“Always and Only is a Poem About Love” – The Searing Poems of a Hugely Impactful and Globally Recognized Poet and Novelist – Toshani Doshi

Tishani Doshi, much celebrated “International” poet living in Tamil Nadu, India. Photo Credit: Lit Hub

from Find the Poets

Find the poets, my friend said.
They will not speak of the things you and I speak about.
They will not speak of economic integration
or fiscal consolidation.

They could not tell you anything about the burden of adjustment.

But they could sit you down
and tell you how poems are born in silence
and sometimes, in moments of great noise,
of how they arrive like the rain,
unexpectedly cracking open the sky.

They will talk of love, of course,
as if it were the only thing that mattered,
about chestnut trees and mountain tops,
and how much they miss their dead fathers.

They will talk as they have been talking
for centuries, about holding the throat of life,
till all the sunsets and lies are choked out,
till only the bones of truth remain.

The poets, my friend, are where they have always been—
living in paper houses without countries,
along rivers and in forests that are disappearing.

And while you and I go on with life
remembering and forgetting,

the poets remain: singing, singing.

Tishani Doshi (1975 -) from Girls are Coming our of the Woods, Copper Canyon Press, 2017

Poet, novelist, fulltime dancer for fifteen years with the Chandralekhaa troupe in Madras, India. Welcome to the remarkable continents-spanning world of a growing global voice giving voice especially to the dangerous reality of being a woman in our world: Tishani Doshi. Daughter of a Welsh mother and Gujarati father, she is resident again now in India, after stints in the U.S. and the U.K., living now on a beach in Tamil Nadu.

And what a lovely and absolute liar she is in the poem above: And while you and I go on with life/ remembering and forgetting,//the poets remain: singing, singing.. Ya, right! As if she isn’t one of those darn poets – singing, singing. And what a voice she has. And how recognized, celebrated  and published across continents, already. Her debut collection of poems in 2006 won the UK Forward Prize for a debut collectiona major prize, she has won the All India Poetry Prize and her latest poetry collection Girls are Coming Out of the Woods was short-listed for the Ted Hughes Award. Her latest novel Small days and Nights published in Europe in 2019 (US and Canada in 2020) made the prestigous short list for the RSL Ondaatje Award. And her poems can be found in major journals in the U.S., U.K. and elsewhere.

The title of my blog post comes from the last line of her poem The leather of Love (see below).  It reminds me of an equally bold statement by American poet Robert Hass: All the new thinking is about loss./ In this it resembles all the old thinking. Her line grabs me because so much of what Toshani writes about feels like the opposite of love. Loss and hardship. But that’s the thing. The love she has as a poet for this world and her need to sing out its beauty and its injustices. It’s delights and its horrors. For the love of this place. What a high bar Toshani sets for me as a poet.

I have been aware at the edges of my awareness for a few years of Toshani but my dear friend Liz McNally absolutely turned my focus on her and her work when Liz emailed me the morning Toshani’s poem appeared in April in Rattle Journal’s regular on-line feature Poets Respond (hugely competitive) which appears once or twice a week. Liz asked me what I thought of Toshani’s poem. We both agreed it was masterful. (As if that wasn’t enough Toshani had another poem choosen for Poet’s Respond in May of this year, a searing response to a killing in a maternity clinic in Kabul.)

Thanks to the first Poets Respond poem, please see below, I found my one book of her poems, bought another and her two novels including her latest, Small Days and Nights, that came out in the U.S. earlier this year. Yes, I went on a bit of binge!

I think Toshani is poet of great range and I hear echoes of Wislawa Szymborska and also the late great American poets, Thomas Lux and Tony Hoagland. She has their wry take on the world and their keen eye for the extraordinary in the too-often overlooked. And she has a rage for the world’s many injustices, especially against women, modulated down to a slow fire, but still skin-burning hot. But never, I think, turned from poetry into a rant. See this extraordinary rendition by her of the title poem in Girls are Coming Out of the Woods from a Ted-x talk in India with her dancing to her own recital of the poem. Extraordinary.

To give you a sense of the ground she covers, or should I say uncovers, here is what she says about her collection, Girls are Coming Out of the Woods from 2017: There’s light and dark in these poems – decapitated marigold, Patrick Swayze’s perfect bottom, a pack of poor poisoned dogs, gunny bags of love. I want the reader to be able to hold these dichotomies and perhaps to believe that poems can be a way not only of insisting on joy, but reclaiming everything that has been lost.

Much loss here and joy. But Toshani didn’t mention some other topics! Abused and murdered girls, Allepo, lots of poems on poets and poetry, a poem with Elizabeth Bishop in it and one on women in Korea having a steam. Also Monsoons, Calcutta, a woman’s fear of walking alone. And she manages even with her , most searing poems of greater concern, a steady and controlled hand. A distance. Such as in this poem, its wonderful and heart-breaking ache:

Abandon

There must be a word for a person
who longs to run into the eye
of a stoerm, a word for every tree
that lies slaughtered on the streets
after a cyclone. A word like lachrymose
or pulmonary. A word for they have left
you alone to face your doom. In Aleppo.
In Allepo, I cannot speak of Aleppo.
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.
The dead leave no clues about lies beyond.
We call it eternal. We call it now.

Tishani Doshi, ibid

After reading this, talk about no breath. This sequence, its metaphor: In Allepo, I cannot speak of Aleppo./ Only that it is the opposite of breath. 

Now, how here is the poem that got me truly started on Toshani. Here she is in full voice from Poets Respond in the early days of the Covid crisis. You can see her love of language, great syntactic control and ability to go on mind-bending tangents without, I can say, losing me! I feel like I am on a trapeze with her! But I hold on!

TREE OF LIFE

“Bengal men self-quarantine on tree to keep others safe”
—Hindustan Times

It could be romantic to sleep in a tree
with all the sounds of the forest around—
insect cacophony, elephants in musth.
I have always loved the word rut. A seasonal
glut. The opposite of looking through
a window to a never-ending view of wives
washing dishes in the sink—Simone
de Beauvoir’s idea of the domestic abyss.
But reader, she had silk curtains and chandeliers.
She had multiple lovers and appointments
with Sartre in the Jardin du Luxembourg.
It is dangerous to romanticize anyone’s life,
especially low to purge the nobility of the poor,
so let me not say how much I cried watching
Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, especially the part
with the kids running through fields of kash
to watch the train of modernity pass.
More poignant if you know the director’s wife
had to pawn her jewels for the film to be made.
The goodness of some women—
they almost levitate, like the girl in the film,
child of the forest, how she picks thorns from her feet
like stones from rice. And the crone, how I love
the crone. How all this sadness builds like a raga
to bring on rain, which the girl rushes into of course—
ripples of water lilies, darting bugs. How all this joy
leads to death. There are no spare rooms
is the point. In the film, or in real life.
There are no spare rooms so these men
who’ve returned from the city are put in a tree
to quarantine, a tree that strangles its hosts
as it walks. Munificent, shade-giving banyan
that throws down roots as trunks,
in whose leaves God Krishna resides. Krishna,
who talked good game about the temporality
of the body, while so enjoying the body, understood
the material world as one big inverted banyan.
But as we’re stuck in this reflection, why not
enjoy the fruits, why not jump from branch to branch
like a bird? Which these men do, I suppose, stationed
as they are. Their good wives leave supplies at the base—
rice and oil, cooking implements. It goes like this
for days, this story of seven men in a tree, living
through a 21st century pandemic. Men who say
they’re happy not to pass on any bad city virus.
And because the news is so full of counterfeits
and horrors, can we for once not be sceptics?
Forget that the tree is moving, that one day
its phantom limbs will tap against our door.
Until then, can’t we stand by our windows
and stare at all the desolation and sweetness?
Can’t we adore the convoluted roots
of our attachments? How they complete
us. My god, how this living is a hymn.

(Tishani Doshi: “Seven migrant men in India were made to quarantine in a tree when they made the long journey back from the city to their village because their houses have no extra rooms. They seemed quite cheerful about it.”)

Tishani Doshi from Rattle’s Poets Respond, April 19th, 2020

What a dizzying journey. What a ride. Men in trees, elephants, housewives, Simone de Beauvoir,Sartre, a famous Paris garden, the poor, a movie of the poor and more, then back to the men in their Banyon tree, the tree, its leaves, Krishna, then back to the men and then some serious thinking and philosophizing!

And I feel she so pulls this off. Adds a depth and complexity to her poem with virtuoso moves like this one:

……………There are no spare rooms
is the point. In the film, or in real life.
There are no spare rooms so these men
who’ve returned from the city are put in a tree
to quarantine, a tree that strangles its hosts
as it walks.

And then how she comes back to her theme of hardship and death again at the end:

And because the news is so full of counterfeits
and horrors, can we for once not be sceptics?
Forget that the tree is moving, that one day
its phantom limbs will tap against our door.
Until then, can’t we stand by our windows
and stare at all the desolation and sweetness?
Can’t we adore the convoluted roots
of our attachments? How they complete
us. My god, how this living is a hymn.

How deft she is at coming at things on a slant. And how well she expands on her metaphors. And how well she incorporates her wisdom statements out of them! And the constant pull between beauty and ugliness, joy and sorrow in this poem. And nothing sentimental. And what hope at the poem’s end: Forget that the tree is moving, that one day/ its phantom limbs will tap against our door./ Until then, can’t we stand by our windows/ and stare at all the desolation and sweetness? Oh god, yes!

And what a great first line:

It could be romantic to sleep in a tree
with all the sounds of the forest around—
insect cacophony, elephants in musth.

And look at her use of grammatical moods as U.S. poet Carl Phillips might add. Her imperatives, her declaratives, her questions. And the richness of her language and her images. The metaphors she weaves out of them. And also what a cultural tour she takes us on. Seven men and a tree and she brings in Beauvoir, Sartre and a film! All the life seething in that poem in a a moment in a world shut down by a pandemic. The skill of bringing that tension in. This Covid, not-Covid poem!

I so recommend this writer. I put her right up there with the truly good ones of her generation or older. She brings such freshness and vigor into the old topics of poetry: love, sorrow, joy and death! And her wonderfully crafted metaphors:

and when we lie in bed and talk
of the body’s failings, of the petulant dead, of
disenchantment and insufficient passion,
we’re chewing through fears so thick our
teeth are beginning to rust.

This metaphor above from her poem after the late great John Berger, art critic, social commentator, poet and novelist:

THE LEATHER OF LOVE
………after John Berger

This morning I take the weathered
secateurs to stems of lantana as
a woman sometimes must. At the gate
a bee-eater suns himself and posts
a kiss to the breeze sidling on by.
Me in batik house-wrap from a departures
lounge. Bird in feathers. The strange and
marbled green of our kingdom. Embrace the
day, bird, I whisper. Just then white
clouds pass by, devastated as ghosts.
Bird and I look upwards. The sky’s the size of
a wrinkle—winnowing and closing, the
way an absence will. Birdie’s gone—
disappeared—who knows where, wrapped
in the morning’s foreboding. Dragonflies in
drag, a water pump muffled by tarpaulins,
the sand and salt and shrub—this is what we
live with. And when we lie in bed and talk
of the body’s failings, of the petulant dead, of
disenchantment and insufficient passion,
we’re chewing through fears so thick our
teeth are beginning to rust. Passion’s
how a poem’s meant to breathe—the
air sacs funnelling life into saline
lungs. Come back! I won’t be like that woman in
the rhyme who swallows a bird, which
isn’t to say you aren’t delectable. You, who hides
in the foliage. Yoo hoo! You, who are
the czar of colour. The morning’s hung
itself on a granite obelisk, waiting for you to
reappear. I pour light through my hands to make
brass, a bell, something to lure you from
your hiding place. I, who thought a
poem could be about a garden, a staple or hinge
on which another poem could be built. I, of
limited imagination. I offer you my skin,
which is the same as offering you the
universe that breathes wild, through leather,
that sews our stomachs to gunny bags of
love. Always and only is a poem about love.

Tishani Doshi, ibid

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