Poems by Suniti Namjoshi
Suniti Namjoshi was born in Mumbai, India and at present lives in the southwest of England. Her books include Feminist Fables, Building Babel, Saint Suniti and the Dragon, Goja, Sycorax, The Fabulous Feminist, Suki and Foxy Aesop (also published as Aesop the Fox). Her books are published by Spinifex Press and Zubaan. Her children’s books include the Aditi series, The Boy and Dragon Stories and Blue and Other Stories are published by Tulika Books and Spinifex Press. For Blue Nilima Sheikh did the art work. Suniti’s papers are in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.
The morning discloses a phoenix
in the garden.
You mean a pheasant? No, a phoenix,
each feather burning, the eyes burning.
Such brightness consumes itself.
I scramble through the bushes looking
for the phoenix.
I cannot hope to find her;
but should I stumble
upon her, the air will ignite, the garden
blaze, and I will achieve happiness.
The Swans Remain
For Avril Henry(5 April 1935 – 20 April 2016)
Before your death I sent you a picture
of swans in a meadow,
an untidy picture:
some of the swans had just arrived,
some were leaving. It’s a picture of transience
you told me nicely.
I know you were saying I should not grieve.
It’s not the swans
I mourn. When I can, I see with your seeing.
The swans remain.
It’s the meadow. Without you this landscape is empty.
Aspects of Mu
Madam Mutability has come to tea.
Her stale scent
clogs the air. She is someone
I don’t want to be.
I’m ten years old. I turn my face away.
She takes no notice,
she says to my mother:
I am the one who puts fuzz
on the peach,
dew on the grass, rust on the cheek.
I’m probably the one
who finally kills. Without me,
nothing would grow,
nothing would live. No baby born
would ever squall.
All would be silent,
all would be still.
The flick of a finger and everything moves.
The cock crows,
the dove coos.
The whole of creation is swinging along
on mother’s milk.
I look at my mother, who looks away,
and says nothing
Ten years later it’s Mu again,
Confidentially, my dear,
between you and me, the sun will rise
and the earth will spin
and a stray asteroid
might wander in.
Does she know what she’s saying?
grinning down her nose,
smiling through her teeth,
Oh you babbling buttercup, I don’t need to know
Next she’s a friend. Someone I knew
We used to play games.
We are playing games.
And which games are those?
It doesn’t really matter.
That ball – thundering down –
that is destiny.
You are the ninepins. She shrugs,
I’m not a player. I’m just watching.
She has set me up,
sent the ball rolling.
One day she says:
Let’s play catch.
Catch as catch can. If I touch you,
you’ll shrivel up and die.
And if you touch me,
you’ll shrivel up and die.
And if I refuse?
You’ll still shrivel up and later you’ll die.
She sits like a cat with her tail curled,
watching me age. But she says,
That’s not interesting.
Fluffy Madam Mu is a makeup artiste
with a degree
in beauty. She can cut hair.
She can go ‘snip, snip.’
She is staring at my face,
and at the whole of my body.
Suddenly, she reaches across
and scores my cheek.
I don’t even know
whether she hates me.
My Charge Against Her
What did you do with the dead worlds?
Where did you hide the bodies?
And the thoughts of each body?
Where are they archived?
Those who walked slowly downhill,
or rose from the table,
and excused themselves –
you made them go!
You said something!
She just raises guiltless hands.
You know they couldn’t
What did you say to the gosling,
to the small child?
I didn’t say anything.
They learn as they go.
What do they learn?
That everything they love
is fading and fragile, and like themselves
susceptible to death.
She Tries to Explain
Madam Mu is grave and gracious:
I mean you no harm.
What you suffer are your own limitations.
If you could step into time,
dally with creation for just a little while,
then step out again, you would be fine.
I’m not Old Mother Hubbard eating up everything,
I transmute everything –
light into leaves, and leaves into earth –
what you call alchemy, chemistry.
Look, you climb on a time belt and trundle
along, with your eyes in the back of your head.
You can’t see a thing coming at you.
It’s the way you’re born.
I collude in everything,
am part of everything, Without me
your blood wouldn’t flow.
Even your maudlin, much vaunted memory
is subject to me.
You are barely a shadow on grass!
So then are you God?
Never said I was! God is somebody
Though because of me you might turn to a god.
Mu, are you never
gentle, comforting, kind?
I am your mother, you stupid child.
A Speculative Bent
As she looked at the rows and rows of cabbages stretching out before her, she wondered what would happen if cabbages were like human beings. ‘Or the other way about,’ she corrected herself. She had been told she had a speculative bent and encouraged to feel that this was a good thing. She pursued the thought:
‘We wouldn’t have any arms and legs, but we could roll, I suppose. Rolling downhill would be fun, but rolling uphill wouldn’t be easy. It would probably be impossible. Still, as cabbages, we would have to sit still all day. We would then be able to develop the power of our minds. We would acquire telepathy and telekinesis. Any cabbage could speak to any other. And we would be able to move objects at will – rocks, trees, even mountains. We could re-shape the earth to make it a pleasant place for cabbages to live on. As cabbages, we could even move ourselves. We could roll uphill!’
She felt pleased. Life as cabbages was beginning to look utopian. It was worth thinking about. She looked at the rows of cabbages again. Each cabbage looked very like any other cabbage.
‘We would all be the same!’ she exclaimed to herself. ‘There would be no jealousy, no inequality, no racism, no factions, no wars. No cabbage would say that its shade of green was lighter or darker.’
She peered at the cabbages anxiously. Perhaps there were differences among cabbages? Perhaps some were greener, some lighter, some sweeter, some less sweet, some larger, some smaller, some more capable of deep thought and telekinesis? It was worrying. She scrutinised the cabbages again. They all looked the same. If there were any differences, they were negligible. They would live in an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity!
As she continued to contemplate the serenity of the cabbages, a rabbit came along and began to nibble at a cabbage leaf. She watched horrified. But the cabbage didn’t move, it didn’t even squeak. ‘Herbivores were clearly a problem. Cows, kangaroos, elephants, horses… Herbivores would have to be abolished – or transformed. That’s it! They could be turned into other vegetables. This would make for a somewhat static landscape. Ah, but carnivores could be allowed to flourish. Lions and tigers would gambol on the green and adorn the scenery. But what would they eat? No herbivores and so no carnivores. A pity, but there was no help for it.’ ‘And no insects,’ she added as an afterthought.
It then occurred to her that the rabbits and the rest weren’t the main problem. All the cabbages would soon be harvested – by human beings! From her green utopia human beings would have to be banned. No, that was all right. Human beings were cabbages! It was a superb plan.
She began to consider where she might publish it.
When I am old and grey and gracious
I shall pay
to become a cyborg, lace my blood
with spidery nanobots,
and replace my teeth with cellulite, granite,
or something more precious.
As for my jaws, I’ll have them fortified
with stainless steel,
add a bionic motor, a miniature battery,
In fact, while I’m about it, I’ll have
my bones replaced
with something light, plastic, elastic, and not
in the least frangible.
Perhaps I’ll dispense with some of my parts,
add new ones –
a prehensile tail, multiple limbs,
at least twenty heads,
and like Ravana
be marvellous, monstrous, mythical.
[Ravana – King of Sri Lanka in The Ramayan]
© Suniti Namjoshi