The similarity between Some Beheadings, Pointillism and Girls Are Coming out of the Woods is accidental as well as natural. The three women poets represent an axis where poetry and other deep passions meet. Whether it is the tilism or magic of the lines ones draws, the deep engagement with words from various languages, or the synchronised movements of the body to hark at senses, Aditi Machado, Tishani Doshi and Sophia Naz’s recent works have brought to us poetry that courts live engagement with other passions close to their heart.
The poets are situated in diverse time zones and are “flaneuring” their poetic measures in their books, geographically and metaphorically. Their works read as evolving texts, in vibration with the various interpretations one makes of them.
Aditi Machado and translation
Aditi Machado’s Some Beheadings moves on a plane where language is ready to throw itself challenges. There’s a sparseness, a pared down attachment to the concepts she evokes, her engagement with Creely’s minimalism and Proustian long-drawn concepts being realised in brief stanzas or sections.
There is a speck
moving along the river
as along the edges
of a room.
There is a dance.
The interminable leaving— “Prospekt”
of rooms for which
there are seasons.
Perhaps it’s natural that Machado is an editor at Asymptote, an international journal of translation, which she will not of course call a hobby. “It’s work – but not the way the mainstream views work as this thing that you may or may not like doing but which provides a living wage,” she says.
Machado confesses that editing poetry for Asymptote allows her to read extraordinary writing from around the world. Perhaps it is this that is transferred to her caesura and her occasional long sentences, in the form of something akin to elation.
So wind is a textual experience. So I revel in its ambiguities.— “Prospekt”
So may I stand whole minutes suffering its arrivals at the station.
Machado gets to think very carefully about the linguistic and literary transactions she engages with. She gets “to have conversations about language with people who work with it, I would say, most intimately – translators. All of this shapes my other work.” Over the years, she says, she has begun to think of translation as central – or a central force that’s fundamentally decentralising – to her thinking.
Language is centrestage in her writing, a semiotic representation where an image takes on multiple meanings and configurations, even in the realisation of a punctuation mark:
The white of sheep
invades a field,
a circle empties— “Comma”
into another circle.
Here the circle emptying into another circle is visual, like a tongue movement. An idea moving another idea.
Her sentences tease, transform set expectations, and invite readers to treat the language of poetry as an algorithm of notions:
Then I spoke a spoke.— “Archaic”
I spoke a sentence and ye took offence.
I thought a new way burnished make that.
I have nothing new for ye but an ancient latticework I rot.
Tishani Doshi and dance
The lyrical angst of Tishani Doshi’s Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods present to readers poems that grab the reader in a pithy finger pointing. Very much carved in realism, she calls them a fable at times, one that could be enacted like all stories well told:
How would you expound— “A Fable for the 21st Century”
on the aggression of sea anemones,
the Battle of Plassey, Boko Haram?
Language is a peculiar destiny.
In this fable, Doshi looks at language as an occurrence, and as a verdict that the poet needs to frame in urgency. In another piece, her recounting of desire and its innermost split demonstrates a rare kinesis:
Now that damaged petals of hibiscus— “Rain at Three”
drown the terrace stones,
we must kneel together and gather.
This is how desire works:
splintering first, then joining.
A dancer for five years before she became a published writer, Doshi says there are three fundamental things she learned from dance: discipline, time/slowness, and “how to be alone”. What testifies to this and to the verse above is her realisation of the gifts she has: “What has poetry brought to dance? Imagination. Openness. Surrender.”
Speaking of kinesis, it is natural for Doshi to relate to a kind of inhabiting that “dancers must do which writers don’t necessarily need to (or can sometimes cheat about).”
For her, time, rhythm, slowness, are all crucial to poetry, enhanced with dance.
“I did a TED Talk about the luxury of slowness, which is something I learned from Chandralekha, am still learning and still trying to keep at the centre of my life. And how to be alone. I felt this as a writer, but only really understood it as a dancer,” Doshi said.
She feels the terror of the blank page is nothing compared to walking on to a dark stage alone with an audience staring at you, waiting for you to begin. There perhaps lies the first lesson of the craft.
The enactment is a close part of the poet’s training, with movements and presence forming a rich vocabulary:
Don’t make much of the fact that recline— “Portrait of the Poet as a Reclining God”
rhymes with decline. Do it anyway.
Stretch out sideways. Think Titian’s
Venus, but with clothes. Better still,
think Hindu gods. Press mound
of palm up to lake of ear. Imagine
legs of blue, legs of Vishnu,
serpent skin susurrating against
Doshi points out in a lighter vein that if one is hungover and on the theatre floor, if one is in rehearsal, the body must move. But it is the truth of an artist’s overall aptitude: “you have to show up”.
In a collection sparkling with poems of forthrightness, nostalgia and sharp allusions, Doshi would perhaps kill some of the poems if she were to do something else with the book. Expansion is not an option here.
“A friend of mine who’s an artist in Auroville, Pierre Legrand, told me that when he’s working on a series of paintings or sculptures they were like trees that belonged to the same forest. I think a collection of poems feels that way to me. They come together, and you realise that there’s something that connects them, and whatever you work on next will be a different forest.,” Doshi said.
In that forest of belonging, the poet articulates her lyrical social concern:
...Girls are coming out— “Girls are Coming Out of the Woods”
of the woods the way birds arrive
at morning windows – pecking
and humming, until all you can hear
is the smash of their miniscule hearts
against glass, the bright desperation
of sound – bashing, disappearing.
Girls are coming out of the woods.
It’s a song – the imagery of the lush woods, the “bright desperation”, and the evocative commotion. What Doshi achieves here is a rare combination of deep-laden conviction and a chiseled rhetoric rising in a crescendo – a performance in itself.
Sophia Naz and magic
Magic or tilism is a password that Sophia Naz employs in bold swipes in her book Pointilism. The poetry in this collection is bold and experimental, courts language and imagery with an abandon, and throws at readers expressions that are neatly wrapped up in layers that burst open with surprise on being read closely.
There is an exuberant Sufi sentiment that she reveals:
Still drummers heave / Sindhri da/Sehwan da Zinda Pir/— “The Ballad of Jhoolay Laal”
tectonic totem / pulsing on
I drudge / I dredge / dig beneath this / my lalazar / language,
longing / hoarse as the sea
Suck in umbilical / task, taxonomy / grounding my teeth
I walk the cities / pick up shards / sleep on tulips / sleep
Born in Pakistan and now a traveller of several places, she writes of patterns she has known as a “native” of several geographies:
Lahore was a mirage. If you got too close it disappeared. Like all of her loves she keeps Lahore entombed in her drawer, an entire city of rooftops and gray doves walled up in a 4 by 6 postcard.— “Notes from a Holding Pattern”
Naz’s poetry and art have been closely connected right from the very beginning. Sometimes the poem is the image, a hybrid creation experimenting with the visual possibilities inherent in the shapes of letters, “a haiku arranged in a tic-tac-toe grid, or a liminal poem whose letters crumble into abstraction.”
Instead of attending the National College Of Art in Lahore with a scholarship, Naz went to work at 19 as a flight attendant. Out of Pakistan, from Thailand to New York, she studied art and all the while was exposed to well known poets and artists.
“Today I continue a daily practice of Zen influenced abstract brush painting. As for what gives more or demands more I would say that both mediums demand attention but are also radically different in the sense that a brush painting is done in an instant and there is no going back to it, it either works or it doesn’t, whereas a poem can be revised endlessly until it works,” Naz said.
The brush strokes she creates as art is also evident on her poetic exuberance. What is written on the body is also a scar or a sketch on a surface, art that reciprocates rigour in her poetry:
and weft that
calligraphy of missive
sacred scar— “Ode to a Scar”
I wanted to interpret
you like a dream
For Naz, poetry is definitely the more cerebral exercise, while her “brush practice is much more of a surrender to the moment”.
Influences and confluences
Machado doesn’t assume her book is perfect or “anything absurd like that”. In Some Beheadings, the poems often seek to feel thought or to touch how the mind works. One is startled by the strange juxtaposition of “pillow” and “cacti”, the curious rhyming of “culture” and “specular”, and the materiality of the elements that carry the idea of a desert – “drought”, “spiny”, “glass”, “crystalline”. The end result is certainly replete with her notion of “feeling thoughts”:
A wind blows, the desert unfolds.
To sleep on its pillow is succulent as cacti swelling in times
of plenty shrinking in drought.
When I lived in the desert I was so young & spiny drinking
rain into my lungs. Now it is culture everywhere & specular.
The desert melts, the sky’s glass.
I muse on this as on myriad crystalline forms.— “Route: Desert”
Or, it is about touching “how” the mind works:
I am thinking now to describe what it’s like to touch something.
What it is to rub off on someone.
When two matters interact should I hope to keep my skin.
Ambling in the wind, lost in perfections, those blips
along the odometer of time, my feet in the weeds –
my head capitulates to them. Little plants, little events. That’s how
I think. A decapitation, a lovely guillotine wind lays my mind
in the weeds. That’s
how I touch a plant.— “In the Weeds"
Like Doshi, Naz is also allegorical and elevating in poems with political content:
The crime of the Arrested Pigeon was to cross— “The Tale of the Incarcerated Tree and the Arrested Pigeon”
an invisible border in the unpartitioned sky
The crime of the Incarcerated Tree was to be smitten
with his winged captive
carrying a paper anklet with a love poem
There were several poems that seemed to have spoken to Naz’s overall concept of “Pointillism” that were not included in the book. “Mostly these were poems that were spatial experiments,” she said.
One, titled “How To Solve The New York Times Crossword Puzzle”, is in the shape of a crossword grid. and the “I” in Ai Weiwei’s name keeps “dropping across the grid like bombs from a drone”. The last lines of the poem are “This poem is collateral damage/ it’s been/written off/ already.” As an artist trained in employing strokes to define e(motions), Naz’s current work treats language like a sacred space.
While you are reading
about a bird with limitless wings
the one the ancients named
Simurgh, flight and soul
Hamsa/Soham— “The Names of Birds”
until the bird
and its meanings
are merged as One.
For Machado, in terms of poetry itself existing, being present, in multiple modes and spaces, she’s drawn to this statement by Duriel E Harris: “Committed to the transformative potential of a liberatory praxis, I compose poetry in the space of the page (to be activated in utterance), and as digital audio, video, and live performance – differential poetic events, celebrating the diverse remix of deep House/funk. Harnessing my awareness(es) and digital gear, I extend myself beyond the boundaries of the body into the space of encounter in anticipation.”
The praxis comes alive in that urgent and elegant space of encounter, a veritable performance:
Locusts are swarming.
Lust is. Here is
a valence. We were
paragraphing the sun.
My friends & I, unhappy
with anything pitched
higher than darkness,— “Blessed Is”
Doshi chooses to be engaged with her audience in a “live, literal” way. As a dancer she believes that “poetry lends itself to collaboration and performance in incredible ways (fiction, for instance, is much harder).”
An oral tradition, before it was written down, poetry was spoken, and “in my experience people still respond to that spoken word, they may not understand all of it, but there is something incredibly powerful about incantation that a live performance can deliver, which a page sometimes cannot,” said Doshi. She has performed the title poem successfully in numerous venues. And the potential for such engagement also exists in poems such as this with rarified tones and cinematic abandon:
In Aleppo. I cannot speak of Aleppo.— “Abandon”
Only that it is the opposite of breath.
There must be a word for the walk
home at night. Your belongings in two bags,
feet in mud. For a family thinking they will return.
Maybe the house still stands. Maybe the sea.
Whether it’s “tillism” as a double entendre of the hybrid word “pointillism” in Naz’s work, the geographical expansion of the metaphorical “woods” in Doshi’s energetic corpus, or the morphology of Machado’s landscape where “beheadings” are organic to speech and its sudden valence, the three poets dwell largely in performance, but not in the traditional sense. To evoke what Paul Zumthor termed as “mouvance” to allude to a text as not so much a finished product, rather than as a text in progress (un texte en train de se faire), all three of the works here could be seen through that lens. A kind of “incessant vibration”, art, language, and movement form the geographies of this poetic performance.