There is much to say about Urvashi Bahuguna’s work but today I want to talk about how it got me to change my mind. Like many others, I’ve long held the opinion that poem titles work best when they serve as invitations — through association, suspense, inventiveness, and a dozen other ways. I’ve lost count of the number of times I might have recommended that a poet not summarize their poem in a title (“if a poem about a fight is called ‘Divorce’ it expends its energy right at the start”). Urvashi Bahuguna’s work however, discards this assumption and establishes a different pattern: one where the speaker gets the factual information out of the way in the title itself, so that the body of the poem can occupy the emotional landscape of the piece. It is not weighed down with the task of working out the what and what-next of the idea. Instead, the poem uses its space to rest, spread out, tease, explore and speculate on the interiority of its characters. Consider for instance ‘The Night After My Grandfather Passes Away’ where the title sets up the scene and then leaves the poem free to move through the shifting dynamics of a relationship, without the death or the grandfather finding another mention.
Of course, the arts have long valued this exploration, from the fractal-like ebb and expansion of Hindustani classical music to even Bollywood songs that suspend the narrative of the story to list five and a half new mischiefs of the heroine’s eyes. But it takes a certain assuredness in modern English poetry to shake off the anxiety of constantly offering a breadcrumb trail of gentle narrative. For this, and for much more, we invite you into these poems.
— Pervin Saket
The Bombay Literary Magazine
On A Tiger Safari in Ranthambore National Park
Praise a man, in the middle of the middle,
. who has been thirty-seven times
. though he hasn’t seen a tiger yet –
. a slice of orange grilled crosshatch.
Praise persistence – way I continue asking God to explain
. misfire of neurons, blood-splatter of luck,
. way they won’t respond. Praise a god
. who likes their games,
who sends missives – pug marks, droppings, radio
. news of sightings elsewhere. Praise a woman who sees God
. in everything: man sitting beside her looking into a lens,
. tiger sauntering toward her,
. even this poem some proof they assist.
The Night After My Grandfather Passes Away
you treat me like something wild but familiar,
keeping your distance, before covering the distance.
listening to my explanations for rage,
and saying, come here. I am sorry.
even though I shake you from sleep,
demanding you take down
the extra bedroll stored above the cupboard
so we may sleep separately tonight.
Oh, anger has often been to me Ursula’s cave.
I am furious you have fallen
into slumber on a day I missed a funeral
because I was here with you.
Of course I don’t imagine that I am a good
person in this moment, but you don’t make me
feel like a bad one. It’s a question of permission,
of response, of one person saying
to another: I take you, I take you
whole and splintering.
I Ask to Be Painted
as the view off a highway cutting a scythe across climates.
Coal clumps one minute, cerulean marbles the next.
As the dancefloor the night my friend drummed covers
of Adam Levine songs. As Venice eighty years from today
– spectacular in surrender. The world is ending.
Include the pincers. Dali it up. Canines inside me.
Tuning fork calling my name. Like you never interviewed
my husband. Like my best friend was the only one who spoke.
Like I know two circles inside Dante’s well and I climbed, spideresque,
till I saw Arcturus, then Vega. A scarfed Botticelli in a white soft-top
cruising down one-oh-one, Celine belting on the stereo.
Make me pause as I pass, wishing I were more
like her – a fox fleeing the embroidered scarf.
A flare loosed from the cannon’s fretful snare.
We were torn between Chila Kumari Burman’s installation Neon Tiger which recently made a grand splash at Tate’s and Gerhard’s painting. Bruman’s tiger installation, all neon tubes and impolite excess, was a masterclass in the use of pop art to gently mock the human stare. We were tempted but ultimately we decided to go Gerhard’s tiger: a fingerprint of God for those who keep track of such signs.
Author | URVASHI BAHUGUNA
Urvashi Bahuguna is an Indian poet and an essayist who grew up in Goa, India before moving to New Delhi where she lived and worked as a writer for many years. She is currently based in the Bay Area. Her work has been recognised by a Tin House scholarship, a Vermont Studio Center fellowship, a Virginia Centre for the Creative Arts residency, an Atlantic Centre for the Arts residency, a Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship, a Sangam House fellowship, an Eclectica Spotlight Author Prize, and a TOTO Award for Creative Writing. She is the author of Terrarium (The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, 2019) and No Straight Thing Was Ever Made (Penguin India, 2021). Her most recent poems appear or are forthcoming in Passages North, Gulf Coast, Copper Nickel, Tahoma Literary Review, The Adroit Journal, SWWIM, Southern Humanities Review, The Penguin Book of Indian Poets and elsewhere. She is a poetry reader for Four Way Review.