There are many strange things that happen to a poet when she stops writing poetry. I do not know all of them; I cannot be called forth to give evidence, but there are two things that I’m not ashamed to share: First, you are seized by listlessness, almost as if you were a character in a Lydia Davis short story. Two, you seek out other poets; you want to continue living the poet’s vagabond existence at least second-hand, as a reader, and an admirer. If, like me, you are from Chennai, the choice of poets to read/admire is some of the best that India has to offer: in Tamil, there’s Salma, Kutti Revathi, Leena Manimekalai, Sukirtharani, and in English, there’s Tishani Doshi, Sharanya Manivannan, Srilata.
All of this prefacing is a way of saying that over the last few years, I slowly stopped writing poetry. And in that space, which suddenly opens up when one is not writing in a particular genre, I turned my attention to Doshi’s latest collection of poems, Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods. Her book became a kind of talisman. I carried it with me on all my travels in the past few months. I wrote letters to her in the margins. I showed her poems to a fellow-novelist Gwendoline Riley as we waited in the wings before a panel discussion. I read them to my partner. I dreamt of monsoon nights, I winced when I encountered the all-pervasive judgments that hound us into disappearance. The book made me revisit a Chennai I had fled, it brought back all those memories of why I loved and loathed my hometown in equal measure.
Even if you are not a lapsed poet, this book will speak to you. Underlying the sheer beauty and effortless rhythm of Doshi’s wordplay, this is a book that will jolt you into wokeness.
‘Contract’, the opening poem of the collection, invokes the powerful image of tortured female genius for whom melancholy is a precondition. “I will forgo happiness/stab myself repeatedly/ and lower my head into countless ovens./ I will fade backwards into the future/ and tell you what I see,” she writes. In acknowledging the price to be paid for truth-telling, Doshi dons the mantle of a merciless prophetess, and readies the reader for a series of brutal, bitter truths.
In the backdrop of #MeToo unravelling, allowing us the agency of disclosure, and the light-heartedness of shedding long-carried burdens of enforced shame, it is reverse time travel to experience some of the poems in Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods, that read as if they are a foreboding, an anxious anticipation of what is to emerge. In slow-moving frames of vivid horror, her lines capture gendered violence and the hostility with which victims are viewed.
call her my own, call her my lovely, stands up and says,
I would like to talk about what it means to suffocate on pillow
feathers, to have your neck held like a cup of wine, all delicate
and beloved, before it is crushed. Another stands, and another,
and even though they have no names and some of them
have satin strips instead of faces, they all have stories
which go on and on—ocean-like, glamorous, until
it is morning and they go wherever it is dead girls go.
(from ‘Everyone Loves A Dead Girl’).
The eponymous poem, ‘Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods’, distils the same urgency and intimacy. So when Doshi writes, “Girls are coming out of the woods. They’re coming. They’re coming,” you hear it both as a whisper and a roar. You want to stand up, cheer and clap and herald their arrival; and at once, you also tense and clench your fists, because this is a battle cry, and we all know, all too well, what happens in battlefields.
Thinking of bloodshed, Doshi tackles the war-front too. She writes, arrestingly, of Syria (‘Abandon’): “I cannot speak of Aleppo. Only that it is the opposite of breath” are lines that haunted me for days, numbing me into silence. There is a poem on neoliberalism’s killing-through-austerity warzone, Greece, but I’m not going to give away all the brilliant, beautiful lines of her poetry in this review.
In Clumps of Happiness, there is mockery of literary establishments and the festival circus, a snide “[t]hanking he whom/ I don’t belief in for being a poet. /For not being in the nicer hotel / with the best-sellers and the Booker-prize / winners who bite into club sandwiches” – and in these moments of self-reflexivity, we begin to think if this was why we entered the world of letters, only to have to accept all the hierarchy. Then again, what do we tell the young – the rhymesters, the repeaters, the starry-eyed, angst-ridden lovelies? Oh, you don’t know what awaits you yet, and in any case, be prepared. When do we grow old enough to warn? Doshi asks a similar question in ‘Great Beauties’, “I must ask dear daughters of important houses,/ heroines of epics, Helens, whores, how did you know/to obscure your true selves?”
I highlight the anger bursting at the seams in these poems, and yet, for all this controlled rage, Doshi’s poems manage to celebrate love, the impossible beauty of the everyday, the quintessential Tamil Nadu nights, the perfect proletarian butt of Patrick Swayze, the destiny of language and a restless, limitless sea that forms the backdrop to her rapturous dance with words.
Pick up this book. Like I did, carry it with you wherever you go, for at least a few weeks. Listen to the girls coming out of the woods. Their words will change your life.
Meena Kandasamy is an Indian poet, fiction writer, translator and activist.