At the beginning of February, eleven months after the campus scattered last spring, I returned to Wellesley College to finish out my senior year. What, for so long, had seemed an uncrossable distance—the three thousand miles between my dorm and my childhood bedroom, the abrupt truncation of experience, the break in time—suddenly closed, and still the wound remained: a distance in and of itself.
Sumita Chakraborty and I happen to share an alma mater and its corresponding poetic lineage. Frank Bidart, from whom Chakraborty’s debut collection Arrow (Alice James Books, 2020) receives both its epigraph and its title, once wrote that “LOVE IS THE DISTANCE / BETWEEN YOU AND WHAT YOU LOVE.” It stands to reason that Arrow is a monumental study of distance, a geography of the wound—in other words, a topography of love.
Chakraborty’s book opens with Bidart’s own mentor, Robert Lowell, traversing the grounds of Boston’s Public Garden. In “Marigolds,” Lowell’s wound—the “gurgle of illness”—becomes the narrator’s as she, in turn, “smell[s] illness in the riotous orchid blooms.” While its specific contours differ from life to life, the landscape of pain is something we inherit and collectively inhabit; so too is the language we use to describe it. Chakraborty’s speakers tend to express their pain in terms of physical displacement: “We are looking for you, say the kettles of satellites / to the humans lost, to the plane / disappeared.” Every wound is a story of distance—between the satellites and the disappeared, the seeker and the sought, the elegizer and the elegized.
With its cosmic landscapes and chasmic scale, Arrow is a contemporary epic: a narrative of deep personal feeling that takes on universal—at times, mythic—proportions. Rather than following the relatively petty exploits of gods and heroes, Chakraborty tracks the mountainous range of human pain through her speakers’ wounds. “Dear, beloved,” a sweeping, devastating elegy with a direct line to Hesiod’s Theogony, casts “each ailing” as “a previously undiscovered moon orbiting a planet.” Like its forerunner, it is a tale of birth and transformation—transfigured by grief and sleeplessness, the speaker sees herself as “different / creatures: gibbons, a chicken with a plucked-feather neck,” then as features of the world of her mourning: “an asteroid, a mountain, a volcano with the thinnest / and most translucent shell.”
This world of “rock and high altitude,” of sorrow and separation, is a world scaled to Chakraborty’s language of myth. “The definition of myth is noun,” she writes, “the idea that any one creature can ever hear another.” It is that distance—the limit of understanding and communication, the space between us—that constitutes the fundamental mythic tragedy: the vast expanse the epic navigates by blowing up the facts of our mortality to monumental proportions.
Several shorter poems scattered throughout Arrow are titled “O Spirit”—each one an invocation across space, an extended bridge. They bookend “Dear, beloved,” physically and thematically buttressing the massive columnar narrative. Together, they compose a network of supporting fables that guides us through the terrain of Chakraborty’s unfathomable worlds. Yet as these poems establish paths through the text, they simultaneously trace their own structural instabilities. “I have not been able to build the etymology of love,” she writes. “The word, in its weight, is an eclipse.” The sheer scale of our emotions—the weight of meaning our language holds—eclipses the words we have to receive them.
Another installment demands “Tell me the origin story of pain, / And tell me what happens to pain as it ages.” Arrow positions itself in light of these requests: the collection is both an origin story of pain and a stratification of the different forms it assumes over time. In a fundamentally massive way, pain ossifies into new topographies that Chakraborty’s speakers must wound anew. “Essay on the Order of Time,” the first of several proselike “Essays” that explore the collection’s subterranean metaphysics, offers “an explication by way of analogy:”
I am composed of cysts that are made of dead blood. If they are excised, they return. If a hole is cracked into one and the blood spooned out, the shell will refill. Not all of them are made of dead blood. At least one will turn into rock, and that will be the one that will need at all costs to be scaled and defaced. It will then become something new, and, if the alteration is successful, it will become the same as what it once was.
It is only after becoming monolithic—and being destroyed—that the wound, the site of our deepest pain, can return to its original nature. Against the overwhelming landscape of grief, the very destructive impulse that drives us to dig into our own blood-filled cysts can become oddly comforting. In “Windows,” a poem after Rilke’s “Les Fenêtres,” Chakraborty writes:
does not frighten me anymore, because it cradles me
Whether they want to wound or be wounded, many of Arrow’s speakers crave this blunt instrument of force. In “Marigolds,” the speaker wants to “let the mares stampede the glass, / bid them trample my body,” then commands us to “Watch, from a great distance, as the glass cracks. / Watch us beasts entangle.” This is a death wish at the same time as it is a wish for collision, for contact, for the monumental pain of “inconsolable space” to give way to the intimate pain of closeness.
These collisions drive Arrow’s eponymous final poem, which opens in the voice of Nyx, the primordial goddess of the night whose birth we remember from the annals of “Dear, beloved.” This time, she narrates her own origin story: “I enlarged the figure till it was a mountain—I do not fear the sublime— / and I cut off its head.” The poem’s stanzas are scattered across pages, cosmically separated by a series of small graphics suggestive of waxing and waning moons. In one of these stanzas, we bear witness to Arrow’s last mythic transformation—the speaker confesses “My love is my utter, final shift.”
Here, Chakraborty masterfully turns back toward the epic as she confronts the fundamental question of scale. It is the enlargement of the figure that renders it mountainous, and therefore vulnerable to Nyx’s exercise of force: likewise, it is the enlargement of the wound—the geographic expansion of sorrow and pain, but also of love—that begins to make its landscape habitable, its distance consolable.
An arrow is, of course, a species of weapon: the original instrument of injury, the wound’s fundamental story of genesis. But the word arrow also serves as a verb—as Chakraborty remarks, “we arrow from times of grief into— / well, into more such times.” An arrow traverses distance, regardless of what may lie on either side. An arrow is both the architect of a wound and the mechanism of its crossing.
“Finally, she enlarges the figure to a grand / scale, and cuts off its head.”