by Reetika Vazirani,
edited by Leslie McGrath and Ravi Shankar,
Drunken Boat Books, 2010,
86 pages, paperback, $14.95,
ISBN -13: 978 – 0 – 578 – 01465 – 4
Buy the Book
These last poems by Reetika Vazirani, written before her death in 2003, are meditations on transience and impermeability. Her language is free; lyrical, playful, bittersweet at times, rich in scholarly references, and with an ability to soar and dive within mere syllables. Now, that’s her language alone. What’s under the surface, the bedrock of her poems, is a different story. Barriers are Saturnian, impossible to navigate without pain. Ancient ghosts and guardians loom over us, the readers. Women can share the fate of their own mothers, often unwillingly, ground down by menial chores and misery caused by a father, lover, or husband. And absolutely no one is a god or goddess on this earth.
This is Vazirani’s warning, even as the poems lilt and sparkle. The contrast between her exquisite language and negotiations with shadows create poetic tensions that are powerful, impossible to forget. It’s what Federico García Lorca called “duende”: an urgent dance on the edge of danger, being gripped by primeval forces. Add to this the way Vazirani speaks of cultural or political barriers, their complex negotiations, and we feel an authentic, hard – earned voice.
The “Radha” of the title — she is the mythical Hindu Radha, beloved consort of Krishna — comes in many guises and personas within this book, alternately vain, ambitious, and ambivalent: a bored guest at banquets, a foil for the fickle and elusive Krishna – like man frequently mentioned, and even, in one poem, Doris Snyder, a hat – check girl on Radha Street. While the poems’ narrators often glimpse divine energies, as in “Nuptials” and “Territory,” they rarely realize wholeness completely. Sharp questioning and fragmentations intrude in “Born,” which concludes the book:
I say god to be wed to the dream
of an avatar what could be worse?
listen it could be if god sent no money
Like an illustrious predecessor — the 16th century poet Mirabai, from Rajasthan — Vazirani alternates praise and complaints within her poems. She is done with worldly vanity, as in the disillusionment of the narrator in “Swamp Green,” and in these lines from “Born”:
forget every bit of floral lace lipstick and any other
buffer between glamour and being done for
And even in the achievement of long – held professional dreams, in a contemporary setting, comes the realization that the world for Vazirani’s poetic narrators can be full of cruelty, envious rivals, and hypocrites. A line from the title poem, “Radha Says,” makes this clear:
the suburban stepinfechit smiles
of realtors laughing at your tribe
Surely for Vazirani, an immigrant who was born in India, this aspect of the American dream was painful to live deal with. Yet using the “stepinfechit” metaphor makes it clear that she knows the lackeys of culture, money, and power to be more insidious than all of us even know. All of us, especially women, can turn lackey, as in the narrator from “Born” who says bluntly that “he’s a god and I’m errands” or in the last two lines of “Ambient:”
mother what you lived I learned
smiling at the list of chores
Reading these poems, however, I became increasingly disturbed by the Radha persona. It is like a mask that cannot be removed, with its crimson and gold paint turned toxic, its scholarly allusions useless in a world of fragmentations and harsh choices. I was reminded, more than once, of Muriel Ruykeyser’s “The Poem as Mask,” with its cry of “No more mythologies!” and how it once entreated poets to reject anything that blocked telling their own real experiences. When Vazirani speaks of the life of a single mother, the details themselves, such as a visit to a public health clinic in “Born,” have true clarity, are authentic and compelling enough without the lure of a myth.
In conclusion, what is Vazirani really saying to us? The same thing Rukeyser told us — No more masks! — but with her own painful truths. May a new generation of poets arise, particularly women poets, who really do not need or choose the old masks in any way whatsoever. That’s still my wish.
— Sharon Olinka