Radha Says, the final poems of Reetika Vazirani will inevitably be read in the context of her life, and of course, her death. I’ll just get it out the way now: Vazirani took her own life, and that of her two-year old son in 2003. These poems have been collected from handwritten manuscripts she left behind; and that’s what’s important: the poems. The editors, Leslie McGrath and Ravi Shankar, have done a masterful job in crafting this into a coherent collection and presenting it without any maudlin sentimentality or judgement, but with a great introduction and glossary. Basically, they avoid the Plath-effect as much as possible.
To be honest, I found them utterly baffling on my first read. The interwoven references to Indian culture and Hindu mythology left me disorientated in my own ignorance until I reached the astoundingly powerful title poem ‘Radha Says’. The voice here gathers such assurance that it transcends these cultural attachments to declare:
[ . . . ] shun the toxic envy
for if you speak honestly
to yourself perhaps one morning
you will speak to God
It would be easy to say that the disorientating and fragmentary mature of these poems reflected Vazirani’s psychological state towards the end of her life, but the stretching thin of already tenuous links between images and abrupt shifts is both more embedded and more enduring in her work. Radha Says is infused by caesura. Vazirani forgoes any other kind of punctuation, solely using the white space of the page to break up her poems. The visual fragmentation echoes the often curious shifts in image: at times it as if her desire to be an economical poet has whittled away the underlying conceptual metaphor, leaving the reader to divine the connections between the phrases offered. Such a challenge is quite seductive to the reader, as in ‘Hotel Mogul and House Cleaning’:
your name appears in a script
cashmere socks unroll you
on video Coco Chanel’s
nape plucked clean as boaters
Sita eyes the phone
money blurs in chateaux
It is clear from this collection, and from reviews of her other collections that I will definitely read in the near future (White Elephants, winner of the 1995 Barnard New Women Poets Prize, and World Hotel winner of the 2003 Anisfield-Wolf book award) that Vazirani was more than capable of escaping the marketing box of ‘Indian-American poet’. Despite the entrancing voices, the touches of personal classicism just strong enough to ignite my curiosity about Hindu mythology, what impressed me most about Radha Says was the formal experimentation. Doing away with punctuation and inviting the reader right into the centre of the poem, brandishing caesura in a confident and new way and exploring the problematic prose-poem in the Ghalib sequence, Vazirani never lets her formal play overtake the content. Those who insist on reading Radha Says as some kind of explanation of a mad-woman should take a second to look at her deftly handled and controlled forms before declaring these poems as evidence.
I think that is the beauty of this collection: the occasional flashes of a feeling of coherence, of understanding, in an otherwise terrifyingly spasmodic and uncertain female landscape.
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Radha Says is published by Drunken Boat Media, who kindly gave me a review copy. This absolutely does not guarantee a good review, and I always state when I have received things to review that I have not paid for. Always objective—so you can believe that it’s good! (or terrible…)