Book Reviews - Coming Home
by Chintan Girish Modi
When I first discovered Arundhathi Subramaniam's poems, I was captivated by the candor and self-engagement; attractive for its poise in conflict, though at times hostage to a difficult vocabulary. This is her second volume of poetry, largely written in the course of her writer's residency at the University of Stirling. While you won't spot any obvious sentimentalism about distance making the heart grow fonder or desperate, there are some interesting reflections here.
The book is divided into three sections – Where I Live, How to Disarm, and Another Way. In its myriad moments, it explores the range of meanings we associate with home. If, on one hand, we glimpse an urban dweller "looking out/ on a sooty handkerchief of ocean, / searching for God", we also taste the sour cadences of sarsaparilla pickle comforting a would-be global citizen. There are poems of those who "always look like their passport photographs", of soul mates who "are cubs from the same lair", of places where "blood meets feeling", of silences that always come with accents, and of poets groping for moments "unstained/ by the wild contagion/ of habit."
There are poems that cherish familiar smells, poems that struggle with "malarial tentacles of guilt', poems that hum "tuneless songs in the kitchen", that dream of new beginnings, and constantly seek out ways "of keeping the faith".
My favorites in this collection are Home and Habitat. The first one expresses a yearning for a home that isn't bogged down by claims of belonging or proprietorship; one that doesn't implicate you in ordinary matters like plumbing, curtains and books by the bedside. It's a home bereft of history and memory; a home you can "slip in and out of", like this body "so alien when I try to belong, / so hospitable/ when I decide I'm just visiting."
The second one is about a woman recalling a painful childhood memory: "I think I was nine/ when I told Sonal, Gunjan, Devki and Shalini/ on the school bus/ that I didn't understand why we wore clothes/ except as a matter of seasonal cover." Clothes are developed into a metaphor for disguising one's selfhood, cloaking it in a socially acceptable garb. The woman in the poem has come a long way from the little girl who desperately tried to belong to "the ranks of the immaculately attired". She has realized that there are others like her, those "who spend their lives trying/ to fit into clothes without/ a wrinkle, a crease, a doubt, / hoping they'll never get caught/ halfway between shedding/ a Jurassic hide and looking/ for a more muslin/ habitat of skin/ a more limpid way of getting/ to the gist of themselves."
I enjoyed reading this book, and I love going back to it once in a while. Yes, I don't understand the literal meaning of several words. But I recommend this book for its sincerity, and for its struggle with self.
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