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.

 

 

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!

useless

screenshot_20170207-105644_01

in my mother’s cupboard

there is the smell of naphthalene

that’s only a little stronger than

all the smells of all the houses we have lived in


my former best friend loved me very much

but sometimes she didn’t like the chappals i wore

and this she told me clearly

her long eyelashes now falling, now staying


sometimes i think you don’t like me

but that’s ok because today

i have found the courage to tell myself

that i don’t like you more


today she dropped her brand new i pad

and withdrew into a corner, shaken and dismayed

i picked it up and hugged her warmly in my mind

it’s ok, i told her — suddenly wanting to cry.

Lessons

Embarrassment is two part spelling and one part memory.

two Rs and two Ss on a good day.

It is the brightest red you leave on your uncle’s pants, the first day of your period

one r and one s on a bad day.

It is sitting with legs wide open in class and realizing later that there’s a gaping wide hole right in between–right where you don’t want it to be. Thankfully you had the sense to wear the only decent underwear you own – no holes or anything.

It is drunk-calling somebody you will never ever call when sober

two Bs and one S on a day you don’t want to remember.

It is arriving right on time for a date in his house and wondering why he looks annoyed

It is trying to hold her hand in public before she shoves it deep inside her pocket, out of your reach

It is asking a stupid question at a conference and telling yourself that there is nothing called a stupid question

It is the time you spend waiting for a reply. For at least one of the seven messages that you have left.

It is too many blue ticks on what’s app

It is not being able to escape the memory of a wrong spelling.

It is falling asleep on someone’s shoulder and having them push you back to the window

It is forgetting how to spell Bengali in a literature class one day, so you quietly scribble Bengally and watch as the horror unfolds.

It is the burden of a slow day — lengths of its wasteland hitting you long after you have gone to sleep and woken up to a longer, slower day.

Crab Story

The spicy crab meat soup yesterday was an oval red in a white ceramic bowl with a blue border.

When I was 9, I ate crab and my lips swelled up like a big balloon.

When I was 24, I ate crab again and didn’t care because its meat brought the sea to my mouth and I grew more and more carnivorous with every piece of shell I cracked.

When I slide my index under its shelly stomach, the meat yields and polishes my fingernail, like cutex.

There’s Mangalore Pearl and Carnival De Goa and Fishland. I also have a Souza Lobo on my crab list now.

In Souza Lobo, they gave me a black pot with the biggest crab I had ever seen. It took me an hour to finish it.

I am all hands, fingers, mouth, hair, and cheeks when I eat crab. Sometimes, I think crab is flavorless, lost now and then in overpowering enthralls of coconut, spices, and garlic butter.

But I eat it anyway. Hands, fingers, mouth, hair, and cheeks.

Coming to Sonnet 116

I sat in an Optional English class yesterday and wished I had been a better student. Since The Awakening, The Yellow Wallpaper, and The Husband Stitch, I have been all prose, less poetry. I have read these stories over and over again, imposed them on students every semester because the women who wrote them wrote them so unnervingly.

I read a Sharon Olds one day and thought that Sex without Love was beautiful– both the idea and the poem. I read Ramanujan another day and it rained. Sometimes poetry does what prose cannot do for me. And this is a discovery I made only a month ago.

P, S and I formed a poetry group, which means one whats app group was also created. P called it Bommali Beats and put up a Javed Akhtar dp. We’ve met only once so far. But when we did meet, we made chai, sat on the steps near the media lab and read Ramanujan.

We read poems about leaky taps in small marriage halls, about conjoose marwari businessmen who slipped coins under the mattress they sat on, and about barks that scratched the windows in unison. It was an interesting session. I came to read words beyond what they meant for me, in my regular prose world. I came to treat words with envy, with distance, and with an unfamiliar resistance to laziness.

I realized that I have been avoiding poetry for so long because I am afraid and lazy — it’s too much work to stay with words for so long. To stay with them until they become coherent meanings and patterns and eventually stories that bend and curve in ways that I do not understand. The rhythm and the line and the meter all go over my head. Because I prefer the freedom that words I read in prose throw at me. There’s so little to resist when I read prose. Not that it’s easy. Reading never is. But I am learning only now how both poetry and prose are so alike and so different at once.

Yesterday in class, AM did Sonnet 116. He sat at the table with nothing but a book and a pen. I felt intimidated and thrilled all at once. Of course he knew the poem by-heart. Long ago, when Titus had asked him how to teach a poem, AM told him to read it 20 times before teaching it. Titus returned the next day and said that the class didn’t go well. AM asked him how many times he had read it. Titus said 5 and received an almighty whack on his egg-head.

In school, they made us memorize poems. I had learnt to close my eyes and recite them without knowing what I was reciting, like the multiplication tables my mother made me by-heart, a wooden scale in her hand, her lips pursed tight.

We would get 5 marks in the English exams for reciting poems without mistake. I took an immediate aversion to it and failed, like so many others, to see that poems are meant for the ear, it’s how they sound more than anything else.

AM had made everybody write down the poem before they came to class– hand-write them. I copied mine from R who was sitting next to me. While I was writing it down, I remembered reading Sonnet 116 in M.A once and liking the first and last lines. I didn’t know what they meant; I just liked how they sounded. This was also the sonnet that Paris recites to Rory in Gilmore Girls just before their big AP test on Shakespeare.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

There’s such a thing as simply allowing the poem to take shape, to give it time, to give oneself time, to make sense of the poem – one word at a time, to read each line in isolation first and then in relation to the poem. I have never been able to do that. I am hurrying always, to get to the bottom of it all.

After yesterday’s class, I am learning ways to rediscover meanings. From what I was able to gather, poetry is as much resistance as it is interpretation– resistance to laziness, to conclusions, and sometimes to interpretations themselves. This is exciting. I have found a whole new way to learn.  Sometimes I wish I was studying EJP and not teaching it.

Tuesday

Like the notes you make in an auto which go into some drawer later, and you don’t see them ever again

Like the debit card that goes into your front pocket instead of your wallet, like it should, after long sessions of beer

Like that last cigarette you were’t going to smoke

Like the mug of beer you don’t know why you drink

Like the earphones you can’t find when you want to pack in a hurry

Like reading blogs that set your heart on green-red and yellow fire

Like piles of books unread

Like the change that clinkers in your purse

Like the lie you forgot

Like the workplace that is yours

Like the workplace that is more yours after everybody leaves

Like the silence that falls on the room after you lock

Like the lights that hesitate to pull out fully

Like the ring of the bell that is freakishly long on Tuesdays.

You and I

I cannot think straight. I can only think in circles and patterns. It begins with an image, a color, a word, a smell and the next thing I know I am weaving or reweaving an old memory, sometimes faking a memory or foretelling it, to heighten the experience of self pity.

There aren’t too many ways to describe a mug of coffee sitting on your table.

It is coffee. It is in a mug. It is on the table. It is either hot or cold. You are either preparing to write or postponing it.

Your phone blinks.

Draw the curtains down, close the door, sit on your bed. The coffee mug is still the same. Repeated images of an overused coffee mug.

The cursor blinks.

You feel useless so you bang your net book shut and watch Gilmore Girls. You try to pick an episode that has Rory either writing or reading. Hopeless attempt. You are angry with her, She studies, she reads, she eats, she drinks coffee but she doesn’t write like write write. You really close your net book now and decide tomorrow will be a better day.

You are riding. And on the road are words. ‘You’ circled multiple times. You are using way too many ‘yous’ in your posts, an ‘i’ looks hurt and is going to disappear. A pothole is overlooked. The vehicle rams itself against it and you wake up feeling demotivated and bruised.

Sex without love and other impossibilities

All of today has been productive. I wish I live everyday with the same fervor as today. Although said fervor came from stalking women and their blogs. Anyway, one such stalking hour took me to this poem which has made me see sense – a solution to my needless self pitying sprees.

I found the poem on a blog I had been stalking all morning like a hungry cat. 

Sex Without Love by Sharon Olds

How do they do it, the ones who make love
without love? Beautiful as dancers,
gliding over each other like ice-skaters
over the ice, fingers hooked
inside each other’s bodies, faces
red as steak, wine, wet as the
children at birth whose mothers are going to
give them away. How do they come to the
come to the come to the God come to the
still waters, and not love
the one who came there with them, light
rising slowly as steam off their joined
skin? These are the true religious,
the purists, the pros, the ones who will not
accept a false Messiah, love the
priest instead of the God. They do not
mistake the lover for their own pleasure,
they are like great runners: they know they are alone
with the road surface, the cold, the wind,
the fit of their shoes, their over-all cardio-
vascular health–just factors, like the partner
in the bed, and not the truth, which is the
single body alone in the universe
against its own best time.
 

The poem hit me hard where I needed to be hit properly and immediately. I was slipping into my obnoxious self – a past that I don’t want to be in, a present that is reluctant to promise and a future that thrills me just as much as it scares me. All morning I was in deep slumber – inspired in part by my need for pillow talk and in part by my obsession with knowing – answers and clarifications to my doubts and insecurities. This odd bit of truth lay it all to rest in one fitting swoop.

‘They do not mistake the lover for their own pleasure’ drove home the point. My only hope now is to wake up as the same  person that is so much at peace and in love with herself today.