neti, neti

neti, neti:
not this, not that either –

is an inadequate
definition of the primal

being she said, the squirming
shimmer of creation

adrift in the cosmos
can’t be contained thus

nor the refulgence
beyond –

so abolish
oppositions, negate

negations, she said,
instead affirm, expand

the concept of the first
cause, come on, conceive

neti, neti
as: not only this, not only that either –

a single word
can birth universes

don’t you see?

was her unyielding

her singularity)

i walk alone
through puddles of sky

We Must Talk

‘Every house, no matter how well built, will eventually catch fire.’
- Kathryn Davis

We must talk & do so on this soil that turns
swamp turns shivering sea: turn it into neutral
waste (o limned in clemency) that buoys us
both on seaweeds bereft of weight, of wakes.

We must talk remembering love, summoning its
hands on us as we sing from siren perches come die
against me please or break off, each a wailing wall
submerged in murk while skin pours incense.

We must talk over my swell of fear and your tide
of neglect, casual in its sweep. But do you want
to swim past its rich rewards to see me reappear? Alarm
whimpers in me saying darken, dive, disappear.

We must talk beyond hope to look at what may
be. Around us glitter gifts – our life of years together –
as litter. Spare grace. Could we build on flotsam yet?
Can we net phosphorescence? What’s your take?

We must talk of anguish caused that so weeps to hide
its face while shame seeps from entrails to lustrate me in
inkiness; a black beacon to which your regret is a lifejacket
hurriedly hurled just out of reach. Is it deliberate, my sweet?

We must talk: am I imagining you shipwrecked while
you are safe elsewhere, your shadow too? My tongue,
marooned, still stutters blessings after you. Tell me at our
accident site over the sirens’ blare there’s nothing to rescue.

We must talk. As I drown a slip of moonshine intones
your words familiar, bewildering, as your reflection
melts into me as craved chyle, as the horizon
unrelentingly lobs stars overhead beyond time.

We must talk, must answer prayers, part
the waves, herald vision but my dissolved
retinas can’t see you anymore my love


Prayer as Three Camera Movements *

Falconetti’s Joan of Arc Face

Cracked sun the teardrop that hangs on a lash and falls
bursts skids down her pitted skin, down her brokenness
as she, stone flower, sunflower, turns towards the inquisitor’s glare
and her sainthood is slowly hammered into chainmail breasts.
Her silent words are wrong whatever she says.
Extreme close-up: no let up to transformation. See the trembling of cell, phrase & faith.

Kinuyo Tanaka’s Nape in The Life of Oharu

She drops her head to staunch her eyes’
rain as her son who reigns walks past not knowing that
sack of kneeling woman is his mother who sinned &
pulled herself out of icy seas like a wounded seal, sealed
to secrecy. See the bent stalk of her nape, how soft, how ripe for the axe.
Crane shot ascends: suffering shrinks to dewdrop size. Silence
of the enfolding gaze.

Gauri’s Back in Sant Tukaram

“Accompany me to heaven,” her husband says. “Who’ll feed
the kids & scrub the buffalo if I come with you? Go!”
She rolls out chapattis, rough as dung-cakes, as holy bread.
The saint mounts god’s eagle & people chant. She flings the
sweat from her face on the earth. Her back sturdy as a tree, and bowed.
Slow backward track: the unseen movement that remains as time forgets the colour of clay.

*Falconetti’s Joan of Arc’s Face

Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer cast the little known Marie Falconetti in the title roles in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Falconetti played the role with profound spiritual power that was to change her for life, and she never acted again. The Passion of Joan of Arc still figures in many Top Ten lists, as does Falconetti’s performance.

Kinuyu Tanak’s Nape in The Life of Oharu

In The Life of Oharu (1952) director Kenji Mizoguchi fashioned a great tragedy about a woman at different stages in her life in feudal Japan. Kinuyu Tanaka was Mizoguchi’s amanuensis; here she plays the eponymous character with rare conviction and sensitivity. The film won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

Gauri’s Back in Sant Tukaram

The most celebrated bhakti/ devotional film made in Indian cinema, V. Damle-S. Fattelal’s Sant Tukaram (1936), features Gauri the earthy Jijai burdened by housework while the indomitable Vishnupant Pagnis plays the eponymous saint. The film was voted as one of the best three films at the Venice film Festival.

Thousand Buddha Caves, Dunhuang

The Gobi’s pebbly shore and the Taklimakan’s sandy
surge meet at the gouged green of an oasis. Here the scent
of water unfurls its damp banner before being seen.

Step down. Give thanks to running water and its song,
to moist breeze, to the sound of leaves doing what they do
when happy: rustle and lift.

The sky’s translucent jellyfish billows, then presses
on the desert rim. Below, the caves are small, the paintings
can’t compare with Mogao’s allure where nymphs trail

snaking sleeves of silk and Buddhas dream on coiled
clouds, fur trimmed. In this trickle of cells the figures’
black contours are thick with naïveté and reverence.

A monk tended this redolence and its slender spring
through the Cultural Revolution. Save
for the guard, the monk’s dinted statue and a see-thru

cashbox far from full this cave is bare. Here the heart
does what it’s supposed to do: lift and shimmer.
Beyond, the desert roars.

The Timurid Lands

Big Mosque, Bukhara

The sky’s firozi gleam –
immaculate and unsupportable.

The mosque’s jade green dome
bears down on the thrust

of tiled walls clustered with cobalt
turquoise ochre and white hexagons

shamshas sunburts crescents.
Frozen patterns mob the eyes, the body

is entombed in alien structures.
Then the Big Mosque pulls a trick:

It shrinks, slinks into the heart.

Time dilates

the tiles release

their embedded stars –

the mosque reels

in prayer

constellations expand

through flesh

A breeze lifts a memory.

Shadow falls over revelation.


Under phosphorescing skies
I’m a compass
with the needle missing.
The Pole star wanders shedding light.
Hurtling embers
lace space, each a gaze, a syllable.
Galaxies reel
spilling the language of time.
Mystery’s alphabets singe
nebulae, strum stellar winds.
In which transparency do you hide?

Calling Over Water

Excerpted with permission from Calling Over Water, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Poetrywala.

Priya Sarukkai Chabria is an award-winning translator, poet and writer acclaimed for her radical aesthetics. Her books include works of speculative fiction, literary non-fiction, poetry collections, and translations from Classical Tamil. She’s won the Muse Translation Award for Andal The Autobiography of a Goddess, and the Experimental Fiction Award in The Best Asian Speculative Fiction Kitab Anthology, 2018; her spec-fic CLONE was selected as one of the best reads of 2018 by The Feminist Press.