Saturday, June 19th, 2004
I have the sim, the room, but I also have the poem, set on the page printed and ready to go. There are more to read and cover, but Im going to begin with Neha Bawas poem Untitled, a poem about a womans reflections. Untitled is a seven stanza poem that focuses on multiple places in a persons life through sustained imagery and narrative repetition. Heres the first stanza.
Once she was sixteen
reading short stories aloud
in her tiny blue walled classroom
when she saw her brother standing in the doorway.
Father had sent bhaiya for her.
It was time now for her to look pretty
with flowers in her hair
and kohl in her eyes
so she could be sent away
to her new home.
Ma had bit her lip when she was sent away to a new life. (1-11)
The first stanza begins with a girls age, a factor of time. The girl is sixteen and reading short stories aloud in a room described as small and blue. The speaker doesnt tell us what the girl is reading but we know that shes engaged in a storywhatever it may bebut is also about to be pushed into one, a story that she herself had no hand in writing but may indeed have to read. In a way, the memorial, recollected spaces that the poem deals with read with a particular melancholy. The girls brother comes to propel the girl from one story into another, described in terms of banishment. The girl is in a particular state of waiting, almost statuesque in her still posture of reading again the blue background of the walls. The first stanza contains, therefore, two possible narratives.
The second stanza, however, retreats back into the girls past thus into another memorial context. The transition is indicated by the concentric Yesterday, a framing devise for successive examples of youthful exuberance, freedom, and a carefree dance of childhood. Yesterday she was a little girl / playing hop-scotch barefoot / on dusty streets, unmindful / of the drop of perspiration . . . (12-15). In addition to play and unmindfullness, the girl laughs at the antics of the boys slipping on their marbles. This stanza transitions in both time and place, taking the girl away from the period when her brother comes to get her, years later, it would seem, as if the girl of stanza 1 is herself involved in a retreat into memories of days less constrained by the coming responsibilities of marriage. Memorial distance, or its imagining, can be taken here as a question of time in formal terms. Both the first and last stanza repeat the word once: Once she was sixteen of line 1 and Hands leathery, the wrinkles carved by time. / Hands that once churned butter, chopped wood, and came together in prayer of lines 40 and 41.
Stanza 2 gives the reader play and laughter. Stanza 3 snap-shots onto the girls relationship with her grandmother. The girl rushes to receive sweets and bracelets after bending over a pile of red chillies [sic] in the verandah, /
picking out the ones grandma / would want to grind in to dinner that night (19-21). These are memories. Yesterdays. What separates the past from the present is a strange silence in the poem. The word silence in brackets forms a stanza of its own after which the melancholic voice propels the reader into the girls present or now:
Now all has changed.
Shadows that dance on the mud caked walls
by the light of an oil lamp
are the memories of her loved ones – those who passed on
and left her here, alone.
Those who had walked away
were the ones she had nurtured
since they had been placed into her arms.
She sits in the light of late afternoon
tracing the shadow of the window with her old fingers.
Her face is weathered, eyes filled with memories that spill out in tears.
Hands leathery, the wrinkles carved by time.
Hands that once churned butter, chopped wood, and came together in prayer.
Now they lay by her side,
resigned, aching to feel.
The shadows on the wall are the memories . . . These shadows play like a memorial geography of events, relationships, and resentments (. . . those who passed on / and left her here, alone. / Those who had walked away . . . (31-33). The woman sits in light. She, therefore, must be surrounded by shadow and darkness.
The poem can be divided into topological elementsinto its experiential spaces and times: past/childhood/whimsical action (plucking the chilies happens in a youthful space)/what was and present/age/melancholic reflection (numbed hands occur with age)/what is. Ironically, the shadows on the mud walls for the adult are memories. Yet the poem is structured by memorial image. The poem, therefore, can be read as one of the shadows on the wall or those shadows given verbal poetic form. The poem itself, as a literary space, develops by placing the images into a series that step from past to present, image to image, context to context, and ends on the image of the still hands aching to feel.
Untitled is verbalized memorial space where past and present overlap onto particular memories which form the poetic story of life for the woman. For her, there is no other life (no other memory), no alternative childhood that can make sense. The final stanzas are emphatic about positioning the woman in a place where she can be seen, in the light, but what she sees are shadows, what she traces with her wrinkled fingers is her story. In a way, shes gone back to that small blue schoolhouse room, reading a story, but in a different time.