I have saved for last a poet whose work has been a tremendous inspiration to me for many years, both in fiction and in poetry. She is an author who transcends the division of genre in ways that few can, to glide effortlessly between lyric and narrative. She’s also one of the nicest and most generously kind human beings I’ve ever had the good fortune to know.
I first discovered Chitra Divakaruni’s work about sixteen or seventeen years ago when my friend Margaret gave me a copy of the novel Sister of My Heart for my birthday. I loved it. The tightly-woven narrative, the lush wordplay, the intimate descriptions of India (a place I’d always wanted to visit) and California (a place I adored living in part-time), the fascinating characters whose lives were, at that moment in my life, so different from and yet so similar to mine — all of these things made me fall in love with Chitra’s work.
From there I found her magic realist novel The Mistress of Spices, her short story collection The Unknown Errors of Our Lives, and her collection of poems, Leaving Yuba City. Her work has been so influential on mine.
So today, to close our celebration of National Poetry Month, I would like to share with you the first poem from Leaving Yuba City (still one of my favorite books of poetry). You can find Chitra Divakaruni’s official bio on her website here and connect with her on Facebook here.
Thank you to everyone who has made this month-long journey into poetry with us, and thank you to all the poets who have shared their work so graciously here on my blog. It has been such a gift. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
How I Became a Writer
I peel off the sweaty dank of dawn bedclothes,
tiptoe to the door, soft, soft,
so the gorilla with iron fingers that waits
in the next room won’t hear me.
Sidle out. Then I’m
running, but lightly, still on my toes,
glancing back until I reach
the kitchen, thin cement strip where mother
sits at her steel bonti slicing bitter gourd
into exact circles for lunch. She has bathed already
and her damp hair covers her back
like smoke, the wisped ends
curling a little. She smiles and hands me
chalk. Under the grease-dimmed bulb
her shadow dips toward me, velvets
the bare ground. “Write shosha,” she says
and shows me a cucumber, green light
sliding off its skin. “Write mulo.” Now
a daikon radish, white and gnarled, sprouting little hairs
as on an old lady’s chin. I make shapes
on the cement. It’s hard.
The tight circles of the lo
cramp up my fingers. Around us the household sleeps,
limbs gathered in, snout buried in stuff fur,
but restless, dreaming of onslaught.
Rasp of a snore, a cough,
the almost-mute fall of a pillow kicked away.
“Write mo-cha.” Her cool fingers
petal over mine like the layered red plantain flower
we are writing. “Curl the mo like this.” Her voice
pours into me like syrup of palm,
amber, unbroken. On the street, sudden
angry yells. Perhaps a fish-seller or a neighbor
servant. Behind us, a clatter.
Her hand stiffens over mine, stops.
We’re both listening for that heavy stumble,
metallic hiss of pee against toilet pan, that shout
arcing through the house like a rock, her name. But
it’s only the mynah, beating black wings against the ribs
of the cage, crying Krishna, Krishna.
We suck in
the safe air, we’re smiling. I’ve completed the cha
which hangs from its stem, perfect, ripe
as a summer mango. She pulls me to her,
hugs me. Her arms like river water, her throat
smelling of sandalwood. Her skin
like light, so lovely I almost do not see
spreading its yellow over the bone. “That’s
wonderful,” she breathes into my hair
as the sun steps over the sill
and turns the room to rainbow. And I, my heart
a magenta balloon thrown up
into the sky, away
from iron fisted gorillas, from the stench of piss,
I know I’m going to be
the best, the happiest writer in the world.
bonti: Curved steel blade attached to a piece of wood. It is placed on the floor and used to cut vegetables, fish, etc.
Krishna: The name of a Hindu deity symbolizing love. Pet birds are often taught to repeat the names of gods in the belief that it will bring luck to the household.