I grew up in an age of poets
who told me joy
was for cabbages.
Thus begins Arundhathi Subramaniam’s new book of poetry, Love Without a Story. I was immediately hooked.
The book’s title may suggest a large, universal, almost-too-hard-to-grasp idea of love, but these opening lines ground us immediately in a world that is simultaneously fresh, whimsical, and, as the poem continues, deeply earnest. And while I am not always sure about love, I am immediately intrigued by – and at home with – a poet who can write affectionately about cabbage.
In many ways, that is what this book offers: a world glimpsed in quick image, fresh insight, and quiet wisdom. One of the poems recollects the narrator’s eight-year-old self watching, through a keyhole, as her mother sips a glass of iced cola at a party. The child is surprised by her mother’s ease in a world of grown-ups, shy at feeling she barely recognises her. “And that’s how I discovered/ that keyholes always reveal more/ than doorways,” Subramaniam writes.
Much of the book has a a similar sense of allowing us to peep, to glance into intimate moments that we were perhaps not supposed to be part of, sensing the world open up to us in quiet glances that are neither invited nor forbidden. In another poem, we learn that “people/ are also panes/ you press your nose against,” and later, “one day you realise/ you’re a pane too...and all your life you’ve done nothing/ but make hectic designs/ on the glass.// And you’re still/ outside.” The outward gaze has now turned inwards, glimpsing with the same quiet wonder, the same sureness and mystery, one’s own internal world.
Arundhathi Subramaniam is unique among contemporary Indian English poets in her very particular balance between a deep grounding in local traditions and spiritualities, especially the Bhakti movement, and a simultaneous refusal to be defined in terms of a particular tradition or cultural stereotype (this is also, after all, the poet who wrote a poem called “To the Welsh Critic Who Doesn’t Find Me Identifiably Indian”).
She is a poet equally at home in “the temples of Perur and Avinashi” and amongst mojitos and stories of Poland over happy hour. The poem “How to Read Indian Myth (for AS, who wonders)” begins, simply, “The way I read Greek, I suppose,” matter-of-fact in its refusal to either exoticise or simplify, and asking readers to move through story knowing “there is never a single point”. There is no sacred and profane in this book, no local and foreign. Or perhaps everything is simultaneously sacred and profane, simultaneously local and foreign, the encounter with a goddess no more and no less than parents whose lives and deaths remind us “that the big truths are never oracular, just slippers outside a bathroom”.
As readers, we glimpse this sense of quiet sureness over and over through the book, nowhere more than in the poet’s musings about what we lose and what we gain with age. There are poems of nostalgia for long ago evenings with friends at “formica tables sticky with Kolatkar”, fond remembrances of conversations that “rose/ like yeast and melted/ like butter in Irani restaurants in Bombay.”
There is a constant encounter with mortality, like “the air ticket you emailed me,/ never knowing it would be/ the one to your funeral,” followed immediately by the lines “it gets easier, friend,/ with age,/ to delete, plan breakfast,/ turn the page.”
And there is the quiet wisdom of age – the knowledge that “tyrannical/ algebra teachers die,// and timid cleaning ladies/ with floral aprons, too,” as well as the unselfconsciousness of being “done with the nightmare/ of smiling and finding she’s forgotten/ to wear her dentures.” The speaker of these poems is neither hardened nor softened by ageing; rather the reflections take on a quiet, meditative quality, a sense of somehow simultaneously growing more secure in one’s place in the world and being able to let go of it. Or, as Subramaniam puts it: “The thing about age/ is seeing through the game/ but being able to smile/ at those who play it.”
Gender is another of the quiet threads that runs through these poems spoken mostly in the voices of women making sense of their own lives, and occasionally, of their relationships with men. In the long poem at the centre of this book, “Avaiyyar”, “the legendary wise woman of Tamil literature” sighs with the knowledge that “little boys grow into/ men that scintillate,/ men that pontificate,/ men that dribble curses,/ men that cannot apologise,// grey-faced men,/ men that turn love to ash.”
In another, quieter poem, this one set at a Tuesday happy hour with a friend, the poet muses “This sisterhood could be enough,/ and still it isn’t, we know./ And those men – / the ones that fear intimacy/ and the ones that don’t – / they won’t be enough either.” In both of these poems, we sense only a hint of melancholy; for the most part, these narrators have made a quiet peace with these men, Avaiyyar acknowledging that doing so is simply part of growing older.
But then, in a poem called “A Song for Catabolic Women,” the voices of the vastly different women in this book crescendo into a wonderfully rhythmic chant that begins “We’re bound for the ocean/ and a largesse of sky,/ we’re not looking for the truth/ or living a lie.” The women in this song are “passionate, ironic,/ angelic, demonic,/ clairvoyant, rational,/ wildly Indian, anti-national.” They are unafraid of themselves, unafraid of claiming their space in the world; they forget to say please and thank you and are interested in neither camouflage nor self-revelation. They simply are, and their being is reassuring and refreshing.
At the heart of the “Song for Catabolic Women” are the lines “We’re capable of stillness/ even as we gallivant,/ capable of wisdom,/ even as we rant.” As a younger woman making my way through this poet’s territories of intimacies, spiritualities, and mortalities, I am grateful for the possibilities these poems offer – the ability to simultaneously rant and be wise, the glimpses into a steadier, surer gaze. The narrator of the book’s opening poem continues her meditation about cabbage by wondering “what it might mean/ to be leafy,// to wilt,/ to be damaged sometimes// by upstart caterpillars/ and still stay green— // chaotically, wetly, powerfully green.” Ultimately, this is the gift of this collection – the reassurance, always, that it is possible to simultaneously wilt and to flourish, the reassurance for which many of us turn to poetry in the first place.
Love Without A Story: Poems, Arundhati Subramaniam, Context.