Leaving Yuba City: New and Selected Poems

Leaving Yuba City: New and Selected Poems

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by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
     
 

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Like Divakaruni's much-loved and bestselling short story collection Arranged Marriage, this collection of poetry deals with India and the Indian experience in America, from the adventures of going to a convent school in India run by Irish nuns (Growing up in Darjeeling) to the history of the earliest Indian immigrants in the U.S. (Yuba City Poems).

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Overview

Like Divakaruni's much-loved and bestselling short story collection Arranged Marriage, this collection of poetry deals with India and the Indian experience in America, from the adventures of going to a convent school in India run by Irish nuns (Growing up in Darjeeling) to the history of the earliest Indian immigrants in the U.S. (Yuba City Poems).

Groups of interlinked poems divided into six sections are peopled by many of the same characters and explore varying themes. Here, Divakaruni is particularly interested in how different art forms can influence and inspire each other. One section, entitled Indian Miniatures, is based on and named after a series of paintings by Francesco Clemente. Another, called Moving Pictures, is based on Indian films, including Mira Nair's "Salaam Bombay" and Satyajit Ray's "Ghare Baire." Photographs by Raghubir Singh inspired the section entitled Rajasthani. The trials and tribulations of growing up and immigration are also considered here and, as with all of Divakaruni's writing, these poems deal with the experience of women and their struggle to find identities for themselves.

This collection is touched with the same magic and universal appeal that excited readers of Arranged Marriage. In Leaving Yuba City, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni proves once again her remarkable literary talents.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
An abusive father ("the gorilla with iron fingers") and the suicide of a mother who puts the poet to bed and locks her in "so I would not be the first to discover her body hanging from the ceiling" open this third collection from the poet and acclaimed novelist (Mistress of Spices, 1997) as the poet, who was born in India and now lives in northern California, re-examines her origins. A section imagining the lives of the Punjab farmers who arrived in Yuba City, Calif., in 1910, takes on their voices in lush, novelistic prose poems: "I lay in bed and tried to picture her, my bride, in a shiny gold salwar-kamzee, eyes that were black and bright and deep enough to dive in." Divakaruni takes equal inspiration from other artists' interpretations of her native land, drawing on photography, film and most notably the paintings of American artist Francesco Clemente. In a section devoted to his "Indian Miniatures" series, Divakaruni's words enter into Clemente's dreamscapes and blossom into moments of startling visual clarity, as in "Cutting the Sun": "The rays fall around me/ curling a bit, like dried carrot peel. A far sound/ in the airfire or rain? And when I've cut/ all the way to the center of the sun/ I see flowers, flowers, flowers." Divakaruni's persistent concern with women's experience often deepens as it is arrayed against varying cultural grounds. (Aug.) FYI: Sections of the manuscript won Pushcart and Allen Ginsberg prizes.
Library Journal
Ali's poignant, nostalgic evocation of Kashmir is the seventh book of poetry from the director of the writing program at the University of Massachusetts. A previous winner of the Pushcart Prize, Divakaruni shifts her attention seamlessly between life in India and Indian experience in America in this new collection.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780385488549
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
07/28/1997
Edition description:
1 ANCHOR
Pages:
128
Product dimensions:
5.68(w) x 8.26(h) x 0.37(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Walk

Each Sunday evening the nuns took us for a walk. We climbed carefully in our patent-leather shoes up hillsides looped with trails the color of earthworms. Below,
the school fell away, the sad green roofs of the dormitories, the angled classrooms,
the refectory where we learned to cut buttered bread into polite squares,
to eat bland stews and puddings. The sharp metallic thrust of the church spire, small, then smaller,
and around it the town: bazaar, post office, the scab coated donkeys. Straggle of huts with hesitant woodfires in the yards. All at a respectful distance, like the local children we passed,
tattered pants and swollen chilblained fingers color of the torn sky, color of the Sacred Heart in the painting of Jesus that hung above our beds with his chest open.

We were trained not to talk to them,
runny-nosed kids with who-knew-what diseases, not even to wave back, and of course it was improper to stare. The nuns walked so fast,
already we were passing the plantation, the shrubs lined up neatly, the thick glossy green giving out a faint wild odor like our bodies in bed after lights-out. Passing the pickers,
hill women with branch-scarred arms, bent under huge baskets strapped to shoulder and head,
the cords in their thin necks pulling like wires. Back at school though Sister Dolores cracked the refectory ruler down on our knuckles, we could not drink our tea. It tasted salty as the bitten inside of the mouth, its brown like the women's necks,
that same tense color.

But now we walk quicker because it is drizzling. Drops fall on us from pipul leaves shaped like eyes. We pull on our grey rainhoods and step in time,
soldiers of Christ squelching through vales of mud.
We are singing, as always on walks,
the nuns leading us with choir-boy voices.
O Kindly Light, and then a song about the Emerald Isle. Ireland, where they grew up,
these two Sisters not much older than us. Mountain fog thickens like a cataract over the sun's pale eye, it is stumbling-dark,
we must take a shortcut through the upper town. The nuns motion us, faster, faster, an oval blur of hands in long black sleeves.

Honeysuckle over a gate, lanterns in front windows. In one, a woman in a blue sari holds a baby, his fuzzy backlit head against the curve of her shoulder. Smell of food in the air, real food, onion pakoras, like our mothers once made. Rain in our eyes, our mouths. Salt, salt.
A sudden streetlamp lights the nuns' faces, damp,
splotched with red like frostbitten camellias. It prickles the backs of our throats.
The woman watches, wonder-eyed, as we pass in our wet, determined shoes, singing
Beautiful Killarney, a long line of girls, all of us so far from home.

The Geography Lesson

Look, says Sister Seraphina, here is the earth.  And holds up, by its base, the metal globe dented from that time when Ratna, not looking,
knocked it off its stand and was sent to Mother Superior. And here the axis on which it revolves, tilted around the sun. Like this, the globe a blur now,
land and water sloshed into one muddy grey with the thick jab of her finger.

Ratna returned to class with weal-streaked palms, the left one bleeding slightly. She held it curled in her lap so it wouldn't stain her uniform as she wrote out,
one hundred times, I will not damage school property again.

Now each girl sits with her silent laced shoes flat on the classroom floor. I grip my chair-edge. I know, were it not for the Grace of the Holy Ghost, we would all be swept off this madly spinning world into perdition. Sometimes I feel it at morning mass, six a.m. and the ground under my knees sliding away, hot press of air on the eardrum and the blue sleeves of the Virgin opening into tunnels.

Ratna didn't cry, so Sister Seraphina pinned to her chest a placard that said,
in large black letters, WICKED. She was to wear it till she repented, and no one could speak to her.

This is the way the moon travels around the earth, Sister says, her fist circling the globe, solid,
tight-knuckled, pink nails clipped back to the skin. I know the moon, dense stone suspended in the sky's chest,
which makes flood and madness happen and has no light of its own. As our heathen souls unless redeemed by Christ's blood.

That night in the moon-flecked dormitory we woke to Ratna thrashing around in bed,
calling for Sultan, her dog back home. She would not quiet when told,
and when the night nun tried to give her water, she knocked the glass away with a swollen hand. All over that floor, shards, glittering like broken eyes, and against the bed-rail the flailing sound of her bones. Until they took her somewhere downstairs.

On this chart, points Sister, you see the major planets of the Solar System.
Copy them carefully into your notebooks. Smudges,
and you'll do them over.
I outline red Mars, ringed Saturn, the far cold gleam of Uranus, their perfect, captive turning around a blank center which flames out like the face of God in dreams. I will my hand not to shake. We never saw Ratna again, and knew not to ask.
Tomorrow we will be tested on the various properties of the heavenly bodies,
their distance, in light years, from the sun.

The Infirmary

I
I'd seen it only in daylight, once each month when we were sent down to be dosed with Enos Salts. Regularity,
the Sisters said, was the root of health.
A nun in front and one behind, we filed across the compound to the low brown building crouched among jhau trees. And at the door, waiting,
Sister Mary Lourdes, her habit stiff as pages in a new book, her hard white hands smelling of carbolic soap.

Mixed with warm water, the Enos turned a pale yellow, bitter and bubbly,
burning the nose. Like champagne, said Yvonne whose parents were Goan Christians and drank. Cheers, dears, she'd say,
the plastic infirmary tumbler raised, breasts thrust out,
one eyebrow lifted, a black-haired
Marilyn Monroe, while we Hindu girls from bland teetotalling families watched open-mouthed. Until the day

Sister caught her at it. And made her bend over and whacked the backs of her thighs till the ruler left strips of raised flesh.
We watched the silent light glint on her Bride of Christ wedding band each time she slashed the air.

II
So it was strange to come to it in dark, alone,
wrapped in a blanket that prickled my skin.
The night nun's name wavered in my brain like a flame in wind. Her hands held me too tightly, made me stumble. Or was it the rippling shift of ground? The air was fire,
then ice, I could not swallow, and were those stars or yellow bullet holes in the sky? How the veiny shadows of the jhaus crawled through the infirmary windows onto the bed where they put me.
I screamed until Sister Mary Lourdes bent over me with a syringe and then I stopped because I knew that I was going to die.

III
After the fever had drained away and the pus,
after the swelling in the armpits and the groin had gone down, long after I was returned to the dormitory, to the sough of night-breaths and girls crying out in sleep, I would remember the ghosts. They came to me

when Sister put out the light and disappeared into her cubicle. One by one, spirits of girls who had died in the infirmary, who told me their diseases, diphtheria or polio, cholera, typhoid,
the whooping cough. I was not afraid. Their breath was cinnamon-scented, their cool fingers like rain on my fevered forehead. Does it hurt? they would whisper, bending to kiss me, and hush now, though

I was quiet already. Some nights they wore white, some nights their hands glimmered like silver in the dark and smelled of carbolic soap. They would lie with me like my mother long ago,
their breasts soft against my face. Their fingers wearing the Bride of Christ bands stroked my back until I slept.

For a long time after I was well
I thought of them, wept silently under my blankets, went sweaterless in the Darjeeling damp to make me sick again.
Longed to tell someone.
But I was afraid of questions,
afraid of Father Malhern with the ripe red wart on his chin, who came to exorcise the school the last time a girl talked of spirits.
Afraid for Sister Mary Lourdes. And so
I held to myself that cool darkness,
and rising from it, those hands and mouths and breasts that like grace had called me back.

What People are saying about this

Meena Alexander
"Chitra Divakaruni's Leaving Yuba City draws us into a realm of the senses, intense, chaotic, site of our pleasure and pain. These are moving lyrics of lives at the edge of the new world." -- Meena Alexander, author of The Shock of Arrival
Jane Hirschfield
"Leaving Yuba City weaves a rich fabric of women's lives. Chitra Divakaruni's word-threads are gold, black, red, and green, and a faint scent clings to the cloth. But let no one think these poems exotic. In their very particularity, they hold a universal tale of community and individuation, of the hunger for a larger life that remains connected." -- Jane Hirschfield, author of The Lives of the Heart
Quincy Troupe
"The poetry of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni carries a wisdom rarely seen in contemporary poetry, runs through the reader like a cool drink of water on a hot day. Leaving Yuba City is a magical, mysterious, beautiful book of poetry, strong, passionate, lyrical." -- Quincy Troupe, author of Avalanche

Meet the Author

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is the bestselling author of the novels Sister of My Heart and The Mistress of Spices; the story collections The Unknown Errors of Our Lives and Arranged Marriage, which received several awards, including the American Book Award; and four collections of prize-winning poetry. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Ms., Zoetrope, Good Housekeeping, O: The Oprah Magazine, The Best American Short Stories 1999, and The New York Times. Born in India, Divakaruni lives near Houston.

For further information about Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, visit her Web site at www.chitradivakaruni.com.

Brief Biography

Hometown:
Houston, Texas, and San Jose, California
Date of Birth:
July 29, 1956
Place of Birth:
Kolkata, India
Education:
B.A. in English, Kolkata University 1976; Ph.D. in English, University of California at Berkeley, 1984
Website:
http://www.chitradivakaruni.com/

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