Review Countries of the Body Tishani Doshi
James WF Roberts
I had several very interesting experiences at the 2011 Melborune Writers Festival, I had my first poem published in a world renown literary and art Journal, Rage. Poetry. Dead. (Tribute to Allen Ginsberg); in Verandah 26 Deakin University. And I met a few people who inspired me. It was the first time I had met international writers and could speak to them on their own level—my honours degree had just been completed so I knew what I was talking about in some ways when it came to literature, film, art, religion and philosophy. The most fascinating of the people I met at the festival that year was the amazing, beautiful and extremely intelligent Welsh/Indian Poet and Writer, Tishani Doshi.
Indian poetry is quite a remarkable genre in itself these days, because of the English Public school system that has been in operation there for over one hundred and fifty years, school chorales of poetry recitals and a traditional literary history that pre-dates most literary cultures, in some cases by a thousand or more years, there seems to be more developed and individual literary schools of thought than we get in places like Australia or even the United States. I have been quite lucky over the last few years that many of my listeners on my radio show and regular contributors to my show have come from many far-flung (as the old saying goes) places such as Indonesia and India.
From the beginning of Countries of the Body, you discover a remarkably well put together book with has range and scope. It is not just a collection of early works, fragments and ideas running headlong in no particular order throughout the book. What we have here is an atlas of poetic ideas, different forms and vast distances, almost alien cultures entwining, dancing, moving as one entity together.
This collection was nominated and won several poetry prizes including the prestigious Forward Poetry Prize for best first collection in the U.K only adds to the mystique and the promise that Doshi’s work can only get better.
There is a cruel honesty in many of the poems in this collection. There are images that are hauntingly beautiful and savage at the same time. We are given an insight into Tishani’s world that is both Western and India that you might think would be constantly at odds with each other, yet they seem to unite the reader into feelings of hope and longing. Where most writers I would imagine find themselves isolated in one world and at home in the other, Doshi seems to be both at home in the West and in India but also strangely alienated from both cultures.
Tishani’s poems are expertly crafted, economical, visceral and quite graceful. Many of the poems I feel you can tell were written by a dancer, there is a luxuriating, breathless rhythm to it all. Her words are sensitive and emotive down to the very nuance of her subject matter. Physicality and sexuality seem to me to be just bubbling away under the surface of a lot of her poems. As stated earlier each poem is like its own country, its own world that at times seems randomly connected to the poems around it, yet the work together so well.
She has a style of writing that is both panoramic in its layering of images and exact ad visceral like a stiletto blade.
There is a transportative earnestness in her words: “I am miles from home, in Mombassa,/ Putting diamonds in my ears/ Like a woman with three names/ Instead of one” or “Rilke is following me everywhere/ With his tailor-made suits/And vegetarian smile” or “I forgot how Madras loves noise — /Loves neighbours and pregnant women/ And Gods and babies”.
But, what I love the most about this collection is the experimental and experiential nature of her writing. She writes about death and mourning. Loss and the staleness of relationships. Poems about the tsunami, insanity, suicide and to a point about child-trafficking and the over saturation of Sex in the West.
Tisnahi seems to be able to stop herself write at the point of almost being self-indulgent. At first inspection of the poems in this collection you almost think there is a bit of random, wilful over-indulgence going on, yet you start reading the poems and those issues seem to melt away.
I cannot recommend this collection highly enough. This is the first poetry collection I read cover to cover in under two hours. By the end of that experience I was short of breath, for I thought every word I read was taking something out of me.
Here is one of my favourites from this collection:
At the Rodin Museum
by Tishani Doshi,
Published in Wasafiri (UK), 2006
Rilke is following me everywhere
with his tailor-made suits
and vegetarian smile.
He says because I’m young,
I’m always beginning,
and cannot know love.
He sees how I’m a giant piece
of glass again, trying
to catch the sun
in remote corners of rooms,
mountain tops, uncertain
places of light.
He speaks of the cruelty
of hospitals, the stillness
takes me through bodies
and arms and legs
of such extravagant size,
the ancient sky burrows in
with all the dead words
we carry and cannot use.
He holds up mirrors
from which our reflections fall —
To listen to an interview I did with Tishani in 2011 for my show on http://www.phoenixfm.org.au please go here: https://soundcloud.com/james-wf-roberts-poet/tishani-doshi-interview-for
****Tishani’s debut collection of poems, Countries of the Body, won the prestigious Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2006. She is also the recipient of an Eric Gregory Award, the All-India Poetry Prize for her poem The Day We Went to the Sea, and was finalist in the Outlook-Picador Non-Fiction competition for her essay, Excerpts from the Journals of a Delusional Widow.
Her first novel, The Pleasure Seekers, was published to critical acclaim by Bloomsbury in 2010 and translated into several languages. It was short-listed for the Hindu Best Fiction Award, and longlisted for the Orange Prize and the IMPAC Dublin Literary award.
Her latest book is a collection of poems, Everything Begins Elsewhere. It is published by HarperCollins (India), Bloodaxe (UK) and Copper Canyon (USA). Currently Tishani divides her time between a village by the sea in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere.