Monday, April 21, 2008

Poetry for a new century

I just finished Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond, edited by Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal, and Ravi Shankar. Not in any way that does it justice, but I had been looking forward to reading it ever since Tina sent out the info about it last year. [The book party is this Friday!] It's a remarkable anthology, with SO much great poetry. The editors wrote really beautiful introductions to each of the nine sections, too, which in turn are given names pulled from poetry in each section. In the last section, called "The Quivering World," Tina Chang begins with a simple sentence: "Once, in New York, I fell in love." Ah! So devastating. For the section called "This House, My Bones," Ravi Shankar writes:
Actually, let me recant that statement. There is a spot in my parent's yard in Virginia, not within the house itself but on the margins of our lawn, where wild honeysuckle and hydrangea bloomed. There was an alder bush the size of a small shed under the overhanging trees and I found a hollow space within it where I could burrow. This became my safe haven in the summertime, when I was seething with anger, unable to stand the sight of a classmate or to communicate with my father; when I was contemplative and wanted to look out at the world but not be seen; or when I sought a simple shade from the afternoon in which to nap. That patch of dirt, with its astringent odor and scrim of green where I could hide, became the place I felt most comfortable. Because it was shorn of history, except for a personal one, because it was simultaneously safe and uncultivated, a vast cosmos with just enough space to breathe. I was freest under this bush.
It reminds me of bushes once outside of our apartment building, big enough to create spaces for my sister and me to crawl into during the winter, and create shelters in the snow. The branches were covered with enough snow to protect us from the outside world, and inside was white spaciousness. We'd tamp down the snow and lay down, all quiet and content. Sadly, the management decided to tear out these bushes to make the lawn just one big expanse of grass, and then our lairs disappeared.

To close is a poem by Shankar:


There's nowhere else I'd rather not be than here,
But here I am nonetheless, dispossessed,
Though not quite, because I never owned
What's been taken from me, never have belonged
In and to a place, a people, a common history.
Even as a child when I was slurred in school--
Towel head, dot boy, camel jockey--
None of the abuse was precise: only Sikhs
Wear turbans, widows and young girls bindis,
Not one species of camel is indigenous to India . . .
If, as Simone Weil writes, to be rooted
Is the most important and least recognized need
Of the human soul, behold: I am an epiphyte.
I conjure sustenance from thin air and the smell
Of both camphor and meatloaf equally repel me.
I've worn a lungi pulled between my legs,
Done designer drugs while subwoofers throbbed,
Sipped masala chai steaming from a tin cup,
Driven a Dodge across the Verrazano in rush hour,
And always to some degree felt extraneous,
Like a meteorite happened upon bingo night.
This alien feeling, honed in aloneness to an edge,
Uses me to carve an appropriate mask each morning.
I'm still unsure what effect it has on my soul.

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