(FEATURE) A Poem’s Shadow / Baskets in the Mirror Universe
‘I’m trying to sing but my voice keeps leaving me’ — calling from the mirror world of her 2020 poem ‘A Basket Woven of One’s Own Hair’ and its accompanying video, Nisha Ramayya ventures through a space of critique where ‘we can rethink the problem’s terms’ in arguments around race/poetics/experimentalism. This is an essaying of magnetism, bubbling thought, weird mimesis, embodied sensoria, hyperconnectivity and entanglement, erotics, dream and bewilderment…
You know that feeling when words flee your body, the magnetic field of your tongue reversed by a touch, a demand, a jolt, and you lose the power to discern verbally, let alone speak? The imperial silence produced by the someone else inside you fills you up, transmuting you into a vacuum for your own thought processes. Imagine a bathtub overbrimming with warm syrupy language that freezes and desiccates as soon as Dread-personified climbs in; playback this scene perpetually until you make the connection between personal revelation and poetic subjectivity. I’m trying to sing, but my voice keeps leaving me to teach me a lesson about place, property, and appropriate subject matter. I’ve done it again, not allowed myself to find it. Any simulation of mimesis is a trap. They want to bind you to remove you; it helps that you come pre-wrapped. If I am read brownly, heard brownly, weighed brownly, what am I? Two agents from the Department of Temporal Investigations materialise to lament: or whennnn? So, skin colour is like onomatopoeia, insofar as limitless equivalence between sign, signifier, and signified is falsely insinuated. Word/world is not a perfect rhyme, nor can perfect rhyme be found in nature: bad poetry’s secret. Yet the encounter with onomatopoeia in the Sanskrit-English dictionary is enchanting. As if some words contain the echoes of their past, and in pronouncing a word correctly, I can reproduce long-lost entities and activities acoustically. Individual words are acid-free boxes in the lexicographical archive, the carrier bag of stars. But no, the atmosphere has changed since the dictionary was compiled in British India in the nineteenth century; the process of recording and conserving alters the words irreversibly, the grain of my voice as a Glasgow-raised, London-based, middle-class upper-caste second-generation Indian (to reduce bodily materiality to epithets) renders an abortive soundscape, an alien crop. If the sound could exist in 2021, then I could not, you neither. This isn’t even getting to the conceptual paucity of identity and representation politics, and how these rely on the logic that you can only hear me if I sound like you, and how that logic destroys everything that might be beautiful in the world. Someone left the mangoes in the rain, and that’s fine, and someone else went snorkelling, and that’s fine too, is a dead-end for The Discourse; oh, make a way out of no way, let me be errant! Your personal history does not determine your interests or your commitments, and it’s possible for you to arrive at this point with fewer swithers and negations. Demystify inspiration, open wide and show your working, subvert your lines to charge waves that may bear your interlocutors. Think of all the conversations had about knowledge, difference, erotics; think about who spoke, who listened, who cleaned up. How many times have we talked about race? How many times have we received the advice to ‘claim space like a mediocre white man’? How many times have we reflected his image, inwardly and outwardly, without trying? The next line is an example of self-citation, filtered through a reference to a computer game designed by a friend — as if other-citation has the power to emancipate oneself from one’s ego. Does it? The game allows players to explore an ocean planet, taking samples of spores, stalks, and jellies to analyse at an abandoned research base. Before I learned how to play, I thought the objective was to eat the samples to fuel my diving suit, an illustration of the colonial enterprise of scientific progress. But the dinner party also took place in our universe, with particular coordinates in space-time, and I need this filter to distance myself from the awkward turtles that stream out of my body whenever I recall the event. It’s difficult to talk to people who are like you in such a way that the ways in which you are unlike are keenly felt, incomparably hurtful; here, I surface to admit that it can be easier to talk about race with white people, for anyone who wants to leave early, to quit without saving. But I will venture a ‘we’ and stake everything (ego, credibility, lovability) on the eschaton of that pronoun — draw you in, tie you loosely in sandalwood smoke. Now you see us, now you don’t. It’s kind of weird to be one of three, or two, or the only person of colour in a room and to meet the same white people repeatedly for them not to remember you — I’m the only one here! …it’s just kind of weird, you know? Now mango, now snorkel; now fuck you, now please. If you’ve seen an ikat shawl up close, you’ll know it takes craft to seem this opaque, it takes precision to achieve that subjective/objective blur. The geometric patterning of tongues and nodes as a musical score. In certain quadrants, there is an emphasis on sending and receiving information, on delivering messages cleanly as a matter of survival and dignity; in others, straightforward aboutness is the disruption (the point’s not the point!), and danger resides everywhere except the Badlands. Schools of poetry are organised along racialised lines (and classed, and gendered), no doubt, but what happens to poetry when we historicise its instantiations and imagine it as unmappable space concurrently? What happens when we perceive the visual noise of brown and black bodies in a white room in conjunction with the syntactical and sonic noise of difficult poetry, understanding noise to be the message, and translation a means of relating that refuses assimilatory judgements of intelligibility. Scream in outer space, turning your body into a cetacean sound system — I wished for nothing less as an observer at an employment tribunal last year. Sitting on the claimant’s side, against my current employer (her former employer), I observed the panel not hearing her claims of race and sex discrimination. The shadow o’erleaps itself; this sequence begins with an everyday experience of racism, as a teenager with her best friend on a bus in Glasgow, when a man told me I smelled like shit, over and over again. On our way to a party we were too young to attend; it doesn’t matter that we’d spent hours getting ready, it doesn’t matter that she’s blue-eyed/blonde, it doesn’t matter that he’s drunk. White people can tell that a brown person smells like shit from far away, men can smell with their eyes, and it might be a superpower, but it’s not structural racism. Neither is the fact that not all children are born knowing how to do the hokey kokey and may experience nausea when forced to take part (although those Monty Mouse Club kids are the real sickos). On the other hand, and we’re in a privileged realm here — the players are salaried and mortgaged — I swear I observed the white judge, the white counsel, and the white professor-manager smile at each other as the claimant spoke. I swear I observed their three smiles emanate like beacons, creating and suspending a triangle of light at the front of the room, spectacularly impervious to the feminine brown body giving evidence. Cameras weren’t allowed, otherwise I’d show you. In the upset, everything becomes lucid; whatever you thought for however long was really the inversion. Shocked!, but not surprised… 99% of international data is transmitted by submarine cables; a network of cables laid on the ocean floor conveys messages between you and me, supports our friendship and our many projects. ‘Xxxxxxxxxx’s to infinity’: how does the sound made by an object as it sinks change qualitatively throughout history; how is this bubbling sound, even this bubbling sound, not actually universal? Things are getting personal; it’s time for lockdown dreams. Alone in a big house at night, a woman comes downstairs to find the back door open. Are you scared? Don’t be; the darkness that blows in symbolises her admittance of the other, interior wickedness maturing into external forces such as poetry, communities, institutions. She becomes stronger in the realisation that she is embedded, not mother superior, and bids goodnight to the trial. The observer effect reconfigures notions of the text that’s open to co-production between writer and reader — everyone who looks casts different hues and tints on the scene, recomposes variously. As in physics, so in poetry; as in the poet’s poem, so in the analyst’s room. We’re light-years beyond the tabula rasa! Go ahead, feel free to look but not touch, eavesdrop but not document. If you decide to write it down, don’t think for a moment you’re fixing things in place. Scroll through your personal records and consider the degrees of curation. Do this again with nature poems. Is it possible to describe a stunning view in all its layers, according to the eco-poetics of totality? The desire to include everything as a means of rescuing the would-be-righteous poet from their embarrassing poem is its own issue, as if the outside could offer the kind of salvation that’s properly found when deemed irrelevant. The next bit is tricky to explicate, one sentence standing in for a conference paper. If you’re interested in race/racialisation, experimental poetry, and British and Irish literature, you might experience a problem in identifying many poets who tick all three boxes before the 1990s/2000s, and even then, we’re talking a handful, some of whom ended up in America, others of whom either stopped publishing or ‘went mainstream’ (i.e., got typecast). So, what’s the problem? We need to address our definitions and our methodological approach to tradition, influence, and form. Rather than get caught up in debates around linguistic innovation and the avant-garde, or mislead by personal preference and that already intimated siren, taste, we can rethink the problem’s terms. We’re not interested in winners, the ones who claim to arrive first as if arrival could be uncontested, as if origin stories are anything other than narratives of domination and expropriation and lengths upon lengths of archival silence. We listen harder, lest the sound of our fears and desires rings too loudly, shattering the traces of the ones who composed but didn’t write, who wrote but couldn’t publish, who published but weren’t read, who were read but never read read. You get the argument; it hinges on categories and the slice of their fall. If beautiful poetry extended no further than appropriation, only the bullies could do it, plucking idiosyncrasies and resolutions as they saunter up the path to the ivory tower, pricking fingers to write elegies to lost blood. Vom! Tell us where you found it unless you’re punching up. The creative writing workshop as a diabolical factory producing faulty office chairs, the better to keep lines from working. In that sense, poetry is not a big deal, and it’s everything. Maybe the corn dolly feels as many misgivings as we do, but does he know the psychic rift that opens when one’s image of oneself is stacked appallingly with other’s images, tremors threatening the dream of coherence? Probably, yes; although I bet his worthiest rivals look just like him. All these pronouns, and we’re still unable to account for the relationship — when they first encountered the lyric, how they calculated the right moment for denunciation. The truth is, it was already collapsing when I considered myself bold enough to belt, and I’d committed to other failures. Put your ear to the page, let the defectors crawl in while there’s time remaining for discussion and the good humour to fly. Squelch the rest under the maul of their axiomatic velleity. Ultimately, there is an erotics of bewilderness and hyperconnectivity at stake — if you don’t snip the wrong wire. The grotesquery of aboutness, barring the door to entropy’s music, rattling the structures that it’s locked from within. Sarah’s hair smelled like citronella the last time we met IRL. Will you keep holding? Ask me again.
Text: Nisha Ramayya