In the words of the famous American poet, Robert Frost, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” These ideas suggest themselves, whilst going through the poetic expressions of Athena Kashyap. Her collection explores the concept of borders from familial experiences, starting from the violent dislocation caused by India’s partition and encompassing immigration by “crossing black waters”.
In the poem by that name, the poet speaks of how “her skin dissolved” as “she struggled to stay afloat,” even as the “years distanced her from the caress of the Ganga”.
Several of the poems appear to be dedicated to different members of her family. The “hookah” brings out the gut-wrenching emotions of the partition of 1947 when speaking “of that terrible march, across the new border, parallel lines inching towards opposite ends.”
Another poem where Athena recalls her great grandfather is again heart-rending as she writes, “Our family’s dispersed like seeds, searching for each other and our own selves in clouds of lost mountains.”
In Corner Store, Kashyap brings in the very Indian trait of complaining about the price of onions but surprisingly to a Korean shop-owner in multi-cultural America, from whom she feels very distant and yet the sounds of the Korean language take her back to the monsoons in Bombay — “Their voices — soft clapping, clouds and rain.” This desire to establish a connection, where there may be none, again reveals the desolation that comes from being far removed from one’s roots.
The poet’s choice of imagery conveys so much in so little words, as when she speaks of “so many clothes inhabiting lives” in Mary’s Closer. Similarly, in World Café, Athena brings out the dilemmas of “one who has left one world to live and travel in others,” and the vacillation of “trying to locate the exact geography of my craving.”
In the poem, Knots, dedicated to Rima Kashyap, she reveals the anxiety of the mother and the hopeful anticipation of a new life by the daughter in, “you are dead with worry, but for me, everything shines with beginning.” The symbolism of knots is used sensitively throughout this poem and the best is verse XI: “can one drown in too much air? Is one truly separate?” and ends in verse XII with the minimal. “I am knot.”
In poems like Obsidian and The Chosen One, there are observations and comparisons of two kinds of worlds. “In America, world becomes spectacle — wedding white instead of red, black at funerals in place of white,” and then again, “she learns how to be American — start at the bottom, work your way up. Be alone.”
Indian words, abound in many of the poems, are supplemented with a glossary provided at the end, which tries to convey their meaning. But how can one truly evoke the sense of sarson-ka-saag in the crooked gullies in Lahore,” or the “smell of baingan bharta”. Many of Kashyap’s poems are an attempt to bridge the two cultures and yet she understands: “So many heartaches for homes left behind, glimmering at the far end of rainbows.”
Athena’s poems often read like prose, as they are written mostly in blank verse, with very limited attempts to make words rhyme. But they brim over with poignant thoughts, wrapped in the most original of images. Hope that such anthologies will see the resurgence of an interest in poetry. Only fitting in 2012, as the previous year saw the Nobel Prize for Literature, go to Sweden’s best-known poet, Tomas Transtromer.
Melanie P Kumar