Photo by Jonathan Self

Poet, novelist, and dancer Tishani Doshi was born in Madras, India, to Welsh and Gujarati parents. She is the author of six books of poetry and fiction, and has been honored with an Eric Gregory Award and an All-India Poetry Prize. Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods was published by HarperCollins in South Asia, Bloodaxe Books, Ltd. in the United Kingdom, and Copper Canyon Press in the United States. Doshi lives with her husband and dogs on a beach in Tamil Nadu, India.

Considering Motherhood While Falling Off a Ladder in Rome

In the Via della Scala in Rome,

in one of those apartments

tourists dream of owning,

I walked down a ladder

in my underwear,

with a bottle in one hand

and an apple in the other.

And when I fell,

it was with turbulence,

with knowledge,

that every rib of shame

would smash against the floor,

that ambivalence was primeval.

Later, when we walked

across the Tiber to bring

your son home from school,

we paused to watch birds

in the sky—starlings

in the thousands.

And I could not explain

that it was the beating

of their wings,

the murmurations,

that were a kind of drowning.

That I too would chew

at the bark

of life, if it would

bequeath me fire.

It was November,

the season of death,

and the river moved darkly

between her banks,

the birds flew from sycamore

to sycamore like tapestry,

flood. And every epiphany

that has since arrived

has yielded only in breath,

tempestuous, forbidden breath.

"Considering Motherhood While Falling Off a Ladder in Rome" is from Doshi's third collection of poems, Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods, published in HarperCollins India (Sept. 2017), Bloodaxe Books Ltd., UK (Jan. 2018), and Copper Canyon Press, USA (Oct. 2018).

Your voice brings an awareness to the body that is sensual as well as political. In Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods, how do you see your individual transmuting what surrounds you politically?

Much of my experience of body has come through seventeen years of being a dancer. The powers. The limitations. If you lay over that the prism of being a woman in India, living in these dichotomous times, where we have never had such freedom as we do (some of us), against the staggering violence done to us (India ranks as the most dangerous country in the world for women according to a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey), then it becomes impossible not to transmute. You begin with yourself. Then you turn outwards. When it comes to the body I’m always alternating between wonderment and fear, and I think one of the things I’ve tried to do in my poems is to gather strength in the bodies of others, which is why—river of girls, girls coming out of the woods, women gathered in bath houses, all the unsmiling portraits of women in museum galleries….. There is strength in the collective. Striking out solo is possible, and necessary, but it’s a dangerous task. And I suppose living with this danger, with pluck and joy, is what I’m trying to negotiate in all my work.

My pleasure of reading you was enhanced because of the formal freedom that you allow your poems to progress and move. You often create scenarios, concrete and tangible, before veering away into the strange and unknown. The use of language through these quick transitions is unexpected and playful, but also violent and destabilizing. You’re not only ushering into someplace new but also, it seems to me, are guided by a deep necessity to dislodge the meaning of the word, reconfigure the order of the world.

Thank you! I often begin with concrete images, which act as triggers or starting points for poems, and what happens then is that through the writing of the poem there’s a leaping away—and this is the mysterious, wonderful thing about poetry. It has this surreal trampoline effect, and is able to generate wild movement with minimal efforts to wrists and knees. Language is the vehicle that drives the poem forward, but there is also mood, and altering of mood. I want the reader to begin with one feeling and end with something completely different.

Your voice often soars and becomes so truthful that the fine seams between the disparate become luminous and visible. I am thinking of these beautiful lines from “Disco Biscuits”:

The church at the corner folding in on itself,

a vagrant fiddling with the pleats of his loincloth. Even

the lampposts are desperate to tuck in their ungainly feet.

The city and her persiflage. The acres of burning sand.

Listen now, as the wind caterwauls like a deranged megaphone.