CENTER STAGE

★ ★ ★ ★

ANU MAHADEV

Image by Tom Gainor

sedona

red, red sandstone, soft, sedimentary
rock, i hold in my porous palm and
i crumble to felspar, quartz, into,
the concealed crevices of my skin –
a cliff of bones. this textured aquifer
i am, its lithic liesegang band, percolating
liquid flowing into a powdered body of sand.
once i emerged from this earth, writhing,
warped, water in my hollow words. not
for me lush lava, landslide spilling
into the valley. woman, vama, stree, i curve
to the river. i am the bridge on that river,
i am the tilted truss supporting the bridge,
its unwieldy body. i am the planet, i am
the seed planted in my womb. this is blood
that won’t wash away, that threads the timelines
of your being. that plunders, pillages lands
that are my own bread basket, my goblet of wine.
i am these that nourish you, nurture you,
i am the nameless nomad whose map you
follow, for there is no beginning, no end.
we must return to the place where the red rocks rise.

august

caffeinated sun. my unforgiving sweat.
i want to forget a birthday
but then it looms so large i start the countdown a month before.
hourglass paralyzed with fear, not sure how to react
my fingers chafe through the past, fiddle with the future.
people murmur around me – she’s the broken one – shade their eyes in horror.
i radiate the burnt pain of a glass blower’s kiln.
what good are promises if they’re not meant for you
so, i knit. i knit a lot these days. the soft alpaca wool cuts through my guilty palms.
the pattern goes like this.
k1 – knit a word of apology,
p2 – purl a twist of self-worth until the row ends. repeat. bind off. become whole again.
it almost works.
except – thoughts don’t hide behind delicate painted screens. they confront you – until you stumble
on rocks and you can’t dislodge yourself.
what about us – who catch the wounded as they free fall
what about the ones who glue their insecurities while agreeing to crumble into vacuum
i sail through sea waves in my flimsy schooner.
sometimes in a gale, sometimes in the doldrums.
all my clouds live in the same bipolar sky

how to break a married woman

1. call her sexy, baby. even if she doesn’t like it.
elevate her to the skies, to the rims of her beautiful eyes.

2. send her lusty emoticons as she struggles with the praise.
prop her on a pedestal. she wants to pout and pose. like a vogue model.

3. she is not dark, she is dusky. she is not silly,
she is sweet 16. she is not a homemaker,
she is a wild fantasy. say you’ll spank her butt.

4. keep her up past 3am. let the adrenaline rush
leach her insides. let her lose weight rapidly.

5. ignore her completely next day. don’t reply.
bad boy. avoid her constant chatter, desperate alphabet.

6. don’t ever talk about your wife, kids, family.
make her talk, talk a lot. talk a lot about you, baby.

7. catch her when she’s alone, vulnerable. when her husband is out of town.
when you are out of town, in a hotel. call her from the airport.
remind her of the time you both were on a flight together and never spoke.

8. have her talk dirty to you. ask her to send a glass of wine with
lipstick marks on it. or come to you in a lacy thong. nothing else.

9. fuck her, hard, slowly. make her come. have her scream your name.
naked on the bed. writhing. blow her brains out.

10. next day: leave her to sort through her feelings herself,
pummel through the day, barrel through her thoughts. let her regret.

11. no more sexual innuendo. let her deal with the wakened beast.
keep asking her for stripped-down photos.

12. insult her. insult her marriage.

13. cut off all contact, snip through her apologies. make her feel like
she’s doing or saying something wrong all the time.
a mouthful of sky

14. alone, she’ll pick up the pieces of her efforts, her marriage, her sex

Q&A with poet Anu Mahadev

Tell us a little about how this collection came into being and also about the title poem ‘A Mouthful of Sky’.

First of all, Kusi, thank you for this interview and for taking the time to read ‘a mouthful of sky’.

The birth of every poem for me is rooted in deep reflection and turmoil. I had turned the dreaded age (at least at the time!) of forty, and was stepping into uncharted waters. I was in the middle of my MFA program and surrounded by like-minded thinkers, a diverse student body and a lot of brilliant poets, teachers and poetry. It was surreal, and it was heavenly. But along the way, with raging hormones signifying pre-menopause, I was also experiencing something new. Having been incorrectly diagnosed with mild depression, when in fact I was in a manic phase, and unaware of the fact, I was not taking the right medication. This cocktail of conditions – internal and external is the genesis of this book. I was unable to sit in one place – partly due to the inspiration overload striking me at every turn, and partly due to the mania creeping up on me, which was responsible for the surge in creativity.

The title poem is not one I wrote first – it came about rather organically. Several poems stitched together as sections. The speaker is a middle-aged woman who feels unsettled, like a square peg in a round hole. She has thus far been confident of herself, she hears about mid-life crises and other such experiences, but remains untouched. That is, until she encounters her own crisis. She feels the stirring of discontent in her aging body, her desperate mind. The past collides with the present and threatens to destroy her future. Yet, like a hurtling boulder in an avalanche, she finds herself powerless to stop her racing thoughts. The poem reads fragmented, and it is meant to be that way – a series of fragments about adultery, fathering a love-child, hotel rooms and wine glasses, linked together by a midlife crisis – “I burn with the fever of a middle-age, waiting to catch up.’ The sky is vast, endless, and the speaker wants only some of it, but craves for more.

As a woman, I connected deeply with many of the poems, but also found some of them emotionally hard. For example, ‘How to break a married woman’ and ‘Housewife’ carry such pain. How was it for you to write these poems?

This is a woman’s collection – workings of her inner mind. I wrote ‘how to break a married woman’ when I heard of the terms ghosting and gaslighting. I felt it keenly, thinking about what it would be like to be at the receiving end of such heady wanton affection, skirting the chase till the predator catches up with his prey, swallows her whole and spits her out when the juices have been sucked out of her. Speaking from the perspective of such vulnerability gave me much clarity in writing this poem. In writing it as a ‘how to’ list, I give the predator much power, a sort of cool, calculated agenda that they can follow. In reality, it was not easy to write, but it also gave me much relief and strength to get the story out of my chest. No matter how painful the subject matter is, I find that writing gives me wings to explore topics – whether acceptable or taboo, and experiencing them as if inhabiting someone else’s body and story. ‘Housewife’ on the other hand mirrors me and many people I know, who go through life fanning the flames for others’ candles. Even if the others in question are your own family members, there is only so much your love can handle. Staying strong despite your own limitations can be a very powerful thing to portray and write about.

Your poetry has a searing honesty to it, in your portrayal of the middle-age, marriage, relationships, body-image. How important is honesty to you as a writer?

Writing to me is tantamount to being in a confession box. That is not to say that I experience everything I write, but that what is in my mind must be transferred to paper/screen in the way I see it. Poets are vultures sometimes, feasting on what happens around them. I don’t claim to be so heartless, but the truth is sometimes painful. The honesty in my poems comes from facts, observations and my own responses to them. Despite having a vivid imagination, not everything in this book is imaginary. Yes, I have experienced a diminishing sex drive as I age and I am forced to look at its implications. Are women relevant only when young and beautiful? Is beauty powerful? What of the woman on the other side of the number line when her body is no longer in her control? What happens to a marriage then – these are some things I was forced to ponder upon entering a new decade of my life. So to answer your question, honesty is of utmost importance – it’s what makes a poem authentic and relatable.

Many of the characters have a dissonance with a part of themselves, whether it’s with their body or their relationships. And this theme gets carried over between the cultures that are represented too, that of India and America. How do you think your background has influenced your writing?

As an Indian girl growing up in a conservative middle-class family, I was quick to realize that not everything gets discussed. Even now I wonder what the response will be to this book. My own response to seeing my writing has changed as well. While I felt alive and sexually liberated years ago, I am now perhaps regressing to my old self. As a poet and a person, I have evolved with time – my personality, my writing. What spoke to me then may not now. Intrinsically I am still that shy introverted person who likes to hush up certain topics and hide behind forced modesty – the Indian equivalent of what it is to be a ‘good girl’. But there is a part of me, maybe the American influence – that has given me the freedom to write about whatever I want, and own it. It was certainly a culture shock coming to the United States 26 years ago – I still remember walking the streets of the university campus and seeing women in shorts and sports bras, being kissed by their boyfriends and wonder of wonders – nobody was staring. Except me, open-mouthed! To me, clothes were meant for concealing, not revealing. This is just an example of the differences in upbringing vs. reality as a 21-year-old. In writing this book, I have granted myself the liberty to express myself unfiltered. The Indian and the American in me are both present in this book, both clamoring for space inside one body and one mind and the unsettling feeling of not finding the proper balance is like a shapeshifter – sometimes one’s influence is stronger than the other.

The inner life of a middle-aged woman is captured beautifully in your collection. It’s so vivid and strong, particularly the rich and powerful emotions around sex and the experience of marriage and sexual relationships. Was this something important for you to capture and portray?

A marriage goes through many phases. No longer the giddy excitement of when a couple first meets, but a more even-keeled tempered bond where each one can rely on the other when the going gets tough. However middle age brings with it its own set of issues. Suddenly I could take nothing for granted, and wanted to question everything. My own sheltered upbringing did not permit me to explore these issues while growing up, and the urge to do so through my writing was very strong a few years ago. In exploring mid-life, marriage and sexual relationships I was merely transcribing thought onto paper, and mirroring what was going through my own head at the time. Was I drawn into this dramatic world – tempted to explore? Certainly, but I know that touching fire to examine it is an invitation to a burnt hand and a scar. I skirted around the edges with the intensity of a panther pacing a cage and wrote about what I felt is equivalent to tasting forbidden fruit. Maybe it was bidding goodbye to the diminishing needs of an aging body that prompted me to explore how relationships of a certain nature help shape who you are as a person in society.

In the last section of the collection, the gaze of the characters goes from the internal to the external and that fractured self that appears becomes whole as they turn towards the beauty of nature. What is your own relationship with nature and how does it impact your writing?

I enjoy traveling and nature, and I tend to lose myself in it. Nature isn’t perfect, but it has its own symmetry or lack of, and how can one have a problem with that? It is easier for me to find fault in myself and other humans than in nature. Despite everything I have endured, I would say that it is love and beauty – the way we define it – that make our world spin. When I am tired of writing about human foibles, and if I am in a new place, I turn my attention outwards and never tire of taking in the imperfections of nature – such as the canyons in Utah and Arizona or the long hikes in New Hampshire or Maine. Nowadays I have started experimenting with prose forms such as the haibun to describe the joy I find in nature. Before I started delving deeper into human relationships, my first love was always nature – traveling in trains and staring for hours at the countryside, making up my own songs and writing what I felt as a child without media as a distraction is my first memory of writing. I am happy to discover that the joy is still intact, and I am able to write about the fall weather or winter or sightseeing trips now just as I was able to write about the moon as a child. The difference being that now my pen not only writes what I see with my own eyes, but also the deeper meaning behind the view.

Anu Mahadev is a left-brained engineer who morphed into a right-brained poet. She is a 2016 MFA graduate of Drew University, and her work has appeared in several journals and anthologies. She serves as Editor for Jaggery Lit, the Woman Inc. and the Wild Word. She can be found on Facebook at facebook.com/amahadevpoet

Pre-order your copy of ‘A Mouthful of Sky’ at Get Fresh Books Publishing.

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