Listening to Dorianne Laux: Pause. Poetry

Reading Dorianne Laux’s poems is like taking in a deep breath and realizing that your lungs have never been used this way before – that all these days, you have wasted their capacity to hold, and you begin to worry – now that you have discovered it – this late in life – is there any point?

But of course, asking if there is any point to it is to miss the point entirely. I don’t have a train to catch. Even if I do, even if I am grossly late and have missed the train – I can always get to the next station and catch the train at my own pace. ‘No need to hurry, no need to shine’, Virginia Woolf said.

I read this poem by Dorianne Laux today. It is a regular day and like any other regular day, I am daydreaming about fighting with my parents. About marriage, about babies – about all the things that they want of me, that I do not want to give.

In these dreams, I am tall and wearing jeans that stretch easily whether I am running or walking. My mother’s loud voice cuts the air and lands on my hands. I run out the door and make life elsewhere. This poem fit in beautifully on this day and after I’d read it, the afternoon stretched itself out like a yawn and sat with me.

Waitress

When I was young and had to rise at 5 a.m.
I did not look at the lamplight slicing
through the blinds and say: Once again
I have survived the night. I did not raise
my two hands to my face and whisper:
This is the miracle of my flesh. I walked
toward the cold water waiting to be released
and turned the tap so I could listen to it
thrash through the rusted pipes.
I cupped my palms and thought of nothing.

I dressed in my blue uniform and went to work.
I served the public, looked down on its
balding skulls, the knitted shawls draped
over its cancerous shoulders, and took its orders,
wrote up or easy or scrambled or poached
in the yellow pad’s margins and stabbed it through
the tip of the fry cook’s deadly planchette.
Those days I barely had a pulse. The manager
had vodka for breakfast, the busboys hid behind
the bleach boxes from the immigration cops,
and the head waitress took ten percent
of our tips and stuffed them in her pocket
with her cigarettes and lipstick. My feet
hurt. I balanced the meatloaf-laden trays.
Even the tips of my fingers ached.
I thought of nothing except sleep, a TV set’s
flickering cathode gleam washing over me,
baptizing my greasy body in its watery light.
And money, slipping the tassel of my coin purse
aside, opening the silver clasp, staring deep
into that dark sacrificial abyss.
What can I say about that time, those years
I leaned against the rickety balcony on my break,
smoking my last saved butt?
It was sheer bad luck when I picked up
the glass coffee pot and spun around
to pour another cup. All I could think
as it shattered was how it was the same shape
and size as the customer’s head. And this is why
I don’t believe in accidents, the grainy dregs
running like sludge down his thin tie
and pinstripe shirt like they were channels
riven for just this purpose.
It wasn’t my fault. I
know that. But what, really,
was the hurry? I dabbed at his belly with a napkin.
He didn’t have a cut on him (physics) and only
his earlobe was burned. But my last day there
was the first day I looked up as I walked, the trees
shimmering green lanterns under the Prussian blue
particulate sky, sun streaming between my fingers
as I waved at the bus, running, breathing hard, thinking:
This is the grand phenomenon of my body. This thirst
is mine. This is my one and only life.

 

On a Monday, the sentiment of “This thirst is mine. This is my one and only life” is enough to hold my own against my mother’s loud voice and her big hungry eyes.

***

Listening to Dorianne Laux read out her poems is like swallowing a long pause.

What is a pause anyway? A dot. a comma, a semi colon; — in the breathless routine of the everyday. But here with her, as she tastes each pause, as she smacks her lips after every line, you taste the pause too and before you know it, the afternoon is not yawning anymore – it is quietly awake and softly blinking.

 

 

30~

As a Tamil woman,

I am fierce in love,

like all Tamil women are –

when they run towards their lovers

with gritted teeth and dancing hair

*

As a Konkani woman,

my laugh will match your fart

— in loudness and vulgarity

*

As a Malayali woman,

my hair is messy, like a good joke.

— but if you walk into it with all your heart

you might have a good time

*

As a Kannada woman,

I hug tightly

— and when you wake up next to me

on cold November mornings

like this one

I will hug you with all that I have

— and all that I am yet to have

*

As a Hindi woman

I will open doors and windows

— with the longing of a mother

waiting to escape her life

— with the passion of Chameli

waiting to elope with Charandas.

*

As an English woman

I will make pots and pots of tea

and drink them all up

until my belly swells

and I cannot walk

*

Today I am all these women

and we are walking back home-

arm-in-arm

expertly avoiding all the cows in Basavanagudi.

___

24 days

In 24 days, I will be 30. If I was younger, I’d have said I am looking forward to my birthday. Today I only want to say I am looking forward to the days before and after my 30th birthday, just as much as I am looking forward to my 30th birthday. Maybe I really am growing up if I am more excited by 24 days than by the 24th day this month.

If I was younger I’d have the energy & the shamelessness to make a bullet journal for my birthday month & do one thing that excites me for 24 days. I’d sit at the dining table, smiling like a child opening crayon boxes, and giant handmade books. I’d have told myself to write every day for 24 days. I’d have told myself to wake up early and watch the sunrise every day for 24 days.

Maybe I really am growing up because I still want to do all those things but the heart is still full from reading Mary Oliver and that seems enough.

Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.

Even so, I wish that for as long as I am alive, I am as shameless as I was when I was 16, 22, 24, 28.

Also today, reading poems by Dorianne Laux seems enough. Maybe that’s why we should read poetry more often, to fill ourselves with it only to realize that we were thirsty all this while.

Family Stories

I had a boyfriend who told me stories about his family,
how an argument once ended when his father
seized a lit birthday cake in both hands
and hurled it out a second-story window. That,
I thought, was what a normal family was like: anger
sent out across the sill, landing like a gift
to decorate the sidewalk below. In mine
it was fists and direct hits to the solar plexus,
and nobody ever forgave anyone. But I believed
the people in his stories really loved one another,
even when they yelled and shoved their feet
through cabinet doors, or held a chair like a bottle
of cheap champagne, christening the wall,
rungs exploding from their holes.
I said it sounded harmless, the pomp and fury
of the passionate. He said it was a curse
being born Italian and Catholic and when he
looked from that window what he saw was the moment
rudely crushed. But all I could see was a gorgeous
three-layer cake gliding like a battered ship
down the sidewalk, the smoking candles broken, sunk
deep in the icing, a few still burning.

 

Have a nice day!

Caste teaches us not only how to walk but also what to walk away from

After a student was told that Dalit women have a constitutionally protected act in workplaces and anybody choosing to attack such women teachers with an intention to malign them professionally would be reported to the cops; the light left his face, he touched his hair just so he could do something with his hands and his eyes grew small with fear.

He may have gulped twice before leaving the room, shaking with rage. But he never bothered me after that. Even the smug way in which he passed by me in the corridor vanished. The gossip and the malice continued of course but the glint of fear I saw in his eyes that day remained.

The Savarna woman sitting next to me shrank in size. But she remained big in my head until I discovered Ambedkar.

There was continued debate whether that speech, the interference, as they saw it, was necessary. It was necessary. It helped – because in that moment, in that room, something shifted – without harming anyone. And I continue to be curious about how a simple reminder about the constitution can produce fear in someone who is extremely confident in assessing other people’s abilities.

I am amazed that the man who built the constitution that long ago was able to see so deep into our futures and know why even the ‘right’ kind of money, marriage, color, place would still be insufficient to live with dignity.

But how much of what happened in that room that day was triggered by my caste? Did they know I am Dalit? Does them not knowing it before they attacked make them innocent? Are they innocent? Am I making a big deal? Am I being a fraud by invoking caste in this narrative ‘suddenly’ ? —  were only some of the many questions I asked myself everyday. Until a much larger question arrived and my doubts were laid to rest. Why is it my burden to ask these questions and look for answers?

It is their burden.

Even so, I take that Ambedkar is warning us. We cannot live and die inside our castes, even if people will make sure we do. Just as there are ways in which we believe that everything is about caste, there are also ways to believe that not everything is about caste. And neither is wrong.

How do people live castelessly though? Is that possible?

I find it fascinating that some people can walk the earth as if they don’t need anybody. As if they’ve never needed anybody. It’s probably why I loved Piku, that 2015 film. I loved watching her. I loved that she was able to just walk away from conversations and men that she wasn’t interested in. She didn’t spend time impressing anyone. She didn’t wonder if anybody liked her, and even if she did – she definitely didn’t run around making compromises in her life to accommodate them.

Where does she get the strength from though? It wasn’t all because of her overbearing father no? I am not questioning it, I am celebrating it. And today I am still celebrating it while also being acutely, painfully aware of an answer to why she might be the way she is: Caste.

Caste teaches us not only how to walk but also what to walk away from. The strength that men and women perform onscreen and off, that I adore from the very core of my heart gains power from caste.

Balamma from Gogu Shyamala’s stories walks that way too. She has to. Because like her, there are many who don’t have access to the PoA act even though it was made for them. And the villains in their lives are real, unlike those in mine who, at the mere mention of Ambedkar and Constitution, vanish like the memory of a loose underwear.

Image Credits: commons.wikimedia.org

Image Credits: commons.wikimedia.org

Two months at home; and indebted to Joan Didion & Jackie Chan

 

yy

My foot is now breathing in a tub of hot water. Barely two weeks ago, I was lying in bed, my foot hoisted up on pillows – the left leg waiting to erupt from layers of dead skin – all chafed and dry. I was almost sad to see the plaster go. I’d begun to enjoy peeling bits of skin from wherever my hands could reach. They’d gather in heaps of smiling flakes as I grew hungrier for more.

Amma changed the sheets and pillow covers once a week – on the day she’d give me a bath. The flakes would then scatter themselves across the room meaninglessly, like dust.

She insisted on giving me a bath twice a week but it was too much work so I convinced her that once a week was more than enough. I put shame and nakedness through various measurements and with every passing day, I began to fear it lesser and lesser. It began on the day of the fall – the very first day when Amma had to cut open the jeans I was wearing, which was anyway torn from below the knee to make room for the horrid white plaster.

There was no sense to the pause my body offered before taking my clothes off in front of her. She was quick to notice the scars on my body that’d faded over the years. One from the time I dumped hot chai point chai on my stomach, another from the time the hot parachute bottle melted from under my palms and burnt a good part of my thigh (don’t microwave parachute oil bottles)

As I chanted the history behind each scar, she shampooed my hair. And when she poured green hot water down my back, she looked more relieved than I was — scrubbing my back with all the energy she had – almost as if offering compensation for the loud dry zone which was my plastered foot, sitting smugly inside 2 dustbin bags.

In my mind, I observed that this was the closest she’d come to giving me the balanteero bath that they give to pregnant women. She has dreamed of giving me those baths even more than wanting grandchildren.

***

Days dissolved into watching reruns of women taking Karan Johar’s ass on his show and rewinding all the Eli Gold and Elizabeth Tascioni moments on The Good Wife. When I felt like writing and couldn’t, I sought Joan Didion.

I sped through The Year of Magical Thinking with an obsession to grow old like Didion. One December morning, her daughter was hospitalized. After spending a day in and out of the ICU – Didion and her husband returned home, unsure if they would see their daughter alive the next day. They sat down for dinner and her husband collapsed on the table with a heart attack, and died.

From that point on, my little fracture grief  became laughably manageable. It was ok that I could only listen to the rain and not watch it. It made me wonder if I’d ever really listened to rain and not just watched it – which is not too different from a grunt acknowledgement. After all what is rain without its sound?

In the two months I spent at home, there were two evenings whose colors belonged in a painting. From my dining table, I watched the Bangalore sky glowing furiously and pleasantly – or somewhere between the two which – as I have come to realise – is something that only Bangalore sky is capable of (As D would say)

Its orange was pleasant, but its force was furious. It came in shocks of rectangle and threw itself on the table, lingering there for a while before slowly fading.

***

A friend mentioned Frida one day and I spent the entire day in bed feeling grateful. It’s the one film that I have watched over and over again in the last two months.

The plaster was still on when I was told to walk without support. I cringed. With every half step I took, I expected to hear the crunch of bones and iron. I am now a firm believer of right time. Sometimes it is just not the right time to watch certain films. It’s probably why I had never watched Kill Bill and now was the time to watch it. Moments after Kill Bill Vol: 2, I took my first step with no support and walked on feeling proud as fuck even as I was imagining the Kill Bill Ironside Siren Sound playing somewhere.

Reading Cheryl Strayed and Rebecca Solnit made me think about walking a lot more intensely than that fucker Proust. And now I cannot wait to listen to the sound of my walk.

Those were my strong moments. In my most vulnerable moments, I thought about my astrologer aunt who had warned me about this accident months before I fell. She has predicted all my accidents so far. My resistance was weak and I was going to succumb to the haze of stars and shani, rahu and ketu and whatever when I suddenly remembered Jackie Chan.

I discovered that the man has had 14 major injuries in his life including a brain surgery and an eyebrow bone fracture that almost left him blind. He has slipped into a coma from hitting his head trying to jump off trees, leapt through a real window instead of a fake one, survived a Cervical spine damage from falling from a 25 meter clock tower and has had Pelvis dislocation almost causing partial paralysis. If this man had to listen to my aunty astrologer, he’d have had to quit doing what he loves long ago. Where the fuck is the place for Rahu kala Shani kala in Jackie Chan’s life?

Image Credits: myhero.com

Image Credits: myhero.com

Thanks to Joan & Jackie, I am writing from the other side with whatever little is left of my dignity.

Leg break > Heart break

My last entry was about discovering Proust, and waiting for the biggest heartbreak of my life to read him. In a strange twist of one ankle, two steps and a rainy evening – this has happened. I broke my leg on Tuesday and am now convinced that it is worse than all the heartbreaks I’ve had. When the heart is udhas, one can at least do karvaten badalna as they beautifully say in Hindi –  tossing and turning on the bed (its dabba English equivalent). When the leg is gone, what can you toss, when will you turn, how can you mourn?

Thoo.

I was watching Zizek (bastard) when I realised I hadn’t signed out. Took an umbrella and went down the stairs. Slipped on the last two steps and my bum fell on my ankle. I was beginning to think ok now I will  get up quickly before someone sees me while my ears caught a different horror altogether. They heard something creak.

I moved my foot and tried standing up only to fall back on my bum. It seemed as though there were no bones in my left foot and everything had dissolved into a trembling mass of jelly. I writhed in pain for a while before gathering myself into a heap in one corner.

Image credits: jeanandre.fr

Cut to Wednesday, I am lying on the operation table, head foggy with anesthesia but still finding the courage to blame Proust and Zizek for all this. Proust because he said something about how we never know the value of a vehicle and are never really curious about its inner workings until it breaks down. Pliss ok Proust – when I read that, the first thing I did was touch my hands, eyes, feet, hips and feel grateful. And Zizek because just. I felt the surgeons hammering something into my foot but I was more bothered about an itchy nose and my newly heavy hands that refused to move.

I am in Payannur now, recovering slowly, feeling helpless and useless. Read two pages of Proust and felt cheerful. Then read more of Wolf Hall and got frightened. Mantel is a goddess. The first chapter made me cringe but in a hungry sort of way– all those brilliant one-liners about blood and breaking bones.

I cannot walk for a long time. But for now this is what I can see outside my window.

IMG_20180819_075727

 

I hope that for as many heartbreaks and leg breaks that come my way – there is always a window nearby.


 

**Featured Image credits: jeanandre.fr

UP

rsz_img_20180805_101025

It has been a somewhat happy morning. In your late 20s, the only monster dread is waking up in the middle of the night and not feeling sleepy afterwards. There’s that precarious window of 5 seconds after you are thrown out of sleep and you are afraid that your mind will now wake up loudly and show image after image of your biggest insecurities. Who needs a nightmare after that?

Even so, sleep devi has been kind. Maybe that’s why the happy itch is back. Yesterday a friend told me about Karunanidhi’s disciplined routine – waking up at 4:30 to write and all. I was supremely disturbed. What the hell am I doing in life?

My students are eating books week after week. I am only eating.

Yesterday was a day of many discoveries. I reread Aunt Julia and felt thunder bolts of love for Pedro Camacho. This morning I read bits of Alain Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel. 

It has left me giddy. I’ve been waiting for the biggest heartbreak of my life to start reading Proust. That kind of defeats the point of reading Proust in the first place, I realise. So today I am happy that the itch is back and I am waiting waiting to read Botton’s book. Maybe after that and after Didion and Eliot – I can think about Proust.

In other news, I wrote a thing about my bleeding, oozing, puss-ing love for 9 songs. You can read it here.

It’s a happy day!

Once Upon a Rainy Mangalore Day

When it rained in Mangalore, amma made us wear raincoats and carry umbrellas but we’d still get wet. One afternoon after school we went looking for a new house in an auto. The broker was on his bike in front of us, his feet slanting upward on both footrests. We followed his yellow raincoat. The huge bungalow we first stopped at had two coconut trees growing out of it. The trees shot upwards from the roof, and looked uneasy like the swords I’d sometimes seen emerge out of Swamiji tongues in Kanyakumari.

I looked at Amma. She squinted at the trees and looked miserable. I looked at the broker. He sighed and started giving the auto driver new directions for a new house.

I wanted to tell him no. I had already imagined spending all my free time under the trees. Never before had life organised itself so beautifully as it did on those house- hunting days where the space of a new home offered dreams of being good girl – set up a solid routine, do homework on time, sleep at 9, wake at 6.

Amma and broker were damaging my creative juices.

The second house was inside a huge compound sharing space with another house. I stepped out of the auto and into a puddle, slowly, deliberately. The water seeped into my socks making it squishy. I walked around carefully listening to each squish.

A girl climbed out of a school van in front of the other house and watched us. I recognized her as a classmate but struggled to remember her name. Amma was quick to notice when we greeted each other shyly. I’d already started day dreaming a routine – this time my new best friend was in all of them.

When I was pulled away from the house, and from her, and thrust into the auto – I was beginning to bawl. Amma patted my back loudly and said that closeness is not ok. It will ruin your life.

***

B.I.N.G.I.N.G

Through the month spent binge-watching House MD, I worried that the irony of losing eyesight from watching a medical show would be too funny.

My eyes are tired now but the head is clearer. It scares me to think of the times when I’d look up from the screen to speak to someone and my eyes would begin watering.

I don’t know what to do with all the sunset that is suddenly falling on my desk now.

But I am glad it’s over. I didn’t know that a big part of binge-watching is also the bleeding hurry to get it over with and move on with life. I will miss listening to the words Tachycardia Lupus CT MRI Cardiomyopathy Cushing’s Vicodin Pithy Psychosis.

Goodbye, House. Thank you for believing that work really is everything. Even if proved otherwise.

house_wallpaper_by_ishtarisimo

A Twitter case of Amul Baby

Image credits: Deccan Chronicle

Image credits: Deccan Chronicle

Have you watched this really cool Simi Garewal interview with Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh that’s more like a PTA meeting? No guesses for who the child is.

It’s like watching tragicomedy. Not because Rishi Kapoor is an *Amul baby (cos who doesn’t know that?) but because it made me wonder about Neetu Singh in the way that I sometimes wonder about my mother and her mother and everyone’s mothers – wouldn’t they all have been better off without marriages and Amul-baby husbands?

Yes yes, their choice, and like Neetu Singh repeatedly says – she has always wanted the life she now has. When Simi Garewal asks her if she could do over her life, would she still marry Rishi Kapoor? Neetu Singh loudly says YES.

But it was still amusing to watch that throughout the show, even though the Amul baby is worse than his twitter self; Neetu Singh is pretty much telling the world ‘listen up peeps don’t take my husband or his tweets seriously cos even I don’t. Plus he’s drunk out of his mind when he’s tweeting’

My favourite part of the interview was when Neetu Singh and Simi Garewal exchange looks over Rishi Kapoor’s horrible parenting skills. Simi Garewal is like that really sweet well-wishing, tch-tch-tching moral science teacher. ‘Please go home and think about what being a father really means to you’, she says.

I remember Neetu Singh as the lovely Salma Ali from Amar Akbar Anthony – the only film after Mr. India which I watched as a child over and over again. Simply because those were the only two video cassettes we had. I liked Parveen Babi the most because she was Christian in the film and back then I was fascinated with everything Christian.

I watched it again today and was smitten by Salma Ali – the doctor who is given one fleeting moment in a hospital scene where she is absorbed in her work despite being wooed by Akbar (Amul Baby) in the same shot.

A nurse comes running to tell her that a patient needs blood urgently. Ali begins to worry, Akbar says he’s leaving and she just brushes him off saying haan haan bye and gets back to brooding. It is a three second shot but delightful.

It is the same energy she brings to Comedy Nights with Kapil where the host asks her what it is like to have married into a khandaan full of super star actors and she says ‘Main bhi toh thi award-winning actress’ (I too was an award-winning actress)

It almost erased some terrible flashbacks about watching her instructing Ranbir Kapoor on Simi Garewal’s show. ‘Women come with either scissors or needle. They either break or make families. Pick a girl with a needle’

Needless to say, no matter what instruments they bring, what can you mend Amul babies with?

*What is an Amul baby?

Watch Dhanush’s VIP.

 

Featured Image credits: Deccan chronicle