Work(s) That Received 2016 Scholastic National Awards Recognition
(for my mother)
Ma, I haven't spoken Tamil in three years.
(call it forgetting, or just prenatal Americanization)
Some god must have known I was a child
of loose change, of ambiguity, of everything more confused
than it should be. Of conjoined twins snipped off
the cord together. Of the love of a language. Of everything
unbounded and shivering; Mother, maybe I'll
lose the syllables of my name next, ancient and observing, still,
like the way rice farmers wade into their crop after the monsoon
swallowed them whole. This is a lesson on everything sacred.
Ma, I forgot my name before I learnt how to blink. We
promised to keep culture like dollars and gum wrappers,
stashed in inside out pockets, tumbled and dried in the wash,
bleached and chlorinated by city swimming pools, floating
pieces of ourselves blanched in cauliflower and contamination;
this is how letters forget themselves, this is how a
daughter loses the weight of her tongue in her mouth, replaces
it with a borrowed accent, a softer l, a rumbling a, a smeared r, toothpick consonants, dissonance. Ma, we were Indian until
we weren't. Meanwhile, I pretend I am cultured, I read Dickinson,
structure culture around the linebreaks of my own ignorance. Outside,
the sun melts into itself and I am thinking of all the ways to say that I
am lost, the crumpled syllables cramping in my mouth, this is not
poetry anymore, this is what happens when a daughter forgets where
her lungs are, what they were made of. Ma, I'm losing parts of
myself every day, leaving bits of human when I walk, buttons, sweater
strings, rosin dust, crushed bottles of water, words and words and
worlds, latex gloves and frozen over car lots downtown,
mustard seed heat thawing immigrant dreams, silence.
I want to question whether these are the things that make up
the constellations of my genetics, the silence of my voice, but even I
I know nothing is silent about life. I've lost more than I have ever lost in
sixteen years. I've started shedding ethnicity like hair:
I fear I'll go bald.
Poem for Ayesha
I have forgotten what hemispheres taste like,
Ayesha. The sky folds itself into origami flowers today and I can only
think of everything I have forgotten. Ayesha tells me about her flat in Bombay,
her voice gritty like swallowed rubble, her body is an earthquake, rustling
and rumbling, tells me a story. In June, the only things she knows to be
true are wet socks and daal rice and crows that kill each other for
handfuls of pulao, claws scratching, hissing, hustling, humming, they
pull each others' throats out like paper, bleeding, bruised, they are merciless,
and the sky absorbs their long forgotten lives, releases the pull of their
heartstrings like chemical dissociation. This is the moral of the story, she tells
me, and I feel sick every time.
Here is Ayesha: Ayesha, who loves Shakespeare and frozen yogurt on
Sundays at 3:00, loves the wind like a blanket, the sky like the bronchi of the
universe, Ayesha, who has a voice like caramel, who cannot remember the last time
she was called beautiful. Ayesha, who is scared of crickets and nosebleeds,
who has moved fifteen times and has only one regret. Here is Ayesha,
who I am secretly jealous of, of her perfect Hindi and flowering mehindi
hands and her voice, so full of sound and air that it makes me sound stupid when I
attempt culture, but for Ayesha, the sky melts a little when she speaks.
Listen: this is a difficult poem to write
This is the truth about me, Ayesha: I do not know about
life past hours filming over into candlewick days, about a language
spiny and bent, as if I had attempted contortionism on a culture, I
understand nothing of a deadened tongue drying up in my mother's
mouth, about the sanctity of ancestry. But I do know about life:
how it is now simple science to separate the molecules of blood by
mass, how this is a form of contamination, how this poem is not about
me or my mother or Ayesha, it is not about storm windows or bee
pollen or geranium mouths swollen under the month, how this is not
about ancestry, how sometimes, I am unending in ways she will never understand.
Ayesha, this is a story about fuchsia dragonflies hovering over a swimming pool,
a story about redemption, about a nickname as the green card girl, a story of
how the sting of imported love over static telephones leaves all of us
foreigners in our own homes. Ayesha, Ayesha, Ayesha -
This is the moral of the story: I am a tulip bulb, unflowering,
immiscible in foreign land, these stems that bind me cannot be content
in just one land, separate and together, like a bee/a stinger/ and its wings.
How the earth is immune to a language. How a tablecloth is like the ocean.
How I do not know what a foreigner is. Ayesha, Ayesha, this is only
about how I am evergreen in my own earth.
Jude in November
She tried on every dress in the store
for it to tell her she was pretty. Grabbed their
price tags like melon bones, scraped the
honeydew flesh across the rinds of her stomach
like something revealing.
Now she is burnt hair and waffle faced
and distance and aging and youth and she cannot decide on
what she wants. A rest, she proclaims, a tenuto, fermata,
a drowning ocean.
Jude smells like bananas and leather, sucks antibiotics like
spaghetti from a thin dorsal tube, cracks a gold tipped hello from her mouth
like a smashed egg. I want to tell her she is not a pause, she is big and
huge, expansive, that she is a stringendo in the middle of a caesura.
I want to tell her she is a mountain lifting itself out of the ground,
pine burr brambles snapping like a dead bird's wings, I want to
tell her she is alive, she is alive, she is sixteenth notes and
no air and tree branch melodies, and bluebell jazz and
springtime condensation on the windows and a sonata swung wide.
The waiting room feels like a eulogy already fleshed out and I feel
like screaming for her. Jude, Jude, J u d e-
I tell her what I want, even though it's selfish and I am not proud
of all these things: I tell her I want to play lavish concerts, how notes
can breathe, how atoms are like people in love, how a fermata is like a diagnosis.
How empty pill bottles and antiseptic are grace notes, embellishments, allargando, stretching, taut like the skin of her face. How this music only
gets faster, more intense, bow snapping, breathless until the end. I tell her too
much about the future, about rosin under my nails each night, rock star
except without the guitar smashing, liquor eyeballs, hoarse throats.
I can see us trailing like smoke and it scares me to smile. She grins, sunken,
her hair a crossword begging to be solved. Her scalp, an atlas, a peninsula,
a map to find a home and I feel guilty talking about tomorrow, about being
alive and waiting and not waiting for a death that takes a 200 hours
and 4 people, about being a remnant of sickness she leaves behind.
I don't tell Jude I burnt my cheek with a hair straightener,
or that I saw her mother praying near a jar full of quarters
and her father wailing like a hurricane. I don't tell her about the
resonance of the moment before something happens, a bow to string,
a lightning bolt of clarinet and timpani, stage lights, that she is
still breathing, god, she is still breathing, I don't tell her I know
nothing about life, let alone death.
Now, it is morning and I am lost.
Now, it is morning and I only know
that on the stage, there is
no way to leave unnoticed.
Mother Earth has osteoporosis
(Nurse, I've got a little more than the flu and
I think I've lost my name somewhere along the way, called it Pan-gae-a, slow and slippery like catching fish.
It's been three thousand years since I've felt this way: the way
my bones, spherical and corkscrewed, fell apart, a sort of dislocation
that is only evident among the canopies of my mouth, the crags of
a desert hidden under my jaws. My nose has been bleeding
for a decade, I have been coughing magmatic ashes
from my creased mouth, yawning bits of wind tearing up my skin.
I have a dreadful stomach ache, Nurse and my throat scratches from
the sulfur springs boiling under my tongue. I think I am so desperate for life
I've let it outlive me and I can feel this trembling in my core, Nurse,
and it feels like a premonition, these creaking blue knuckled trees lining
my arms, these brow boned eclipses, my glacial tear ducts melting
down my face, it feels like the 4.5 years of my birth has only
amounted to life that has let itself die out so fast.
Give me a painkiller, antibiotics, I am afraid of curing myself in
a life where everything is a disease. Nurse, teach me how this
burning antiseptic is suspense, how a vaccine is an intruder that
lets himself in quietly, how a cure is teaching your body to decompose
itself, how an embryo is like a tide, how a woman is like an atlas,
how I was reborn, recycled, regenerated ten thousand times.
How it took a third of my life to create the ocean. I fear for
more than my bones, Nurse, I want to be whole again, to stitch
the patches in my skin together like a crumbling quilt. Surgical and
urgent. A needle, some thread, anesthesia, anything-
The way I've started dying myself: slowly and
b r e a t h l e s s l y
all at once) Wilt July// Yamuna River, India
In the Yamuna, a farmer cleaves through grass like hair, a discourse in beetles.
His wife gave birth to a baby girl in the spring amid the grease and begonia sweat of a house
with no windows and no water heater, gave her the land in her palms.
He worries about his daughter, he worries about his wife and her ocean of a stomach
drying with each month, the monsoon drowning in itself.
It is impossible to measure the light in a body. He knows this, he knows he will cry
on the harvest moon when there is no rice for his unborn son. The drought has taken
its lap of his land, marinates its tongue in dust, feasts on dirt with peanuts.
A salty kiss. His wife looks too small in her childbearing hips, feels her
son fluttering inside her like a bird but feels empty nested already,
their son dehydrated from searching for sustenance in a dried waterhole of
a stomach. His wife bleeds life everywhere but his pink bird heart,
calls her son blessed. Summer estranged itself with saltines and bug swatters
and baby shoes, left remains in gutters and fish with flat lungs.
Sunflowers stopped sacrificing their petals upward, sun under their scalps,
everywhere all at once, a phantom. Daughters stop burning newspapers and
start burning stillborn rice instead, stagnant and consuming. Pelicans are
reported to have shed the sky like grouse, burnt black for reaching upward
for some cosmic relief, abalone are hollowed and eaten like coconut, the children
believe this is a way of mourning for the farmer’s stillborn son. Soon, they
will let the sun burn his body and throw flowers on his blue face as funeral
rites for a son and prayers for a father sinking his hands in
earth for a breath into his son’s lungless lips.
Additional Work(s) Submitted as NSPP Portfolio
(transposed from treble clef)
It is difficult for me to write about anything but myself.
How can I tell you what I want? How can I tell you I want to
make music out of the flesh of my body, my body as chopped
up grace notes, how can I tell you I want to be a stroke of lightning, a work of art,
a hurricane/a whirlpool/a woman/something powerful and consuming?
Sometimes, when my fingers shudder and choke, mind a glissando in itself, arms jellyfish and fingers tentacles, neck a sink hole,
throat dry and sweating all at once, all you can hear is a reel of lettered notes,
not the subtle heartstring pull of rubato, the bruising dissonance that is this poem,
how can I tell you I want to write a poem that will move mountains, speak like song?
My voice is a melody that has learnt to overpower itself. It is not possible
to measure the current flowing through a melody, not possible to measure
the intensity of a single word, I can assure you. I can teach you how the mellow
vibrato of a sustained note is like sunlight, how a heart weighs five times more
in regret, how notes are like people dancing with each other, their ribcages
floundering around their staffed off hearts, this is how you replace a heart
with a diamond, a heart is not an embellishment, it is not a luxury, it is not any
of these things, a heart is not a cherry pit or a wax seal, an egg, paper cut capillaries.
How heartache is a different sort of sickness machines cannot understand,
how this is the hunger of a soul, the stretching of tonality; you can call this
poetry, you can call this a eulogy, but my heart is not any of these things-
The yolk has slipped from its shell, cracked down my rib cage,
notes flying from my fingers, it is possible for me to write only for myself,
by myself. And I will swallow the oceans and unearth the mountains with
my hands, I will pluck every last petal from the garden until even the
hydrangeas feel naked.
Things I think about on trains
I. I met Gloria by accident on the train ride from Boston to New York, a floundering world peace hippy with temporary tattooed bangles on her wrists, Gloria, who cries for lost puppies and wants to raise money for abused zoo animals, Gloria, and all of her ghosts. She is so knowledgeable about life it scares me. Yesterday, I thought I knew everything. I know the pH of sodium acetate solution, the vapor pressure of water at 52 degrees Celsius, stanzas of fragmented Macbeth at the tip of my tongue, I thought I was destined for greatness,
for some sort of unimaginable destiny, for earthquakes in my hands, for poems that never end, for pansies that never die. And then somehow, I wasn't. And somehow, there was Gloria.
II. Gloria tells me love is the pinnacle of the human condition, describes it as a journey towards something too great to describe, a plant that grows and grows and grows and never seems to slow down, she seems loveless and incapacitated by living, she seems almost tired, sunken into her own skin. It is scary to see her face dissolve so quickly. As we get closer to the city, she tells me to LOOK, violently cups the side of my face and makes me see the desolation and deprivation under the arms of the world, Gloria, the revolutionary, the daughter with fire under her tongue, Gloria, mother to the stranded, mother to everything, mother to the earth and a war child caught between two sides of the same city.
III. We talk about lots of things. Child bride politics in Asia, the science of thunder, deforestation in the Amazon, the history of the world, she tells me the earth is 4.5 billion years old as she pinches the baby fat off the knobs of her kneecaps, casually blubbering, tells me she would grow tired of living if she was the Earth. Tells me that the plates of her body would become unbearably jagged and painful after so much life, icebergs peaking out of her sweater, evergreens branching from her arms, eyelids glassy, nebulous, an aurora painted on her face, she talks with so much pain in her voice I half expect her to burst into tears. She acts like she holds the world in her palms.
IV. I step into the city, turn my neck sharply, see Gloria perched on the edge of the threadbare window seat like a seagull waiting for a storm, Gloria, the anatomy of a tsunami, who tells me she is worldly and mystical and mutable, tells me she has been to Morocco and Mauritania and Mumbai, and I am still myself, quiet and wandering, everything Gloria is not. Listen: this is the closest to truth I have ever been. I am not worldly or trustworthy or receptive and all I can think of is Gloria's smile, so quiet, as if it had never known to open its mouth.
Sanju tests the Iceberg Theory
"If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water” - Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon
Know that this poem is a halfway confession/ Know that it's almost summer
and everything smells like pine burrs and engine fuel and hyacinth tears and
everything good in the world/ Know that I have too many questions the world
will not answer/Know how I can't even say I'm bilingual anymore/ Know how my brain
is hurtling at a million miles an hour and I can't keep up with the
speed of days burning ahead/ how years seem to float in time like feathers before
brushing the ground/ Know how I'm already seventeen and the only thing I can do is wonder/
The day feels like a twitch of an eye and I have so many questions the world will not answer/
Answer me/ Look right through me and read everything I am too scared to write/
Know how this sort of loneliness cannot be expressed in just one poem/ Know about
redemption, about how immortality is just a complicated obsession with dying/ Know that
this is a poem on the beauty of time/Know how I want to be remembered/about shutter
snapped lizards/ about language/about losing your name in a crowded room, a crowded
world/ about everything I am not telling you/about marigold afternoons and unending
days unraveling at the edges like a scarf/about the aching feeling I get every time I realize
another year has passed, know that this is a poem about finding bits of myself in
unexpected places, finding house keys and clumps of black hair and red pens and
pieces of coffee cups and maraschino lipstick/ this is a map I will use to find myself
someday/ Know why I am so afraid of getting older/ Know why I am so conscious of
everything but myself/ Know that I am so clueless about life that I write as if I know
everything/ Know that life feels like a sweater and creases under your kneecaps/
this is a poem for the future/for days that feel like months/ for thunderstorms/ and earthquakes/
translucent faces/transparent souls/ Poem for nostalgia that smells like strawberry ice cream
and honey stains on polished imported veneer/ Poem that tastes like salt, looks like sugar
and privilege and thank g o d I have a home out here/Poem for how I've never been
in love with anything but words/ please/ p l e a s e/ Know how I am a question in myself/
Know how I am just as confused as you are/Answer me/
Look right through me and read everything I am too scared to write.
Off the Map
Anjali, I try to speak Tamil sometimes, under the mothball yellow
light of a bathroom mirror, when the night is so dark I can practically taste
it, quietly practicing the cut out feeling of being lost and found
at the same time. And I can't feel anything but the shapes of my mouth rusting,
like they were trying to fit into old, worn shoes. I've written
so many poems on the loss of a language/on love/on morality/
on the decomposition of words/all in English, halfway
therapeutic, halfway giving myself a reason to accept that
a language is not just a remnant of home we keep as a souvenir,
that the way my mouth unravels these words is not betrayal. The way
I have started convincing myself that my accent is a lie I have finally
accepted as my own, the way I was supposed to be Indian my whole life.
Anjali, loneliness is knowing what to say but forgetting how to say it.
You can call it the mathematics of being human, the probability of
finding a home without really meaning to, call it the poetry of a light-year,
call it the way ignorance feels more like jet lag than hurt, sometimes, I
think the philosophy of restlessness must have been in my genetics,
sometimes, I wish I was the type of girl to keep her skeletons in the closet,
now they flounder under the kitchen stove, in the maroon tasseled curtains,
dear Anjali, A n j a l i:
I am trying to find the alphabet again, what I have lost, I have lost the ingrained lilt
of my tongue and the buzzing of z's transposed into r's, in five years,
I have lost 20 pencils and at least 10 pairs of socks, 140 train pressed pennies and an entire
vocabulary, I have lost so much of myself it is hard to keep writing, Anjali, I've gotten
lost in this poem so many times it is impossible for me to
understand what I've written.
Listen: it doesn't take an atlas to understand the anatomy of a home.
And I finally understand that a home is a place for knowing where the
spoons belong, for knowing and knowing, knowing that the clock in the
living room is still on daylight savings time. For knowing that a home is not
a language but a feeling, for knowing that I will be a foreigner first in my mind
but never in my home, I want a home that is a reliable narrator, I
want a home of margarine sky and wallpaper forgiveness and granulated sugar and
baby robins and daffodils and cardamom tea and everything, everything
the way it is supposed to be: Anjali, my mother used to tell me a home is love.
And I don't really understand what love is but I've written so many poems on it that
I must know something. And all I want to do is reclaim these dusty
consonants as my own. A home built of poems. Built of the earth underneath
my shoes. A dictionary with all the pages cut out, like
unraveling hands: bony fingers: a body made of galaxies: a soul that has
an inertia of its own, a window, a canyon, a road that leads to nowhere,
a map punched with so many holes it becomes more of a
burden than a help.
Agitation After Felix Mendelssohn
(Outside, sun stained, sand bagged pickup trucks
ruminate in the shallow heat of the day)
Bird lungs, pulsating and heaving,
the both of us running across the parking lot,
engine fuel and dinosaur cumulonimbus caulking our footsteps.
Felix, the rumbling resonance of the summer
brings back the already stale taste of
things that never happened.
We will be fossils tomorrow. Rotting you would say:
pointing at the space between us. Jaws colloidal,
lungs suspended balloons, calcified primordial skulls,
eye holes a loophole to evolution
Felix, I now realize we were all the same, young, ambitious,
all kingfisher mouths, bird hearted and rushed deaths, hungry
for the moon in our palms, n o w, I understand the science of loneliness.
(Meanwhile, we fly on, the warmth of our youth
unabashedly staining the sky)