|Jul/Aug 2015 Reviews & Interviews|
Everything Begins Elsewhere
Copper Canyon Press. 2013. 96 pp.
In the abstract to her paper "The Parting Pelvis: Temporality, Sexuality and Indian womanhood in Chandralekha's Sharira," Royona Mitra describes the famous choreographer's "...challenge to heteronormative codes that govern the performance of Indian sexuality."
This challenge is relayed in two ways: first, through a haunting triangle motif of the yoni (vagina in Sanskrit), that is evoked repeatedly through the controlled parting of the female dancer's legs, reminding us that her body is both a harbinger of life and a center of sexual agency. Second, the piece critiques heteronormativity through an über-slowing down of choreographic time, which emphasizes the materiality of the female body and the extremes it can execute.
The avant guarde dance Sharira, first presented in 2001, is known, inside and outside of India, as the culmination of Chandralekha's long career in the art of dance. Her dances took so long to conceive and choreograph that she did not present another major work before her death in 2006.
In the body of her paper, Mitra describes the movements of Sharira in close detail. On the stage, the movements are abstract and seem less overtly sensual. The dance could almost be described as "synchronized yoga." The featured dancer at this point in Chandralekha's small company was Tishani Doshi.
Through Doshi's repeated, painstakingly slow parting of her legs, which creates the two arms of the inverted triangle, Chandralekha guides her audience's attention to that very thing that lies between them: the yoni in all its fleshly form. In Sharira, Doshi's parting pelvis and its explicit focus on the yoni becomes an important vehicle for Chandralekha's feminist commentary on Indian female sexuality.
The feminism described here is distinct from Western feminism. The role of the woman in upper-class Indian society is advancing along very different lines. Although the architype of the ancient Mother Goddess toward which Chandralekha and other Indian feminists have looked for direction and inspiration once also found a place in the West, it has largely been set aside here in favor of breaking down—shattering, actually—traditional gender roles.
Watching Doshi dance the Sharira, it becomes clear—in the way the body makes things clear—why her second book of poems, Everything Begins Elsewher is so unselfconsciously sensual. This is a poet who writes, without the least sense of traditional or Western feminist compunction, of her
legs prised open
like a jewel box
singing odes to joy
These lines are stunningly beautiful (yup, I used the b-word), and, for better or worse, beyond the permissions extended to Western poets. The final two poems of the book are dedicated to her beloved teacher (from whom the "jewel box" image originally comes). It is rare for her to go through an interview without prominently mentioning Chandralekha, a name unknown to the vast majority of Western readers.
After private school, held in a converted palace in India, Tishani Doshi traveled to the United States to take a bachelor's degree, at Queens College in North Carolina, and an MA from the writing program at Johns Hopkins University. This was followed by nearly a year, in London, working in the advertising department of a fashion magazine. Disappointed with her London prospects, she returned to her hometown of Madras.
Her near neighbor turned out to be Chandralekha whose studio she entered as a novice dancer. Her progress can only have been rapid. By 2001 she was touring the world as the primary dancer in Sharira. While she was writing poetry and prose, her primary art at the time was dance. Her poems reflect as much even now that she is primarily known as a poet.
The poet's history is particularly to the point in the instance of Doshi. An American reviewer can hardly understand the seeming discontinuities in her volume Everything Begins Elsewhere without knowing about her upper-class Indian upbringing, forays throughout her life into London, American education and association with Chandralekha.
When I stumbled over the volume, among a pile of review copies within which it had hidden for some two years, and read the first several poems, I was stunned. All the little details were delightfully askew.
Between this moment and the next
there's always space for a lover's return,
though you may no longer weep for him,
or ache to lie down in the woods with him.
But say he chooses to appear on a Sunday
afternoon, when you are walking upstairs
for lunch; cutting broccoli into perfect spears
while the rice in the cooker is boiling.
Where is this place that young women have lovers, receive their unexpected visits without the least rancor or devastation after they have parted ways and cut broccoli into perfect spears? Rice might suggest the East but where exactly in the East? Perfect spears point toward placing ritual value on household tasks, again suggesting the East. But where in the East do women have lovers who nonchalantly visit while they are fixing lunch on a Sunday? And where is eating lunch upstairs sufficiently the rule that no explanation need be provided?
The answer might appear to be "Madras in India," but few Indian women there take a succession of lovers. It is from that India that Doshi's Welsh mother warns her:
Don't become that woman,
my mother said.
By which she meant,
don't become that woman
who doesn't marry
or bear children.
That woman who spreads her legs,
who is beaten, who cannot hold
her grief or her drink.
If the answer is "Madras in India," it is a very different Madras. Supported by the growing success of her dance and poetry, it is a Madras within a plane flight to the near neighborhoods of Europe and London. Now it is not Madras at all but rather a small Indian fishing village nearby where she and an Italian husband (who she added to her life at much too advanced an age for a woman of Madras) do their writing away from the incessant street noise of Madras.
In the end, these questions do not so much need answers, beyond what the poetry supplies, as they need to be recognized as a mysterious combination of small details. Added to these will soon be epigraphs mentioning John Burnside, the syllables of his name sounding like the tolling of a large bell compared to epigraphs featuring the melodious names of Indian authors.
By the time I came to the last page, I was convinced that I'd traversed one of the finer books of contemporary lyric poetry I had ever read. But today lyric poetry is considered virtually synonymous with "trite" poetry. How had this Tishani Doshi managed it? How had she managed to become the poet who could write this book?
Doshi's first book of poetry—Countries of the Body (2006)—had won the prestigious British Forward Prize for Poetry and been published by Aark Arts an English language Indian press with an extension office in London. The very idea of a functioning Indian English language poetry is spoken of (when spoken of at all) in guarded tones. All indications are that the volume was uneven but promising. Examples suggest that it was a bit edgier than Everything Begins Elsewhere, a bit more aware of its Johns Hopkins writing program pedigree.
The assignment to Aark Arts suggests that the volume was targeted to an Indian audience. The book would also be offered in England at least to the donors to the Forward Arts Foundation. It is out of print which suggests a limited investment by the publisher.
I cannot claim to know the politics of British poetry intimately well. Somehow, Bloodaxe Books found Everything Begins Elsewhere sufficiently affecting that they chose to publish it in spite of a lyricism and embrace of traditional normative gender roles its readers might consider heretical. How it viewed the very feminine sensuality is impossible to say. Perhaps the editors felt that poems such as the simple and effective concrete poem, "Ode to the Walking Woman," celebrating Giacometti's statue of the same name, might help put it over the top with a Western audience:
Inanna, Ishtar, Cybele,
clutching their bounteous hearts
in the unrepentant dark, crying: Daughters,
why have the granaries
and great baths disappeared?
Won't you resurrect yourself,
make love to the sky,
reclaim the world?
The feminism that founds itself upon the feminine power of the ancient Mother Goddesses—straight out of Chandralekha—might translate for Western audiences. The publisher's sometime U.S. partner, Copper Canyon Press published an American edition soon after. Step by step, then, Tishani Doshi's beautifully sensual lyricism traveled from India to England to the United States.
Then the most remarkable thing seems to have happened: nothing. The book received almost no review coverage in the United States. Individual customer reviews, on the book pages of electronic vendors, such as have become so common now, are predictably modest in number and almost unanimously filled with praise. From time to time an American venue has reprinted an interview with her from a British partner publication or author. By and large, recognition of the very existence of Everything Begins Elsewhere stops at the eastern shores of the Atlantic.
In England and eastward, there was also a noticeable pattern. Doshi's books (one of them a novel) are often panned by Indian writers selected to write reviews for British-based publications. Her lyricism, they complain, is impossibly "cliché." There is no mention whatsoever of such passages as her description of Xuanzang:
his 657 manuscripts unfurling
like prayer flags,
scattering Sanskrit kisses
across the sky
It is difficult not to attribute some of this rejection as jealousy and defense of territory. The "physically beautiful, upper-class Indian woman makes good" storyline is no more popular there than here. Her appearance, discussing beauty tips, in the Indian edition of Vogue magazine probably didn't help matters. British reviewers, for their part, note the sensuality and get just about every other detail (complimentary or otherwise) wrong.
There is reason for jealousy. Doshi and her sari are often invited to highly prestigious literary events and conferences. Her Ted-X appearance in Italy may have dealt with another of the notable strengths of her poetry—The Luxury of Slowness—but every Indian poet surely feels that he or she has an even more compelling presentation within them that will never be provided the outlet of a Ted stage or be pondered in a country cottage in a small fishing village.
The yea and nay of all of this aside, the luxurious slowness that Tishani Doshi can afford is evident in her poetry. The sensuality in Everything Begins Elsewhere is so organic—so uniquely sensual—because it has time to slowly unfold. Give it a time limit, in a tiny airless apartment and it is just sweating.
None of this should be interpreted to say that the clichés often attributed to Tishani Doshi's work are not actually evident. Nor will she ever likely become the Adrienne Rich of Indian poetry. Her journalism and recent attempts to present as more sophisticated about contemporary gender politics inform us that these are not issues which life has pressed upon her. She has definitely and deeply learned modesty and the trait does not come across well in such a context. She may have boldly broken a few taboos of Indian life but she remained resoundingly feminine and Indian as she did so.
Do yourself a favor and read Tishani Doshi's Everything Begins Elsewhere the first time without a thought for any of this. The reader unaware of the politics of contemporary poetry will naturally do as much and be highly rewarded for his or her lack of sophistication. If you do not get in the way of it, so will you.