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.

 

 

Home

Amma’s yellow nightie makes her face shine. She looks calm when she wears yellow. Except when I am late. Then she is never calm.

When I walk up to my room, one heavy step after another, my brown leather bag slinging morosely over my shoulder, strands of hair getting caught in the strap, I wish she is asleep. But she never is. She only sleeps after she has seen my two-wheeler parked outside. And when she has seen that, she doesn’t even see me. She walks back quietly to her room and I wait to hear the soft thud of her bedroom door closing. It’s only then that I can breathe out. My steps are far more confident when Amma isn’t home. I can breeze in happily through pa’s soft snoring and the slow, dry whizzing of the fan.

One morning I stood on the balcony and watched them go for their daily walk. My parents seem older and weaker when they are walking, especially when they are walking away from me — slowly, like every step counts, their backs slightly bent but quickly straightened after sudden remembering, their bodies – heavy and round, yet their fragile clothes hanging loosely.

Pa in his wrinkled white pajamas, eternally torn under the sleeves, forgotten, worn, taken off and then worn again. The small patch on his glistening bald pate looking smaller and helpless. Ma in her colorful chudidhar, her dupatta carelessly thrown over, so that one half of it is always traling after her loudly.

What were they talking about? I’m sure this and that. Loans, construction, BP tablets, my marriage, thyroid tablets, blood test, my brother’s tuition teacher, my marriage, granny, lunch, my marriage. That day I stood and watched them for a long time. I watched them until my neck could no longer be craned and until the road ended abruptly, rudely.

Like in most homes, we all know when pa is angry. I think Indian homes are built to acknowledge the man’s many moods. The home would shrink and become hot making it unbearable to live in pa’s anger’s aftermath. Even the kitchen smells would withdraw into a corner and there they would stand until it was safe to step out. When I was small, I wished that whenever pa was angry, all the volumes on all the TV’s and radios could just mute themselves. It was just too terrible when he was going to explode and Urmila Matondkar’s Kambakth Ishq was playing obscenely loud. Which meant that that day we were all going to be lectured not just for watching kachda Mtv but also for watching it on that obnoxious volume.

They rarely fight and I can only rememeber this one time that they fought. I learnt that Amma doesn’t cook when they fight. She sleeps the morning off and pa walks all over the house in a haze. His face is calm but his lips are gently pursed and every now and then, a tcha tcha can be heard. His hands run constantly against each other – the fingernails touching, grizzling, moving up and down in one swift motion. Baba Ramdev’s exercise for quick and thick hair growth. It has been over a decade now. No hair, nothing. But pa hasn’t stopped doing it. It’s a habit now. Hair can go to hell.

Pa goes out to buy food on these days.  On the dining table there are 5 newspaper packets — idlis, vadas, sambars and chutneys — all rolling in one thick Darshini smell. We’d eat some and save the rest for night.

The next morning when I’d finally see Amma, her eyes would be small and puffy and she wouldn’t linger out of the bedroom for very long. They’d patch up soon and the home would go back to being room temperature again, and all the smells would come out slowly, except that there’d still be a faint trace of the darshini idli chutney smell and this I’d only discover when I’d lock up all the doors and switch off all the lights and tiptoe towards my room. And here the only sound to accompany my dull footsteps would be the bright hum of the fridge.

Homecoming

There is a strange melancholy that hangs around my neck these days and I feel it most strongly when I am riding back home, when what needs to be proven hasn’t been proven, when the day has ended and the city is hurrying its people back into homes and its long arms of wait. I feel it in the wind speeding by my ears, I feel it in the red light that’s bouncing off from surface to surface, I feel it when I pass by buildings that have no business looking the same as they did 9 years ago, I feel it in my throat before I feel it in my eyes. It’s a heavy lump that I find hard to swallow but when I do, it drops down to my stomach in a whisper and then my eyes are wet. Before long, I am trying to disengage with whatever it is that has made me cry but I don’t seem to have the resolve it takes to say no to pain.

Hands from my past put their weight on my shoulders and urge me to look back; his hands left bitterly in my hair are no longer part of my face, but they are there until I learn to disown my smell from me. As a child, I clung to objects, to things more than to people. I liked making memories so I could keep them, save them, to be recalled later. A perfume bottle that I really liked on him is there somewhere in my cupboard now. Ticket stubs from movies stolen between classes are tucked away neatly in a box. Old journals recounting how and why I felt betrayed by people, why I liked somebody, why I hated myself — all pressed onto paper, sealed into a past that I see now and then in the rear view mirror of passing cars and their noises.

There is sand in a small bottle, there is a big stone, the sort of perfect stone that catches your eye during imperfect visits to beaches and all you can think about is how lucky you are to find a perfect stone. It’s perfect because it looks like the way stones are supposed to in your head, where there is a perfect shape for every word heard. There are sea shells, there are umbrella sticks in a pen stand, there are all my notebooks from MA classes and chocolate wrappers in between these notebooks.

I spend a lot of time in making sure these memories seem real to me at a later time when perhaps I have forgotten to look where I most looked. I have always been afraid of things coming to an end, goodbyes and departure and all. It’s crazy but they are what make memories possible. In my head, the memories are curves inked with trees I have seen in my childhood. Mostly big ones you see on your way to City B which your mother deceived you into believing, was only an hour away. There are also fields which come and go like the sound of slow moving vehicles. A truck or lorry on the highway. That is what I usually come home to and what I miss the most about childhood — sounds and smells.

Memory is that far away truck, its headlights casting distorted shadows on the road ahead, a game I am trying to win that nobody is aware of, not even the truck driver, not even my parents in the back seat who are talking about relatives, some of whom I don’t even know. Memory is also a craving I feel in my gut to go back to those godawful ambassador cars from my childhood and sit between silence and boredom, listening to the quiet language of trees outside.

At the end of one such long journey, by which time I had forgiven my mother, I remember a basket of chocolates waiting for us by the bed. For two days after that I was left with a disgusting after taste of chocolate, the kind that you think will make you hate chocolate forever, finally christening you into adulthood where chocolates aren’t eaten. But then days later, somebody gives you Cadbury’s Dairy Milk and you don’t want to be adult anymore.

My shoe size has always been 4. And I notice it thrice a year when I am buying new shoes. They look weirdly at me in the store but that’s maybe the only thing about myself that I like to admit I am proud of – that I have tiny feet, that when I put them on a stool at my desk, I like seeing that they don’t take that much space.

There’s a white shirt with unreadable memorabilia scribbled in marker pens. When I think of it, I think of how the dean was upset because we had touched each other’s backs and written how much we would miss each other. So upset that he made a big guy take his shirt off in front of us. I remember feeling frightened that day. He said he was going to call our parents and tell on us.

So much of homecoming is also standing in the ugly kitchen and telling my mother that I failed math again and she is looking at me, murder in her eyes, her lips, quivering in grave silence, her nose ring becoming bigger and bigger with everything she is not saying to me. So much of homecoming today is also never having to tell parents that you failed or passed.

To Mr and Mrs Smith…

I watched Mr and Mrs Smith in the rainy month of June 2005. It wasn’t easy. Too much coaxing had to be done. I was nigh on 16 so going to the movies with friends was simply out of question.  I held my ground. Discussions ensued. A decision was finally made. I could go only if I was accompanied by my older cousin who worked night shifts. Bad enough she wasn’t a big fan of movies, I had to drag her along with me to watch the damned movie on the only day she got to sleep at home. So, guilt ridden and excited I dragged 2 of my sisters to watch the movie. I liked it. And then I decided to never tell the Gilmores about any of movie outings.

My next big movie outing was arranged in full secrecy. A bunch of friends from college and I went to catch Dus at Rex.  It took me half a day to realise that this whole business of watching a movie with friends was a big deal only for me.  Everybody else seemed unexcited and casual, even. I was disappointed because it was the first time in my life I was somewhere I was not supposed to be and nobody seemed to recognize or share my pleasure. My parents didn’t know where I was and that was the best thing about the whole movie outing. I felt great when I returned home knowing how I spent my day. It felt good to have lied and gone out for a day with friends, which if I had asked permission for, I would never have been allowed.

Further down the years, lying became my only way of getting what I wanted. I did try the truth occasionally but when I saw that it made their control over me seem tighter, I decided to stick with lies for the rest of my life. My Pre university days at home were horrible. Every movement was watched. So much so that mother faked coming late to a PTA meeting and arrived early so she could  hide behind some pillar to see who I talk to. She did this twice.

Key among incidents like these is two of the worst tantrums that they pulled. Dad – because he saw a boy’s name on my phone. Mom – because I asked to spend the night with my friend (a girl) because it was her birthday. Plates were thrown, dinner was abandoned and she sped up to her room, crying because I stubbornly wanted to go.

And then when I had to go on my next trip, I lied. And everything became super easy for me. I have had an educational excuse for every trip since then. And I realised I don’t have to deal with any of their tantrums at all because I was saving them the trouble of having to educate and bring culture to an ill cultured daughter; by lying to them about where I was going and with whom.

I must confess I take great pleasure in doing this. Even now as I am typing all of this, I cannot help but feel a little proud of myself for having done what I did. But, there is a but. The fact that I am an adult now and should be able to do what I want to without having to lie. Or the fact that there are days when I wonder if really telling them the truth would be so bad. Or the fact that maybe at some level I am still scared of them which is why I feel the excessive need to lie and cover up my flaws – which is that I am not as mature as I would like to be.

I don’t know if I’ll ever grow out of this phase. But I can see that I can only move forward if I forgive them and myself and realise that no matter how many tantrums they threw I still did everything that I wanted to. And that hasn’t changed at all.

To Ashish

I started writing because I wanted to hide from my mother. I needed a space that could be only mine, that nobody wanted because they didn’t know it existed. It gave me some kind of thrill to hide when I was wanted the most. I treasured those moments when I could just hide and watch them look for me. To not be seen when they were frantically looking for you gives you some kind of sadistic authority over yourself and your space. Some similar kind of thrill was transferred onto that moment when I first wrote a full sentence. For those kind souls who do read my blog, you may remember a boy named ‘Ashish’ that I mentioned in a post titled ‘Poof’. For all the times I have fallen in and out of love with god knows how many people, I remember Ashish very well. He was chubby (just the way I like ’em even to this day) and had brown, wavy hair. In all that time that I was in love with him, he must have glanced at my direction once, maybe twice. We never talked to each other.

So him and Rashmi (also a girl I was in love with) were friends and it seemed like he spent all of his life with her. This drove me insane one evening and I wanted terribly to do something about it. I did the only thing that I felt like doing. I wanted to write “I hate you Ashish” hoping it would help me out of feeling lost and small. And where did I write this bit? On a wall in my Mother’s bedroom. I don’t know why I picked her room. I didn’t really pick actually. I remember I had a red pen in my hand and I was in her room and I just walked up to the wall and wrote it. In awfully small font. So small that even if everyone in the world would overlook it, my mother would read it. Because I wrote it and it was THAT small so she had to know what I was hiding (?) from her no?

The woman bawled my name out soon as she read it demanding to know why I had written what I had written. I remember feeling terrified when I had to explain it  to her. So I made up some gibberish and ran away. That may have just been the first of the many ‘Explain yourself’ encounters I was going to have with my mother in future. But I remember feeling devilishly happy because I had managed to piss her off. That episode triggered so much pleasure in me that I decided to keep a journal in some freudian hope that she would read it and be annoyed.

That’s how and why I found writing. It became my most sought out hiding place and promised me guilty pleasures like hiding and watching someone looking for me, hiding and watching someone read what I have written and other such nonsense. Eventually, writing has helped me move closer to the woman I want to become, even though I don’t know who the hell that is.

More GG Madness

More GG Madness

Season 1 – Rory’s Dance

This is probably one of those few episodes where Lorelai and Emily bond for like a minute before something comes along and screws it up. Oh no wait, that’s actually all the episodes. But I find this episode to be particularly interesting because this is the first time on the show we see Lorelai caught in between 2 horrendous roles. She is both mother and daughter in this episode. In most other episodes, Lorelai is hardly either mother or daughter. I have never actually looked at her as either one of those because she has always been Lorelai Gilmore to me.

There are about a dozen moments that I really liked in this episode.  The one where Emily and Lorelai are watching TV together and they talk about Rory and mash banana toast and the legendary Monkey lamp. After all this, Emily puts her to sleep and then when they wake up in the morning to find that Rory never returned; all hell breaks loose. Here Lorelai is trapped between what she calls the worst nightmare for a parent and if we know her well enough, the worst nightmare for a daughter – screwing up in front of a parent.

There’s that chaotic moment between Lorelai screaming at her mother, defending Rory and Rory getting screamed at by Lorelai soon after Emily leaves. Well, Emily leaves and then Rory leaves and Lorelai feels screwed. That’s why this scene is beautiful on so many different levels, everyone feels screwed because of too much love. And I couldn’t be in a better position in life to know that kind of screwy love.

Season 1 – Forgiveness and stuff

Richard is in the hospital. He has just been brought to the ward. Lorelai is trying hard to find all kinds of excuses to not go in, yet. And finally when she does go in – Silence. Deep breathing. More silence. Focus on Lorelai. Focus on Richard and the 1000 different wires sticking out from his worn out body. They look at each other, Lorelai opens her mouth to say something, Richard opens his mouth to say something – Doctor, Emily and Rory enter – talk gibberish – Richard and Lorelai look at each other. Lorelai stammers, runs out and cries.

Some would say over done and it probably is. But it’s still ok because it is easy to overlook the overdone if you have survived one too many Gilmorie-ish communication blocks with parents. And that is why for a long time I will keep coming back to the scene whenever I think of my father.