The Hindu

‘Hello, I’m naked’

Po­ems that are a dare, a warn­ing, a cel­e­bra­tion, all at once

- BY JAN­ICE PARIAT The au­thor is a poet and writer. Poetry · Literature · Arts · Dante Alighieri · Tamil Nadu · Sylvia Plath

Doshi pledges to the

reader what she, as a

poet, wishes to

achieve. To turn her

skin in­side out

Ayear ago, Tishani Doshi lost a friend. A good friend. Monika Ghurde, a de­signer and per­fumist, was mur­dered in her home in Goa. I re­mem­ber speak­ing to Doshi about a month af­ter the in­ci­dent, when she said she was now writ­ing po­ems in a fury. In fact, the novel had been set aside for the mo­ment, in or­der to bring these works, old and new, to­gether. Hence, the po­ems in Girls are Coming out of the Woods are clus­tered, quite lit­er­ally, around a death. Around in­can­des­cent anger. Around love, also, un­mis­tak­ably. And, in­evitably, around the ten­der wounds of sud­den, gri­ef­ful loss.

Even if this were the main in­cit­ing in­ci­dent, it isn’t the only one. In an in­ter­view with fel­low poet Karthika Nair, Doshi elab­o­rates on her po­ems as “doc­u­ments of vi­o­lence”, specif­i­cally, metic­u­lously, against women. “The rape of Jy­oti Singh was a big trig­ger,” she says, “but then the sto­ries kept coming… three sis­ters un­der the age of 11 raped and mur­dered and found at the bot­tom of a well. And on and on.”

Body of work

The anger be­hind “and on and on” is cap­tured in Doshi’s haunt­ing, soar­ing tit­u­lar poem (ded­i­cated to Monika), where fig­ures “wrapped in cloaks and hoods/ car­ry­ing iron bars and can­dles/ and a mul­ti­tude of scars” emerge onto the page, mov­ing to­wards us, dar­ing us to for­get. These are all girls, “even those girls/ found naked in ditches and wells” with “bro­ken legs high, leak­ing secrets/ from un­fas­tened thighs ”.“They’re coming,” the poem ends, por­tend­ing a dare, a warn­ing, a cel­e­bra­tion all at once, “they’re coming.”

In ‘Con­tract’, the col­lec­tion’s first poem, Doshi pledges to the reader what she, as a poet, wishes to achieve. To turn her skin in­side out. To rein­vent ev­ery lost word. To bur­nish. To steal. It’s telling that in do­ing so she in­serts a deft, dis­qui­et­ing line — “I will… lower my head into count­less ovens” — that ref­er­ences Sylvia Plath, of course, yet also a larger “tra­di­tion” of ex­clu­sion and bru­tal­ity that po­etry (es­pe­cially by women?) is de­voted to. Thereby com­plet­ing the cir­cle of vi­o­lence: per­pe­trated, be­got­ten, laid into verse.

There’s no es­cap­ing this loop. It can be in­sid­i­ous and quiet. As in ‘O Great Beau­ties’, where she writes of women in por­trait paint­ings, silent, re­moved, corseted, bon­neted, re­vealed for all yet per­pet­u­ally hid­den. She ad­dresses them di­rectly: “I must ask dear daugh­ters of im­por­tant houses/ hero­ines of epics, He­lens, whores, how did you know/ to ob­scure your true selves?” Or in ‘Ev­ery­one Loves a Dead Girl’ where “they ar­rive at par­ties be­cause they are dead/ now and there is noth­ing to fear ex­cept the sun.” Where the women tell of how they died: suffocated, crushed, made name­less, face­less, stran­gled. “They all have sto­ries which go on and on.”

Cen­tral then to Girls are Coming out of the Woods is the fe­male body.

The one that’s de­sired, mu­ti­lated, taken ad­van­tage of, and takes ad­van­tage. But the one also, most touch­ingly, that’s mun­dane and ev­ery­day. Most vis­i­ble, and lit­eral, in ‘The Women of the Shin Yang Park Sauna, Gwangju’, where the bathers are “busy with their breasts and cunts/ their dim­pled, rounded, flat­dented but­tocks.”

In the midst of this, moves the body of the self, with “Hello, I’m naked” bub­bled above the head. It is a body most con­scious of it­self, within the con­fines of the poem and be­yond. And the gaze that turns to­wards it is “the way death might look at life.” Here, more so now than in Doshi’s pre­vi­ous po­etry col­lec­tions Coun­tries of the Body and Ev­ery­thing Be­gins Else­where, the body is one in tran­sit and trans­mu­ta­tion.

In the in­ter­view re­ferred to ear­lier she ad­mits this: “I think it has to do with be­ing a par­tic­u­lar age, and feel­ing as in the first canto of Dante’s In­ferno, that you’re stand­ing in a dark wood in the mid­dle of your life.” It is a body that’s chang­ing, and age­ing, though these are treated with Doshi’s char­ac­ter­is­tic light­ness and hu­mour.

In­verted de­sires

‘To My First White Hairs’ is that rare poem, lovely and funny, epis­to­lary in form, where the poet chides them on their late ar­rival, yet they’ve taught her “that the par­tic­u­lar­ity of yearn­ing/ is such that de­sires are in­verted/ as soon as they ap­pear”. It’s a body that is also ter­ri­bly aware of its own quiet de­cay. Aug­mented by the phys­i­cal­ity of liv­ing right by the sea.

“There’s this ro­man­tic idea of what beach life must be,” Doshi tells Nair, “but the re­al­ity of coastal life, at least my coastal life in Tamil Nadu, is that you’re brought very close to death.”

The sea washes up death to your doorstep. Dolphins, dogs, fish, tur­tles. The salti­ness of the air has­tens the end of things, they rust, and wear out, and weather, and be­come brit­tle and crum­ble. This aware­ness seeps deep, even into a poem about love, where the poet de­clares “When you die, Love, I will leave you out like a Zoroas­trian”, and goes on to con­jure im­ages of life — blowflies, scor­pion flies, bac­te­ria — that turn “man to farm”, and re­turn the lovers to “dead stars”. There is a sense, again, of a cir­cle be­ing com­pleted.

Doshi’s Girls are Coming out of the Woods is lo­cated firmly within the act of re­turn­ing. One of the col­lec­tion’s most pow­er­ful po­ems, ‘What the Sea Brought In’, echoes this in theme, rhythm, and struc­ture.

Washed up on shore are things, peo­ple, ghosts, dead movie stars, child­hood mon­sters. Un­like silent, per­fect por­traits, these are of life. Messy, flawed. Seem­ingly dis­carded. Much loved. Much missed. Re­turn­ing again and again be­cause the poet, as con­jurer, calls them forth.

 ?? Wiki Com­mons ?? Dear daugh­ters Édouard Manet’s oil ‘Lun­cheon on the Grass’.
Wiki Com­mons Dear daugh­ters Édouard Manet’s oil ‘Lun­cheon on the Grass’.
 ??  ?? ■ Girls are Coming out of the Woods Tishani Doshi HarperColl­ins ₹399
■ Girls are Coming out of the Woods Tishani Doshi HarperColl­ins ₹399

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India