In Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, Jane Hirshfield writes,
“Between the first word of a sentence and the second, a tiny expectation rises in its listener, requiring fulfilment. An article leans toward its noun, a noun toward its verb; a preposition tells us the mind is about to be moved in time or place.”
A similar terse magic animates, for me, the title of the book under consideration. Kashiana Singh’s third collection of poems Woman by the Door offers contemplation and an interesting and intricate spatiality for the readers. Its poetic and political intentions are put firmly on record by its unencumbered title and its neat, unambiguous cover. There are three well-articulated spaces that invite our attention here – the woman, the door and the threshold.
Having crystallised over the nine years since 2013 when the poet moved from India to the US, the collection includes poems that encapsulate an intense and valuable experience of home-making and self-exploration between lived lands. The 68 poems in the book are grouped into three different constellations themed ‘Apertures’, ‘Portals’ and ‘Detours’, that cartograph the spatial journeys that Kashiana undertakes and invites the reader to reflect on. The aperture of the mind regulates sensitivity, memory and wisdom. The portal prefigures identity by permitting or denying entries and exits. The detours determine the existential shape of our living through climaxes and crises.
The woman, throughout these poems, remains the nerve centre of the collection and a vital node of consciousness through whom ideas, ideologies, images and intuitions flow, circulate and sediment into knowledge. Kashiana’s woman, as the reader will note, is not one. She is an Everywoman who is committed to knowing herself through the world as well as an individual faced with an idiosyncratic existential challenge. But most significantly, as the cover indicates, she represents, for the poet, an ontological space for the experience of plural identities.
The diasporic vision in Kashiana locates in women a site of multiple spatial cross-sections – biological, domestic, national, linguistic, cultural and more. Placed within these varying matrices of circumstances and relationships, the woman must negotiate home, self and the ways by which both are extended and sustained. Mothers, grandmothers, daughters, friends, aunts – all come to inhabit the ontological space of the poet’s speculation on female selfhood in ways that are startling in their perspicacity.
In ‘In the image of my mother’, the mother becomes the first giver of meaning “with syntax/ of lunch boxes/ with storytelling/ under whirring fans/ with petulant warmth/ of a fresh casserole”. In ‘Becoming Planets’, the various aspects of a woman’s experiences and desires acquire cosmic proportions with the woman claiming herself as a planet of her own. One notes how gently the individual and the community come together in these lines to weave a collage of women’s collective strength in both celebration and mourning:
I am a planet though; as every woman before
I bleed myself hollow; I swallow my volcanoes
I spin for all before me who were dwarfed
I draw orbits around names of all our departed souls
I weave a Kuiper belt with the fallen ringlets of my hair
I gather our screams till they pierce through veins of these stars
I repeat all of the above, I rotate, I revolve, I burn, I am born
into the firmament above –
As a poet Kashiana specialises in the meditative, her rare talent being to analyse the endodermis of things – facts, feelings, emotions and actions. The obvious, regular and mundane transform themselves through her poetic meditations into powerful loci for the interpretation of valuable cultural phenomena. In ‘The Kitchen That Is Also a Monastery’ for instance, the graphic description of the precise, geometric act of cutting vegetables brings together both pace and motion, metamorphosing the ordinary task of cooking into an extraordinary ritual of not just physical but also spiritual sustenance. In ‘A Woman Folding Laundry’, the marginal act of folding clothes acquires centre stage offering not only a new awareness of the tactile experience of each individual folded fabric but also bringing home the irksome magnitude of housework that, falling largely to women’s share, passes unnoticed in the cultural reckoning of domestic labour.
In poems like ‘Pagri’ and ‘Functions of a Saree’, the poet reinterprets through cultural pride, memory and nostalgia, the value of cherished cultural traditions that embody connection with an absent community and an empowered sense of identity. Rampant in these poems is a relentless existential reassessment of knowledge and wisdom, juggling between old-world and new-world knowledge and walking through cultural and generation gaps to foster a sense of lineage across disrupted families and incomplete homes.
While Kashiana attempts a wide range of free verse forms in Woman by the Door, her favoured mode of expression here seems to be the interlinked haiku that offers both an intimate and a wide-ranging perspective on her subjects. The sharp images of the haiku along with its silent serenity expand the associative impact of her best poems to render them ornate perspectives on life’s essential fragmentation and underlying unity.
The door and the threshold, the reader realises, emerge as significant metaphorical spaces in her poetry. The door as a possibility signifies both promise and threat and the threshold exemplifies the idea of waiting in faith. Both become poignant locations for the poet to connect with the world and journey through the complex interior of representations. Kashiana’s politics articulates womanist inclusiveness, empathy and a brave acceptance of loss and pain. One encounters in her poems a consistent night-seeing and an overwhelming desire to question and negotiate with the darkness that borders our lives perennially.
In ‘Dear Daughter, and Son‘, for instance, the process of moving house becomes a deep, emotive exploration of the space of transit for a mother since not all memories of her children can be dissociated from the house and neatly packed in a “square cardboard box”. With tender but unforgiving psychological realism, the poet sculpts the contours of vacancy here – “hangers of shapes and sizes, limp/ on rods inside vacant closets that/ swallow the phrases caught inside/ walls of this house.” At the conclusion of ‘I Stopped Counting’, another heart-wrenching poem, the poet articulates the burnt but defiant spirit of a victim of sexual abuse standing at the threshold of acceptance and strength through the image of a flaming pyre.
‘Country’, likewise becomes an impassioned address from the threshold to every nation that ignores its voices of sanity to transform into “the spitting fire of a trillion monarchs”. “I am a lighthouse standing in watch,” writes Kashiana here and the collection too, I would say, offers that profound and luminous sense of productive reflection as women globally wait by the door for an empathetic and meaningful future.
Basudhara Roy teaches English at Karim City College and writes and reviews from Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, India. Her latest (third) collection of poems is Inhabiting.