Visiting Nazira, Assam
My father summons the barber each month —
one of those things that disrupt my world.
I do not know the barber's name.
He comes and goes without a word.
I am smothered in a white cloth. He gently
works around my ears, the back of my neck.
With the haircut done, there are strict instructions:
Don't touch anybody. Don't touch the furniture.
Once the impurity of being touched has been
washed off, I can again join my family.
Murmuring prayers under a mosquito net,
I am cocooned in mother's shadow, safe
from nights alive with the strum of insect life.
In a dream, I chase dragonflies with arms out,
as if I too have molted.
Hindu Temple in Middletown, Connecticut
Devotees snake into the sanctum,
bare feet shuffling against the cold stone floor.
Lost in incense smoke, their hands hold meager
offerings of wilted flowers and broken coconuts.
Then the relentless chanting and incantations in
Sanskrit, a language nobody understands;
perhaps it sends a code to lift hands,
strike the bell, perform circumambulations and
surrender, prostrate under Vishnu's benevolent gaze.
His black stone face is effulgent,
yet a secret beneath sandalwood paste and jewelry.
He must wonder about this house,
far from the seven verdant hills of Tirupathi,
even farther from the Ocean of Eternity,
having arrived this far in a shipping container,
an immigrant Himself, like his devotees.
A Pathologist Drives Home
I study cells in microscopic fields:
armies of Kublai Khan, canny
mendicant travelers, defying easy classification,
like the ones that felled my grandmother
when I scooped her up, light as a sparrow
from the floor, hoped that Rama might
descend as another avatar to vanquish
asuras. Insatiable and pleomorphic, wearing
fuschsia and magenta war paint, they line up
at ramparts, holding up abnormal mitoses.
Driving home in the night, path lit
by a modicum of knowledge and some assumptions,
I see the winding road become a strand
of unwound double helix —
who is to tell what is pernicious and what is benign?
I focus on the moon — a nucleus tonight.
The windshield becomes a lens, finds the moon hung
between two traffic lights, like the third eye of Shiva;
it climbs to decorate the night's forehead.
I catch my reflection in the glass,
at the mercy of the moon that watches
dispassionately, as tremulous
stars dissolve like unreliable organelles.
Night of the Blood Moon
My grandmother told me stories of Rama Chandra
on a terrace during summer nights,
and the moon watched us like an owl.
I can see the empty early morning sky,
suddenly resplendent like her saree unfurled.
I tell grandmother's stories to my daughter,
mythical tales of the moon,
stroking her back,
sing that it is a bird and could be netted to stay,
that it was born out of churning oceans,
a minor God riding his chariot,
tonight is an angry moth penetrating the opacity,
a corpuscle carrying all the oxygen for this night.
I point to it, a quiet evanescent hole in the sky
past the skylight —
sweet red flesh of a peach. I say
it had the skin of a bone yesterday, a sesamoid,
mere suffix to the mighty Rama.
She calls to ask if I see the Blood Moon.
I say I cannot see anything through the tall pines,
will need to visit her world of open spaces.
I see her stand by windowpanes,
her body between continents,
solar systems, universes.
The moon is not an eye, it is her face —
white as the ivory tusk of Ganesha.
She becomes a crescent, a necessary hook
the night hangs on.
for my grandmother
In the first light of the last day of summer,
crackling coconut husks heat my bath water.
Foaming batter in ferment hangs
on the thick black lips of a stone mortar. You exist,
Ratnamma, only in the shadows of the kitchen,
spreading the dosa in the sputter and sizzle
of oil on a griddle, as if anointing
the broad black forehead of a deity.
A steel percolator drips incessantly and there are
stacks of banana leaves, wet mounds of grated coconuts.
The pile of aubergines, drumsticks, coriander
await sambar that gurgles,
and the scent of tamarind is in the air.
Today the cumin and mustard seeds hide.
I grab the same scarred griddle, black as the sky
where you pointed to Saptarishi,
each star a mythical sage.
I labor to spread the dough in concentric circles
with a heavy ladle, moving slowly
as if waiting for instructions. Then my hands
spreading red pepper and onion on a roasted crepe,
pulling water for my bath from a deep well
with a coiled jute rope.
I leave this season of foment and chaff,
ruminate amongst those dusty streets that ran
with a clarity like longitudes and latitudes.
Those were such perfectly sliced mangoes,
perched like canoes at the end of summer,
its heat chastened by the shade of neem trees.
Yours is my sweetest meal.
Every sadness is swallowed by the night.
It's a Dog's Life
Poets can be like dogs, domesticated
on a diet without adjectives, or taught
to take meaningless walks around the cul-de-sac.
You can toss a thought and they will be off
in a flash, ready to be patted on their heads.
You can never praise them enough:
they will always ask for more.
They can be difficult to spot in life,
walking like invisible pets, appearing
only when they walk with their noses in the air
after the scent of a poem.
For the most part, they lounge,
ruminating and dreaming nonchalantly.
But they do have extra-ordinary eyesight
like pathologists. They make keen
reliable observations on human behavior,
commenting on entire slices of humanity.
You will see them when you have guests over.
They will be loitering in the shadows, taking notes.
All poems copyright © 2016 by Srinivas Mandavilli.CT Poet Laureate Rennie McQuilkin selects work for CT Poets Corner by invitation.