Community Feedback: James McCormick reads Ananya Kumar-Banerjee
Community Feedback is our recurring column that provides an opportunity for our audience to get some quick, free & exceptional feedback on a new poem. Submit your poem here. This month’s guest editor is James Scannell McCormick.
This month, we chose Ananya Kumar-Banerjee’s poem, “Mynha.” Thank you to all of our submitters.
They say that many years ago
The city would be thick with trills so constant
They approached the pain of cacophony.
It stings slightly now, the frequency calmed by the swish
Of the sea, echoing blue off the perimeter of the land.
Flush with two kinds of trees:
The coconut and the palm, though
The former is constantly confused for the latter by
Us folk unfamiliar with tropical flora and fauna,
Just as there is no way to tell
If the pink pearlescent shell my father purchased
From the man on the beach with the sea-deep indigo
Lungi is plastic, fake.
When does the land stop being the land and become something else?
As in, when does a city stop being real?
My mother won’t go back to Kolkata
Though she reminds me often
We are Bengali, which is to say, we fought
The British and all those
Motherfuckers hard. We built a culture
Steeped in lushness, she says,
But more so in sacrifice,
By which she means
That Bengalis helped give the subcontinent a spine,
Only to find themselves
Torn in two.
I haven’t been back
Except for the lone trip,
Hands guiding mine to kiss heavy golden Kali’s tongue,
You see, there is a precedent to finding beauty
In destruction here.
My father asks me again,
Beach air tossing through his salt and pepper
Skin and hair.
As he had through this December:
How did they let this happen?
I parse his eyes for more delicate inquiries:
When did the mynah birds leave the city and take to the seashore?
Do you remember them from when you were little?
Where did the tick-tickies go?
When did the river last smell fresh?
When were slums not central to Incredible India! trips?
An environmental historian from England
Is at the archive with us. He is confused:
Behind thick glasses, foggy peach with humidity
Were there ever geckos (tick-tickies, says my father) in the city?
Yes, my father says.
He tells me
Our land is one of extremes.
I have fashioned myself into an academic
Glorified explorer of foreign lands, stain my kurta
With chai behind bookshelves, because I don’t know
how to hold the cup right. The men sometimes speak Tamil
to me, and then pause, say, Oh, she isn’t one of us. She isn’t a Tamil girl anymore.
Searching through the Archives.
I feel a child once more, bobbing my head through books,
Watching the family of tick-tickies wander
Through shelves of 200-year-old pages.
Look, papa, a whole family of tick-tickies,
And point. His focus is elsewhere,
He is writing a paper for his school, his job,
This is how we pay the bills.
He is mostly trying to get to tomorrow,
Just like Vijaya, our cleaner with my pati’s name
And Dravidian skin. She cooks without
Spices and herbs, chana dal. Things they don’t have
In her home.
How to explain it is
Hard to playact with tools
You have never known. Just as my father never learned to swim
Because the Buckingham Canal has more shit that the British,
Or perhaps because
He was taught to fear the water,
As he does now the land,
Not knowing when it all stopped being gentle
Was there ever a time in which we did not suffer
At the hands of one or the other?
When the air stopped being healthy,
Which I assume was some time
Ago, when I was still a child. And, he tells me
The mynah birds used to gather down the street, by the jersey
Cow, the color of their sound
Spreading down the street
As if they were preparing for battle
Though truly, they were only getting ready
To face another day.
“Finding Beauty In Destruction”
You could fill a—well, a Midwesterner, I was going to say “barn,” but “zoo” is plainly more appropriate—you could fill a zoo with poems about animals: Blake’s “Tyger,” Rilke’s “Panther,” Levine’s “Animals Are Passing from Our Lives” all spring immediately to my mind; hundreds more have been written. In fact, writing the “animal poem” is something of a rite of passage for poets: when teaching my introduction to poetry workshop, I, like many instructors, use Behn and Twichell’s Practice of Poetry, which contains an exercise by Deborah Diggs called “Evolutions” in which writers are asked to describe – and, in the describing transform—an animal.
This is all a wordy way, I guess, of noting that in “Mynah,” Ananya Kumar-Banerjee finds herself in good company. The poem isn’t really “about” mynahs, though the poem uses the birds as a point of departure—or rather, both as point of departure and as a point of return—because, after all, “Mynah” is about breaches, divisions, cleavings.
One need not be particularly familiar with the mynah in order to feel their impact here: in the poem, once mynahs were so plentiful that “[t]he city would be thick with trills so constant / They approached the pain of cacophony”; now, in the speaker’s present, that ubiquitous noise “stings” only “slightly.” The speaker, recalling childhood, asks bluntly, “When did the mynah birds leave the city and take to the seashore?” – one split being past and present, another being land and sea. The familiar become foreign is likewise a key theme in “Mynah,” a poem in which the speaker, a native, finds herself no longer native in a world that she no longer recognizes even if it were to accept her. The fracturing, so to speak, continues: the city (real and fake), the people (British and Bengali), the language (gecko and “tick-tickies”). “Our land is one of extremes,” the speaker’s father tells her. Or, as the speaker herself asks, “Was there ever a time in which we did not suffer / At the hands of one or the other?” Indeed.
Moreover, the speaker has just noted, “How to explain it is / Hard to playact with tools / You have never known.” Of course, the attempt to explain, and not the explanation itself, is what makes the poem. The speaker never does learn why the mynahs left the city, any more than she learns why her mother “won’t go back to Kolkata,” why her father “never learned to swim” (“perhaps” she muses, “because / He was taught to fear the water”). The end of the poem brings us back to the mynahs, which – the speaker’s father must tell her this, as she doesn’t remember it – “used to gather down the street…As if they were preparing for battle.” Another division: battle and peacefulness; and yet, the division isn’t, or wasn’t, real: the mynahs “were only getting ready / To face another day.” And yet, evidently, the world has changed enough in reality that the mynahs have been driven from the city, the familiar suddenly unfamiliar, and merely existing a fight.
Let me revert to the Deborah Digges exercise that I mention above. The trick, so to speak, of this exercise is, as Digges explains, to make the animal described more than itself. One must go beyond merely choosing an animal with strong associations—faithful dog, graceful cat, sly fox, wise owl, thieving magpie and the like—and describing it. The name of the exercise, after all, is “Evolutions,” and thus writers are asked to transform the animal into something not just animal, not just literal, but something metaphorical, symbolic, “other.”
Now, in “Mynah,” the birds take on a meaning greater than what they are literally (which is as close as I’m willing to come to “symbol”): The mynahs bestride a number of divisions: past and present (especially the speaker’s); the speaker’s fractured identity (“Oh, she isn’t one of us. She isn’t a Tamil girl anymore”); the Raj and independence / Indians and Bengalis; even geography – land and sea, city and shore. This is where the poem is at its strongest.
However, the diffuse form of the poem threatens this clarity of theme. The lines tend to meander, then close with an verb-noun-adjective heavy thud (e.g., random stanza = England / confused / humidity / city / says); the stanzas are all predictably end-stopped. Here, reading really well written animal poems suggests ways to improve. For example, one of my favorites of Plath’s poems is “Pheasant,” one of her lesser known works, in part precisely because the poem is about more than “just” the animal that provides the title, and in part because of Plath’s use of form: The unmetered lines and slant rhyme disguise the fact that poem is in fact written in terza rima, the interlocking rhyme of Dante’s Divine Comedy. This is not to suggest that “Mynah” be written in traditional form but rather to argue a tighter control of line.
In the same way, a poem as “baggy”—I mean this in a good sense, as in “capacious”—as this can’t afford looseness of language. For instance, “swish” may work to describe brooms and skirts, but not the sea; “pearlescent” is entirely too self-conscious an adjective to describe a shell; “flora and fauna” is a cliché; “motherfuckers” is gratuitous.
Still, the language – lungi, chana dal, the speaker’s father’s “tick-tickies” for “geckos”—evokes locale without becoming viewy, and it’s this setting readers into a specific place and time, into a specific speaker’s consciousness, that the poem is at its best. I’d like to see an overall tightening that would make the poem “vibrate in the memory,” as Shelley writes, even longer.