The Poetry of Pramila Venkateswaran

Review by Usha Kishore
Pramila Venkateswaran
Pramila Venkateswaran, poet laureate of Suffolk County, Long Island (2013-15), and author of Thirtha (Yuganta Press, 2002) Behind Dark Waters (Plain View Press, 2008), Draw Me Inmost (Stockport Flats, 2009), Trace (Finishing Line Press, 2011), Thirteen Days to Let Go (Aldrich Press, 2015), and Slow Ripening (Local Gems, 2016) is an award winning poet who teaches English and Women’s Studies at Nassau Community College, New York. Author of numerous essays on poetics as well as creative non-fiction, she is also the 2011 Walt Whitman Birthplace Association Long Island Poet of the Year.
Multicultural fluidity and a resonant voice that bridges the earthy and the esoteric
Pramila Venkateswaran’s poetry touches the heart, inspires the mind and stirs the soul. It is  characteristic of diasporic writing where Indian myth meets Western form, narrative traverses continents and assimilation mingles with difference.  Venkateswaran’s two chapbooks Thirteen Days to Let Go (Kelsay Books, Aldrich Press, 2015) and Slow Ripening (Local Gems, 2016) exhibit multicultural fluidity and a resonant voice that bridges the earthy and the esoteric. 

Slow Ripening is an exploration of the rites of passage, from youth to age and the wisdom that comes with age and experience; here, the poet draws comparisons with the natural world, brings back memories and poetises Indian myth.   Myth is elicited in “Mirages,” a poem, based on the Indian epic, Mahabharatha, which narrates the story of the warring Pandavas and Kauravas and evinces how the seeds of war are sown into the mind of man.  The poem opens with Duryodhan mistaking water for blue tiles in his cousins’ palace of illusions at Indraprastha and closes with the grave foreshadowing of war.  In the current geo-political climate, the poem seems to be a metonym for the exchange of rhetoric and war mongering among nations:

…this time with his flowing robes
he stepped into the shock of
water and the wicked laughter
of his cousins, egged on by their friend,
Krishna, who knew it only takes a seed
for war to ripen in one’s heart.

Indian superstitions are a living myth.  People believe in them so intensely that it affects their day to day lives.  In “Hiding from the Eclipse,” Venkateswaran explores, in the form of a childhood memory, one of the many superstitions associated with the lunar eclipse.  The belief that pregnant women have to conceal themselves from the eclipse, lest their unborn babies are affected, is described in:

“Does the moon think baby is the sun?”
“She might,” said mother, and I imagined
the moon sailing into our street and into
mother’s  ball of a belly and sailing out again,
bloated, and I was glad we were hiding
from the moon’s voracious appetite.

 “What is April Ripe For?”  is a ghazal and draws from the poet’s  personal experience of Swamiji jokes, her teacher’s relief of the ending of semesters, exams and the celebration of success and her musings of the natural world in “dawn parading the magic ink of April.”  The poem has a Chaucerian ring to it, reminding one of: Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote/ The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote/And bathed every veyne in swich licour.

Venkateswaran’s lines echo in unison, also bringing in a plethora of visual and auditory images of the Spring season such as bird migration and flowers, while employing pathetic fallacy in thoughts that rejuvenate the mind of man and verse rebirthing in poets:  Mallards  bobbing on speckled waves, artic terns floating in the wind,  geese honking April April and purple crocuses showing their faces among garden trash.  The poem closes, in true ghazal style, pertaining to the title of the collection, relating to aging and experience:
            The gloom of winter has withered my skin and robbed my heart.
            If Pramila is to be restored, it can only happen in April. 

In contrast, “Dear Cosmetic Companies” is a pungently humorous epistle that writes the aging process of the female body.  In true ecriture feminine, the poetic persona examines herself in the mirror and discovers grey hair above the temples, “crows’ feet” “blackheads popping like mustard seeds” and the “pale stretch of skin, breathing blue, rising toward dipping nipples.”  The poetic voice then appeals to the cosmetic companies for eternal youth and calls for the universal understanding of “female thingamajigs.”

            I am writing to you to save me, dear deities
            of eternal ripeness of youth,
            work your magic, make my skin supple,
            my face glow with the gold of your creams…
            …send me potions for my twin mounds
            to assume their rightful glory… 

The reflection on the current state of the world and the USA comes across in powerful poems like “Two Voices” and “He Runs, the Policeman Pulls out his Rifle.”  The poet ponders on gun crime, terrorism, history (Jallianwalla Bagh) and what it is like to live in America:

…I don’t want to hear Guantanamo,
Hiroshima, Birmingham, now we can walk
our streets in peace, Fergusson, South Carolina,
shoot –to-kill-black men-like-rabid-dogs powerful
for after all we are ashes, ashes, we all fall down,
a free society.    (“Two Voices”)

Other poems with impact are the “Grand Piano in Gaza” and the ekphrastic “Magritte’s Le Viol (The Rape), 1934.” The former is a villanelle, highly structural, with its five tercets and a quatrain and its repeated rhymes and refrains; but poignantly moving as it is based on the BBC report of the salvaging of the grand concert piano of the Nawras Theatre in northern Gaza:

Some here reject music as haram, as if it would cloud
Reason. But the bombs missed a Sara or Miriam
As she played the keys now waiting to be restored.

The ekphrastic poem outlines the predicament of womanhood and its susceptibility to rape and violation; this is an angry female poem:

You painted breasts in place of her eyes,
an untrimmed vagina instead of a nose,
a rectum for the mouth,

as if to say anatomy is all the rapist sees.
Or did you want to say that men
see only her sex on woman’s face?

The defence of modern poetry in “Gripes about Poetry’s Dire Prediction,” reminds one of Jonathan’s Swift’s satire The Battle of the Books

Those lines from tradition that you think is real art
have misogyny and racism stiffened into rigor mortis
after modern poetry waged its war on the battlefield
of free verse, rescuing readers on the
front lines plagued
by friendly fire, who thought change was the
death of poetry.
and the “Museum of Ex-es” makes you chuckle at the  humorous reality of  life:

            Time will help the ex-es become extinct like dinos
            and decades or centuries from now, their bones
            will be placed in a museum of Ex-es, so the jilted,
            divorced, separated and spurned can visit
to feel the warm twist of schadenfreude.

Thirteen Days to Let Go,  a threnody to the poet’s father, is a collection that echoes the highly personal voice of the poet, highlighting her ambiguous relationship with her father, her Indian background, her musings on life and the diasporic Indian’s dilemma of home and abroad.  One of the most conspicuous poems of the chapbook is the eponymous Thirteen Days to Let Go.  Set in 13 sections, the poem chronicles the Tamil Brahman funerary rites brought to the reader in striking imagery and vivid metaphors. The poem is an outpouring of grief, anger and broken relationship and at the same time, a reconciliation with the death of a parent.  This poem like the funeral is a ritual, it grieves for the departed, recalls memories, offers rites and prayers for the deceased and celebrates life.   Opening with the poignant line: “Finally I am in your absence,” the poem progresses to the numbness that overwhelms an offspring on parental bereavement in the second section, when the poetic persona flies home to attend her father’s funeral:

            Flying across an ocean and two continents
confused between day and night,
knees stiff, throat dry, I sat frozen
trying to focus on your struggle
toward death.

The poet emphasises on the patriarchal Hindu funerary rites in Section 3.  Traditionally Hindu women are not empowered to conduct funerary rites for their parents; that right rests solely with the male offspring:

            I don’t carry
            the flaming branch
to the pyre,

but light the fire of words
awakening the soul

to the numinous. 

The poet however wants to exercise the right of language in order to awaken the deceased father’s soul to the numinous.  There is regret here and a degree of pain in the differences with the father, which now needs to be resolved in his absence: 

            Where is your disconnection?
            Your frustration and mine?
            The in-between years?

            …The well of anger has dried.
            Joy I keep fenced like
            the endangered.

The combatting of loss and the coming to terms with it are brilliantly expressed in:
            My anguish
                        is a fog I carry
                                                in my chest.

The ritual of a Hindu funeral is listed and the loss is measured in:

            Three rows of ritual rice balls:
            You are in the first row.  Your ancestors
            cast next to you gleam like planets

Mantras chanted at the funeral become words of the poem: these words I speak to reach your realm/…these mantras are alphabets of longing. 

In this collection, the poet’s pre-occupation with death is synonymous with her mourning.  for her father: 

            This winter, death is at every corner.
            In every house, a ghost clings until
the bier vanishes behind gray trees.  (“Ceremony”)

Death pervades the whole collection.  Even a boat trip in Kerala usher in thoughts of drowning:
            What if the boat splits, the motor shuts,
            and we drown, burqas, saris, shirts
            spreading, later washing upon some unknown shore…  (“Sailing to Fort Kochi”)

“Winds rip our time together” and “murmurs refuse to fade” as memory haunts the mourning and the poet finds it difficult to reconcile.  However, reflections on life and nature allude to our own limited time on earth as the poet ponders on mortality.  The temporal and spiritual dimensions are measured out in a Dickinsonian undertone: 
            How long will grid and clock march me?
            I am wood cut to size, anima escaped
            from the reining in.    (“The Unfolding”)

Usha Kishore
 Venkateswaran’s voice has a resilient power in its reflections.  She mediates wilfully on nature, life and memories.  Her diction is sophisticated, her sensibility relatable to any reader of poetry, in the West or the East.  Her verse has an ambience that draws the reader into her poetical world that lies somewhere between India and the USA, replete with images of cultural and geographical significance:
             By the waters of the Hudson
            two thoughts embraced
            out of the sacred union
            was born

            …You are Noor.  You are light. 
            (“You are Noor, You are Light”)