poetry feature: Shirani Rajapakse

chant-of-a-million-women-shirani-rajapakseFor this poetry feature, we have two poems and short essay by poet Shirani Rajapakse. The poems are from her recent collection,  Chant of a Million Women, and her essay goes into the themes of the collection and the role these two poems play.

I am honored to provide a forum for the discussion and interrogation of such complex issues as these poems and prose take on. Rajapakse’s work is filled with astute observation and insight. “At the Side of the Old Mandir” takes its time meditating on the act of men groping a statue; the pace of the poem allows the nuance and charge of the situation to be dwelled upon in a way in an unflinching manner. This ability to dwell on the problematic until it gives over something human is found again in “On a Street in London.” In both poems, and throughout Chant of a Million Women, Rajapakse provides space to acknowledge discomfort, injustice, and hurt, but also to begin the work of healing.

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At the Side of the Old Mandir – Shirani Rajapakse

They come to this place every day
to touch you.
Lonely men with desires unfulfilled.
Can’t afford the real thing, costs too much
these days, a glance, a caress.
They can barely afford food for the day.

You’re the best they can have;
voluptuousness in stone.
They ogle and marvel, then
gradually draw nearer.
A furtive glance in every direction to check
if anyone’s watching and a hand
lifts up to cup a breast.
Human and rock merge for a blissful moment.
An eternity passes as time
drags itself to a screeching halt.
Sighs of contentment escape.

Satiated temporarily,
they return to a place at a distance,
to admire and hope.

Later, moving inside they speak to God, plead
with him, cajole, sometimes demand.
Karma always questioned in times like this.
A truth hard to accept.
The reasons why never defined, lying hidden
in the cosmic ether beyond their
comprehension.

Your breasts are a shade darker than
the rest of your body,
colored from constant caresses of
lonesome men seeking stolen pleasures.
A slow smile playing on your lips, one arm
resting on a hip pushed out to the side,
the other raised from the elbow,
fingers encircling lotus, you stand waiting,
for what might be, as they shuffle past,
circumambulating
like the devout, softly singing praise
of the one within.
Quietly taking in their fill they return to
homes devoid of love and desire.

Who are you,
proud woman standing nonchalantly
gazing into the distance as they walk past?
What was your fate?
Willed by the hand that chiseled
you from a large rock hewn out from
another place one sunny day eons ago.
Who was the man that yearned for you so,
he cast you in stone in remembrance
to watch over the years
and give hope to
a multitude of desperate souls?

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Shirani Rajapakse on “At the Side of the Old Mandir” & “On a Street in London”

Women’s bodies have always been depicted in art as objects of desire and of un-attainability. The artiste or sculptor creates his work of art that is so perfect it moves the audience to gawk and stare and imagine possibilities in their drab little lives. “At the Side of the Old Mandir” speaks of this desire for a statue by a man who can’t have the real thing – a woman in his life  – because of whatever economic or social factors, or maybe because the wife he has doesn’t reciprocate his love. He stands in front of a statue fantasizing about what could be.

The influence for the poem was a statue of a woman at the side of a mandir (Hindu temple) in India. The old beautiful carvings on the outside of mandirs depict women in many poses. Almost all of the women have large breasts and voluptuous hips. What was interesting was that in some Mandirs the breasts of these statues of women were darker and I used to wonder why, until one day I saw the reason.

“At the Side of the Old Mandir” sets the stage to the collection. It also pulls in the idea of the role of women from history to the present and demonstrates that it really isn’t very different, although separated from time and space. Women were seen and continue to be seen as objects of desire; larger than life depictions of male fantasies.

The image of the abused female statues reminded me of what I once saw inside telephone booth on a street in London. This was a time just before the mobile phone and if you needed to make a call you’d use a public phone. I don’t know if those still exist, but one of the things that greeted you when you entered one of those phone boxes was a whole load of calling cards with photos of women, much like the statues of the women in those ancient temples. It appeared as though modern women were trying to emulate the statues which were probably carved out by men who were seeking the ideal woman and not finding that around them, they were creating images in stone.

It seemed very sad. We’d come so far yet as women we hadn’t given up the notion of pleasing others – of turning our bodies into objects of pleasure for men, and it didn’t matter that we were getting exploited as well. “On a Street in London” ends the collection. Between those two poems there’s just about every emotion and situation women have faced and will continue to face unless and until society realizes that something has to be done to halt this negative trend.

If women were objects that men in ancient times used to sculpt dreams of – narrow waist broad hips and voluptuous breasts – then women have down the centuries become the objects themselves, sculpting their own bodies to create a false view of what men want. Between the ancient statue and the modern woman who add breast implants and nips and tucks her body to please a man we have not progressed much. In fact we have come full circle to finally become what men have always wanted us to be – objects, a very visually pleasing object that is molded to certain parameters.

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On a Street in London – Shirani Rajapakse

Watermelons jostle
inside the telephone booth too small to hold
such wonders overflowing their space.

Glass and steel surround him
with a view of the street beyond.
They stare at him defiantly at
eye level sticking out strong and proud.

Watermelons big,
watermelons small,
watermelons cheap,
come buy my wares, a business card
stuck to the side cries out to the world.

Lonely hearts stir at the sight
every time they glance inside.

Her eyes beckon, pick up the phone and
dial me in, they blink lustily, as
watermelons heave inside tomato red spandex
stretched to accommodate.

Tiny shivers run marathons down
his spine as he envisages the feel of it
in his palm yet dares
not lift a hand to touch.

Too many eyes watching silently as
footsteps tap around him.

The city drifts this way and that as he stands
still, inside the box in the middle
of the pavement watching her globes
straining to jump out.

Her voice purrs at the other end,
trembles down the line, he
listens mesmerized and
imagines the thousands of possibilities
squashed between watermelons
brown like the earth, trembling
like an earthquake.

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SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAShirani Rajapakse is an internationally published, award winning poet and author. She won the Cha “Betrayal” Poetry Contest 2013 and was a finalist in the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Awards 2013. Her collection of short stories Breaking News (Vijitha Yapa 2011) was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Award. Chant of a Million Women was self-published (August 2017). She has a BA in English Literature (University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka) and a MA in International Relations (Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India). She interviews, promotes and reviews books by indie authors on The Writer’s Space at shiranirajapakse.wordpress.com

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poetry feature: Trust Tonji

This week’s poem, “The thing about colors,” is a fine example of how poets often have to be unsettled in language. For instance, there is the performance of language in the public realm, where we do our best to honor one another in regards to pronoun preference, ability, and sexuality as well as cultural and racial backgrounds. Then there is the way language is rooted in the private realm, the personal effort and experiences that shape the way we come to understand such language and how we embody and live what it means.

Nebula Space Sky Abstract Colorful ColorIn my own life, I welcome a phrase like “person of color” for what it offers in the public realm, how it offers me, as a Latinx, a place in a larger, societal conversation. As a tool for unpacking and coping with insults and imbalances, such terminology provides a way to speak up with and make big picture connections where otherwise I would be too hurt to do so. And yet, in the private realm, I am obligated to unpack such phrases further because the distance they provide as tools leave a space where things like hurt and emotions remain to be addressed.

To put it another way, words that help in one realm don’t necessarily help in the other. But as poets, we are curious as to why that is. They are words after all. We will never have enough words to describe every hurt, nor will the world wait for us to find the right ones. We can only manage with the words we have, and add to those when necessary, when vision and heart allow.

Tonji had this to say in regards to the poem:

As a non native speaker of English language, ‘The thing about colors’ is my attempt at voicing my confusion and revealing my sociolinguistic interest on the expression ‘people of color’, especially when we are all cognisant of the denial of the obvious that comes with it; a statement of ambiguity attributing the black person a sense of being special or out of place as the case may be, the tendency of humans to rechristen everything but themselves.

What I admire about Tonji’s poem is how it points to the work still left to be done beyond political terms. When the speaker describes a moment with an immigration officer who lingers, trying to place “the colour of my accent,” and then goes on to describe the “color riot” caused by skin-bleaching, it is an admirable and necessary interrogation of the space between the public and private realms. Poetry aids such interrogation by making clear the mutability of language, a mutability that we as people can only continue to learn from.

The thing about colors – Trust Tonji

that I don’t understand
in this language
is why only black men
are said to be of color
when everyone has it
painted across their skin

the thing about colors
is the way they paint
themselves into what
lives under tongues
in borders, names
everything that looks
different from your norm

and yes,
this is not America
my skin’s brown like his
still this immigration officer
is slightly tilting his head
listening for the difference
in the colour of my accent

the thing about colors
on your brown body when
you stopped bleaching is
it beginning to heal itself
returning you back to the
color of your beautiful self
saving you the shame
of looking like color riot

the thing about colors
is that everyone has it
but if you’re too afraid
to share identity with us
you can keep painting
your imaginations black
black . . . black . . .

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Trust Tonji is too confused to choose, he doesn’t have a particular favourite. He writes from Porto Novo, Republic of Benin. His poetry has appeared in Prachya Review, Synchronized Chaos, The Kalahari Review, Praxis Magazine, The Electronic Pamphlet and elsewhere.

poetry feature: Laura M Kaminski

This week’s poem is drawn from the poetry feature submissions! For guidelines on how to submit work, see the “submissions” tab above.

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One thing I admire about poetry is the space it creates where meditation can balance into consideration and reckoning. This week’s poem, “Bonding” by Laura M Kaminski, is a good example of what I mean.

The first stanza not only sets the scene, but also presents the range of meditation. The act of walking a new dog is meditated upon via the consideration of particulars. From the moment the speaker picks up the leash, she feels fear as “a grasshopper leaping / eating everything i’ve planted.” Making a grasshopper stand as a metaphor for fear in this direct manner allows for a surrealistic immediacy; the juxtaposition is “leaped” into suddenly, which evokes not only the image but the sensation of both image and concept.

The poem continues to create tension through taut, clipped lines. Through its narrative turns, this meditation on fear reckons with the possible risks involved in walking a dog for the speaker’s physical well-being. As the poem develops, its engagement with the epigraph becomes apparent. By the quote’s logic, in order “to understand” and “to experience” love and friendship, one must be active. Every move of consideration and reckoning in the poem is an active one. Each stanza that unfolds, then, stands as another refusal of “allowing the heart to shrink.”

Bonding – Laura M Kaminski

The only way to understand love is to love. The only way
to experience friendship is to be a friend. If this creates pain,
that’s better than allowing the heart to shrink.
            – Neil Douglas-Klotz, THE SUFI BOOK OF LIFE

i pick up the leash
fear is a grasshopper leaping
eating everything i’ve planted
the new dog is large
but only seven months old

i ask him to sit
my fear of fear is a locust
larger than my first fear
and voracious
i take the risk

i snap the leash onto his
collar and reach for the door
i am determined to find
a way to stay on my feet
even if he pulls or lunges

without blaming him if we
have an accident and without
self-recrimination or second-
guessing if i fall
and twist my spine

fear: a fall could paralyze
locust: not taking that chance
is another form of paralysis
i have nothing to bring
to this but poetry

fear: no one will understand
these words i’ve put to paper
the thought is only seven
minutes old and still unruly
i take the risk

to fail would leave me
trapped inside my body
unable to communicate
get out of myself in any way
locust: open the door

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Laura M Kaminski grew up in Nigeria, went to school in New Orleans, and currently lives in rural Missouri. Her most recent collection, The Heretic’s Hymnal: 99 New and Selected Poems, is forthcoming from Babylon Books / Balkan Press in 2018. More about her poetry is available at http://arkofidentity.wordpress.com/

poetry feature: Oka Bernard Osahon

This week’s poem is the first poetry feature drawn from submissions! For guidelines on how to submit work, see the “submissions” tab above.

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Often when I read a love poem, I find myself most invested in what the poem evokes in terms of connection and disconnection. Love poems aren’t love, but are expressions of the world around a love relationship, a world made up of inside jokes, shared intimacies and understanding. The reader of a love poem is privy to something akin to gossip and confession, and involved in an engaged listening.

pexels-photo-69004This week’s poem, “When We Are Too Tired to Fall in Love” by Oka Bernard Osahon, is a great example of a poem that makes the world around a relationship come alive for the reader. Line by line, the speaker of this poem engages the narrative of their relationship through imagery. Lines like “I felt the cold retraction / Beneath the glare of tossed hair as you carried the pages of your face away,” which moves from the visual “glare” to the tactile “pages” in its efforts to render a passing moment, run on an engine of imagery. Yet, the use of “pages” also implies change, and creates a sense of urgency.

The poem continues in lines that reach for similar turns of understanding. The use of imagery gives a sense of control in a poem that digs into the feeling of a relationship slipping out of one’s control, from connection to disconnection. Similar to “pages,” the use of the word “show” in the final line rings out beyond itself, reflecting on the relationship and the moment, as well as the fact of the poem itself.

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When We Are Too Tired to Fall in Love – Oka Bernard Osahon

We laughed without moving our lips –
Our eyes – signs of joy fading – crowfeet wrinkled gaze.
We taped our selves together within the ineffective hug of weathered arms
And our thoughts shivered between us like a ghost trying to stay alive.
Our feet carried us away from our shadows – excuses and regrets limping behind
And when you stumbled into me on the steps, I felt the cold retraction
Beneath the glare of tossed hair as you carried the pages of your face away.
We lost a moment, when we could have found a tiny piece of what was lost.

We are unraveling even as I speak,
Like a single thread off the warp and weft of the table cloth
That hold the old china your mother gave you.
We are bartering words for points and we have lost so much in this match.
There was meaning in our trading once – with loud voices and broken fragile things
But now the words are bland and though we have not grown carapaces,
We are too worn out to fight the hurt. So we sit on the couch – two distant halves
Watching a show that used to make us laugh.

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Oka Benard Osahon is creative writer, poet and fantasy novel addict from Benin, Edo State, Nigeria. He attained his B.A in English and Literary Studies at Delta State University, Abraka. His poetry can be found on Brittle Paper, Kalahari Review, Praxis Magazine Online, Spillwords and Visual Verse. He was one of the winners of the Praxis Magazine Online 2016 Anthology Contest as well as the winner of the June 2017 Edition of the Brigitte Poirson Poetry Contest. He lives and works in Abuja where he writes at night after work. He can be reached at Twitter: @serveaze