Amid her ten-week speaking tour in India advocating birth control in 1936, American sex educator Margaret Sanger debated the morality of the pill’s use with Mohandas Gandhi, who was then over two decades into his vow of celibacy. “I am convinced,” Sanger wrote in her journal after the conversation (digitally archived on the NYU site), “his personal experience at the time of his father’s death was so shocking and self-blamed that he can never accept sex as anything good, clean or wholesome.” Gandhi, who was no stranger to self-awareness, admitted in his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, that he regretted leaving his dying father’s bedside to have intercourse with his wife.
“How else can I explain why I over- / loved every boyfriend after her / with a fondness reserved only for mothers,” writes Preeti Vangani in Mother Tongue Apologize (RLFPA Editions) winner of the RL Poetry Award 2017 (India). The poem “Relationship Status” reveals a crucial moment in the narrator’s life that coincides with her mother’s death. I don’t have Sanger’s authority to pronounce its revelation a psychological breakthrough, but I can assert poetically that the poem holds together the book’s two laterally opposite themes of loss and sexual turmoil like a knotted spine.
Mother Tongue Apologize is a collection of poems studying desire and guilt, pleasure and grief, and optimism and dread, all as dualities, and Vangani’s examination of the interplay between these phenomena is skillful, brutally honest, or both. I am reminded of a line in Good Will Hunting, when a psychotherapist played by Robin Williams touchingly admits he slept “sitting up in the hospital room for two months,” holding his late wife’s hand, “because the doctors could see in [his] eyes, that the terms visiting hours don’t apply to [him].” Of course, a collection of poems about loss due to cancer and surviving cancerous guilt is bound to include trips to the hospital. Rather than obscure the impact through imaginative titling, Vangani sticks to calling all of these poems “Visiting Hours,” which serve as the book’s somber refrain. For example, one such poem:
Soot covered poster
hangs in Oncology:
Is your Love insured
As poet Robert Archaembeau (who co-chairs the Poets’ Prize committee and gave Mother Tongue Apologize its high honor) rightly notes in the Foreword, not only does Vangani’s book “honor her mother,” but it also “yearns for a world larger than that which her mother was not permitted to inhabit.” The author’s longing manifests in her formalistic ambitions, whereas the grief poems are one column confessionals, Sharon Olds-style, the experimental poems showcase a tension between suffering and the oppression of letting oneself suffer. For instance, the list poem, “Shorthand: Violence” (published under a different title in Boston Accent Lit), shows the narrator in scenarios with a drunk father, a partner refusing sex, and suicidal thoughts concluding with “e. Deprivation / All of the above,” carrying the Lars Von Trier-esque implication that “not suffering” feels much worse.” Prose poems like “Fair Trade” and “Dog: Language: Experts” are delightful sleights of hand, deploying erasure, tonal shifts and explosive language to expose the narrator’s plight at once sarcastically and sincerely through lines:
I thought my cunt was big & fertile
enough a hole to grow stability &
post-sex-sighs, you are talented baby but you need an
anchor. I want to give him some life-changing advice
too. It’s called use your……..on my clit instead. But
I need an anchor, friends. Not him, not him.”
Next, especially for readers of this publication that also prize visual art, I present the aesthetic pleasures of the poem “I Chart” with no need for qualification or comment:
I do agree with Archaembeau’s praise for Vangani’s “formal adventurousness,” which leads to fruitful discoveries in the language of grief. On the other hand, I also find myself pondering the meaningfulness of experimenting with form in a collection that not only relates to Baraka’s “Black Art,” but also carries its own version of the iconic line, “Poems are bullshit.”
Baraka’s work is a research focus of mine, where I am interested in comparing his poems with the literature of my father’s people, the Dalits (“Untouchables”) in India. Vangani’s Mother Tongue Apologize crosses paths with Dalit experience through two striking poems that shine a light on a horrifying incident of rape and murder in 2014. One, called “Crime Scene Picture,” is just twelve words, five of those annotated, making it the first poem I have read wherein the poetry lies in the footnotes, giving new meaning to the concept of subtext in televised events. Moreover, Vangani’s narration of her viewing experience in third person is incredibly self-aware as she writes, “hand hovering over the mute button as she wonders: is a woman’s body a portrait or landscape?” However, just as America has lost count of the number of police officers shooting unarmed black people, so have India with Dalit lynchings, which are an everyday occurrence. Consequently, as Baraka writes, “Fuck poems / and they are useful, would they shoot,” I wonder how useful it is to play with how the poem’s lines appear on the page if they won’t take the shape of something that can fire back at these never-ending hate crimes.
Even when articulating her own grief, Vangani is most moving in those confessionals that aren’t deliberate form experiments, as you can see for yourself—here’s “Admission,” which charmed Threepenny Review’s Wendy Lesser; “Genealogy,” which contains the glorious line, “my pain / is a moving target”; and “Unremember,” which gets the reader to feel fondly about “the hot of the rexine” on hospital beds. Stacked in tercets, “Second Guessing,” the poem in which Vangani writes “nothing to write about” when nurses changed her then-comatose mother’s pillows, takes the ashen tone I saw in poet Bob Hicok’s response to the Virginia Tech Massacre (he still teaches there).
Nonetheless, as Sanger ascribed Gandhi’s problematic opinions on sexuality to his father’s death, so I am compelled to connect Vangani’s misadventures, regrettable romantic pursuits, and self-aware trappings in guilt-apology-redemption cycles to the loss of her mother. The poet herself discovers that her mother’s death is chiefly responsible for the lack of personhood she feels when trying to please partners through piercing her belly-button, asking if they want her “turned around,” and saying they can “come inside” despite her disinclination. And as fierce as she is when she derides poems for not compensating for “the missing credit of 21 cents for every dollar in her salary / slip” or making “female compromises [melt] like butter / & scotch,” reading and writing poetry surely can provide the epiphany that could lead to eventual healing, which I like to believe that crafty, cuttingly sincere, and supremely kind Vangani experienced during the course of writing this important introspective work.