Five Poems by Sridala Swami

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Sridala Swami portrait

Poet Sridala Swami. Photo: Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo.

In Sridala Swami’s second poetry collection, Escape Artist, the speaker attempts to navigate the constraints of the bodied self: death and the decay of age, the fragile nature of love and relationships, and the imposition of national borders. This terrain, marred by disasters both personal and political, often dissolves into the surreal. A door opens to reveal a chimera with a thrashing tail, red chilis in the marketplace explode into “sharp-tongued flames,” and clouds are tools for divination. Here, it becomes evident that the “escape artist” in the title is the poet herself, attempting to circumvent limitations imposed by the body, by state, and even reality.

Sridala Swami’s first poetry collection, A Reluctant Survivor, was published in 2007. She was a 2013 Fellow at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa and performed at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh’s 9th annual Jazz Poetry Concert in 2013.

Redacted poetry is a message in a bottle

You have one book with you. It is your lifeline, because you are now in a place with no means of communication. There is only this book, and your one chance of speaking to the world is through the words in it.

So you compose your message in your head, you mark words in the book, and you carefully cut them out one by one, knowing all the while that for every word you use up, others will be lost on the reverse. This is the opportunity cost of making your message.

But you do it anyway because you must. At first your dispatches are voluble and profligate. Soon, you ration your words. As the pages become cut-outs the book speaks to you differently. It must now be a classic because every time you read it, it shows you something new.

The end of the book does not come, as it usually does, when the last page is turned. It comes when what remains are the unusable words. Everyone has a different list of these, but because this is the book you have and this is your list, the words that remain include ‘anneal’ and ‘recombinant’ and ‘brise’. This is not to say that you do not love these words, or that you are not happy that somebody– the author of the book, for instance—found a use for them; just that you can’t imagine what you could have to say that would include these and other such words.

But you learn these words because—after you have said all you have to say, after you have used up all the other words—these are all that are left you. Until other words come from the outside, until they can be recycled, the words you don’t want or need are your companions through what you hope is only a temporary silence.

‘A work of art is a problem’

It’s easy enough to read the thoughts of a newcomer:
the one who will come without appointment
remembering circles and maps of temperance.

Down the avenue of swift and invisible nudes,
a thin, brittle demon the shade of an autumn leaf
is seeking imperfections.

Our prophets always speak too soon–
you know you want to own a picture of a man
carrying a drum made of human scalps.

Give me a little more time here–
A democracy of strangeness is
a reminder that the work of art presents not an expression

of identity but a problem
‘I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theatre.’
Now–
I’d like a word or two from you.

Mistaken Identity

Obasa min Dahlin’ used his head to stop a bullet. The people in the press room used their eyes. If they blinked with their eyes closed they sometimes saw a deeper red. Their wideangled phones caught everything—they were so powerful.

They were so powerful they could tune rumour into fact. [One of those instances when the word ‘powerful’ and the word ‘sensitive’ are nearly synonymous.]

Dahlin’ was a free bird in a free world because he has wings. I have never had wings. I have never felt the air solidify around me because I never travel at such speeds.

What I have is roots. What he had is caves. What they have is fences. [You could call this a primer.]

I have seen fences that shed the clothes they were given so that they could keep their neutrality in plain sight. In a borderless world I like the reassurance of fences I can see through. I often wonder at what speeds a person would need to travel to make it through those gaps all fences have. If you travel really fast—at bullet-speed, say—is the fence still porous or is it solid?

[Discuss.]

So one day Osaba stood tall and carried a plaent in his right hand. Oops. I mean planet. He spun the planet & he chinked his spurs—which were, he said privately, and only into ears that drank his words in at one end and spit them out the other, the spurs of discontent. As soon as he said this, two words fell out the other ear of his listener.

‘Disco’ and ‘tent’.

Osaba was always an ambitious man and you should not judge the scale of his ambition by the size of these two words. Remember: he can carry a planet in one hand and only people who cannot spell think that what he holds is a plant.

Twisting

In the end we have dystopias:
visions that arose with the steadiness
of smoke in a still room
but grew too large for cohesion,
preferring dissipation
to the sightless certainty of columns.

We watched. That is all we did:
watched faces ass they came in and out of focus;
watched as the angle of our vision widened
to include even what we would never see
in our lifetimes. This is how we begin.

Somewhere in the middle
we lost our way:
we thought of mazes and labyrinths
and brains folded around themselves.
Patterns teased and seduced us.
We believed we had all the time in the world.

Five Falls, Kuttralam

For Veena Muthuraman

A face not so much
an image as an after-image
the dark patch where
the sun had been before
you looked away.

No, a long hum

Never sure afterwards
if you stood there
if you survived
if what emerged
out of the water was spectral
or what went into it.

These poems originally appeared in Escape Artist (2014), published by Aleph Book Company and reprinted with permission of the publisher.

About the Author

Sampsonia Way is an online magazine sponsored by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh that seeks to protect and advocate for writers who may be endangered, to educate the public about threats to writers and literary expression, and to create a community in which endangered writers thrive and literary culture is a valued part of life.

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