‘A Mouthful of Sky’
★ ★ ★ ★
POETRY BOOK REVIEW
Image by Tom Gainor
A Mouthful of Sky (Get Fresh Books Publishing, 2022) by Anu Mahadev
Review by Kusi Okamura
As the mother of a young girl, I think often about what it means to be a woman in this day and age, and how best to answer the many questions that I get asked about the ‘whys’ of being female. My daughter is still lucky to exist in that blessed stage where she will sashay without a care about what others think, more or less. She’s also from a generation in which gender is more fluid and not tethered to one definition. When I look at her I see so many possibilities, so I try my best to give answers based on who she feels she is, as opposed to who the world thinks she should be.
These are big life questions that I still ask myself, even now as a woman of middle-age. However, I find it hard to do that and not think about all that has happened in the last few years. When I first read an early manuscript of A Mouthful of Sky it was the beginning of 2020, just before the pandemic hit. Thousands of women had just marched on Washington and there was an energy of hope and defiance in the air. The rage of everything women have endured had risen to the surface. The very title of the collection A Mouthful of Sky connected in its imagery with where women were at then, of the urgent deep desire for more beyond the glass ceiling.
Now, two years later, looking back on the journey of women, it appears as a cardiogram of peaks and troughs. From the potent rage during Covid at gender inequality in the home to the overturning of Roe v Wade, it’s hard not to feel disappointed and frustrated about where we are now. And there are now more questions than ever about who we are, who we want to be, about how to move forward for ourselves and future generations like my daughter’s.
As I look back I also wonder: Is a tidal wave made up of one large surge, or is it made of many small and subtle ripples and swells?
It’s with all of this baggage that I came back to reading Anu Mahadev’s A Mouthful of Sky and why, at this moment in time, the collection feels more urgent and necessary than ever.
In this beautiful and, at times, surprising collection, Mahadev presents us with a cast of women’s voices, placing them within the landscape of the domestic, in the intimate realms of relationships, in the everyday. Deftly drawn, the characters invite us into their lives, their voices sometimes quiet and passive, other times full of regret, wanting and latent life, and other times ablaze with a fiery passion.
Throughout the collection, we are met with the rawness of these women’s inner lives and the painful honesty of their secrets and desires. A dominant voice is that of the middle-aged woman, often overlooked and disregarded, past her use-by date in society’s terms. In ‘Housewife’ a middle-aged woman who has spent her years tending to the needs of others reflects that –
her life is that seemingly
endless dry cycle after the wash,
each minute counts. what comes out
are things, more things, that wait
to be used by others, not middlemen.
her dreams, shrouded in caked salt
lie ashore, she blows the wind for
Mahadev skillfully illuminates for us on a personal level the mental health cost of inequality as we move along the faultlines of her characters’ minds. We come face-to-face with the pain and toll of living one’s life through other people. These are the poems that make the most uncomfortable reading. In ‘August’, the unspooling of a person is tenderly presented –
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.
This cyclical pattern of loathing and wanting, the constant guilt that batters one’s self-esteem, will be familiar, sadly, to many women. The collection speaks the truth of how this battle plays out in the body and mind. In the title poem ‘A Mouthful of Sky’ the woman is so at odds with herself that she feels that she is possessed:
i swallow this – sweet mix of seduction, iron-tinged
feet, little pilgrims, carry me, exorcise me.
A notable feature of this collection is how it explores sex in all its different iterations: crude and functional, sensual and pleasurable, transcendent, desperate, subservient and disempowered. We clearly see the confusion between love and sex and how both serve as a grasping for a wholeness, as in the poem ‘Rain’ –
senseless loose lush burning light,
light of your caramel eyes
blinding, searing my throat, your name,
your throbbing pounding name,
beating on my lips, the name of hunger
One of the most interesting lines in the collection is its very title – ‘A Mouthful of Sky’, the mouth a symbol of self-nurture and also one of intimacy. It points to an appetite for the infinite, but also almost to the limit of suffocation. It powerfully speaks to the boundaries and limits that are set for women, especially older women, whether they be the expectations of others around us, society or ourselves.
Ultimately the poems that stayed and echoed after reading were those focused on nature. The Irish writer John O’Donohue once described beauty as “a kind of homecoming for the enriched memory of [one’s] unfolding life”. I thought of this when reading poems like ‘August’ and ‘Sedona’. Here the characters speak independent of another, without the crushing dependence that weighs down the other voices in the collection. Mahadev’s beautiful use of language moves the reader from places of fraction, to places of wholeness, giving us a sense of resolution.
red, red sandstone, soft, sedimentary
rock, i hold in my porous palm and
i crumble to feldspar, 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
There is, in the last line, an urgent wish for women, that speaks of a kind of homecoming, to oneself. Throughout the poem the narrator repeats a kind of mantra of knowing, ‘I am’, ‘I am’, ‘I am’. With the existential questions that still need to be answered for women now and in the future, what this collection seems to say is that they must be answered within ourselves first. That the answers we seek are beyond the traditional boundaries that have hemmed women in and the map to follow is that of our own making.
Anu Mahadev is a New Jersey based poet. She is Editor-in-Chief of Jaggery Lit, Senior Editor for the Woman Inc., and Poetry Editor for the Wild Word. Her poems have been published in the Olentangy Review, Silver Birch Press, Sonic Boom, Bending Genres Journal, Tin Lunchbox review, DIN magazine, The Wild Word and the Electronic Pamphlet, and in a few anthologies. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and son.
Buy a copy of A Mouthful of Sky direct from the publishers, GFB Publishing.