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Sridala Swami

Myth of Cosmos

It stands outside of myself, something round, flecked with spit, like a moon«
growing out of my nails, moon« of phenomenal lactescence.

I push my head into the roundess & a cloud« is my face
& I see particles of mist« floating away.

There’s nothing I can do or limb or crook of elbow, inutile
& something is growing under my tongue, a word, a love«

A deer falls from my eyes, rolls down my cheek, & I name
the cloud« with the overgrown tongue

& a brush of flowers falls on my face
to toe I’m blessed, blessing

painted on my nails my palms I d«ance, palm flashing thigh buckling
silvered belly stars.

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Monica Mody is the author of two chapbooks, and her work can also be found in journals such as the Boston Review, Wasafiri, Upstairs at Duroc, pyrta, Lantern Review, and Nether, among others. Her first book, KALA PANI, is forthcoming from 1913 Press later this year. Monica has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Notre Dame and is currently a doctoral candidate in East-West Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies.

The Catalogue

Eight
Always keep evidence it will make you stronger or Learning to Photograph the Personal

Nan Goldin (1953-
Nan One Month after Being Battered, NYC, 1984

Hansel and Gretel left breadcrumbs along the route,
entering the dark alley way behind Mr. ______,
Oh, the witch? Whatever, my story is scarier.
On their knees, folded into gimps accessorized with standard
red ball in mouth, I’m sure you’ve watched Pulp Fiction.
Gretel, of course, is Victor in his Heidi-drag.
Breadcrumbs aren’t great measures,
birds come and take them away.
We here at Koshy’s haven’t heard of H and G since then.
But lessons we have learnt from this telling:
One: No one should walk around with standard issue table tennis balls.
Two: Heidi-drag is old-fashioned.
Three: Never mingle with drag queens unless you are in drag.
And Four: Gay men carry their hearts in their umbrellas.
We do the same thing in love,
led by a leash mimicking each of our favourite females and their follies,
and bookmark them with film songs, you know, another lover will come
and take the songs away.
We’ve learnt to hide our playlists and only weep over lost umbrellas.
We have learnt to imagine everything is better than getting wet in the torrents of love. But, sometimes, even the veteran spotters of this change
can’t tell it is coming. They stand out in the midst of the action, like Isaiah
and his neighbours in the fields of Tanzania, listening in for the aerial attack,
first comes the noise, then, the advance party followed by the swarm.

The swarm of red-billed quelea, locust birds. But these coffee-shop veterans have learnt it is the excesses of conversation that are the tip-offs,
the mumbled offerings, not the rambunctious approaching of the quelea.
You must pay attention to words said just before speeding off to the urinal,
always look out for the subtext in the sentence that led to ex-lovers walking out
for a desperate or even innocent cigarette, or the roving eye to spot the person one was actually supposed to meet.
Unlike Isaiah our shouting will not dispense with this friend: love.
Even all our vigilance will not alert us to this visitor: love.
The one who will throw out your heart and then set out looking for it: love.
Look at Nan Goldin’s face, it is battered. But she makes this photograph to remind herself that love, her friend, visitor and heart-thrower will find her. Even the next time, she will follow blindly but this time, she will bargain.
Perhaps, our approach to love should be Goldin’s approach to photography:
a healing art. Love like Goldin’s photography will teach us the indulgence of self-reflection, relearning the erotic and the slippage of gender.
And we will be the changed.
No, no. He didn’t batter me. This is not the story of abuse. He left.
Stay, don’t move. Perhaps, I will come back, we will meet again, are horrible things to say. Not to specify time is just cruel. It is April. Actually, it was like all Septembers in Bangalore, it rained in the evenings, it was chilly at night and it was always sunny in the day. Except, this September, you turned around, ah, to just jump forward like Bichonnade and bite your heel.
But no, I am Dibutades, I know my place, it is to chronicle, to make etchings, be it with word. Yours is with light and you weren’t told.
My man might have left, diving into the abyss of the world, discovering newer treasures and the perfect light. But, I stayed, remembering the half-forgotten truths, the fresh lies and the incisive moment.
This History bitch, she’s quite dramatic, you look at the setting.
Me: Int/Kitchen/Dim lighting
Him: Ext/Kitchen Door/Facing darkness
Scripted by a television serial director. But everyone is hooked.
The series finale is perfect. Such a twist in the plot, ending on a bottle episode
with a cliffhanger. Does he leave? Does she convince him to stay? Why is the father in the room? Does the father represent the voyeuristic values of the average television watcher?
Spoiler Alert: If I didn’t pop my head into an oven somewhere in the series. Then, he left. I stayed. He photographed, I wrote. We kept in touch.

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Joshua Muyiwa, not yet 27, started writing because he was told, ‘it is time to stop seeming arty and pretentious and actually earn the tags by doing something’. He is queer. In Bangalore, he’s either at Koshy’s drinking tea, smoking outside, drinking rum & coke at Chin Lung or working at the Attakkalari India Biennial 2013 festival office. Earlier this year, he had his Miss World moment, when he won the Toto Award for Creative Writing in English for The Catalogue, a series of poems on the history of photography and poetry told through the breakdown of a relationship between a photographer and a poet. But, mostly, he likes to imagine that he spends his time making dosas and streaming tv shows.

Exile: an invitation to a struggle
(from My Rice tastes like the lake. Berkeley, CA: Apogee Press, 2011)

Mother tells me to eat well.
Mother who knows best, asks,
how are you? She has asked this
all of my life. There are only two
answers to this question. Two answers
keep us mother and son,
mother and daughter.

The distance is a question.
The question is also a statement
of a struggle.

If the word is a struggle,
you understand.  

We cannot continue as we are.
We cannot forget we are guests
who have overstayed. I invite you
to living against (as we do.)
It is not enough to have one tongue.
It cannot point to everything
and in every direction.

We do not use our mother tongue
for our lovers. Beloved,
we speak your words.
What do we want? Freedom.
When do we want it? Now.
Protest
in the mother tongue. Free now
from the notion of continuity.

The present is the utterance;
now is too late.

Flowers plucked for later,
not now, they are dead. Stem,
stamen, piston: I do not ask
if they are perfect.

I am not to blame for the flies
who dive into a cup of tea.

Life after death is a belief.
There is no heaven because
there is no hell.

After rain, a swarm of flies
misbehave like stubborn stubble.
Claimed by multi-legged beings,
hair loosens from its comfort of a braid.

Rain seeps into the animals who lie
still, the wind bored from blowing.
Until sun convinces us to take
our layers off; dismisses the hats
we wear.

We predict the contraction
of bones, of skin stretching to oblige
the dress picked for a summer caper.

It is not possible to remain
free of the suffering of knowing
and of ignorance.

In fifty years, dogs from rival villages
have lost and won their wars. Their heirs walk
with tails between their legs.

We pray for a better life.

The inevitable, here, then gone.
Snow bound ground, snow topped ground, the only
assurance we have
is, it will melt.

Our bodies covered
and uncovered
are not the same.

__________________________________________
Tsering Wangmo Dhompa is the author of My rice tastes like the lake, In the Absent Everyday and Rules of the House (all from Apogee Press). My rice tastes like the lake was a finalist for the Northern California Independent Bookseller’s Book of the Year Award for 2012. Tsering grew up in the Tibetan exile communities of Nepal and India. She recently moved to Santa Cruz where she is pursuing a PhD degree in Literature at UCSC.

HOW A THING TURNS WRETCHED

It is errant.

It errs around the town to which it belongs
and errs like a word constantly misspoken.

It is taken out of its regular place and placed
in exile.

Exile is an outside of the kind strange animals inhabit.

A sharing of skins occurs.

On a branch above all this a species of bird
watches: a sparrow.

The thing driven out like a screw from its wall
lies open to rust

until it errs again
in the strange place outside animals inhabit.

It wanders around and returns, a cur.

It hungers and spits.

It takes off one skin and puts on another.

Its new skin is inside out
and like a net cast

to the sea it collects more and more
of itself, wreaking.

A wretched thing is alone
until it is not.

Among others of its kind
a wretched thing is still wretched

and when the sparrow lifts off, a final arousal
of pity,

the wretched thing is unwatched and still —

____________________________________________________
Aditi Machado’s poetry is forthcoming or has most recently appeared in The Iowa Review, The New England Review, Blackbird and The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (ed. Sudeep Sen, 2012). In 2009 she received the Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize as well as the TFA Award for Creative Writing. She received her MFA from Washington University in Saint Louis, where stays on as the Third Year Fellow in Poetry for the academic year 2012-2013. She is the poetry editor of Asymptote, an international journal of translation.

(This post was to begin with a quote that I remember as having been said by the filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard: “You don’t read a film; you watch it”. While trying to chase down the quote, though, I found it had disappeared so effectively that I began to doubt both the words and the person to whom I was attributing it. Regardless of who said it and whether they said it that way, here it is, the quote as epigraph:)

You don’t read a film; you watch it.

A poem, like a film, is a different beast. It is both an event and an object; which it to say, it occurs in time and it occupies space. It is music and it is drawing.

It may not be both things at once, but it has the potential to be either.  And both (though not necessarily, of course, at once. See previous sentence).

When poetry functions as music, when it is spoken aloud, when it unfolds in time, it trusts to memory. All music is memory. Poetry recited is, for the listener, a path unfolding where none existed before. A listener does not know what comes next; only the poet and the speaker know.

A listener may only have the haziest notion of what came before but there is no way of retracing her steps. Poetry spoken aloud moves in only one direction: forward. (It also ‘moves’, for the most part, from left to right, but we will come to that later).

The recitation of a well-known poem is to the listener what a recorded song is to a live performance. The listener has a particular way of reciting the poem and may be out of step with the ‘live’ version now being performed in front of her.

When a poem is read aloud, the speaker is an object who can be read. No: watched.

When a poem is recited, there may be more than one performer. Poetry spoken aloud may ripple outwards.

Poems on the page are not read; they are watched.

Poems on the page are read, but only after they are watched.

When I choose a poem to read, I first look for the ones that occupy less space. Or at least, ones that occupy one space: a page or facing pages. I view the poem at once, without reading.

Think of it as an aerial shot or a bird’s-eye-view of the poem. In saccades, I take in information about density of text, patterns and repetitions, empty space.

I am reading – no, viewing – Kazim Ali’s ‘The Return of Music’. (Kazim Ali, The Far Mosque, Alice James Books, 2005).

One poem over two (facing) pages. I catch the words ‘orange’ and ‘sapphire’. Then, in a cascade, the words ‘unfold’, ‘Unopened’ (from the next line, because my eyes slide down), ‘unsummon’ and ‘uncry’ (back to the previous line).

In my mind, I have attached the prefix ‘un’ to the ‘you’ in ‘you will’. As my eyes drift to the facing page, I am thrilled to see that what my mind made has been made again on the page. This line: ‘Unyear you will. Unyou you will.’

There are other thoughts I have before I even read the poem – from top to bottom and left to right, the way poems in certain languages are usually written and therefore must be read (what if a poem must be read in a different order, actually read against the grain in order to make sense?).

These other thoughts, such as: that I might have used the word ‘cascade’ above because this poem contains the words ‘course’ and ‘carved’ and ‘wends’ and ‘went’. Such as: is it really a coincidence that I picked a poem about music in order to demonstrate how I watch a poem?

Such as: the instant I use the word watch to describe an experience, I describe the experience in time. The object may not move in time, but time passes anyway. See: Abbas Kiarostami’s Five Dedicated to Ozu. It occurs to me that regardless of my wanting to separate a poem-as-event from poem-as-object, it is both, simultaneously.

As I read, I go back and forth, moving between the lines, refreshing my memory, reminding myself of what went before. I tell myself this is freedom because if I were listening to this poem, I would be bound by the pace of the speaker and my attention span.

(I remember that I am able to memorise poems only when I record them and listen to the recording constantly. Learning poems is like knowing the lyrics to songs: you know it without knowing when you learnt it.)

When poems are long, longer than two facing pages, I panic. I want to have a sense of its ending before I begin. I flip the pages to get an idea of how long the poem is.

(Pages are to minutes what distance is to time. I say, ‘It’s 15 minutes by bus.’ I don’t say, ‘It’s 3 kms from where you are.’)

While reading a long poem, the attention slips and affects the experience of the poem in the same way that inattention affects the heard poem. What occupies these gaps?

When I read a long poem – a book-length poem, say After Nature – I hold the book in my left hand and flip it as if it were a flip book and something would animate itself.

I expect persistence of vision.

I get end words from lines. The beginnings are firmly (with)held by my own hands.

Beginnings are only entry points. The poem-as-object has more than one point of entry.

I think of Jean-Luc Godard (again!) releasing the full version of Film Socialisme on the film’s website (now defunct). It was the whole film, but it was a speeded-up version, lasting 15 minutes or less.

When I flip through a book of poems to get a sense of what it is about, I think I am performing a blurb. Or do I mean a précis?

(I ask myself: is it possible to have a photographic memory for text in an unfamiliar language?)

I think: ‘This is impossible’. I decline to say what ‘this’ is.

In the Mahabharata, when the sages in the Naimisam forest ask Sauti to recount the events that form the epic, they ask him to tell them the story in detail. Sauti, in response, gives them a history of the versions of the epic and how Vyasa came to write it and says, ‘It is the wish of the learned in the world to possess the details and the abridgement.’

The poem viewed or watched, then, may be the poem first as précis then in full.

Can a poem ever be only read?

A work of art is a problem

It’s easy enough to read the thoughts of a newcomer:
the one who will come without appointment
remembering circles and maps of temperance.

Down the avenue of swift and invisible nudes
a thin, brittle demon the shade of an autumn leaf
is seeking imperfections.

Our prophets always speak too soon–
you know you want to own a picture of a man
carrying a drum made of human scalps.

Give me a little more time here–
A democracy of strangeness is
a reminder that the work of art presents not an expression

of identity but a problem
‘I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theatre.’
Now–
I’d like a word or two from you.


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Sridala Swami writes poetry, short fiction. Her first collection of poems, A Reluctant Survivor,was shortlisted for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Award in 2008. She has written three books for very young children, which were published by Pratham in 2009. Swami was the 2011 Charles Wallace Writer-in-Residence at The University of Stirling, Scotland.