin arm of road.
They must catch the crack in the sky

Where the light shifts from light to dark
To light again, like the body in the first stages of love;
Angering, heightening, spreading:
Bent knees, bent breath.

Now they are moving, changing colours.
Women are standing at the thresholds of doors
Holding jars of oil, buckets of hot water and salt,
Calamine, crushed mint and drink.

Some crawl into their mother’s laps,
Collapse against the heavy bosoms of old nannies,
Search for the girl who climbed with them
To the tin roof for the first time.

Inside, in the shadows of pillars,
Fathers and grandfathers are stepping down
From picture frames with secrets on their lips,
Calling the lost in from their voyages.

Lament —I

When I see the houses in this city,
the electric gates and uniformed men
employed to guard the riches of the rich,
the gilded columns and gardens,
the boats on water, I wonder,
how to describe my home to you:
the short, mud walls,
the whispering roof, the veranda
on which my whole family
used to spread sheets and sleep.

The year I came to find work in the city,
my wife painted our house white
so it would be brighter than the neighbours’.
I beat her for her foolishness.
The children are hungry, I said,
the cow is old,
the money collector is after my blood,
and you steal like a magpie—
half a month’s wage—to decorate
your nest like a shiny jewel?

The monsoon finally arrived the year I left,
dripped through the thatch,
peeled paint off the walls.
The wells grew full and overflowed.
The farmers rejoiced in the fields.
My son sat with his mouth open
catching drops of water like a frog.
My wife clung to the walls and wept.

When I fall asleep on the pavements
in this city, I try to imagine my wife’s skin
against mine, the kohl in her eyes,
the white walls, the whole village sky
bearing down upon us
with all the weight of the stars.
I think of returning to that life,
but mostly I try to remember
how the world was once.
I want to open my mouth like my son,
and swallow things whole—
feel water filling all the voids,
until I am shaped back into existence.

The Immigrant’s Song

Let us not speak of those days
when coffee beans filled the morning
with hope, when our mothers’ headscarves
hung like white flags on washing lines.
Let us not speak of the long arms of sky
that used to cradle us at dusk.
And the baobabs—let us not trace
the shape of their leaves in our dreams,
or yearn for the noise of those nameless birds
that sang and died in the church’s eaves.
Let us not speak of men,
stolen from their beds at night.
Let us not say the word
disappeared.
Let us not remember the first smell of rain.
Instead, let us speak of our lives now—
the gates and bridges and stores.
And when we break bread
in cafés and at kitchen tables
with our new brothers,
let us not burden them with stories
of war or abandonment.
Let us not name our old friends
who are unravelling like fairy tales
in the forests of the dead.
Naming them will not bring them back.
Let us stay here, and wait for the future
to arrive, for grandchildren to speak
in forked tongues about the country
we once came from.
Tell us about it, they might ask.
And you might consider telling them
of the sky and the coffee beans,
the small white houses and dusty streets.
You might set your memory afloat
like a paper boat down a river.
You might pray that the paper
whispers your story to the water,
that the water sings it to the trees,
that the trees howl and howl
it to the leaves. If you keep still
and do not speak, you might hear
your whole life fill the world
until the wind is the only word.

Undertwo

I.
I hold my husband in plastic bags.
He’s whispering like a soft, worn thing,
dropp me here, dropp me gently.

Everything is terribly light — incense,
Ash, the thinness of his voice falling
Into waves, disappearing.

II.

The sea picks up my life,
Empties it across itself.
I see it spilling over, dissolving.
Here are the forgotten parts —
A pink night sky, broken bangles,
A fisherman walking away from the light.

There you are, held up with wind and sails.
If you would turn, you would hear me say,
Come back, my arms ache from all the carrying.
Underneath, you’re lost in a place
Where everything is scraped together
And nothing is thrown back.

You sink. Colours dissolve.
You move hair from your forehead,
Salt from your eyes. You’re left with greys —
Calling out to me, bubbles
Instead of words. It is a silent death:
One I feel before it happens.

III.

Was there a child then? The child I could not have?
With hair that shakes and shines as though a sun
Were gleaming under her roots. I want to stroke her.

Lean over and touch her. Come here, let me hold you.
I want only daughters — a thick rope of black
Around her neck. She calls; the beginning of your name.

If I were really a mother, I would do it quick
And painless, out of love. Take the hair —
Twist, yank, drop; tilt her over like a bag of sand.

It would be done then. There would be less
To clean up. She will never be like me.
The death of her child will kill her.

IV.

If you must collect pictures, take them
When I’m looking away. Here’s a beach again —
The nets spread on the sand drying,
A fish in the corner slapping its tail.

Nothing matters then,
We’ll meet when we’re warm and dry.
Take this picture — my shoulders, the bone,
The shine, the criss-cross of white straps.

V.

I’m eight-years-old, running into the sea.
Run in, my mother says, Go on then like a naked girl.
Nobody cares, nobody’s watching.

The sea pulls me in around the ankles,
Grabs the sand from underneath, shows me
A glimpse of my life, what it will be like later.

It was all calm once, long ago, a teardropp
Between apartment buildings. But here in my life;
Hiss hiss. This one is no good.

This one doesn’t love you.
This one doesn’t know what you need.
Leave, let go, stop.

The frothy fingers at my throat,
The voice pouring into me,
A terrace of vanishing blue.

You will leave this one.
You will leave this place.
For a while you will know nothing.

The Art of Losing

It begins with the death
of the childhood pet –
the dog who refuses to eat
for days, the bird or fish
found sideways, dead.
And you think the hole
in the universe,
caused by the emission
of your grief, is so deep
it will never be rectified.
But it’s only the start
of an endless litany
of betrayals:
the cruelty of school,
your first bastard boyfriend,
the neighbour’s son
going slowly mad.
You catch hold of losing,
and suddenly, it’s everywhere –
the beggars in the street,
the ravage of a distant war
in your sleep.
And when grandfather
hobbles up to the commode
to relieve himself like a girl
without bothering to shut
the door, you begin to realize
what it means to exist
in a world without.
People around you grow old
and die, and it’s explained
as a kind of going away –
to God, or rot, or to return
as an ant. And once again,
you’re expected to be calm
about the fact that you’ll never see
the dead again,
never hear them enter a room
or leave it,
never have them touch
the soft parting of your hair.
Let it be, your parents advise:
it’s nothing.
Wait till your favourite aunt
keels over in a shopping mall,
or the only boy you loved
drives off a cliff and survives,
but will never walk again.
That’ll really do you in,
make you want to slit your wrists
(in a metaphorical way, of course,
because you’re strong and know
that life is about surviving these things).
And almost all of it might
be bearable if it would just end
at this. But one day your parents
will sneak into the garden
to stand under the stars,
and fade, like the lawn,
into a mossy kind of grey.
And you must let them.
Not just that.
You must let them pass
into that wilderness
and understand that soon,
you’ll be called aside
to put away your paper wings,
to fall into that same oblivion
with nothing.
As if it were nothing.

Aj, Age 15

I once chased my brother
Down to the edge of the sea.
We ran past sheets and towels
Spread like sky on the beach,
Between strips of cloth,
Drying chilli and tamarind.
Past slums shackled to the shore –
A maze of thatch roofs and cowdung
Caked walls. And then I lost him,
Searched loudly for him, called his name.
Said, Come out or else –
All the usual tricks.

A woman cleaning rice on her knees
In a blouse done up with safety pins
Pointed to a hut with a single weary finger –
Where he was hiding with a water buffalo.
The low blue lights of the television flickering.
He was inside, laughing so hard,
Shaking his head back and forth,
I thought the joy would come tearing out from him.
Afterwards, we sat in something like silence –
His rare chubby hand in mine,
Listening to the breath of living water.

The River of Girls

i.m. India’s missing girls
This is not really myth or secret.

This murmur in the mouth
of the mountain where the sound
of rain is born. This surging
past pilgrim town and village well.
This coin-thin vagina
and acid stain of bone.
This doctor with his rusty tools,
this street cleaner, this mother
laying down the bloody offerings
of birth. This is not the cry
of a beginning, or a river
buried in the bowels of the earth.
This is the sound of ten million girls
singing of a time in the universe
when they were born with tigers
breathing between their thighs;
when they set out for battle
with all three eyes on fire,
their golden breasts held high
like weapons to the sky.

Love In Carlisle

Girls were crying yesterday in their ball gowns;
Holding each other up like poles of wilted beanstalks.
I wanted to carry them into the streets.
To the unused railroad track in the middle of town,
Unwrap the past and lay before them
A fragile girl I once knew, walking toward love
In a thin, determined way. That she should live here too —
In this town of carefully-guarded houses
And old ladies in rocking chairs
In fake pearls and printed button-down dresses.

Girls are crying in their ball gowns and boys
Are holding them up and taking them to the streets,
To warehouses or backs of deserted pick-up trucks.
A troubadour waits on a wooden porch
For the faultless girl, to speak her name,
Undress her, give noise to her that is new and violent.
The old ladies form a line and hold photographs
Against their faces where the skin used to be unbroken.
They step out from their dresses and kick off their shoes,
Cross over the barren tracks in their solitary dance.

Contract

Dear Reader,
I agree to turn my skin inside out,
to reinvent every lost word, to burnish,
to steal, to do what I must
in order to singe your lungs.
I will forgo happiness
stab myself repeatedly,
and lower my head into countless ovens.
I will fade backwards into the future
and tell you what I see.
If it is bleak, I will lie
so that you may live
seized with wonder.
If it is miraculous I will
send messages in your dreams,
and they will flicker
as a silvered cottage in the woods,
choked with vines of moonflower.
Don’t kill me, Reader.
This neck has been working for years
to harden itself against the axe.
This body, meagre as it is,
has lost so many limbs to wars, so many
eyes and hearts to romance. But love me,
and I will follow you everywhere –
to the dusty corners of childhood,
to every downfall and resurrection.
Till your skin becomes my skin.
Let us be twins, our blood
thumping after each other
like thunder and lightning.
And when you put your soft head
down to rest, dear Reader,
I promise to always be there,
humming in the dungeons
of your auditory canals—
an immortal mosquito,
hastening you towards fury,
towards incandescence.