Jul-Aug '03 [Home]

Free Expression

'Verse Says I Could Not
Choose My Body's Drama' *

. . .

In the dining room, lotus floated in a bowl; and when they wilted,
             we took our time removing them.
("Days in Punjab, 1960-67")

[Artificial lotus ponds were constructed for use in Hindu purification ceremonies.—Eds.]

Reetika Vazirani is dead. Her two-year-old son by Yusef Komunyakaa is dead. Kitchen knives. Both her wrists slit, just one of his. A Bible, recently borrowed. A note to or about her lover. A pool on the dining room floor of a borrowed house, of blood let slowly.

Time was, in India, when a man died, his wife was led to the pyre. A harsh punishment for one guilty merely of living on. Perhaps the bond, once loosed below, must be quickly resecured above. Maybe an uncompanioned man-soul suffers a lesser status.

Duty. In all cultures, human or animal, the irreducible duty owed by parent to child is to protect; that owed by child to parent is to persist. 'Offspring,' 'Nachwuchs,' 'issu' imply energy, growth, progress. These are lent, fostered, rewarded. The infant, or 'speechless one,' is nursed to expression by his mother's teat and tongue. Earthly expression. He is coaxed into forgetting his own, the one Galway Kinnell calls simply 'heaven's language,' the one still spoken by our animal companions. We all retain its image, renew it through our small and helpless.

How do we—as poets, not journalists—treat Reetika Vazirani's final one? Immediately, the print media is rife with staff and stringer references to Plath and Sexton. In short order, Van Gogh and Tchaikovsky will be added, the whole devolving into a Cliff Notes study of the tortured genius. Sober, porous copy will lace up with phrases such as, "the mystery of modern despair."

Is not every element of the cliché refutable? Modern, yes, as the Greek tragedies are. What nature of despair? Not likely artistic. This poet began writing late, at 25. She was mentored by Derek Walcott. For fifteen years, she multiplied her early successes, and was still writing, with a collection (World Hotel) which, released last year by Copper Canyon, won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award three months ago. She and Mr. Komunyakaa were set to be together in Atlanta, both at Emory. How different, say, the unlucky portion of Martin Amis's black-comical, self-loathing writer-narrator in The Information. The cause of his dual misfortunes, personal and artistic, is a mystery revealed—last to him, of course—and not novel, or even highly literary.

"The world exists to become a book," Mallarmé said. When world or book inevitably comes to an end, two results are certain:  either something changes or something remains the same, but something has been preserved. In a country willing to defend its innocence with cynicism, we are stymied by this immigrant trope on the ancient rite of sacrifice, illiterate before this tableau which bears no kinship to the Pietà.

Mary did not lead Jesus to the cross. Of what not-quite-forgotten mystery had a mother to remind her infant son that he floated without a whimper beside her, until both lotuses were wilt, until the water seeped out and refilled their other common bowl?


[*] From "Shiva's Six Faces Listed by His Wife Parvati." This and a second poem by Reetika Vazirani appear in the Jan '01 issue. "Culture shock is not your reflex upon leaving the dock; it is when you have been a law-abiding citizen for more than ten years:  when someone asks your name and the name of your religion and your first thought is I don't know…"—RV.

Reetika Vazirani
(1962 - July 16, 2003)