We are standing in front of the mirror,
my daughter and I,
brushing our hair and being vain
when I think of the doctor’s question:
“What was her birth cry like?”
I don’t know and never will.
She is fine, or will be, I know.
But looking in the mirror and into her almond eyes,
I wonder what she is like – her birth mother –
if she too, was once, afraid of words
and of the fluttering of pigeons,
if she has nicely formed arches on her feet
and whether or not her eyebrows make a bow
for good luck,
if she is small and slender-waisted,
if she is anything like my daughter,
Strange, but I don’t wonder at all about the father.
I tug at her pony.
“Amma, let’s go”, she urges into a mirror
that is slowly
her birth mother.
Our eyes meet in that eye of a little god
and she smiles
the sort of smile that is like mine.
What Penelope Said to Ulysses on His Return
And so you ask what I have been doing with myself
these past twenty years,
whether I have missed you and how much,
and how I have fared, all told.
That first one year I hurt all over,
your absence leached into my bones,
and dimmed the sun that insisted on rising each morning.
When they brought Telemachus to me, I turned away,
refusing to take him in my arms.
How could I when he looked so much like you?
The ache in my bones,
the dimming of the sun,
my turning away from Telemachus –
these are easy to conjure up,
but not so the rest.
Soon my fingers became birds
I sent off
to look for words
I can weave into this poem
I am writing even as we speak.
But I am growing less and less hopeful,
and the words I weave by day,
I unweave by night,
for I find they won’t do.
Twenty years of missing you, Ulysses,
and the words for that are still in hiding,
an entire forest of them,
out there somewhere,
beyond the flight of birds.
All the Usual Arguments
Gloveless, she incinerates them,
only to have them return at night,
feel her cheek with their phantom fingers,
wrap long umbilical cords around her waist,
snuggle against her breasts.
There are all the usual arguments of course.
Someone’s got to do it.
It’s the only work she knows.
It puts food on the table after all.
Never mind that its carnage she feels
on her tongue
when she sits down with her children
This Road, This One
You are a thousand years old now,
older than all the photographs of yourself
that exist in this world.
Already you reek
of the sickly odour of death.
Your grandchildren can’t bear your embrace.
The good people want you to rest in peace.
They wish you well in your other journey.
They claim nothing else matters in the end.
They seem sure of it.
There’s no reason to be difficult, they say.
But you want this road, this one, to go on.
You want to follow the turn,
be surprised by it,
bequeath one more photograph of yourself
that no one will know what to do with,
write one more line
no one will ever read.
Birth Mother and Other Poems are © Srilata Krishnan (K.Srilata)
A poet and fiction writer, K. Srilata (Srilata Krishnan) is a Professor of English at IIT Madras. Her poetry collections include Bookmarking the Oasis, Writing Octopus, Arriving Shortly and Seablue Child. Forthcoming, from Poetrywala, Mumbai is a collection titled The Unmistakable Presence of Absent Humans. Her novel Table for Four was long listed in 2009 for the Man Asian literary prize. Srilata is the co-editor of the anthologies The Rapids of a Great River: The Penguin Book of Tamil Poetry, Short Fiction from South India (OUP) and All the Worlds Between: A Collaborative Poetry Project Between India and Ireland (Yoda), and the editor of an anthology of women’s writing from the Self-Respect movement titled The Other Half of the Coconut: Women Writing Self-Respect History (Zubaan). She is the translator of R.Vatsala’s Tamil novel Once there was a girl (Vattathul).