Reviewed by Kathleen Ossip
When you open a new book of poems, it’s easy to be distracted by technology. Is this book suitably equipped with the latest up-to-dates (and if so, which brands?), or is it dustily and earnestly furnished with the artifacts of a bygone day, for which we may sometimes cherish a lazy nostalgia?
But technological demonstrations quickly grow boring unless the content engages, and so totting up gizmos is ultimately a sad way to approach a book. Sure, you can’t separate content from technology, but don’t forget that both are in play, and that a mere display of “look what gadget I just bought” without content is unlikely to matter for any length of time. In The Opening Question Prageeta Sharma uses many of the technologies of the present period style to make meaning around the Big Deals: Culture and Otherness, Death, Love, Violence, Power.
One of the current technologies that Sharma makes the most of is a relaxed surrealism. Any poet sensitive to the countless stimuli of contemporary life and smart enough to cope with the complete human range of emotions and blessed with a capacious imagination will find realism a pretty paltry implement. Sharma’s variant has a sweet gravity, as in the opening lines of the opening poem, “Calendar”:
Separated into parts for an afternoon or the day of the week--
I had a right to conceal,
I had a right to an apron--I was used for a gemstone,
for a social climber’s pocket watch--
an influence of human affairs to an earnest and awestruck constellation;
ear-shaped, we poets are ear-shaped like harps.
Less widespread is another of the tasks Sharma seems to be set on: to remake (or re-re-make) the sentence, to render it absolutely fluid and supple enough to mold around the author’s sensibility and every impulse:
That dream, she said, with the Indian child in it, sleeping
on a small sofa, dream she said, alongside his shoulder,
he wept, almost, as if they were at the train again,
the while ankle left for good, it sank under the tracks
the rat jumps upon tracks for the last rites, a meal
so pleasant, his slacks lazy underneath, perhaps,
she spoke this aloud, he is the man, he tips his hat,
the inhibited manner, could there be a Sufi in this crowd?
Imagine your fifth-grade teacher trying to diagram that one! But how else could the poet pack her fragmentation with so much connection?
Language here, no matter how ornamental, serves the poet’s astutely complex meaning; for this reason, Marianne Moore came to mind several times as I was reading. The refrain of “Catalogue of Swindles and Perversions” alerts us to a careful precision (“Do not pervert another phrase”) while “A Most Feeling Girl” reads like an ars poetica, signaling readers (or formulating for herself) that her technology doesn’t operate in cold impersonal space:
One last time, study
The dream for its feeling.
The feeling girl felt
this to be the truest,
and the most accurate
creed to feeling.
Yes, what’s noteworthy is how skillfully Sharma plies her tools to capture feeling. In “Speech Turns Orange” the feeling she tackles is gloom, the play of acceptance and detachment delicious:
What day is this that lacks so much comfort?
There came some grief in the form of an owl,
it struck me that my mind was jumping from place
to place hooting melancholia. I won’t have it here
so I flung it out into the open like economic recovery
for the poor museum. I don’t want to be the poor museum.
How necessary, and how wonderful, these technologies--this disjunction, these imaginative leaps, which allow Sharma to avoid both self-pity and sterility and to allow all the nuances of the emotion, and the reaction to that emotion, to emerge like a bas-relief.
Similarly, “Miraculous Food for Once” is a marvelously joyful love poem, Donne-ian in its momentum and its conviction, to which the only fitting reaction is a sunny smile:
how provocative and alluring
verse and tree, lamb and locket,
gently daring without a pull of resignation--
not hot oven, not branded in doom
or silence, my valentine is forthcoming,
Basque, on horses and on time.
This poem does not depict or describe a love affair; it embodies the emotions of one. “About” has little to do with it. The nouns (tree, lamb, locket, horses) aren’t 3-D stage settings in a field, they are verbal objects in the poem, at least 4-D and richer-colored for their lack of (realistic) context.
As an Indian-American poet, Sharma also writes of cultural disconnects, lovingly and wryly. Some of the most valuable poems in the book are those in which she studies her heritage, what it means to be other in two cultures. “Family” reads like Ionesco but in service of the individual who struggles against pigeonholing. “There are silverfish bugs across the windowsill / in the white house” it begins, and then recites the numbing litany of belonging, especially in a culture tainted by empire:
This is my house. I am a child. He is Jug Dish. We are an Indian
family with Indian friends from India. Jug Dish studies English poetry.
I study English poetry, I point west to take a stab at a silverfish.
The mountain of ink is paint, there is memory here, for friends
of the Indian community ...
At the end, “The family hands me over to that silverfish.” But this quoting of an individual poem outside of the rich ground of the whole book doesn’t do justice to Sharma’s intricate understanding. In other pieces, a cast of characters prisms up to paint a foreign, familiar world that contains multitudes.
The title The Opening Question hints at a searching, a quest. Fable-style, “Questions” suggests that, from birth, this poet’s quest was for truth via language, not for truth first and language later: “I am forward with my questions: / How do you stay alive? How do you move to its rhythm? How can you / press down?” Staying alive and moving to its rhythms is a fine definition of Sharma’s poetry. I finished her book feeling lucky to be reading in an age when the technology is in place and Prageeta Sharma deft enough with it to produce this volume of truly charming, truly interesting poems.