To Live in Half-inch Homes: Loss and Nostalgia in Agha Shahid Ali’s Poems

Shailen Mishra, SRPR Blog Editor

Shailen’s series “Space in Culture” explores the motif of space in the works of Indian poets and poetry.

The late Indian (or Indian-American) poet Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry collection The Half-inch Himalayas is divided into four sections. Each section roughly corresponds to a particular aspect of the poet’s life, which in turn maps to a particular geographic location or dislocation. Section one discusses stories of parents, the ancestor who “comes from Kandahar…and claim[s] descent from the holy prophet [Muhammad],” the grandmother, and the hedonist grandfather. At the same time, it is quite likely that most of the poems in this section are imagined in Kashmir, Ali’s home state in India. Section two often has Delhi as its location and perhaps refers to when Ali lived in that city. In section three, the location of the poems shifts to US. These poems speak of an immigrant’s experience. The three sections so far follow the poet’s migratory arc: from Kashmir to Delhi to Pennsylvania. The fourth and the last section of the collection captures most feverishly the torment of homesickness and dislocation that accompanies an immigrant. As far as the geographical setting of this section is concerned it can be best described as a place away from home. In all the four sections, the evocation of a specific location coincides with an intense longing to revisit the lost past.  

The very first poem of the collection, which even precedes the four sections, talks of a postcard that arrives from Kashmir and that depicts the Himalayas. Stirred by homesickness, Ali writes: “This is home. And this is the closest / I’ll ever be to home…” Ali was not barred from Kashmir or India. He could have visited there any time if the necessity arose. Yet, his lamentation seems to suggest that the chance of returning home and to its scenery are lost forever. Even if he returns, he writes:

the colors won’t be so brilliant,
the Jhelum’s waters so clean,
so ultramarine. My love
so overexposed.

And my memory, will be a little
out of focus, in it
a giant negative, black
and white, and still undeveloped.

These metaphors of photography err to the side of failing to capture accurately and memorialize the original (read “home”), which is lost forever to an immigrant. To pine for the original and to fail in the attempt to reconstruct it are the theme of Ali’s collection. To talk of the original is also to talk of origin, the source, framed in a particular time and space. When the source disappears or becomes inaccessible, much effort and pain go into recovering it by relying on some sort of mediation. The nature of mediation could be a photograph, dream, memory, or words, but they are ill-fated to fall short. Since approximation and surrogacy can never replace the original, the loss becomes permanent.

In the poem “Dacca Gauzes” from section one, the grandmother rues about the vanished craft of Dacca gauzes and the rarity of such fine fabric:

my grandmother just says
how the muslins of today
seem so coarse and that only

in autumn, should one wake up
at dawn to pray, can one
feel that same texture again.

One morning, she says, the air
was dew-starched: she pulled
it absently through her ring.

Substituting moist air for fabric may seem futile. But it is the close approximation to the original now extinct. Imagination is the mediation the grandmother has to rely on even if it means being pathetically tricked by it.

Change the mode of mediation from imagination to poetry, the result is still the same. The object of longing cannot be reclaimed. In the poem “After Seeing Kozintsev’s King Lear in Delhi,” the narrator mourns over the lost splendor of Delhi’s ancient regal bazaar whose ruins are now appropriated for begging and hawking. The fall reminds the narrator of the last Mughal emperor of Delhi, Bahadur Shah Zafar, who, an accomplished Urdu poet, wrote from the exile about his yearning to return to his capital city:

“Unfortunate Zafar
spent half his life in hope,
the other half waiting.
He begs for two yards of Delhi for burial.”

He was exiled to Burma, buried in Rangoon.

In section three, somewhere in US, vacating an apartment means saying farewell to the time spent there. The separation is renditioned as erasing the material possession and the footprints of memory. When the cleaning crew arrives to clean the apartment and get it ready for the next tenant:

They burn my posters
(Indian and Heaven in flames),

whitewash my voice stains,

make everything new,
clean as Death.

There is no scope of rebirth here. Loss is reduced to just remains or “tombstones.” The last section of the book, the most haunting and dreamy, is devoted to the exile’s homesickness. Often times the narrator is split into two entities. The other half of the narrator that exists outside of him is an ideal entity, who is more religious, a caring neighbor, and a better friend. The ideal entity, an illusion, a phantom of dreams, fixes the slights in the narrator’s duties. It’s as if the narrator assigns his original role (of a close-by son, friend, and neighbor who never leaves home) to this alter ego through the mediation of dream. But then dreams have their own cruel logic, their own punishing endings. The poem “I Dream It Is Afternoon When I Return to Delhi” is a dream within a dream. The narrator dreams of returning to Delhi and following an old routine of taking the city bus to watch a movie with a friend. The tantalizing and slippery nature of dreams threaten to betray the narrator’s “return” until the fantasy finally implodes with the narrator being ejected from the movie hall for holding a “ten years old” ticket. The original dream still does not end though:

Once again my hands are empty.
I am waiting, along, at Purana Qila.
Bus after empty bus is not stopping.
Suddenly, beggar women with children
are everywhere, offering
me money, weeping for me.

To be pitied by beggars and to be offered money by them: how poor you have to be? The poverty here is of rootedness. To have not met an old friend for ten years is sad in itself but what makes it tragic is to be caught in a circuitous trap of trying to relive those memories and failing in the attempt. This wistful undertaking to reproduce the richness of the original is a nagging habit, even more so for an immigrant. The habit cannot be given up despite its painful futility. Ali describes the cruelty of such repetitious behavior this way in the poem “Houses”:

The man who buries his house in the sand
and digs it up again, each evening,
learns to put it together quickly

and just as quickly to take it apart.

How can a house like this be sturdy, lasting, and secure? Or why the necessity even exists to rebuild it each time? And then to take it apart? Ali’s poems are a requiem for things no longer available, separated by time and space. Yet, that does not stop the seekers from trying to reproduce the lost originals through an imperfect medium riddled with inadequacies, artificiality, pastiche, limitations, and absurdity.

Shailen Mishra

Shailen Mishra is a book hopper, story whore, poetry pariah, novelist, three times failed guitar learner, and an aspiring didgeridoo player. He holds a Ph.D. from Illinois State University and an MFA from North Carolina State University. In his spare time, he edits SRPR’s blog and manages its website.

The SRPR Lucia Getsi Reading Series 2017

Announcement: The Spoon River Poetry Review (SRPR), published through the Illinois State University Publications Unit, announces its annual reading event. The SRPR Lucia Getsi Reading Series will take place on Thursday, April 6, 2017 at the historic Ewing Manor in Bloomington. Named for SRPR’s long-time editor and benefactor, Lucia Getsi, the series is co-sponsored by ISU’s Creative Writing Program, and ISU’s Department of English. The event features readings by award-winning SRPR poets, followed by a reception with wine and appetizers. This year’s featured poets include the 2016 SRPR Editors’ Prize Winner, Nancy Hewitt, and several others. Save the date, spread the word, and bring a friend! Free and open to the public. Donations welcome, but not required. For more information about this event or accommodations, contact SRPR at contact@srpr.org.

Here’s the link to the Facebook event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/1240050259406903/

On Jesse Nissim’s Where They Would Never Be Invited

Jessica Cuello, Guest Contributor

Book Review: Where They Would Never Be Invited by Jesse Nissim
San Francisco, CA: Black Radish Books, 2016. 56 pages. $17.00.

When I was a little girl—and even now—I stared into the windows of houses. Inside other houses was ideal love and emotional fulfillment. Even my dreams were filled with houses where I wandered, searching for my own psyche. Jesse Nissim’s Where They Would Never Be Invited literally peers into one of our most primal needs: the desire for home.

The book is divided into three long poems: All Entrances, Open House, and Nesting Instinct, and in them, Nissim evokes an old idea—that the reason we linger over architecture and objects in the first place is because we project ourselves onto them. The poems exude loneliness, and often a heart-wrenching emptiness, while depicting the most vulnerable parts of people without the presence of people.

In a strange and luminous way, the physical elements of the house overpower the human. The humans remain at a distance, seeking intimacy and safety via a home’s interior: “Late at night I covet the warmest / feeling the tile anticipates. / I want an easy refuge I can touch / I seek freezers fully stocked.”

Yet Nissim reminds the reader that houses fail to protect. The material world is just as ephemeral and even more fragile than our intangible longings. It too can be sold to us and taken from us. It too can offer to fulfill our desires and leave us empty. So too can it fail to protect us from the elements:

A tornado opened a surprise
in the vicinity of nestled children.
No coastline grumbled a response.
A schoolhouse whose nameplates
disappeared when all the windows
lifted up. Signs and critics and
replicas rushed in like water views
skewered on unsuspecting buildings.
Yes, I have heard of the sea. Have you
heard it filling with debris?

Nissim dismantles the brick and mortar of homes and reveals them to be thinly disguised dreams. Whatever we hope to control by living within a home, whatever we hope to preserve, is no safer than anything else. In poem one, “All Entrances,” she writes:

I build the house eternally                            a mechanical enclosure
with sharply bolted doors.                           Translucent delusions

Not only does Nissim tear apart the market lie and the promises of advertisers, she reveals that home ownership is part of a larger American mythology. Nissim writes, “I want to suggest a bigger more opulent guilt / about the subject. The dream—no longer / a new-placed “stable” star—now has / beautiful cost-lines and cranky stains.” In emotionally charged images, Nissim shows how “We participate in the human nourishment” and have ingested the images of domesticity and intimacy from the housing market. She writes:

Years boxed for reassembly
to know covetous lineage
brick by brick and the gilded
furniture. Vast near the coast
of cavernous spaces, sometimes
there is a tapestried doorway
covering God’s money.

The poems draw not only on our desires—what we wish houses would do for us—but on the economic realities of the 2008 housing market crash. Nissim states in her acknowledgements that she “started this book amidst the economic recession and the resulting housing crisis of 2008.”

Lines like “The narcissistic wound / humiliated our walls. / We were a bad reputation,” encapsulate how houses conflate our emotional desires with materialism.

Home becomes a physical reminder of human failure: “Throughout my displacement my dreams / have become ordinary. The wish language / of desire is unmet…”

The language underscores the resulting demoralization and fear connected to losing one’s home. If we are homeless are we also nameless? Are we without family? Are we a loser as a father? As a mother? Homes are falsely tied to our identity and value:

Despite wide lawns a house is symptomatically
nameless. Part deserted or debased, a few paces
ahead a glorified symmetry. A father.
His enchantment. His blank step before him.

Part of the beauty in this book is in the depiction of the objects themselves; Nissim captures the spookiness of an object without an owner, and the poems themselves are endowed with the kind of charge that objects deeply associated with humans exude. The poems are both tender and electric. Houses represent an essential desire for safety—for arrival at a place free from fear—and Nissim demonstrates that it is not possible, that this hope has been made impossible. It is a lie that wounds those who believe in it. Nissim looks sympathetically at the human cost of that lie and, in fact, lays a partial groundwork for our current historical moment post-election.

Jessica Cuello

Jessica Cuello is the author of Pricking (Tiger Bark Press, 2016) and Hunt, which was selected as the winner of The 2016 Washington Prize from The Word Works. She is also the author of three chapbooks and a recipient of The New Letters Poetry Prize, a Saltonstall Fellowship, and The Decker Award for outstanding teaching.

Meditations on Poetry, Leaving, and Fleshy, Porous Communities

Emily Ronay Johnston, SRPR Managing Editor

Emily Johnston’s series “Traumatic Emplacement” explores poetics of emplacement, and the simultaneity of dislocation and enmeshment in traumatic poetry.

I have just left Illinois—Spoon River’s homeland, my home of the last six years, a land of stalky grasses shuffling together the demons that have followed me from previous homelands of Massachusetts, Vermont, New York, California, Montana, Alaska, Nevada—for a new job in Delaware. I am already grieving the loss of a place that has nurtured my very best self—one that isn’t really “self” at all, but a humming of connections, of delicious community. The Midwest has allowed me to experience my demons not as disparate embodiments of inevitable torment that amount to an impossible wall of emotional ick, but as a congealed mass of stories that the mind compartmentalizes, for purposes of survival, and that I can, if I choose, rupture.

As the now-congealed mass of narratives that is my mind skitters across all of the tasks and excitements and sadnesses that come along with moving, I return to these lines from Bruce Bond’s essay, “The New in the News: Poetry, Authenticity, and the Historical Imagination,” featured in the current issue of SRPR: “Poems thrive on the new in the old, the old in the new, how each lies embedded in the other in dissonant dialogue” (p. 109).

While Bond is discussing the nature of poetry here, his words also express the dissonance of change, movement, birth, and death that are intrinsic to the human condition. Just as poems “thrive” on blending the new and the old, humans also “thrive” on the endless task of dissolving what no longer serves us and gathering close what does—even (and perhaps, especially) when we cannot fathom the connections between the two. How can we, when change inevitably and consistently arrives, keep our demons from scattering back into their traumatized disconnectedness where they fester and rewound? How can we see the past anew? How can we make the unknown familiar? How can we, indeed, thrive on our embeddedness?

Leaving is a process of returning to what matters, a coming undone, a shapeshift into some new body—a fleshy animal body, an earth body, a body of water, a mass of enmeshed bodies no longer resembling their disparate parts, having, together, become something entirely new. For many writers (and certainly for me), what matters, what moves our work beyond ourselves, is our relationship with “community.” Art, at its core, is a momentary materialization of community.

Case in point: The Word Bombing Reading Series. Curated by a collective of Central Illinois-based writers, past and present—Jordan Cox, Alan Lin, Evan Nave, Xuxa Rodriguez, Eric Longfellow, Brian Hedgepeth, Jeffrey Higgins, Michael Wollitz, and Laurel Perez—Word Bombing enacts the very momentary materialization of community that is art, over and over again (at least once every season). Held in an old homeless shelter-turned-art-gallery now known as ComeTogetherSpace, Word Bombing is a celebration of language, performance, and ultimately, of community. As local writers take the stage to perform 3-5 minute “word bombings”—from poems and short works of fiction and nonfiction, to improvised explorations in sound—Word Bombers “promote positive verbal vibrations” and “send them out” to the Bloomington-Normal, Illinois community and beyond (as founders Evan Nave, Jordan Cox, and Alan Lin explain).

“The general openness to experience and trust of one another” that is Word Bombing’s core philosophy has allowed many writers to experience a profound sense of belonging, says recent Word Bombing Curator, Jeffrey Higgins. For 35 year-old Jeff, Word Bombing was “the first time” he felt part of a community of his own choosing.

Emboldened by this sense of connectedness, Jeff initiated The Illinois House Project, a poetry-based multimedia documentary of sorts that attempts to understand the past and its relation to the material present, to really inspect what has come before (for examples of how this project is currently materializing, see Things Are Tough All Over, published by PRESS 254, and Jeffrey’s current video projects, described on his GoFundMe page). The Illinois House Project is “an archaeology of my own past, whatever that amounts to,” Jeff says.

Yet as The Illinois House Project has unfolded, the inadequacy of “personal experience” becomes glaringly obvious. “I am only one gnome/node/note (you pick) in a whole field of gnomes/nodes/notes,” Jeff says. In allowing for experimentation, ComeTogetherSpace has given many like me, like Jeffrey, permission to delve into our pasts, to not quite know what we’re doing as we’re doing it, and to do it anyway.

How can I leave Word Bombing behind? Central Illinois? The so many people I have loved and still love there? How can I, by leaving, return to what matters? I can’t participate regularly anymore in the Word Bombing experience of coming together in random chairs (everything from your average metal folding chair, to cozy velvet antique chairs and old wooden church pews), in a wide open space with a faux wall-fan at the front and a spacious wooden stage—itself, an enactment of community, of art. I cannot use the bathrooms reminiscent of elementary school, peruse the upstairs gallery space, or graze at the table of hodgepodge snacks (whatever Word Bombing’s minimal budget allows).

Regular visits. Phone calls. Skype sessions. Donating to Jeffrey’s current filmmaking project on Route 66, part of the larger Illinois House Project. Donating to ComeTogetherSpace via GoFundMe to help keep their doors open, after the City of Bloomington required them to install an expensive new sprinkler system. Money is communal.

Practice, cultivate what Illinois has offered me: the desire, the wherewithal, to rupture those thoughts and feelings that have long-provided an illusion of separateness. We all leave, only to come together again in some new, unforeseen way. We are all, constantly, arriving.

Emily R. Johnston

Emily is from Boston, San Francisco, Fairbanks, Alaska, and Central Illinois. Holding a Ph.D. in English Studies and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing/Poetry, her work emerges at the intersections of writing studies, social justice pedagogy, trauma theory, film theory, and narrativity. In particular, she researches and publishes on students’ literacy learning in relation to issues of sexualized trauma. She has taught courses in academic writing, public writing, creative writing, gender studies, literature and film, and English as a Second Language. Emily is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Writing Pedagogy at The University of Delaware, and Managing Editor of Spoon River Poetry Review (SRPR).

The Appositional Project: Travis Macdonald’s “Concrete Jungle” and the Ethical Possibilities of Conceptual Poetry

Ryan Clark, Series Contributor

Ryan Clark’s series “The Appositional Project” examines poetry that makes use of appropriative writing methods (such as cut-up, erasure, and homophonic translation) to investigate intersections of place and domination/loss.

Over the last few years, there have been many who have protested against the self-declared “a-ethical” work of Conceptual poets like Kenneth Goldsmith, who in particular seems to relish stirring up controversy with his belief that no text is too sacred to manipulate for the purpose of creating art. Such poets tend to claim that poetry should not be held to any moral standard, that poets should focus solely on creating art rather than become bogged down by concerns over ethics. Without giving this perspective too much credence, however, I want to focus on a work of highly conceptual poetry which does not hesitate to engage questions of morality, and whose author displays consideration for how readers might be moved to be more mindful of their interaction with the various ecosystems they encounter.

Travis Macdonald’s “Concrete Jungle” is a series of concrete poems which take the shape of various American states, creating a sort of map in which instead of one of the standard colors shading bordered areas (pink, orange, light green, etc.) the land mass is filled in with the names of invasive plant species currently found in the state. Rather than standing as an a-ethical art piece encouraging us to think about the meanings and connections behind the poem and its composition, “Concrete Jungle” asks us to think as moral beings about how ecologies of place have become dangerously disrupted. These poems not only push for us to recognize, but to be considerate of our interactions with our ecological surroundings. This alternate mapping asks us to consider our relationship with the environment, particularly relating to the concept of borders and how we move through them.

Speaking about his project in a September 13, 2013 issue of the online literary magazine The Clearing, Macdonald writes:

As a nation of immigrants whose collective identity (our very American-ness) has often defined itself in opposition to a shifting other (most recently those of Hispanic heritage) we Americans tend to be inordinately preoccupied with ideas of border and origin. The fact of the matter is, these plant species did not arrive here by accident. They were brought here, in many cases very deliberately, by our colonist/immigrant ancestors. We label them invasive in order to establish their otherness, their opposition to our idea of a “pure” or “natural” ecosystem. And yet, by doing so, we also seem to be disavowing our own agency in the process, our own invasive nature. We seem to say: “Look, we are working hard to keep these evil invaders in check.” In this way we conveniently gloss over the fact that we ourselves are the invaders responsible for their presence in the first place.

Here is where “Concrete Jungle” highlights the ethical strength of Conceptual Poetry: such work pushes us to think about the world around us and to consider how we might adopt more ethical and responsible ways of being. In this case, we are confronted with a mapping of the ecological threat of invasive plant species, often brought to new ecosystems through human carelessness. Further, this project questions the ideas at work behind native/invasive, man-made borders, and our nation’s status as one founded by immigrants. How many generations must pass before human immigrants become native? How many generations of Russian knapweed? If Ohwi kudzu spreads freely across demarcated lines on a map, then what is a border?

This is a work that is highly conscious of and dependent upon borders. The white space is empty: NOT-Texas, NOT-Iowa; as if there is no possibility of extension, no crossing of lines. We lift this state (or county, or nation) out of the earth as a separate entity from the land that it holds (and that is held away from it). And yet what invasive species so frequently remind us is that lines on a map fail to contain the life which moves as it will (or as we bring it) across continuous stretches of land. Macdonald’s arrangement of the names of invasive species into neatly bordered regions reminds us that only in language can we seek to establish limits on the natural world.

When we replace topography with language (though topographical markings or shading on a map is another kind of language) we encounter space differently. The names of these invasive plant species reflect human interaction, human stories. The example of “itch-grass” in Texas connects the plant to bodily sensation, for instance, while Iowa’s “Queen Anne’s Lace” reflects the flowering plant’s immigration from Europe and particularly the role of the British monarchy in the colonization of what was to become the United States. The idea that a map displays geographic location also becomes disrupted. As it turns out, I have lived in (or will soon have lived in) each state represented in the excerpt from “Concrete Jungle” that was published in The Clearing. If we approximate locations in these poetic mappings, I have lived (in chronological order) in Brazilian peppertree, bindweed, spotted knapweed, Leafy Spurge, and velvetleaf. My grandmother is buried in bull thistle, while my grandfather lives in orange hawkweed.

“Concrete Jungle” is a selective mapping, but then again so is the mapping of human settlements, highways, and even national parks. To what are we paying attention? Here, our attention is being asked of us. Consider our invasiveness, and our complicity with invasiveness. See the arbitrariness with which we choose what or whom is native or invasive. This is a deeply moral question, one which constantly determines how much we are willing to damage our various ecosystems and communities. Particularly when so much language surrounding us has lately become saturated with messages of divisiveness, it is also deeply important.

Ryan Clark

Ryan Clark has dedicated years of his life to homophonic translation and is particularly interested in the reparative potential of appropriative writing, including how poetry responds to violence and subjugation, symbolic and otherwise. His poetry has appeared in Smoking Glue Gun, Tenderloin, Seven Corners, and Fact-Simile, and he also has an essay about teaching homophonic translation forthcoming from Something on Paper. He currently teaches composition at Savannah State University.

Reminder of SRPR’s Annual Lucia Getsi Reading

Thursday, April 21st 7-9 PM
Ewing Manor, Bloomington

SRPR announces the fourth annual reading event in the Lucia Getsi Reading Series, which will take place on Thursday, April 21st, 7-10 PM, at the historic Ewing Manor in Bloomington. This event features readings by SRPR poets, and is followed by a reception with FREE wine and appetizers! The series is named for SRPR’s long-time editor and benefactor, Lucia Getsi, and is co-sponsored by WGLT’s Poetry Radio, ISU’s Creative Writing Program, and ISU’s Department of English. For more information about the event or accommodations, contact SRPR at contact@srpr.org or editors@srpr.org. FREE & OPEN TO THE PUBLIC! Donations are welcome, but not required. Spread the word, and bring a friend! Featured poets include Joanne Diaz, Roger Reeves, and the 2015 Editors’ Prize Winner, Julie Marie Wade.

Frogger’s Existential Crisis

Adrienne Dodt, Series Contributor

Adrienne’s series “Digital Landscapes” is about navigating hypertext.

Basho’s Frogger by Neil Hennessy is a mash-up of a famous haiku by Basho and the arcade game Frogger. The Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) has preserved Basho’s Frogger, originally hosted on the now-defunct Prize Budget For Boys website.

Here is one translation of Basho’s poem by Robert Hass¹:

The old pond–
a frog jumps in,
sound of water.

Here is a more direct, experiential version by Dom Sylvester Houédard²:

Frog
pond
plop

Basho’s Frogger is set up like the original game with one exception: there is nothing in the first lane of the river. No turtles, no logs, only water. Therefore, the frog will always jump in the river and die. This, like Basho’s poem, is about impermanence– wabi sabi. Basho wrote about the impermanence of silence. Movement is an inevitability of life. Hennessy’s version makes the inverse point: movement (life) is impermanent because it is interrupted by the stillness of death.

And the world is indifferent to death. The river keeps flowing. The grass is still green. Some mysterious person keeps putting logs in the river. Neither Nature nor Progress is affected by the three frogs who jump. This is a metaphor for our insignificance in both the natural world and in society. One person makes little difference on the scale of the universe and of history.

There are three frogs, and they will all die. This is a metaphor for life. No matter how many chances you get, no matter how you are positioned, no matter how clever or lucky you are, you will die. Even the second and third frogs, seeing the fate of their predecessor, have no recourse but to make the same decision. The frog can move up or down the bank, but the result is the same. Whether from an inherent desire to jump (perhaps the vertiginous urge to peer closer into the abyss) or from folly, or from the fact that its life and world are mere simulations in a video game, the frog is destined to die tragically. We are similarly doomed. The condition of humanity is mortality. All of us must jump into the river.

plop
plop
plop

Footnotes:

¹Hass, Robert. The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa.

²Houédard, Dom Sylvester. The Basho Variations. ed. Steve McCaffery.

Adrienne Dodt

Adrienne Dodt is a poet and essayist. Adrienne’s work can be found in The Body Electric anthology and Fact-Simile, Apothecary, Con/Crescent, and Monkey Puzzle magazines. Ze is a member of The Next Objectivists poetry collective in Chicago. Ze was the Poetry Editor for Bombay Gin magazine in 2008-2009, and ze edited the Next Objectivists’ chapbook Collective Unconsciousnesses in 2011. Adrienne currently teaches English at City Colleges of Chicago.

A Night of Poetry & Community: The SRPR Lucia Getsi Reading Series 2016

Thursday, April 21st  7-9PM
Ewing Manor, Bloomington
Spoon River Poetry Review (SRPR), published through the Illinois State University Publications Unit, announces the fourth annual reading event in the SRPR Lucia Getsi Reading Series, which will take place on Thursday, April 21st, 7-10PM, at the historic Ewing Manor in Bloomington. This event features readings by SRPR poets, and is followed by a reception with FREE wine and appetizers! The series is named for SRPR’s long-time editor and benefactor, Lucia Getsi, and is co-sponsored by WGLT’s Poetry Radio, ISU’s Creative Writing Program, and ISU’s Department of English. For more information about the event or accommodations, contact SRPR at contact@srpr.org or editors@srpr.org. FREE & OPEN TO THE PUBLIC! Donations are welcome, but not required. Spread the word, and bring a friend! Featured poets include Joanne Diaz, Roger Reeves, and the 2015 Editors’ Prize Winner, Julie Marie Wade.

Higher Than the Four Walls: Domestic Space and Women’s Struggle in Oriya Folksongs

Shailen Mishra, SRPR Blog Editor & Sr. Editorial Assistant

Shailen’s series “Space in Culture” explores the motif of space in the works of Indian poets and poetry.

The modern and urban habitation treats the domestic space like a flatland. There is no strict code of where what should be done. If at all there was such a code at one point, those boundaries are increasingly getting blurred. We eat on our bed. We sleep on the couch in the living room. We take our reading to the toilet. Homework gets done upon the dining table. It looks like we’re enjoying bleeding the utility of one room to another. But the compartmentalization of the domestic space can be highly restrictive and codified. Where and how such restrictions exist are pointed questions, because these restrictions often have an inherent component of circumscribing women’s freedom and movements.

My maternal grandmother, Chandramani Devi, was not allowed to step to the front porch of her own house in the daylight. That’s the social code she had to follow as a married woman who belonged to a respectable household. She was allowed to venture out only on the day of festivities. But even then her errand would be limited to a temple, her face would have to be covered, and she would have to be accompanied by other neighborhood women or her children. When her husband was not in the house, the front door remained locked or uninvitingly ajar. If anyone knocked on the door, then one of her six children would answer the call and act as emissaries, carrying messages back and forth. Under no circumstance, the visitor is allowed to catch a glimpse of Chandramani. That would be scandalous of such proportions that the entire neighborhood would be rocked and gossipy mouths won’t stop chattering. The only way my grandmother circumvented these restrictions and communed with the outside world is through a chink in the doorway. When a marriage procession, political rally, or funeral would pass by, she satiated her curiosity like a spy eavesdropping through a keyhole.

We’re talking of 1950s here and of a pilgrim city called Puri in eastern India. My grandmother’s situation was not an exception. Rather, it was the norm for married women of that time. My grandfather was not abusive or harsh; he was a gentle character instead. He just preferred to follow the society’s code faithfully. Moreover, I am not sure how much my grandmother would have approved of my grandfather’s progressiveness had he decided to lift the spatial restriction upon her.

Another level of arduousness to this whole regressive system came from where and with whom you lived. Chandramani was living in a city at that time and all by herself with her husband and children. Having in-laws in the house, which was highly common back then, would have exacerbated the matter with constant nagging and criticism and even more stringent restrictions of where and how she could move in the house. Secondly, change the urban setting to a rural one, a stricter regimen of mores and propriety would besiege you. Chandramani passed through such a phase earlier in her marital life. Between the age of fifteen (the age she got married) and thirty, she lived with her mother-in-law in a village. During that period my grandfather lived in the city and visited her once a week. Without her husband around, most of young Chandramani’s time was spent raising her children, cohabiting with her brother/sister-in-laws, and most importantly, managing her mother-in-law. From her standpoint, the word “mother-in-law” must have seemed bitterly ironic: less a “mother,” more a “law.” The relationship that my grandmother had with her in-law was not a horror story, which was not so uncommon in those days with young brides getting abused, harassed, neglected, and even killed at the hands of their husband’s family. Chandramani got away with occasional wrapping on the knuckles or wringing of her cheeks. But the fear of upsetting or offending her in-law was constant.

There was one particular ordeal that traumatized my grandmother more than anything else. There was no indoor toilet system at her in-law’s house. Not even a pit latrine. All the excretion business had to be done in open air, either in the field or behind the bush. Chandramani was a city girl. She had the luxury of growing up in a house with a toilet in it. But the rural lifestyle denied her any such convenience or privacy. And even worse was the fact that she had to conclude her sanitational routine before the daybreak so that no villager or neighbor would see her. Under such circumstance, any bowel movement in the daytime must have felt like a witch’s curse. I have heard tales, embarrassing tales, mind you, of how women relieved themselves of nature’s call at the “curfew” hour. Heaven forbid if you’re hit by a bout of diarrhea. I am not going to get into details here. But it suffices to say that hearing stories of women managing toilet emergencies made me realize why sanitation standard was so unfairly stacked against women at that time. It’s not like India has fully ridden itself of the open-air toilet practice for large section of its population. In many cases, people don’t build and use toilets out of cost-saving mindset, obstinate habits, and/or outright insensibility. Women suffer the most in this outdoorsy practice at the expense to their safety and dignity. Men, on the other hand, who have the decision-making power and who find it convenient to relieve themselves in open, would rather build a fortress of restrictions around women to “protect” them than the four walls of a latrine.

What we have here is patriarchy hacking an easy way out of its self-devised conundrum: women cannot be exposed to the outside world; if they must then let it be in the veil of darkness. The above restrictions surrounding the toilet practice and living room usage are examples of how a patriarchal society circumscribes women’s spatial freedom, and designates the conditions for moving within that restricted space. My grandmother’s personal accounts are a window to the experiences of brides and wives of her generation. Imagine being barely fifteen or less and being shipped off to a strange land to be a wife, to be a suitable daughter-in-law, and soon to be a mother. Movement to the outside world forever restricted, forever monitored. Only times you’re allowed to experience the outdoor was through bits and pieces, through the depth of night, through the door crack, or through the second-hand accounts. Indeed, a patriarchy of its own kind, of its own times, and with its own set of peculiarities, trauma, and violence.

There’s a folksong titled “When Will I, Mother, Visit Home” that comes from my grandmother’s hometown, which recounts the sad tale of a new bride, struggling to find her place at her husband’s home. I don’t know if my grandmother knew this song. But this folksong captures the anxiety and homesickness of a young bride, who faces hostility and harassment at the hands of her husband’s family. I first encountered this song in the Oriya (or Odia in contemporary parlance) folksong collection compiled by the prolific Oriya writer and poet Kunjabihari Das. In the preface to the collection, Das mentions this particular song movingly, while pointing out that this song’s theme is part of a broader trend in Oriya folksongs. He writes: “The sad tales of in-law’s house are the lifeblood of most Oriya folksongs. They overflow with the pitiful tears of the bride. Is there a reader whose eyes are not moistened by that torrent?” Indeed, the collection has several songs that speak of young bride’s struggle. There’s no personal testimony here; no written account; no individual stories that bear the name of the sufferer. All we have is these folksongs that have outlived the victims and that bear the imprint of a common struggle, a shared reality, and a fused history.

The folksong “When Will I, Mother, Visit Home” in its original Oriya script is shared below (if the script is not displayed by your browser then click here for the pdf file):

କେଉଁଦିନ ଲୋ ବୋଉ ଘରକୁ ଯିବି

ପହିଲି ପାଳି ଲୋ ବୋଉ ଦେଲୁ ପଠେଇ
ସାଂଗରେ ଯାଇଥିଲେ ସାନ କକେଇ ।
ଅଧ ଲୋ ବାଟଯାଏ ମୋ ପିତା ଗଲେ
ବିଦାୟ ହୁଅ ବୋଲି ମୋତେ କହିଲେ ।
ଧୈର୍ଯ୍ଯ ଲୋ ଫେଡି ତାଂକୁ କହିଲି ମୁହିଁ
ସୁଆରି ଆଗେ ଦେବ ଦୁହାଳ ଗାଈ ।
ଝିଣ୍ଟି ଲୋ କିଣ୍ଟି ମୋ ନଣନ୍ଦ ଥିଲେ
ହାଣ୍ଡି ଲୋ ଶାଳ କଣେ ବସାଇ ଦେଲେ ।
ଯେଦିନୁ ହାଣ୍ଡି ଗୋଟା ଦେଲି ଫୁଟାଇ
ସେଦିନୁ ହାଣ୍ଡିଶାଳୁ ଦେଲେ ଉଠାଇ ।
ଧାନ କୁଟଇ ବୋଉ ପାଣି ଆଣଇ
ଗୁହାଳ ଗୋବର ବୋଉ ମୁହିଁ ପୋଛଇ ।
ଗୁହାଳ କଣେ ବୋଉ ପତ୍ର ପକାନ୍ତି
ଭାତ କଂସିଏ ବୋଉ ବାଢି ଦିଅନ୍ତି ।
ଲୁଣ ନ ଥାଇ ବୋଉ ତୁଣ ନ ଥାଇ
ଗୋବର ଗନ୍ଧରେ ବୋଉ ଖାଇ ନ ପାରଇ ।
ଶୋଇଲା ବେଳକୁ ବୋଉ ଯୋଉଁ ହଟହଟା
ଦୁଆର କିଳିଣ ବୋଉ ମାରନ୍ତି ଗୋଇଠା ।
ଯେଉଁ ହଟହଟା ବୋଉ ମୋଡିଲା ବେଳେ
ପେଲି ଦେଲେ ପଡିଯାଏ ପହଣ୍ଡ ତଳେ ।
ପହଣ୍ଡକ ତଳେ ବସି କାନ୍ଦୁ ଥାଏଁ ମୁହିଁ
ଦାଣ୍ଡବାଡିକି ଚାହିଁଲେ ବୋଉ ମୋର କେହି ନାହିଁ ।
କେଉଁଦିନ ଲୋ ବୋଉ ଘରକୁ ଯିବି?
ହାଣ୍ଡିଶାଳ କଣେ ବସି ସବୁ କହିବି ।

My translation:

When Will I, Mother, Visit Home

You sent me off in the small hours, Mother
Accompanying me was the uncle junior.
My father went till half the way
Farewell to you, he said.
Shedding my patience I voiced this plea
The cow haling the carriage to be milky.
Sharp as bramble was my sister-in-law
She sat me by the kitchen stove.
The day that I broke the pot
From the kitchen was I shoved off.
I pound the grain, Mother, and haul the water
I too clear the cattle manure.
By the cowshed corner, Mother, is my dinner seat
A bowl of rice they serve me for meal.
No salt or dish to go with it
In the stench of dung I can’t eat.
At the bedtime, Mother, so much uproar
I get kicking behind shut door.
During the rubdown they give me hell
I fall down when shoved off the bed.
Sitting on the floor I moan
In the whole house none to call my own.
When will I, Mother, visit home?
Will tell you all by the kitchen stove.

The song begins with the image of the bridal send off. Considering the era, the narrator has most likely not seen her husband yet or the house and the village that she is about to call “home” for the rest of her life. In such a context, no wonder the bridal send off, the parting scene between the mother and daughter, becomes an emotionally eviscerating affair. The young bride is reminded over and over by her mother, aunts, older sisters, and girlfriends that a girl’s fate is to bid farewell to her family. She has to embrace her new home. She has to make the most of it. After all, (so the saying goes) the girl child is always another one’s daughter.

The narrator is not naive. In a subtle way, she registers protest against her father, his lukewarm response, as he accompanies her in the farewell ride only halfway as if trying to fulfill a mere formality. As she gets to her husband’s house, the narrator’s ordeal begins right away. Her skills as a cook are put to test. There is no room for mistake here. So breaking of the clay pot becomes a grave offense, an excuse to cast her off as inept and demean her status in the house. As the song progresses, the space within the house becomes a dominant dimension through which the intensity of the narrator’s agony is registered. Space and emotion inflect one another, and in this reciprocity what illuminates is that the domestic space is not just a designated limit to the women’s autonomy but within it lies a spatial hierarchy, echoing the gradation of marginality.

If we take our narrator to be a typical case of her generation, then she’s most likely not educated. Psychologically conditioned to be a wife and a mother, her sense of self-worth comes from these two identities. In her twin role as a caretaker, to be able to cook is of elevated importance and an intimate way to win approval. So within the domestic space, the kitchen (the ability to manage it) becomes the epicenter of a woman’s agency. The mother-in-law exercises her dominance by granting and limiting access to the kitchen. After all, she was a young and novice daughter-in-law once. When the narrator is barred from the kitchen, her hardship manifolds. She’s relegated to do menial work like pounding grain, fetching water, and cleaning manure, which are reserved for servants. Further, to stigmatize her and underscore her diminished status in the house, she’s assigned a spot by the “cowshed corner” to eat. The punishment thus delivered through the spatial dimension conveys the hierarchical division of space within the household and how it can be instrumental toward spelling marginality and exercising power. For the narrator, her psychological isolation is most pointedly conveyed when she observes: “In the whole house none to call my own.” Her new “home” becomes a nominal entity, bereft of familial empathy and consideration. Not even her husband is a source of comfort here, a character conspicuously missing from the song. The distinction between the narrator’s parental house and her husband’s house is steadfastly upheld in the song. The designation of “home” always applies to the former. So the narrator’s homesickness, her desire to be relieved of her struggle is registered in the final two lines of the song: “When will I, Mother, visit home? / Will tell you all by the kitchen stove.”

The repetition of the title of the song in the penultimate line is a touching plea because of the uncertainty that looms over the question. The narrator’s chance to visit her parental house will be determined by her in-laws and husband, a possibility that may or may not come to fruition any time soon. The last line, though, connotes an intimate space at the narrator’s parent’s house, where she and her mother would have chatted, laughed, quarreled, and shed tears. This memoried corner in the kitchen is now an abode of refuge. There the narrator looks forward to unburdening her sorrow and she’s assured of finding an empathizing ear.

The kitchen’s multiple symbolic import is noteworthy here. On one hand, kitchen is a site of contestation: power is exercised by granting or denying access to it, and moreover, a woman’s self-worth is determined in relation to the kitchen. On the other hand, kitchen can also be a site of learning, bonding, commiseration, and solace. This dichotomous contrast is actually two sides of the same coin, since the mother who bonds with her daughter at the kitchen is capable  of being a different person in her role as a mother-in-law. Nevertheless, the song underscores that the kitchen, a space synonymous with feminity, is simultaneously a symbol of patriarchal restriction and a site of woman’s agency. Further, the domestic space surrounding the kitchen is laden with hierarchical status. This is definitely true even today in the rural Indian culture. And we see this sentiment echoed through the humiliations that the narrator suffers when she is made to eat by the cowshed.

Brutality against brides, confinement of women to the domestic space, restriction of their movements, and curtailing of women’s agency are not archaic norms that belonged to Chandramani’s era. Rather, they are still active and ruthlessly enforced in many parts of India today. If at all women’s marginal conditions become news then it is often under tragic circumstances; otherwise, their stories will remain unknown and unvoiced. In lieu of their silence, what we have is these folksongs, an extant example of their struggle, a cadence of resilience.

Shailen Mishra

Shailen Mishra is a book hopper, story whore, poetry pariah, novelist, three times failed guitar learner, and an aspiring didgeridoo player. He holds a Ph.D. from Illinois State University and an MFA from North Carolina State University. In his spare time, he edits SRPR’s blog and manages its website.

A Few Thoughts on Language, Trauma and “And the Rat Laughed”

Emily Ronay Johnston, SRPR Managing Editor

Emily Johnston’s series “Traumatic Emplacement” explores poetics of emplacement, and the simultaneity of dislocation and enmeshment in traumatic poetry.

“The writer… decomposes the world into the most basic concepts,
But presents them the other way around.
You’ll sense it — the innards pouring out.”
– Nava Semel, And the Rat Laughed (p. 95)

This line appears at the beginning of a series of poems in Nava Semel’s And the Rat Laughed, a hybrid-novel that shapes the story of a five year-old Jewish girl whose parents send her into hiding to escape the Holocaust concentration camps. The girl remains unnamed throughout the novel, referred to as the “little-girl-who-once-was,” “A Little Holocaust,” even simply “Girl.”

The people who take her in, an anti-Semitic farming family seeking financial gain, lock Girl away in a potato cellar, “the pit,” where a rat becomes Girl’s steadfast companion. Over the course of the year that she’s hidden there, the family’s teenage son, Stefan, repeatedly rapes the little-girl-who-once-was.

The novel’s hybrid-form shapes Girl’s story across 150 achronological years, spanning from 1944 – 2099, and five different genres. Through story, legend, poems, diary entries and science fiction, And the Rat Laughed enacts trauma’s rearrangement of time, its scattering of narrative.

What’s particularly unique about Semel’s fictionalized Holocaust historiography is its sustained meditation on the relationship between trauma and language, and more specifically, on the relationship between what happened and telling what happened.

What happened to A Little Holocaust and telling what happened to her resist one another. Poetry makes room for us to, quite literally, read between the lines. Trauma’s un-tellability and its must-tellability converge, creating a new totality of experience.

Take, for example, the text’s poems “Why?” and “How Many?”:

Why potatoes? How many potatoes?
Because. This many.
Why lice? How many lice?
Because. This many.
Why darkness? How much darkness?
Because. This much.
And why the Stefan? And how much the Stefan?
(Pg. 101) (Pg. 101)

The subterranean innards lead us to the unanswerable “why” and “how” of the Stefan as the lines of these poems decompose the extraneous. Potatoes, lice and darkness can be explained: “Because” or “This much.” Stefan is left unanswered. The page becomes again blank, here at the poem’s end where we perhaps most what to know “why” and “how many times” he raped her.

The sequencing of images in these poems shapes Girl’s experience of rape as a kind of violent excavation, a festering-up of the earth’s innards. The potatoes, lice and  darkness mark where rape begins, ends and will begin all over again. What more do we need to be told of “what happened” to understand what did?

A few pages later, the poem “Lullaby” alludes to an answer as to why rape happened to her:

Once upon a time
There was a little Jewish girl
And she had
Little Jewish hands
And little Jewish eyes
And a little Jewish mouth
And a little Jewish body
And a big hole
(Pg. 110)

“Lullaby” renders each part of Girl’s body Jewish, thereby an object, a receptacle—“a big hole,” a vagina. This is not a lullaby that rocks the body to sleep, but into complacency. This lullaby is preparing the body for rape.

Time itself becomes flesh, feet—the part of the body that enables Stefan to come and go at will. Time becomes the anticipation of the perpetrator, the aftermath of his visits, their certainty of happening again—anything but naming directly what happened, rape.

Time
The Stefan comes down
The Stefan goes up
Yesterday is what came before
Tomorrow is what comes next
Down goes the Stefan
Up goes the Stefan
That’s how time marches on
(Pg. 112)

Traumatic experience is often theorized as atemporal and preverbal, beyond the scope of a coherent, chronological narrative of what happened. What I appreciate in Semel’s poems, however, is their attempt to reverse this premise—to represent trauma as not so much atemporal but intratemporal, between the layers of “past,” “present” and “future.” Their attempt to represent trauma as not so much preverbal but intraverbal, literally between the lines. Among poet, language and paper, experience is remapped from bodies that endure rape to a world of bystanders who must remember, must witness “the innards pouring out.”

Emily R. Johnston

Emily is from Boston, San Francisco, Fairbanks, Alaska, and Central Illinois. Holding a Ph.D. in English Studies and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing/Poetry, her work emerges at the intersections of writing studies, social justice pedagogy, trauma theory, film theory, and narrativity. In particular, she researches and publishes on students’ literacy learning in relation to issues of sexualized trauma. She has taught courses in academic writing, public writing, creative writing, gender studies, literature and film, and English as a Second Language. Emily is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Writing Pedagogy at The University of Delaware, and Managing Editor of Spoon River Poetry Review (SRPR).