Book Review: Linda Ashok’s ‘whorelight’
By Mosarrap H Khan
Author: Linda Ashok
Publisher: Hawakal, 2017
Often we come to a poet through a single poem, instead of a whole collection. That poem bears the singularity of ideas and images we come to associate with the poet. I read Linda Ashok’s “Glass Kids of Firozabad” as a random stunningly sensitive piece of poetry, juxtaposing the violence of child labor, employed for making glass bangles, with the mundane act of an old woman playing with her pup. The language describing ‘the glass kids’ is redolent with violence:
“On one hand, I traced a sad boy’s face
and on the other, I unearthed a girl
almost dead, with one eye pushed deep
into the socket and stitched.”
By the end of the poem, the brutal image of a mangled eye-socket, embodying endless labor around furnaces in dingy rooms, seduces us to deceptively lull into the calm of an open road:
“One bangle wheeled across
the road at the feet of an old lady
Throwing balls for her pup to catch.”
It is to Ashok’s credit that she pulls off such encoding of violence with a casualness, juxtaposing the violent with the mundane, as part of our everyday existence.
In Ashok’s debut collection of poetry, whorelight, which also includes that poem, violence becomes a recurrent motif – overt violence in the public domain and covert violence in the midst of most intimate acts of love. No wonder then, the poem, “Early Lessons in Violence” appears somewhere in the middle part of the collection, reiterating the centrality of violence in her poetry and in the collection. In this prose-poem, Ashok deploys an economy of language and precision of emotion:
“My first lesson in violence was tearing the terminal abdomen of a dragonfly and shoving it up with grass.
The bats I killed, every day, I would bring them home, take the pips out, and suck their sweet flesh like violence would.”
Poverty, hunger, and abuse – “Grandfather’s pension”, “Father worked in a lead factory”, “women sold to them with cattle and lambs”, and “an old uncle pervert in his means of touching the body” – form part of a landscape in which inflicting violence on other humans and animals becomes a lesson in survival, an education in subject formation.
Those early lessons in violence resurface throughout the collection permeating love, loss, grief, loneliness, and emptiness. Lovers who pull down the curtain against workers “inked by the grime/of disquiet machines” indulge in passionate love-making, resembling the violence of machines: “he broke the glass & rubbed/her lips with molten scar” (“The First Time”). The shorthand ‘&’ marks the swiftness and matter-of-factness of the act. The scar assumes severity in the next poem, “Portrait of Guilt”, where a woman falls off the backseat of a car, her “head opened up/like a can of coke.” The persona in the poem recollects the dream in which
“I was alone in the backseat
imagining a hand
across my shoulder
of the shirt
you wore to the forest.”
Ashok’s poems work best when the depiction of violence is etched in minimal language, disembodied, like a hand across the shoulder, as if with the deft touch of a painter’s single brush-stroke. This near absence of the somatic in violence haunts the poems as a trace, as “that little grief”, capable of breaking the ribs of a woman, who “cried for her three year old who she had to leave in the custody of her husband over a triple talaq” (“Chandrani”). Violence – and the resultant pain and loss – in Ashok’s poems, then is also so much about scale and precision – of language, emotion, and observation.
In most of the poems, Ashok’s images are precise and stark:
“I feel an ache and the skin on my body
falls like a garment loosely stitched,
worn out through inconsiderate rubs.” (“How To Hear Love and Not Be Asking”)
“Thick moonlight on my father’s brush
tries to bury his broken past” (“Catching Up”)
that pays the last visit
to a victim
of a road accident” (“To Run With An Empty Nest”)
These images – ‘aching skin as a garment’, ‘moonlight as a futile cover’ or that elusive ‘clam before violent death’ – are signs of a talented poet, who is very much in control over her craft without trying too hard, without the pretentious exuberance of a younger poet (though Ashok is young). Yet, the same control vanishes in some other poems, which abandon precision for abstraction, far-fetched metaphors, and effusiveness. In “Mirror”, Ashok writes: “…I just wanted/to keep quiet and let the morning light spider/me love that I feel when I hear you talking.” The image of morning light spinning a web of love, when turned into “spider/me love”, fails as a search for metaphorical novelty. It almost feels like an act of pulling “out the flower vases from his lungs” (“Window, En-Suite”) or the forest “emptying its chorus, surrendering itself to the weight of a seed of rain” (“Ruins With Perfect Eyes Like Yours”) – a lack of restraint. Like love, poetry too is about knowing how much to hold back to save the magic, to pique curiosity, echoing Ashok’s own words in another poem:
“…I wanted to hold
back a little of myself, but
a sudden gust of Kalbaisakhi
changed the conversation” (“Becoming A Rice Pot”)
However, considering Ashok’s treatment of difficult subjects like violence and loss in her debut collection, she does a remarkable job of holding back for the most part with a piercing detachment of ‘light’.
whorelight is an enchanting read and Linda Ashok is a supremely gifted poet.
whorelight is available here.
Mosarrap H Khan is a founding-editor at Cafe Dissensus. Twitter: @mosarrapkhan
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