Three Poems: England, 1999, A Somewhat Different Question, I Wear Wordlessness like a Tattered Dress

01 February 2013

ABOUT THE POEMS Poetry must of course be thought about formally, as a space of special rhythm, syntax, and measure, as an arena where language is raised to its greatest density and highest pitch. But it can also be thought about metaphysically. The lyric poem serves as a free realm where difficult truths can be articulated or, in the fine phrase of K Srilata, “volcano lies” exploded. The speaker of “England, 1999” finds herself not just fascinated by a new country, but obliged for that reason to describe her own, boil it down to a few images in almost the same way as a poem creates a world in microcosm. What story to tell? The speaker is able to summon from memory’s well images of both beauty and darkness.  Poetry is also what we turn to when we seek a closer and more prayerful attention to the world. Srilata’s exquisite “A Somewhat Different Question” takes us into the silent churning inside plants. Image proceeds to riddle; and we see a powerful poetic thinking set in motion, rippling under the surface of word and line until it reaches a haunting close—an ending that, because it asks such an urgent question, is also a beginning, carried forward now by the reader.

England, 1999

It turns out that my hostess

is a wonderful woman,

kind, house-proud,

and gracious in the extreme.

I couldn’t have asked for more.

She hovers around me

like a small butterfly,

pointing out the songbirds,

the excessively clear skies,

air crisper than fresh toast,

the cheerful cows bursting with good health and milk,

and the trees.

And then, she pops it,

the question I have been dreading all along:

“So what’s it like, in India?”

“We are a developing nation, as you know,” I say, beginning badly.

Soon, I am selling the country

for less than a song.

“Our cities are full of withering trees, their leaves covered in dust,

You are lucky if you see a bird,

the air is always hot with smoke,

our cows are parchment-thin,

and our skies,

no one has the time for them.”

All along, I am holding back another story,

a story I don’t know how to tell,

an interior, shadow story,

and this is how it goes:

Back home, laughter can spring unexpectedly

from last night’s trash.

People steal the skies from themselves,

in the early hours of dawn.

Every day, they eke out colour,

weave the sparkle of diamond needles into silk,

create the perfect, ordinary geometry of kolams

for ants to feed off,

for feet to trample on,

these, and a million other beautiful things,

our people do, daily.

All along, I am sitting on

a dormant volcano of a lie,

“Our naked babies crawl off the streets and

into the embrace of their mothers,

beggars are always fed,

women and minorities are safe,

and caste is dead…”

Long after I have said my goodbyes,

I dream of visiting on my gracious hostess,

this shadow story,

that volcano lie,

imploding within.

A Somewhat Different Question

Water moves up xylem tubes

from root to leaf

in a song we don’t hear.

A tree sings

in shlicks of water,

in strips of bark-crackle,

in the sharp snapping of twigs

under bird weight.

It is an old question:

If a tree falls in the forest

and no one is there,

does it still make a sound?

Let me ask you a somewhat different one:

If a tree sings

and you don’t listen,

can you really hear?

I Wear My Wordlessness Like a Tattered Dress

I wear my wordlessness

like a tattered dress,

its stitches undone.

Twice a week,

I wash myself,

dress and all,

in a river of drowning words

in whose lungs,

the despair of poets

has long since settled.

And yet,

this!

a new-born fawn of a poem

taking its first steps.

K Srilata is the author of two collections of poetry: Seablue Child and Arriving Shortly. She has co-edited The Rapids of a Great River: The Penguin Book of Tamil Poetry (Viking). Her work has also appeared in The Bloodaxe Anthology of Indian Poets and The Harper Collins Book of English Poetry.

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