Collected Poems

Collected Poems

by Sujata Bhatt


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This is the definitive collection of poems from Sujata Bhatt, an award-winning author of Indian, German, and English experience. With works that span Bhatt’s entire career—from her early pieces when her imagination stays close to India and its languages, people, and customs to her family’s exile and move to Europe and her education in the United States—the poems continue in their vocation of reinvention. More than anything, these pieces show that in Bhatt’s work, poetry is a place where nothing is certain and there are surprises with each reading.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781857549973
Publisher: Carcanet Press, Limited
Publication date: 10/01/2013
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Sujata Bhatt is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the award-winning author of several volumes of poetry, including A Colour of Solitude, Monkey Shadows, Point No Point, Pure Lizard, and The Stinking Rose.

Read an Excerpt

Collected Poems

By Sujata Bhatt

Carcanet Press Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Sujata Bhatt
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84777-278-7


The First Disciple

    Sujata: The First Discipline of Budddha

    One morning, a tall lean man
    stumbled towards me.
    His large eyes: half closed
    as if he were seasick;
    his thick black hair full of dead leaves and bumble-bees
    grew wild as weeds and fell way below his hips.
    His beard swayed gently as an elephant's trunk.
    "I'm hungry," he muttered.
    I took him home, fed him fresh yogurt and bread.
    Then, I bathed him, shaved his face clean and smooth,
    coconut oiled his skin soft again.
    It took four hours
    to wash and comb his long hair,
    which he refused to cut.
    For four hours he bent his head this way and that
    while I ploughed through his hair
    with coconut oil on my fingers.
    "And how did you get this way?" I asked.
    "I haven't slept for years," he said.
    "I've been thinking, just thinking.
    I couldn't sleep or eat
    until I had finished thinking."
    After the last knot
    had been pulled out of his hair, he slept,
    still holding on to my sore fingers.
    The next morning, before the sun rose,
    before my father could stop me,
    he led me to the wide-trunked, thick-leafed bodhi tree
    to the shady spot where he had sat for years
    and asked me to listen.

    The Peacock

    His loud sharp call
    seems to come from nowhere.
    Then, a flash of turquoise
       in the pipal tree.
    The slender neck arched away from you
       as he descends,
    and as he darts away, a glimpse
       of the very end of his tail.

    I was told
    that you have to sit in the veranda
         and read a book,
    preferably one of your favourites
       with great concentration.
    The moment you begin to live
    inside the book
    a blue shadow will fall over you.
    The wind will change direction,
    the steady hum of bees
    in the bushes nearby
    will stop.
    The cat will awaken and stretch.
    Something has broken your attention;
    and if you look up in time
    you might see the peacock
    turning away as he gathers in his tail
    to shut those dark glowing eyes,
    violet fringed with golden amber.
    It is the tail that has to blink
    for eyes that are always open.


    Her hand sweeps over the rough grained paper,
    then, with a wet sponge, again.
    A drop of black is washed grey,
    cloudy as warm breath fogging cool glass.
    She feels she must make the best of it,
    she must get the colour of the stone wall,
    of the mist settling around twisted birch trees.
    Her eye doesn't miss the rabbit crouched,
    a tuft of fog in the tall grass.
    Nothing to stop the grey sky from merging into stones,
    or the stone walls from trailing off into sky.
    But closer, a single iris stands fully opened:
    dark wrinkled petals, rain-moist,
    the tall slender stalk sways, her hand follows.
    Today, even the green is tinged with grey,
    the stone's shadow lies heavy over the curling petals
    but there's time enough, she'll wait,
    study the lopsided shape.
    The outer green sepals once enclosing the bud
    lie shrivelled: empty shells spiralling
    right beneath the petals.
    As she stares the sun comes out.
    And the largest petal flushes
    deep deep violet.
    A violet so intense it's almost black.
    The others tremble indigo, reveal
    paler blue undersides.
    Thin red veins running into yellow orange rills,
    yellow flows down the green stem.
    Her hand moves swiftly from palette to paper,
    paper to palette, the delicate brush
    swoops down, sweeps up,
    moves the way a bird builds its nest.
    An instant and the sun is gone.
    Grey-ash-soft-shadows fall again.
    But she can close her eyes and see
    red-orange veins, the yello
    swept with green throbbing towards blue,
    and deep inside she feels
    indigo pulsing to violet


    The young widow
    thinks she should have burned on
    her husband's funeral pyre.
    She could not, for her mother-in-law
    insisted she raise the only son
    of her only son.
    The young widow sits outside
    in the garden overlooking a large pond.
    Out of the way, still untouchable, she suckles
    her three-week-old son
    and thinks she could live
    for those hungry lips; live to let him grow
    bigger than herself. Her dreams lie
    lazily swishing their tails
    in her mind like buffaloes
    dozing, some with only nostrils showing
    in a muddy pond.

    Tails switch
    to keep fat flies away,
    and horns, as long as a man's hand, or longer
    keep the boys, and their pranks away.
    It is to the old farmer's tallest son
    they give their warm yellowish milk.
    He alone approaches: dark-skinned and naked
    except for a white turban, a white loincloth.
    He joins them in the pond,
    greets each one with love:
    "my beauty", "my pet" –
    slaps water on their broad flanks
    splashes more water on their dusty backs.
    Ears get scratched, necks rubbed,
    drowsy faces are splashed awake.
    Now he prods them out of the mud
    out of the water, begging loudly
    "Come my beauty, come my pet, let us go!"
    And the pond shrinks back
    as the wide black buffaloes rise.

    The young widow
    walks from tree to tree,
    newly opened leaves brush damp sweet smells
    across her face. The infant's mouth sleeps
    against her breast. Dreams stuck
    inside her chest twitch
    as she watches the buffaloes pass
    too close to her house, up the steep road
    to the dairy. The loud loving voice
    of the farmer's son holds them steady
    without the bite of any stick or whip.


    Only paper and wood are safe
    from a menstruating woman's touch.
    So they built this room
    for us, next to the cowshed.
    Here, we're permitted to write
    letters, to read, and it gives a chance
    for our kitchen-scarred fingers to heal.

    Tonight, I can't leave the stars alone.
    And when I can't sleep, I pace
    in this small room, I pace
    from my narrow rope-bed to the bookshelf
    filled with dusty newspapers
    held down with glossy brown cowries and a conch.
    When I can't sleep, I hold
    the conch shell to my ear
    just to hear my blood rushing,
    a song throbbing,
    a slow drumming within my head, my hips.
    This aching is my blood flowing against,
    rushing against something –
    knotted clumps of my blood,
    so I remember fistfuls of torn seaweed
       rising with the foam,
    rising. Then falling, falling up on the sand
    strewn over newly laid turtle eggs.

    The Doors Are Always Open

    Everywhere you turn there are goats,
    some black and lumpy.
    Others, with oily mushroom-soft hair,
    sticky yellow in Muslim sand
    shaded by the mosque.
    Next door
    there's a kerosene smeared kitchen.
    We share a window
    with the woman who lives with goats.
    Now she unwraps some cheese
    now she beats and kneads
    a little boy and screams
    "Idiot! Don't you tease that pregnant goat again!"
    I look away: outside
    the rooster runs away
    from his dangling sliced head
    while the pregnant goat lies with mourning hens.
    Her bleating consolations
    make the children spill
    cheesy milk and run outside.
    Wet soccer ball bubbles roll out
    from a hole beneath the lifted tail.
    The goat licks her kids free,
    pushing, pushing
    until they all wobble about.
    We've counted five.
    Hopping up and down, we push each other
    until we see
    the goat pushing her kids
    to stand up, until
    mothers call us back
        to thick milk.


    The way I learned
    to eat sugar cane in Sanosra:
    I use my teeth
    to tear the outer hard chaal
    then, bite off strips
    of the white fibrous heart –
    suck hard with my teeth, press down
    and the juice spills out.

    January mornings
    the farmer cuts tender green sugar cane
    and brings it to our door.
    Afternoons, when the elders are asleep
    we sneak outside carrying the long smooth stalks.
    The sun warms us, the dogs yawn,
    our teeth grow strong
    our jaws are numb;
    for hours we suck out the russ, the juice
         sticky all over our hands.

    So tonight
    when you tell me to use my teeth,
    to suck hard, harder,
    then, I smell sugar cane grass
         in your hair
    and imagine you'd like to be
    shérdi shérdi out in the fields
       the stalks sway
         opening a path before us

    Swami Anand

    In Kosbad during the monsoons
    there are so many shades of green
    your mind forgets other colours.

    At that time
    I am seventeen, and have just started
    to wear a sari every day.
    Swami Anand is eighty-nine
        and almost blind.
    His thick glasses don't seem to work,
    they only magnify his cloudy eyes.
    Mornings he summons me
       from the kitchen
    and I read to him until lunch time.

    One day he tells me
    "you can read your poems now"
    I read a few, he is silent.
    Thinking he's asleep, I stop.
    But he says, "continue".
    I begin a long one
    in which the Himalayas rise
          as a metaphor.
    Suddenly I am ashamed
    to have used the Himalayas like this,
    ashamed to speak of my imaginary mountains
    to a man who walked through
       the ice and snow of Gangotri
    a man who lived close to Kangchenjanga
       and Everest clad only in summer cotton.
    I pause to apologise
    but he says "just continue".

    Later, climbing through
       the slippery green hills of Kosbad,
    Swami Anand does not need to lean
    on my shoulder or his umbrella.
    I prod him for suggestions,
    ways to improve my poems.
    He is silent a long while,
    then, he says
       "there is nothing I can tell you
         except continue."

    For Nanabhai Bhatt

    In this dream my grandfather
    comes to comfort me.
    He stands apart
    and in his face I see
    the patience of his trees
    on hot typhoid days
    that promise no rain.

    His eyes
    the colour of a crow's feather in children's mud,
    yet filled with sharp mountain-top light.

    I'm sure this was the face the true bald man,
    Gandhiji saw when he confessed
    about the Harijan girl, the six-year-old
    he adopted and tried to educate.
    I'm sure these were the eyes the true hermaphrodite,
    Gandhiji saw while he explained
    how this girl cared too much for clothes,
    how one day she went and had her hair bobbed,
    the latest fashion, she said.
    It was too much.
    She had to be set straight,
    the sooner the better.
    So he had her head shaved
    to teach her
    not to look in mirrors so often.
    At this point Gandhiji turned
    towards my grandfather and allowed, so softly:
    "But she cried.
    I couldn't stop her crying.
    She didn't touch dinner.
    She cried all night.
    I brought her to my room,
    tucked her in my bed, sang her bhajans,
    but she still cried.
    I stayed awake beside her.

    So this morning I can't think clearly,
    I can't discuss our plans
    for building schools in villages."
    And my grandfather
    looked at him with the same face
    he shows in my dream.


    for my brother

    The bird was fat-brown limp feathers,
    half-deflated limp dull brown
    and seemed to be sweating
    all the time. And Nachiketa carried
    it around in a floppy straw hat
    fluttering orange ribbons with his mother's sunny
    rice-paddy green silk scarf inside,
    nestling the sticky claws
    and half-coma-shut eyes.
    Yes, Nachiketa, five years old and frowning,
    held the straw hat nest all day, walked
    through the house from balcony
    to balcony, upstairs and down
    from terrace to garden and back again.

    Did you know that long ago Nachiketa visited
    great Yamaraj? Yes, long ago
    Nachiketa travelled through jaundiced grass
    past choleraed cows, past black-lunged horses
    standing beneath leprosied trees.
    And great Yamaraj was not home.
    So Nachiketa waited. Hungry. Nachiketa
    sat on the dark doorstep in sunless heat.
    Nachiketa waited for three days.

    Then, Yama arrived delighted
    with Nachiketa's patience,
    and Yama arrived ashamed
    to have been an absent host.
    And so of course there were three boons
    to be granted, three wishes to be had.
    Take your three wishes and please leave,
    this is no place for curious children,
    no place for the alive and Karma unfulfilled.
    But Nachiketa stood still.
    Not wanting but asking.
    Not wanting a thing but asking all.
    And great Yamaraj relented
    saying, oh all right, all right I'll tell you.

    The first time Nachiketa returned
    from the house of Yama, his skin was yellow
    and he slept in an incubator for a month.
    The second time Nachiketa returned
    from the house of Yama,
    he found the bird wheezing and croaking
    by the dirt road.
    The eighth time Nachiketa visited the house of Yama
    I followed, cursing every god, every being
    every spirit that could possibly exist.
    I followed cursing until Nachiketa returned
    safe again.

    Each time Yamaraj gives Nachiketa
    a different fact, fresh secrets ...
    But what did he feed Nachiketa?
    And what did Nachiketa drink
    with great Yamaraj?
    Sometimes I dream Yama's hand
    brushing against Nachi's shirt
    when he reached for a plate of something.

    I walk about bored, I walk about
    wishing I had such secrets –
    While Nachiketa sits in the garden
    by the sunflowers
    with the straw hat in his lap.
    He sings all afternoon
    while the bird wheezes back
    and he continues singing
    even when the bird does not move.


    In the morning, while Kalika combs
    her seven-year-old daughter's glossy tangled hair,
    she looks at her face in the mirror;
    red-eyed, worn out,
    she feels she has grown into a mangy stranger overnight.
    Her daughter's face: wide open eyes
    so much more like her mother's
    who died last night
    in a diabetic coma.

    As Kalika parts the hair in the centre,
    a straight line curving down
    the back of her daughter's head;
    she remembers, five years ago
    blisters on the back of her mother's head
    grew and grew, never healing,
    her mother's scalp cracked and bleeding
    until the doctor shaved off
    the waist-length thick grey hair
    and tightly bandaged the head.

    As Kalika watches her daughter open the door
    the sun falls on the bright red ribbons
    flowering at the ends of the freshly made braids,
    and there is her mother in a red sari,
    walking towards the sound of temple bells.
    Green herbs, white jasmine in her hands,
    tiny red blossoms woven in her coiling hair.

    Later, tearing out sticky cobwebs
    from corners in the high ceiling,
    while jabbing at fleeing spiders with a long-handled broom,
    Kalika winces, glances out the window
    and sees her daughter on the lawn
    struggling with her doll's matted hair.

    For My Grandmother

    Aaji, there was an eleven-year-old girl
    who sat on our doorstep
    during the feast
    of your mourning.
    She would not cry or eat
       sleep or speak.
    Now they make dolls
    who do all of those things.

       And I could not explain
       about my taut
       four hours of sleep
       in the closet, on the floor
       with your softly dying clothes.


    I have thought so much about the girl
    who gathered cow dung in a wide, round basket
    along the main road passing by our house
    and the Radhavallabh temple in Maninagar.
    I have thought so much about the way she
    moved her hands and her waist
    and the smell of cow dung and road-dust and wet canna lilies,
    the smell of monkey breath and freshly washed clothes
    and the dust from crows' wings which smells different –
    and again the smell of cow dung as the girl scoops
    it up, all these smells surrounding me separately
    and simultaneously – I have thought so much
    but have been unwilling to use her for a metaphor,
    for a nice image – but most of all unwilling
    to forget her or to explain to anyone the greatness
    and the power glistening through her cheekbones
    each time she found a particularly promising
    mound of dung –


    The wise old men
      of India say
    there are certain rules.
    For example, if you loved
    your dog too much,
    in your next life you'll be a dog,
    yet full of human memories.
    And if the King's favourite daughter
    loved the low-caste palace gardener
    who drowned while crossing the river
    in a small boat during the great floods,
    they'll be reborn, given a second chance.
    The wise old men of India say
    one often dreams
    of the life one led before.

    There's a lion sprawled out
    beside his cubs.
    His thick mane tangled with dry grass,
    his head droops: dusty stooping dahlia.
    Then with a shudder,
       a sudden shake of his head
    he groans and growls
    at four whimpering cubs.
    (He'd let them climb
    all over his back
    if only he weren't so hungry.)
    The lioness is already far away
    hunting in the deepest part of the valley:
    a tall dark forest.
    Red-flowered vines,
    gold-flecked snakes encircling every tree.
    Tall ferns,
    fringes of maidenhair edging broad leaves.
    But now the lioness steps out
    into a vast clearing.
    She lifts her head towards the east, the west:
    sniffing, sniffing. Her eyes stare hard,
    urgent, she walks as if her raw swollen teats,
    pink and not quite dry, prickle and itch
    and goad her on.
    She's lean enough, afraid
    her cubs might die.
    Now there's clear water flowing rapidly,
    rippling over rocks, the lioness stops, drinks,
    her quick long tongue licks, laps up the water.
    Now the lioness is wading through, swimming,
    her long golden tail streams through rushing waves;
    torn, bruised paws splashing.
    A quiet breeze
       as if the earth were barely breathing.
    Fallen leaves, still green,
    and tangled vines swirl in the water,
         the lioness circling.
    Nearby monkeys, squirrels,
    even birds remain hidden, silence
    A dead bull elephant rots:
       bullet-pocked, tuskless.

    You hold me, rock me,
    pull me out of my dream,
    (or did I dream you?)
    The fur lingers on your skin,
    your body has not forgotten
    how to move like a cat.
    Look, the sun spills golden over the walls,
    you grow tawnier with the dawn.
    Shivering haunches relax,
    the slow licking begins
    gently over the bruises.


Excerpted from Collected Poems by Sujata Bhatt. Copyright © 2013 Sujata Bhatt. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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