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The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry
The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry

The fourteen poems published here, each by a different poet, have been selected by Kavita Jindal from The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (HarperCollins India - July, 2012), edited by Sudeep Sen. Copyright for individual poems remains with the poets. The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry comprises the work of eighty contemporary Indian poets writing in the English language. A feature article about the anthology written by Kavita Jindal accompanies her selection of poetry for the Hub.

 

 


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Kavita Jindal Selects: Contemporary Indian Poetry


Summi Kaipa

 

Reality Bites

 

the slip underneath my dress her valedictory address is

showing the future for the overeducated english major is

living in a flop house buying chips and beer on your father’s

gas card until he cuts you off folding perfect t-shirts in a

go-nowhere retail job documenting the apathy and fear of

your friends as they roll in and out of bed with a long list of

anonymous lovers terrified they might die of aids i was going

to class forgetting class watching my roommate a korean

baptist who covered a hole in the wall next to her bed with a

poster of jesus fall messily in love the fiddlestick of hedonism

unfurled for the both of us i reeked of clove cigarettes of the

transient thrill of breaking up with your first love before he

beats you to it everything was excess rip it out damn it get

rid of it damn it courtney love ditched her dress stripped to

the underslip so the boys fueled by cisco and testosterone

launched the furniture out of the seventh floor window we

were one part teen spirit one part american spirits in my

pocket everyone was smoking themselves silly i was getting

hard i was getting soft my mouth burned like a stranger to

my mother’s food i grew a sailor’s tongue salty and swollen a

thriving and invasive new colony of individualism and irony

while the language of childhood atrophied the untranslatable

bits faded into a was-i-ever-there home movie could i explain

this newly discovered tragi-romance walt whitman singing

heartily of himself henry rollins lunging and thrusting into

his robust quads body surfing the mosh pit trusting the hands

that buoy you until you fall nikki giovanni talking black

arts black revolution litwack quoting public enemy don’t

don’t don’t believe the hype clutching foucault to my chest

deconstructing everything to smithereens the naked man

in a loin cloth imagined feathers in his hair like a statue of

quetzalcoatl if you look closely you’ll see everything in my

bloodshot eyes

Vikas K Menon

 

Fathertongue

 

Forranners kalpikyana, he’d snarl in Malayalam

when he felt he was being ripped off—

They’re teasing the foreigner.

At work, he was full-on a malarkey alert:

Golf—who has time to play games

with these jimokes?

 

Boilermakers had burned bourbon

into his English, but his otherkiltered

rhythms laid bare his roots,

an American Banyan tree.

Always respect your elders,

he said, but question everything.

 

Only once did an alien

sound come between us—

when I said to him, I love you.

My drawled hosannah on the altar of us

was so paltry an offering

that we both laughed,

poured more drinks,

sat down to eat with our hands.

Srilata K

 

For Jeanne Mukuninwa, Congolese war-crime victim

 

This, my friend, is the question I have:

Just what can you bake into a poem?

Sky blue skies, bouncy clouds of cotton, vanilla milk-shake moons,

red-bottomed robins and other creatures with wings

that visit you on mornings dreary with bags of work,

the sea rising in a whisper of piano notes…

these things and others

are easy.

Their batter flows freely

into the moulds of lyrics, sonnets and free verse.

But what of Jeanne Mukuninwa

who slid off sky blue skies and clouds of cotton and milk-shake moons

when she was raped over and over

by soldiers

till inside her fistulas erupted,

till she stopped noticing black-bottomed robins and other creatures with wings,

stopped wishing for seas rising in whispers of piano notes?

There must be a way, surely,

of baking fistulas into a poem?

Of gathering body wastes

and pouring them into moulds newly created

so other worlds can rise?

Ravi Shankar

 

The Many Uses Of Mint

 

Fresh mint leaves muddled with cane sugar

at the bottom of a rocks glass full of crushed

 

ice and an exquisite spiced rum don’t taste

as good as you, not even close, though sprigs,

 

intoxicant green and flavorful, spring to mind

when I think of you, consider your nape, flute-

 

shaped, and your almond eyes that see so far

into me that what I’m yet capable of surfaces

 

like wet earth gravid with the start of shoots

after a protracted frost has finally thawed.

 

Or say, I’m new minted in your gaze, unused,

unmarred, coined especially to fit your purse,

 

to be pawed, turned over, spent as legal tender

in a country whose borders no map could draw

 

because it extends past this life into the next,

into the past, where we were more verdant

 

than jade polished to a sheen, were the envy

of every hoarder’s greed but could only belong

 

to each other because in each other we reach

the apotheosis of—dare I say it?—human love.

 

Then down to Scottish use it comes, to attempt,

to intend, to suggest, to dare, to make a mint

 

at it, no matter the impediments which run

beyond winter, past numismatists, clear of mites

 

that might gnaw a stem to a well-withered nub,

into infamy of the Capulet variety—what indeed

 

is in a name?—into a gale of forces that coalesce

to enforce such abstractions as “sanctity”

 

and “family values” even while the rafters quake.

Petrifying yes but fuck it—let’s make a mint at it.

Sridala Swami

 

Revisions

 

Before the poet was a poet

nothing was reworked:

 

not the smudge of ink on twelve sets of clothes

not the fearsome top berth on the train

not a room full of boxes and dull windows

not the cat that left its kittens and afterbirth in a pair of

jeans

                   not doubt.

 

Before the poet was a poet

everything had a place:

 

six years were six years                 parallel lines followed rules

                                                             like obedient children

 

[the Dewey Decimal System]

                                                                      homes remained where they’d

been left.

 

Before the poet was a poet

many things went unseen:

 

clouds sometimes wheedled a ray out of the sun| parents kept

photographs under their pillows| letters never said everything

they wanted to| lectures were interrupted by a commotion of

leaves | | every step was upon a blind spot.

R Raj Rao

 

For Hire

 

To flee the ill-fame of Bombay

you go to the hill-station.

Take a cab from base-camp

Where the train dumps you.

Your package begins then and there.

The driver packs his van to capacity,

seats you next to him.

He turns on the ignition, climbs, stops.

To make you sit

astride the car’s phallus

so he can squeeze in

one more guy.

He drives.

Each time he changes gears

he hits you in the solar plexus.

South of, actually.

Is he a taxi himself?

For hire?

When you reach the summit

You’ve been molested forty-two times.

In public!

You ask the driver

how many trips up and down

he makes daily.

Sixty nine!

How promiscuous, you shrilly exclaim,

scandalized to the bone.

And rush back to the city

to get a bank loan

and become a taxi-driver yourself.

Neelanjana Banerjee

 

Telegram from Mountain View

  for RN

 

natives are friendly stop am learning the names

of trees stop there are caverns of soapstone stop

I detect a glow stop

 

underneath he is rainbow trout stop

 

I have seen a pink tadpole stop the discovery

of my jellyfish stop

 

my wrists regenerate stop ears have

dissolved stop learning to tune

with tendon stop

 

in retrospect stop I stop have stop

surrendered stop

there is no such skin stop

 

have cut out my eyes stop will send

back melanin

Purvi Shah

 

Waiting to Depart

 

The boat is prepared to ferry, the airplane shrunk

its line of boarding, the train just one whistle

 

from exiting platform – all docks unroped, air

crisp with departure, even the molecules drunk

 

with buzzing. Yet the air

 

hovers on your face, revealing

this one heel spun towards

new journey and one arch

 

affixed in your gaze – we break

clasp and remember: even Achilles

 

faltered, before a final storm.

Michelle Cahill

 

Parvati in Darlinghurst

 

So I lay on the body of a pale Shiva. He spoke

not a word, bothered perhaps by my nut-brown

skin; my slow dance calmed his electro shuffle.

A slap of limbs pinned him down to my earth.

I hadn’t bathed in sandalwood, flouting legend

with a preference for Estee Lauder. The moon’s

crescent tangled my hair, my breasts were bare,

our timing synchronised. Night fizzed, vanishing

into day, the club’s hypnotic rhythms subdued.

We scorned the Puranas, our tryst no Himalayan

cave, but a hotel bed I had draped with stockings,

lingerie, and the crystal ice of a Third Eye. I admit

that’s why I spoke with the speed of an antelope.

It seems the acharyas were mistaken: I hadn’t

dated for marriage or adultery; nor with a wish

to deck his house with flowers or sweep his floors.

 

I am too busy, I declared, for dalliance or abstract

gossip. I have no interest in honeybees and birds.

All I wanted was a good time. I swore as the river

is my sister, that this guy was not my sun or my sky.

No way did it even enter my mind to have his kids.

His first wife’s ashes are scattered all over the city.

Goddamn it, Shiva is a walking disaster; whatever

he touches burns. Restraining him with handcuffs

I said, forget it babe, your lingam and my yoni are

made for one thing only, improper and unchaste.

It’s little more than conjecture to think our sweaty

helix could ever be whole. Then I offered to grind

and gyrate him silly, suspend our want indefinitely,

and he fell utterly silent with this new meaning.

Jerry Pinto

 

The Sayonara Alphabet

 

I would bid you farewell, friends

And would say:

You served me well.

 

Omega and alpha, sayonara

Aleph and bey, ciao.

 

But I know that a few furlong further

I will find inksmears on my soul

And you will feel

The four humours I left with you.

 

I would say adeus, word and vowel

Consonant and diphtong.

Farewell, plosive and labial

Adios.

 

We smeared each other you and I

through constant use.

Detachment will not be easy.

Leela Gandhi

 

Nocturnal (II)

1.

In a psychic turn toward the popular,

my most mundane anxieties

now feature assassins and a car chase,

or two, most nights.

Bad news if you can’t drive

and are comatose in pajamas:

floral, frayed, beyond repute.

 

2.

Sleep, my father said, is the courage

of fidelity to a benign universe,

faith in the absence of constitutively hostile others;

so we subside in war zones, traffic, terminus, intersection,

punctuating the vigil of wakeful reason with bravado:

‘I’m alright, you can go now’.

 

3.

Alone in this sensorium, who watches as we sleep

our nervous rest exact a toll for credulity?

We recompose matter, we become the hostile world.

Bhanu Kapil

 

6. Vertigo

 

A ghost mutates through intensity, gathering enough energy to touch you

through your thin blouse, or your leggings, or your scarf.

 

A ghost damages the triptych of ancestors composed of descending, passive

and synthetic scraps.

 

But what if the ghost is empty because it’s making a space for you?

 

~ ~ ~

 

Vertigo is a symptom of profound attraction. An excess of desire.

 

~ ~ ~

 

Once, after a long shift at KFC, during which we ran out of baked beans and

the manager sent me across the Birmingham New Street plaza with a twenty

pound note, to Marks and Spencer’s, for a family-size tin, I didn’t go back to

the flat in Selby where my boyfriend lived. I went to the cinema in my red

and white striped shirt and watched Au Revoir Les Enfants. A Londoner, I

blinked in the rainy quiet darkness that had fallen by the time I left. I ducked

into a bright room. There, I was picked up by a Muslim man with a thick

Yorkshire accent, who bought me a Malibu and orange. I was conscious of

having wasted my entire summer on a boyfriend. My parents thought I was

interning as a trainee journalist on a regional broadsheet. I’d told the KFC

manager my mother was dying, and that I had to take every weekend off

to be with her in the hospital. On Saturday mornings, my boyfriend would

drive us to the sea in his refurbished Nash Metropolitan. Once, he drove us

to France. I drank coffee on the ferry, staring into the blazing pink sun while

he slept, his head on my lap. But that night, a Thursday night, I ended up

in a graveyard with the man from the bar, and his friend, who had arrived

as we were leaving. A ghost is a duplicate, a tall and handsome man who

contracts then dilates so swiftly, you can’t refuse. In fact, you don’t say a

word when a ghost, when two ghosts, lead you by your upper arm into an

empty place, verdant with cypress and elm.

 

~ ~ ~

Arundhati Subramaniam

 

 

My Friends

 

They’re sodden, the lot of them,

leafy, with more than a whiff

of damage

mottled with history

dark with grime.

 

God knows I’ve wanted them different

less bizarre, more jaunty,

less handle-with-care

 

more airbrushed

less prone

to dreams of rancidity

 

a little more willing

to soak in the sun.

 

They don’t measure up.

They’re unpunctual.

They turn suddenly tuberous.

 

But I keep them

for those days.

 

For their crooked smiles

their sudden pauses —

 

signs that they know

about the sound of mulch

 

and how green stems twist

and thicken

as they vanish

into the dark

 

finding their way

through sticky

vernacular tissues

of mud

 

improvising

hardening

improvising —

Sudeep Sen

 

Choice

drawing a breath between each

             sentence, trailing closely every word.

                         — JAMES HOCH, ‘Draft’ in Miscreants

 

1.

 

some things, I knew,

                            were beyond choosing:

 

didu — grandmother — wilting

                              under cancer’s terminal care.

 

mama’s — my uncle’s — mysterious disappearance —

                                            ventilator vibrating, severed

silently, in the hospital’s unkempt dark.

 

an old friend’s biting silence — unexplained —

               promised loyalties melting for profit

                            abandoning long familial presences of trust.

 

devi’s jealous heart                   misreading emails

                                                                   hacked carefully under cover,

her fingernails ripping

unformed poems, bloodied, scarred —

                                           my diary pages weeping wordlessly —

my children aborted, my poetry breathless forever.

 

 

2.

 

these are acts that enact themselves, regardless —

               helpless, as I am,

torn asunder permanently, drugged, numbed.

 

strange love, this is —

                                            a salving: what medics and nurses do.

 

i live buddha-like, unblinking, a painted vacant smile —

                             one that stores pain and painlessness —

someone else’s nirvana thrust upon me.

 

some things I once believed in

                                                         are beyond my choosing —

choosing is a choice unavailable to me.

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