As the year wraps up, I want to highlight five poems by South Asian poets I’ve loved and noted in 2019. I turn to these widely published, critically-acclaimed poets when I find my own budding poet-self stuck within the limitations of needing to write about South Asian identity.

These five poems are pure and impassioned. They examine loneliness, either as an outsider away from home, or as the home itself changing into a thing of trauma and grief. But the poems show that even within this loneliness, there is a way of conscious living, often established through the very act of writing. And there is a glimmer of hope that movies beyond grief, and beyond the limitations of identity, to emerge rooted in a holistic self-awareness. It’s this knowledge of the whole self, I think, that is the true essence of poetry. 

 

Collude
Bhanu Kapil

 

with the anemone zero.

Drink 12 oz. of coffee in Longmont.

Are you parched?

Is your name Pinky?

What color is the skin of your inner arm, creamy?

Valentine City rebate: a box of chocolates from Safeway.

Yours, yours, yours.

In its entirety.

Don’t collude with your inability to give or receive love.

Collude, instead, with the lining of the universe.

Descent, rotation, silk water, brief periods of intense sunlight
striated with rose pink glitter.

The glitter can only get us.

So far.

Here we are at the part with the asphalt, airstream Tupperware,
veins, some nice light stretching.

Call me.

This is a poem for a beloved.

Who never arrived.

Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 17, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

Kapil wrote this poem out of the deep loneliness she sometimes feel in the U.S. The act of writing the poem itself is a desire to start living. There is a sense of longing in the poem wrapped up in a celebration of the mundane; it triggered in me the memory of a December I spent alone and depressed in Seattle, just a few years after moving to this country. I was fatigued by my loneliness, and penning down any fragment of my feelings, my imagination, my observations… would help me feel a little more alive.

 

 

Exit Strategy
Kazim Ali

 

I hear the sound of the sprinkler outside, not the soft kind we used to
 run through
but the hard kind that whips in one direction then cranks back and
 starts again.

Last night we planned to find the white argument of the Milky Way
but we are twenty years too late. Last night I cut the last stargazer
lily to wear in my hair.

This morning, the hardest geography quiz I’ve ever taken: how does
 one carry
oneself from mountain to lake to desert without leaving anything
 behind?

Perhaps I ought to have worked harder.
Perhaps I could have paid more attention.
A mountain I didn’t climb. Music I yearned for but could not achieve.

I travel without maps, free-style my scripture, pretend the sky is an
 adequate
representation of my spiritual beliefs.

The sprinkler switches off. The grass will be wet.
I haven’t even gotten to page 2 of my life and I’m probably more than
 halfway through,
who knows what kind of creature I will become.

Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 8, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

Ali’s work often examines the intersection of faith and daily life. He wrote this poem at a writer’s workshop in California while living in the mountains for a week. He is deeply observant, from the grass below to the Milky Way, and this poem makes me ponder my own mortality even within the vastness of my inner self.

 

 

Taking the Poem from the Poet
Devi S. Laskar

 

What if I tell you they didn’t evacuate
the high school after he brought in the
clock? What if he and clock waited in the
principal’s office
until the police came? You look at me
as though I pulled the fire alarm,
yelled into a crowded theatre. You
think I can erase the weapon out
of the hands of that young man in
Kevlar pointing his assault rifle at me?
Would your pain lessen? Would you
sleep tomorrow? What if I expunge the
hoodie? Outlaw convenience
stores? Institute curfew for all adult males
after 8 p.m.? Did you know that kid
loved horses, ate Skittles, went to
aviation camp? What if
I rub out midnight of the blue, blue
world? Take the jaywalk from the boy
trying to catch a city
bus? Which blue should it be? First or
second? The last thing you hear on the radio
before mashing
another button? What if there were no loosies
to smoke, steal, hawk? What if Sandy used her signal?
I say her name, I canonize the thought all
black lives matter. What if I raise my
voice? What if I don’t stop speaking?
What if I stop talking back?
Then will you miss me?

Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 11, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

Laskar wrote this poem in an effort to grapple with her survivor’s guilt and PTSD after her house was raided at gunpoint in 2010. The poem is uniquely American, set against a backdrop of the growing number of shootings in the United States, be it mass shootings or those conducted by police. There is an emphasis on the ability to speak, how voice is resistance. The poem is written in questions and brings to the page a stark awareness of Laskar’s anxiety around a terrifying reality that disproportionately affects black and brown bodies. 

 

 

A Human With Feelings
Prageeta Sharma

 

I am having trouble today. How gauche it is to be in this body
being unseen by you now. And I am wearing to bed the floral
shirt I bought you, because it’s the only thing that keeps me
intact. You are not you anymore and I’m trying to understand
how a human with feelings disappeared. You were mine. You
were floral. You were more than a presence felt. But I fight to
find you among the loudest, drunkest voices laughing at me
when I go to their bars. Where are you? You held me in so many
of them. 

from her latest collection Grief Sequence, published September 2019

Sharma’s latest collection follows the emotional processing of her husband’s sudden death from cancer. Through its vulnerability, it reminds me of the death of love in any form, in any relationship, and how grief can actually bring us closer. It reminds me that intimacy is more universal than I think; it is easy to forget that the intensity of our feelings can be shared even in its originality. This is a poem about the special kind of loneliness one feels only after irreversible heartbreak, but reading it made me feel less lonely. 

 

 

Probable Poem for the Furious Infant
Jaswinder Bolina

 

Probably you’ll solve gravity, flesh
out our microbiomics, split our God
particles into their constituent bits
of christs and antichrists probably,
probably you’ll find life as we know it
knitted into nooks of the chattering
cosmos, quaint and bountiful as kismet
and gunfights in the movies probably,
probably, probably you have no patience
for the movies there in your eventual
arrondissement where you have more
credible holography, more inspiring
actual events, your ghazals composed
of crow racket, retrorockets, glaciers
breaking, your discotheques wailing
probably, probably, probably, probably
too late a sentient taxi airlifts you
home over a refurbished riverbank,
above the rebuilt cathedral, your head
dozing easy in the crook of your arm,
emptied of any memory of these weeks
we haven’t slept you’ve been erupting
into that hereafter like a hydrant on fire,
like your mother is an air raid, and I am
an air raid, and you’re a born siren
chasing us out of your airspace probably
we’ve caught 46 daybreaks in 39 days,
little emissary arrived to instruct us,
we wake now you shriek us awake,
we sleep now you leave us to sleep.

Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 10, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

Bolina’s poem details the bleary nights spent with a sleepless newborn, where the tired parent’s mind wanders into the future. The father wrote this poem about the early weeks of his newborn’s life, who would only sleep in stretches of 20-40 minutes. As he explores the vast possibilities of where his child’s life may lead, the list of probabilities reads pattern-like; a tired but hopeful lullaby.