The below is a new sequence of poems by Nalini Paul, commissioned by the Book Festival as part of New Passages, an international author residency conducted in partnership with An Lanntair and Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival. Read more about the project here.
Nalini Paul was born in India, grew up in Vancouver, and has been living in Scotland for most of her adult life. As a keen walker and lover of the outdoors, her writing often touches on themes of migration, memory and landscapes. Read her initial reflections on the project here and here.
Basalt deity, 12th Century, engraved with Colin Mackenzie’s initials and the date, 1806
If I told you I could see
it all at once –
a vision of your rise and fall
like waves of navigation
across oceans to stolen paradise
– what would you say?
If the dead could speak –
if stone could make sense
of your wanderings.
Are names forgotten when you cut
cut them out with your dark
desire, your black-edged cunning?
On entering the tomb
the walls are lined with damaged mirrors.
Your lamp picks out the edges,
smooths away the ugly corners.
Letters creep into my skin,
forming words in the language of your kin
but my language is yours and what is yours
covers the surface entirely,
until stone becomes skin and skin
becomes stone again.
Your name cannot rename me,
no matter how hard you tried
or how sweet was your smile.
An encounter changed us forever,
gave a flavour of darkness
that was already spreading within you;
so that conversations with the long-dead
until bone and stone return to earth
and earth to dust.
The empirically beautiful partition:
hand-crafted by slaves
in ornate iron,
its faded splendour winking as fallen
stars to heaving crowds.
Carriages in painted metal: gold,
coral, vermillion and rust,
drawn by starved white horses;
eyes sunk into sockets like too many
Outside the guest-house, unsleeping
fires for chai, broken clay cups scatter
Echoes of ‘home’
Park Street Cemetery, Kolkata
our tainted blessing.
‘We thank thee, oh Lord,’
resounded in the streets of Stornoway,
at nearly every corner
In the musty interior of the chapel
future sight of the past –
St Paul’s Cathedral, Calcutta,
its pews chock-a-block with Indians.
And finally, me, filing in late
for the service;
trying to re-learn how to pray like this –
sacred place –
a visitor in my birth-mother country.
Kolkata/Calcutta is not me.
our grateful blessing
reason for being – sunlight
scatters over tombs.
A quality – the stillness
bathed in heat that I once breathed,
chai in the garden
supper with the Viceroy
dinner at the club
recordings of this and that
gin and tonic
As if Buddha
could be crammed into two white centuries.
Niseaboist, Isle of Harris
Water does not differentiate,
its azures reflecting the earth’s only sun
into crashed foam and pale light.
No need for words, like
No space for hierarchies
no sleight of hand
to write in borders
to write in margins
to cast out far
like herring nets
for reasons to conjure
East or West.
When a strong wind blows
from the North onto coastal
waters, nutrients, deep in the seabed
Moving Pole-wards, they leave
behind heat and energy
and all the detritus of the journey:
the pearls and jewels
the trinkets and rubies
the sapphires and diamonds
the coloured-glass windows
of temples and churches
of Hindu and Christian
traversing the centuries in objects
that outlive us.
What would a pair of hands
in the future make of these fragments?
Fingers sift through broken glass
like the ocean moving
its cargo into the Deep Waters.
Will it all ever speak,
the marble and gneiss?
Could the gravestones and temples
and churchyards speak?
I take a small stone
and add it to the cairn.
With a drop of gin to line
With a drop of water to raise
With a drop of sky to see
With a drop of compassion to paint
Words languish in the broad,
white spaces between what is said
and what the mind colours its canvas with.
These polarised unities exist,
just as truths do,
just as blood flows
through veins unheeded.
Copyright © 2018, Nalini Paul. All rights reserved.
Commissioned by the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
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