Poetry As Sanctuary – A monthly column where poets from the Poetry of Diaspora of Silicon Valley pen their South Asian experiences.
I grew up surrounded by poetry. My father loved poems and would recite with all the passion of a Bengali man. My grandparents, who brought me up, were passionate Tagore fans.
My grandmother read poems in the afternoon, and sometimes she would cry.
My grandfather wrote her love letters, allegedly, with a different appellation on each page.
They shared their favorite poems with each other.
My parents too were full of love and poetry. There was something very romantic about them – not just in the sense of their love for one another, but in that their whole life was a wild adventure. That is what poetry meant to me at that younger age — romance!
And I was too fierce and too alive: I wanted grit and reality, not escape and dreams.
Perhaps, because I grew up surrounded by so much poetry, I never took it seriously. If I wrote or read something, I did not work hard at it. I devoured poetry much like I would a fat mango in a Calcutta summer or how I would gulp it a delicate cup of Darjeeling tea on a misty morning. Recently, a beloved friend told me he was taking a course on reading poetry. I was stunned and awed. I did not think I could be so cerebral, so disciplined about poetry – I don’t ever want to be.
Outside the home, the first poems I encountered were at school. I was lucky that what we read in school was spectacular: Night of the Scorpion, The Inchcape Rock, Ulysses, Bangabhumir Prati, Rabindranather Prati, Aabar Asibo Phire. I remember being arrested by a poem from time to time and writing ever so often, mostly when I should have been doing something else, as though spellbound. But even so, I did not think much of poetry then, they were just pretty words. I was too young, too caught up with living and doing.
Like in most relationships, my love for poetry evolved over time. You need a certain amount of heartache and storms to rake up the ground before words can take root. I kept discovering more poets I was entranced by: Nazim Hikmet, Pasternak, Jorge Luis Borges, Nizar Quabbani, Mary Oliver, William Carlos Williams, Buddhadeb Basu.
The older I get, the more compelled I am by the quietly strumming throb of words that is poetry. Now I see poems as feelings. Helpless impotent feelings that try to come out of the womb of our hearts and make a bid for a life of their own.
To me, poetry is madness. Most of the time, I am quite sane. I don’t think of myself as a poet, I can’t rhyme and my poems often have no set form. Yet from time to time, a thought or a feeling wells up and nags me till I write it down.
These two poems came to me in these terrible times of Covid, which were so painful to many of us, helpless and arrested, so far from home.
Tired of writing condolence messages.
Every day to a new friend.
Every death untimely.
Each loss unfair.
I think of childhood friends. So & so?
Hope they are okay. I want a roll-call each day.
In the litany of deaths, some are uncounted.
An immigrant doesn’t leave with much:
An idea of home, a place lost in time,
Unreachable, outside a dream.
That dream, safely tucked away,
Is that too dying today?
And yet life knows no math.
There will be no reckoning.
We limp on, best we can, all of us.
And slivers of life sneak through the shrouds,
like my stubbornly optimistic son,
when I tell him I am too busy to play.
Sometimes my poems rise up almost fully formed, and I obediently play the scribe. I find it hard to think them through and even harder to edit, especially when the driving emotion is vivid and personal. This one came to me when I was missing my father, whom I lost to COVID, far away in India. I could not do anything with it, once I wrote it down.
A Stubborn Poem that Refuses to Conform
The days at home are growing hot:
waiting for the rains, in murmuring desperation;
then often too much comes, too late.
I had written about you to the doctor,
and called the mayor too.
they said sorry, it was too late.
My dream died. And another was born,
a wish granted. A price collected –
equity in the business of souls.
I just wish I could have seen you once more.
though I know, it would never be enough.
I wanted you forever; I will want you forever
A civilization of ants was devastated today –
I carelessly stepped on their bustle of progress.
A few, turncoats, hurried on my shoe to survive
They said they tried everything.
But I thought the tide was going to turn!
this “but”, this moment, this shock never ebbs
When an old friend has left,
little questions we never asked nag us.
When they are here, the questions hide like shy children.
It was inevitable, this farewell –
from the first kiss, our road to goodbye is inevitable
inescapable; from the moment I left your womb.
And yet it was a beautiful day. The skies were blue,
I read a new book. I thought I could tell you, then remembered…
From a dark window, I watch a square of light high on the hill.
Prerona Mukherjee is a Cognitive Neuroscientist and an aspiring writer. The common thread: people, life, and feelings. She spent most of her childhood in Calcutta, India, and adulthood in Edinburgh, Scotland before finding herself in the Bay.