Ale(theia), by Kripi Malviya, Hawakal Publishers, 36 pp. Ecdysis, by Medha Singh, Paperwall Media & Publishing, 108 pp.
First, the Hindi word “viraha” which means recognizing love through separation has been swimming about my head lately. Secondly, I don’t believe in the existence of a cohesive, singular poetry world. I see patients during the day, I write poems in between scribbling clinical diagnoses. I still believe myself to be an impostor in the “world of poetry” (almost always exclusive of vernacular writing) because English is not my native tongue. However, I do believe that many different ways of being a poet are possible and necessary in this world I inhabit as equally as anyone else. I also believe in the existence of communities that eschew the idea of cliques based on social and geographical locations. Above all, I believe that a lot of good contemporary English poetry is being written and read quietly beyond the programmed conversations so prevalent among certain privileged social media circles. For a long time, poetry from South Asia or by South Asian poets was deemed publishable only when it was clothed in diasporic nostalgia with a surplus of references about fluttering sarees, spices and all things sandalwood. Of course, there have always been giants on whose shoulders we stand today and but there has been a decidedly remarkable turn in recent years where the emergence of small presses has enabled local voices rising from the South Asian subcontinent in steering clear of the stereotypes without losing their connection to the ground that holds their fount.
We begin with Ale(theia) —from ancient Greek “unconcealedness”; “the state of not being hidden” or “the state of being evident”. It is questionable whether the two can be equalized or for that matter, how easy or difficult is it for a woman of colour to be “unconcealed” in her writing? As a mythological figure, Aletheia is either the daughter of Zeus or crafted by Prometheus. The term in itself experienced a revival due to Heidegger who wanted to make explicit the difference between the nature of disclosure v/s the nature of truth. Goa-based poet and psychologist Kripi Malviya’s “Aletheia”—a prize winning chapbook published by Kolkata’s Hawakal Publishers—stays true to its name like a horizon locked in the eye of a raptor. Divided into two parts titled “Thailand” and “Finland”, the slim volume evinces a twin-headed journey that is as informed by her poetic skill as her rootedness in existential psychology.
‘I wait, pretend, prolong, push / for not a place”
“concentrated dhyaan of broken skin”
“There is a missing I in Us”, an old psychology professor would laugh and then wince while talking about the collective consciousness. We grow to the extent we confront what goes unnamed in our struggles. In a country that cleaves itself between the anxious buzz of swarming megalopolises and the desiccated silences of summer-whipped hinterlands, everything often looks like a direction and nothing feels like a place. To crawl into dhyaan—from Buddhist practice an unaltered, authentic experience where Self is returned to its objectlessness —is hard when lurking between truth and disclosure while never finding enough gravity to settle in either corner. This Self can be as Kripi names it “I, Radical Machinery”—a fantastic contradiction where the primal meets plastic and each is encroaching on the other.
“This street is a force / holding our spines in derision”
I read this line and immediately think of the noisy festival processions that mount their disquiet along the spines of our broken roads. This is a common sight in South Asia. When the tide deflates, everyone involved—people, animals, vehicles—moves with the stamina of tired rivers; their “borrowed stillness” poured out into the dirt & din of hyperactive bullhorns. The starkness of queuing up to touch and anoint the holiness of metal or stone juxtaposed against the contempt for half-buried lives begging for alms outside those haloed grounds. Here the sensorium meets its sleep paralysis. True to form, the poet summons “the endless landscape of senses” that translates each reluctant memory into a mise en abîme. How do you measure the exact distance between a vulnerability and its wound? By taking stock of what you have lost or what you have saved?
Ale(theia) is imposing even on its tightrope. Malviya’s poems have distinctly articulated exit and entry points without turning into jelled shibboleths. She abandons the measured sedative of easily digested themes in favour of abstraction and synthesis. You can wear the poem however you wish but you are always reminded of the deft hand that cut through their cloth. Even when she leans into simplicity while phrasing movements such as “trace your burns / let them know your glow”, her words retain a sardonic undercurrent. There a dark joy at these very turns where a purposely weighty word pulls you down to the deepest waters. It is a moment of pause—Look! Is this what you feared I could become? This possibility of being buoyed between disclosure and disappearance. But what if you too could just hold your breath for a moment and wait for the pulse to quicken with a new rush of feelings? What will that “undertide of deities” bring to each “I” in Us?
In Brisees, Michel Leiris writes— “”Midway between the too soiled ground and the too-sublime vaults, at the level of the air, entering the skin of the role, poetry plays its game.”
Medha Singh’s Ecdysis too keeps the promise of its name in the way its creature moults and renews its worldly shell time and again. This name also traces its origins to Ancient Greek; “to take off/strip off”. To soften and step into a new self; “teneral”; guileless. The book has 6 sections and something about the incongruity of their arrangement reminds me of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s collections.
In “found words”, Singh remembers a “familiar unknowingness”. This is where the thematic significance of molting is most apparent—does the insect recognize its environment after shedding the hardened old self in favour of a newer, more tender body? At what moment does this huge forgetting infect its own life? Can a poem ever escape being a ship of Theseus?
Singh’s poems peel back the routines of a young Indian woman’s life to observe what skulks beneath the surface. From detailing a lover’s row that involves hurling yesterday’s dal, cat litter and cricket bats to unabashedly declaring a tiny fetish for women’s necks when seated to reminiscing about that slip-second moment of partition in the repetitive yet poignant stories of North Indian grandmothers; these poems dedicate themselves as instruments for distilling the nuances of a middle-class Indian urbanity that is as apparent as my grandma storing a Hawkins pressure cooker in her Godrej cupboard. And somewhere amidst this, the poet is getting comfortable with her own transformation which is indicated when she writers– “ Spirit is contortion”.
It reminds me of the colonial time where photographs of naked smiling yogis laying on a bed of nails or twisted in pretzel poses was synonymous with the “exotica” of India. We have been so accustomed to selling our pain and for so long. Come to think of it, modern day Indians have excelled at their own acrobatics except now the bed of nails is more ontological and rife with spikes that range from capitalism to casteism to poverty and corruption.
“Ecdysis” in its languid pace explores this arc of existence without any grand declarative outcomes. It shines in moments of anti-climactic humor and manages to interrogate its own melancholy without clinging desperately to the relics loosened in its memory. It does so because it recognizes how easy it is to break a thing forever when you hold it too hard and for too long.
Scherezade Siobhan is an Indo-Rroma social scientist, community catalyst and hack scribbler of two poetry collections: Bone, Tongue (Thought Catalog Books, 2015) and Father, Husband (Salopress, 2016); and one poetry pamphlet, to dhikr, i (Pyramid Editions, 2017). She is the creator and curator of The Mira Project, a global, cross-cultural dialogue which uses expressive art and storytelling to dismantle gendered violence and street harassment. Her work is featured or forthcoming in Feministing, Berfrois, Rattle, DIAGRAM, Word Riot among other digital and print publications, anthologies, exhibitions, art galleries and sometimes even in the bios of okcupid users. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee for writing and can be found squeeing about militant bunnies at www.zaharaesque.com or @zaharaesque on twitter/fb.
Image: Theseus and the Minotaur in the Labyrinth, Edward Byrne-Jones, 1861