‘Hello, I’m naked’

Poems that are a dare, a warning, a celebration, all at once

Published - September 30, 2017 04:47 pm IST

Edouard Manet’s oil ‘Luncheon on the Grass’.

Edouard Manet’s oil ‘Luncheon on the Grass’.

A year ago, Tishani Doshi lost a friend. A good friend. Monika Ghurde, a designer and perfumist, was murdered in her home in Goa. I remember speaking to Doshi about a month after the incident, when she said she was now writing poems in a fury. In fact, the novel had been set aside for the moment, in order to bring these works, old and new, together. Hence, the poems in Girls are Coming out of the Woods are clustered, quite literally, around a death. Around incandescent anger. Around love, also, unmistakably. And, inevitably, around the tender wounds of sudden, griefful loss.

Even if this were the main inciting incident, it isn’t the only one. In an interview with fellow poet Karthika Nair, Doshi elaborates on her poems as “documents of violence”, specifically, meticulously, against women. “The rape of Jyoti Singh was a big trigger,” she says, “but then the stories kept coming… three sisters under the age of 11 raped and murdered and found at the bottom of a well. And on and on.”

Body of work

The anger behind “and on and on” is captured in Doshi’s haunting, soaring titular poem (dedicated to Monika), where figures “ wrapped in cloaks and hoods/ carrying iron bars and candles/ and a multitude of scars ” emerge onto the page, moving towards us, daring us to forget. These are all girls, “ even those girls/ found naked in ditches and wells ” with “ broken legs high, leaking secrets/ from unfastened thighs ”. “ They’re coming ,” the poem ends, portending a dare, a warning, a celebration all at once, “ they’re coming .”

In ‘Contract’, the collection’s first poem, Doshi pledges to the reader what she, as a poet, wishes to achieve. To turn her skin inside out. To reinvent every lost word. To burnish. To steal. It’s telling that in doing so she inserts a deft, disquieting line — “I will… lower my head into countless ovens” — that references Sylvia Plath, of course, yet also a larger “tradition” of exclusion and brutality that poetry (especially by women?) is devoted to. Thereby completing the circle of violence: perpetrated, begotten, laid into verse.

There’s no escaping this loop. It can be insidious and quiet. As in ‘O Great Beauties’, where she writes of women in portrait paintings, silent, removed, corseted, bonneted, revealed for all yet perpetually hidden. She addresses them directly: “ I must ask dear daughters of important houses/ heroines of epics, Helens, whores, how did you know/ to obscure your true selves? ” Or in ‘Everyone Loves a Dead Girl’ where “ they arrive at parties because they are dead/ now and there is nothing to fear except the sun .” Where the women tell of how they died: suffocated, crushed, made nameless, faceless, strangled. “ They all have stories which go on and on .”

Central then to Girls are Coming out of the Woods is the female body.

The one that’s desired, mutilated, taken advantage of, and takes advantage. But the one also, most touchingly, that’s mundane and everyday. Most visible, and literal, in ‘The Women of the Shin Yang Park Sauna, Gwangju’, where the bathers are “ busy with their breasts and cunts/ their dimpled, rounded, flat-dented buttocks .”

In the midst of this, moves the body of the self, with “ Hello, I’m naked ” bubbled above the head. It is a body most conscious of itself, within the confines of the poem and beyond. And the gaze that turns towards it is “ the way death might look at life .” Here, more so now than in Doshi’s previous poetry collections Countries of the Body and Everything Begins Elsewhere , the body is one in transit and transmutation.

In the interview referred to earlier she admits this: “I think it has to do with being a particular age, and feeling as in the first canto of Dante’s Inferno , that you’re standing in a dark wood in the middle of your life.” It is a body that’s changing, and ageing, though these are treated with Doshi’s characteristic lightness and humour.

Inverted desires

‘To My First White Hairs’ is that rare poem, lovely and funny, epistolary in form, where the poet chides them on their late arrival, yet they’ve taught her “that the particularity of yearning/ is such that desires are inverted/ as soon as they appear” . It’s a body that is also terribly aware of its own quiet decay. Augmented by the physicality of living right by the sea.

“There’s this romantic idea of what beach life must be,” Doshi tells Nair, “but the reality of coastal life, at least my coastal life in Tamil Nadu, is that you’re brought very close to death.”

The sea washes up death to your doorstep. Dolphins, dogs, fish, turtles. The saltiness of the air hastens the end of things, they rust, and wear out, and weather, and become brittle and crumble. This awareness seeps deep, even into a poem about love, where the poet declares “ When you die, Love, I will leave you out like a Zoroastrian ”, and goes on to conjure images of life — blowflies, scorpion flies, bacteria — that turn “man to farm”, and return the lovers to “dead stars”. There is a sense, again, of a circle being completed.

Doshi’s Girls are Coming out of the Woods is located firmly within the act of returning. One of the collection’s most powerful poems, ‘What the Sea Brought In’, echoes this in theme, rhythm, and structure.

Washed up on shore are things, people, ghosts, dead movie stars, childhood monsters. Unlike silent, perfect portraits, these are of life. Messy, flawed. Seemingly discarded. Much loved. Much missed. Returning again and again because the poet, as conjurer, calls them forth.

The author is a poet and writer.

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