“Poems are spells”

By Lora Tomas

16 May 2018

In conversation with poet Subhashini Kaligotla.
'Rooms by the Sea' (1951) by Edward Hopper. Photo by: Yale University Art Gallery

‘Rooms by the Sea’ (1951) by Edward Hopper.
Photo by: Yale University Art Gallery

Subhashini Kaligotla’s debut book of poetry titled Bird of the Indian Subcontinent, which won The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective’s Emerging Poets Prize, was launched in India in January 2018. Kaligotla, a poet and architectural historian of medieval India, currently lives in Berlin and is not new to the Indian poetry scene. Her poems have been published in journals and anthologised, including in two collections of Indian poetry in English: 60 Indian Poets (2008) and The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets (2008), edited by poet Jeet Thayil.

The debut’s cover of a brightly-coloured pheasant on a background strewn with flowers – a detail from a 17th-century painting made for the Deccan’s Golconda court – is contrapuntal to the clear-cut execution of its contents. Kaligotla’s poetry possesses the structural exactness of an Edward Hopper painting – an artist to whose work and life she continues to return in her verses – with a sharpened sense of the fluctuating ‘definedness’ of illuminated surfaces. Experimenting with line breaks and arrangement, cadence and modulation, she makes her longer poems and sequences seem equally effortless as short, incantatory ones like ‘Flying Foxes’ in which sense gives way to sound. This makes her thematically heterogeneous collection technically consistent. “Pay attention to the hard bits, the angular bits… what the soft stuff hangs on to,” she says in one of her poems.

A shifting home

In Bird of the Indian Subcontinent, the notion of home is as elusive as love, while homesickness and lovesickness are often so intertwined that they seem to merge into a single sensation.

Kaligotla was born in South India to a Protestant father and Hindu mother. When she was nine, they left their home in coastal Andhra for Kuwait. In an email conversation with this reviewer, the poet explains that leaving India as a child has left her feeling divided about it.

However, she says that her eight years in West Asia also meant getting a bigger sense of the world, since Kuwait draws expats from many parts of the Arab world, Southasia and the West. “It was, I suppose, my first migration, my first displacement. Or, we could say, using my favourite definition of cosmopolitanism, that it got me to start thinking and acting beyond the local.” At age 16, she went on her own to the United States to study electrical engineering. “Like many Indian kids who are good in science and math, I was pushed towards a lucrative profession,” she says. Having earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s in engineering, she worked in the telecom industry and lived in Chicago, New York, and the San Francisco Bay Area. It was during this time that she began pursuing her interests in writing, the languages, visual art and art history. But it took her ten years to let go of a way of life that did not satisfy her in order to dedicate to them fully.

In 2003, she left her tech job to earn first an MFA in poetry and then a PhD in art history, both at Columbia University in New York City. This move, she says, was a “homecoming” in other ways too, and it led to many kinds of belongings, disciplinary and vocational. In 2015, Kaligotla shifted to Berlin for a postdoc and is now set to take up a teaching appointment at Yale University, starting from July this year.

“Interestingly, paradoxically and perhaps fittingly, the departure from technology led me back to India because at Columbia, I specialised in the Subcontinent’s art history,” the poet adds. “It was eye-opening, actually, for, up to that point, my explorations were predominantly Eurocentric. I still remember how it felt to be in a darkened classroom and see on the screen stunning images of the Sanchi stupa, the Ajanta caves, Pattadakal, the Akbarnama and the Padshahnama, and other Indian monuments and objects. I had not seen most of these places in life, but I was seduced almost instantly. It may sound trite, but there was a kind of recognition and intimacy, and just plain wonder. This period in my life was revelatory, because I had the chance to imagine other trajectories for myself.”

Changing locations so often, the poet isn’t sure she has a “true home” or “native place” anywhere.  Home, in her words, is a continually constructed and reconstructed space, and a constantly shifting one like the self. Still, a longing – or something akin to it – for her country of birth persists in some verses. For instance, in ‘Exile’, the feeling is amplified and transmuted into appetite:

A letter arrives –
still odorous, crushed voile,
of childhood sleep; I tear it to pieces,
taste each one, separately.

“I was thinking of two things here: one, a time before cell phones, Skype and WhatsApp, when we still waited for letters from close ones,” she comments. “I remember how vital they were to my sense of connection and belonging when I was a teenager living in the US in the late 1980s and waiting for letters from my mother. The other memory that is embedded here is a childhood memory that evokes safety and comfort for me – being close to my mother’s body and being enveloped in the soft, voile saris that she used to wear at home.”

'Bird of the Indian Subcontinent', by Subhashini Kaligotla. The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, 2018.

‘Bird of the Indian Subcontinent’, by Subhashini Kaligotla. The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, 2018.

In ‘Freezing Light the Chrysler Building’, the poet is overwhelmed by the smells – of the incense and spices from the Subcontinent – in New York as she writes “odors / I banned years ago from clothes, apartments, and hands, / redouble, rise up.” Both scenes are Proustian: the sensory elicits memories.

“India is certainly my country, despite the poem’s equivocal stance. As is America. As is poetry. As is English. As is visual art,” Kaligotla says, referring to the poem’s italicised syntagm “my country” that’s followed by a question mark:

Why can’t my country – my country?
conduct itself less exuberantly, aloofly,
like Chanel No. 5? Something withheld, say
to lure the lover home.

Despite it being about coldness, indifference, downcast gazes, aimlessness and longing, the poem ‘Letter to New York’, for example, still functions as an affirmation of the poet’s connection to that city. “New York is the place where I have lived the longest,” she says. “It also gave me a sense of cultural and spatial belonging – as much as someone like me can have, that is. In New York, you are amidst a teeming diversity of humanity, while at the same time being anonymous and autonomous, free from the kinds of pressures that other communities impose based upon social milieu, gender, caste, religion or some other identity. Ultimately, because of my many homes – whether in linguistic cultures, vocational streams or social communities – I can be purposeful in what I choose to engage and how. So in this sense, a purposeful or volitional hybridity is also a useful concept besides cosmopolitanism. And not coincidentally, the ‘hybrid’ visual culture of the medieval Deccan is the subject of my first art history book.”

Redefining devotion

By employing the contemporary lingo of desire, the exploration of various forms of devotional worship to a diety or bhakti sentiment as well as the conventions of classical Sanskrit poetry are, for Kaligotla, also a way of probing the modes of masculinity and femininity, and codified relationships (from the Laws of Manu to the convoluted modern-day dating codices). For instance, in ‘Lover Come Back to Me’, a contemporary lovesick nayika (heroine) is confiding in her sakhis (friends):

Friends, I was a fool –

I confused blankness for mystery.
Do you think I want him
any less?

In ‘Portrait of a Marriage’, bhakti bleeds into the verses about artists Jo Nivison and Edward Hopper’s relationship, too, to punctuate the bittersweetness.

During her background research, the poet explains, she learned about the violent, often contentious, nature of their relationship. “He didn’t let her drive, which meant she could not go in search of her own artistic material. Either she had to paint what he painted or abstain. He could be physically abusive, and she complained about the unmitigated loneliness of the relationship because of his reputation for silence and emotional distance. Perhaps the worst violence was done to her work, and to her independence as a creative person in her own right. He dismissed her work and called her ‘a lady flower painter’, and did not acknowledge her support of, and sacrifices for, his art. When they first met, she was an artist working independently and even got him included in a group show at the Brooklyn Museum that garnered him notice. But, as time went on, her physical exertions and time were devoted to supporting his work, and to serving as his maid, model, manager, cook and sex worker. The Whitney Museum, too, echoed the contempt her husband showed for her work by discarding most of her works.

The poet also placed them in the wider framework of questions about relationship, she reveals – about relationships of artists to their ethics, or lack thereof. “We have Picasso on one end of the spectrum – with his numerous partners and his pattern of use and discard – but the spectrum is also occupied by Jo and Edward, Marthe and Pierre Bonnard, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, and Wally Neuzil and Egon Schiele. There are many more poems to be written (what else do I do with all the research!) and I hope there will be more in my second book.”

In the brilliant sequence of poems titled ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, Kaligotla was self-consciously channelling the bhakti poets as well as the American poets who have written in that vein like Louise Glück and Lucie Brock-Broido. She is interested in “the shifting nature of the relationship with the divine and, therefore, the shifting tones that are integral to bhakti: not only ecstasy, erotic longing, reverence and love, but also indifference, hostility, defiance, rage, plaintiveness, querulousness and other ‘negative’ emotions.” Kaligotla’s ‘Lord’ is cast as an emotionally unavailable, narcissistic male who avoids communication and any real involvement, but insists on ritual and performative suffering of his devotees:

So I turn to you, and call…
No answer. Not even the dispatch of an echo.


Talk is cheap, lord, and yours has grown cheaper by the hour.
Similarly, in ‘Portrait of a Marriage’, Jo says:
Talking to him is like dropping a stone
in a well
except there’s no thump
no bottom.

Reflecting on episodes from the Indian epics from a heroine’s or even minor characters’ point of view has proved to work well, not just as a means to delve into their inner lives, but also as a way of tackling social issues – think of poets like Karthika Naïr, Meena Kandasamy, Arundhathi Subramaniam or Shikha Malaviya, to name a few. Kaligotla’s poems ‘Refusing Rāma’ and ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’, written in Sita’s voice, are doing the same. Sita, who wants to forego her role as Rama’s wife and calls herself Ravan’s woman, is opting out of the mainstream narrative.

Kaligotla didn’t draw on any single version of the Ramayana, but says she was very aware of the tradition of many Ramayanas. Not only the Ramayanas in a variety of languages as well as in oral and storytelling traditions, but also as told from the perspectives of women and other underprivileged groups, she adds. She believes that the visual treatments of the story of Rāma, whether as relief sculpture on temple walls (as at Pattadakal or Angkor Wat) or in illustrated manuscripts, were equally important.

The poet applies a feminist lens to storylines of familiar heroes, too. Viewed from a fresh angle, the usual heroics may in fact demonstrate a stark failure of compassion. In his quest for the lightness of being, Siddhartha, much like one of his former incarnations Vessantara, renounces everything including his wife and child. “Why is it men suffer?” the poet asks.

“Interestingly, both poems came out of writing exercises,” she says. “One of my poetry teachers asked us to write a poem that began with the phrase ‘once there was.’ ‘Siddhartha’ came from that prompt while ‘Vessantara’ was an exercise I gave myself. I wanted to see what I could do with the Vessantara story, which is one of the most popular life stories of the Buddha, and is depicted in painting and sculpture across much of the Buddhist world. But I wanted to do it without going into too many narrative details and telling much of the ‘story’. In looking at the two poems now and within the context of this manuscript, I like how both poems are tackling one of this book’s obsessions: the theme that centres around the ‘why men are such dogs?’ question.”

The body and the old masters

Kaligotla is perhaps at her best when engaging in dialogue with the paintings of the old masters, when treating the way they treat the body, male or female. The poet’s response to El Greco’s painting The Crucifixion with Two Donors through the incisive verses of ‘Lepidoptera’ delivers the Christ as a body in pain, pairing him with pinned blue morpho butterflies encased in glass in a shop. ‘Ascent to Calvary’, after Hieronymus Bosch’s Christ Carrying the Cross, questions the artist’s polarisation of the body and spirit in favour of the latter and, ultimately, sides with the body. The poet offers the artist “two choices. Let the right hand hold body is all; / let the left hand hold body is all. The music should be rousing.”

The poet’s interest in writing about visual art had existed even before she began studying art history formally, she says. It had come about through reading ekphrastic poems, which describe a work of art. Those that she admired dealt with the old (European) masters. “Some poems made a big impact, and I can still see them and hear them; they are a kind of echo or sonic backdrop for me; they are touchstones that I go back to for their sound, sense and imagery. [W H] Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts, [Rainer Maria] Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo, Wislawa Szymborska’s Two Monkeys by Brueghel and the poems in Jorie Graham’s Dream of the Unified Field.”

What is it about this kind of poem that draws her in, though? For one thing, she says, the ekphrastic brings together her two loves: visual art and poetry. “It allows me to talk about myself, but obliquely. It allows me to explore questions, issues and arguments. Or a different way to put it: it allows for so many different kinds of poetic modes – lyric, narrative, discursive, metaphysical, conversational, dramatic monologue, persona. It is challenging, and I love a challenge. It gets me to look closely. It’s certainly a bonus that I get to research and learn about the maker and the period in which she or he is working. It gets me to connect the processes of visual artists with those of poets and writers. I could keep going…”

As she learned more about the visual worlds besides the European canon, Kaligotla began to engage with them, too. While not expressly stated, several of her poems, for instance, take their cue from Indian visual art – painting, sculpture and architecture. ‘In Brindavan Woods’ draws on Kangra paintings of Krishna and Radha, ‘Vessantara’ owes much to Buddhist visual culture and ‘Fear of Flying’ came about partly from her fieldwork in India as an architectural historian. “As far as the fascination with the body goes, that is an obsession regardless of the kind of poem I write,” Kaligotla adds. “It is probably more fair to say that the interest in the body leads to the choice of painting or artwork about which I choose to write.”

Returning to a ‘Portrait of a Marriage”, Nivison, who was always posing for her husband’s nudes, feels her body is being “pimped” and is not hers. The poem is followed by ‘Invitation to View Her’, a rhythmical description of a woman in dialogue with a print titled Beauty in Front of a Mirror by the 18th-century Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro, who is known for his pictures of beauties, which is explained in the book’s notes.

In response to this reviewer’s question about the difference between the two gazes/poems, Kaligotla explains: “The two poems as enacting a kind of show-and-tell – of women’s bodies in art made by male artists – but in reverse order: telling first, as in Jo’s dialogue in ‘Portrait of a Marriage’, and then showing through the woman in Utamaro.” It was her editor Ellen Kombiyil who had suggested that the poems be included together and thereby helped save ‘Invitation to View Her’, which the poet had thrown on to the discard pile.

Nivison was a model for all the female figures in her husband’s work, says Kaligotla, regardless of age, social situation or occupation. “They scouted for material together, they created the characters that you see in his paintings. Together. It was very much a collaborative process,” she continues. “It was her body that he transformed to create these paintings, it was her body that was called into service for his art. And he did transform her body – changed the colour of the hair, made the breasts bigger, firmer, pinker, exaggerated the hips, made her younger, older, taller, thinner, fuller and so on… But as Gail Levin asks, was Edward Hopper transforming his wife or erasing her?”

Kaligotla’s book is certainly a tribute to the body and the ways in which the body translates into a body of artwork. According to the poet, one of the ways to do it is by being attentive to all the senses. She explains that “it is ubiquitous – whether I am looking at the beloved, city or natural world, or myth and history. Since I am an art historian, I’m already sensitive to the visual, but the poems are also attentive to sound and music, tastes and smells, and a haptic perception of space. I suppose it’s only through the body that we know the beloved, and it is only through walking and flâneuring that we know the city.”

Still, the latter might be less feasible in certain places, even less so for women. “Impossible” in New York, writes the poet, for “everything hurries” there. “In her analysis of [Virginia] Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Rebecca Solnit argues that artistic freedom is not simply a matter of having the ‘gift of time and space’ as the cliché goes,” Kaligotla says. “That is, it is not just about having the material resources to devote yourself to artistic production, but about having the freedom to wander, to roam intellectually, socially, sexually and spatially. Historically, women have not had the freedom to be flâneurs. So yes, flâneuring was and is easier – and, in fact, possible – for the Baudelaires, Benjamins and Kolatkars.”

On craft, poetics and influences

Explicitly political in some of her poems and implicitly in others, Kaligotla addresses prejudices and dogmas of all kinds. In ‘Reading Akhmatova’, she defends writing about the personal – like cataloguing love relationships gone sour, as opposed to the imperative of “loftier” and more self-effacing subject matter: “Poetry ought to offer / more than chronicles of the men / who left me.” This position is somewhat similar to Maggie Nelson’s in her 2009 collection of poetical “propositions” called Bluets, whose seamless fusing of the philosophical, the literary, the artistic and the private corresponds to Kaligotla’s sensibilities. In fragment 187 of the volume, Nelson asks: “Is it a related form of aggrandisement, to inflate a heartbreak into a sort of allegory?” For Nelson, a heartbreak was an impetus for the book – the process of aggrandisment of a personal loss seems to be, paradoxically, the means of abating it. In ‘Green Villa’, Kaligotla will conclude: “You left me a world when you left –”. It is this imposed widening of focus that both of them are making use of.

In ‘Reading Plato’, the speaker explores distaste for the “mot juste” – the apollonian or patriarchal impulse to eschew appropriate – and, in some cases, tabooed – words such as “pregnant” or “menstruation” in favour of the ones dictated by propriety, but further from the phenomena they are pointing to (“thrice removed from truth”, like Plato’s ideals from reality). This attempt to divorce the conceptual from the corporeal renders language anaemic, the poet implies. Likewise, in fragment 181, Nelson notes that “while he talks plenty about love, Plato does not say much about fucking.”

In Kaligotla’s case, hunting for the right word sometimes takes years, she says, explaining that it is “not only for the right language but also for the right form.” Yet, she is “a big believer in revision. However, this doesn’t mean I don’t respect the poem’s ‘trigger’ – whether that be a line, image, feeling, question or event. Some triggers lead to poems, others do not. We should also speak about the poems that are willed into existence for which the trigger is an intellectual interest in the subject, and which come from serious research and inquiry. Regardless of how I arrive there, though, revision has been essential to making the poems. That’s how I try to be a good editor of my own work, to see my work as though it were written by someone else.”

Finally, it comes down to craft. Asked about the difference between the autobiographical and confessional, the poet explains that, in one sense, all her work is autobiographical, even her work in art history – as it is her preoccupations and her interests that drive the material, and writing choices. “That tends to be true for most of us,” she continues. “And I don’t find the term ‘confessional’ all that helpful as it does a disservice to poetry and elides vast differences in poetics and enormous differences in craft. It flattens oeuvres and ignores the unique resources that each poet brings to the sculpting and musculature of a poem. It also ignores the fictive in poetry – as if poems were faithful transcriptions of the writer’s biography. By this reckoning, Sylvia Plath and Rupi Kaur are doing the same thing.”

Being a poet who draws inspiration from various sources – especially, although not solely, visual – it doesn’t surprise one that some of the scenes in this collection are conveyed from a cinematographer’s perspective. In ‘Sydney Notebook’, she talks about a couple who fights all day “unmoved by light” and of “the glowing vertices” that “reached all / the way to the door” when “the entire lucent geometry collapsed.” It reminds one of Hopper’s Rooms by the Sea (1951). “It would be interesting to think about how poetry enacts chiaroscuro and what visual artists call value through repetition, rhythm, rhyme, syntax and other linguistic means,” she adds.

Her dialogue with Hopper’s work began when she first saw his Morning in a City (1944) at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City. “The painting and the figure of the lone woman with a snatch of the city before her stayed with me,” she says. “In retrospect, I realise that I was drawn to the stark juxtapositions of this painting and Hopper’s other works. In one sense, there is abundance. There is a woman’s body shown off in its perfection and physical beauty – shapely breasts and buttocks, strong legs, and shiny, lush hair. But, as I say in the poem, ‘there is no invitation here’ neither from the woman – her expression is blank and she is turned away from the viewer – nor from her surroundings. The room is unornamented: it is adequate for her needs, but it is not comforting or, god forbid, luxurious. The same is true of Hopper’s treatment of the building, the sky and the room’s other furnishings. It was that sense of alienation that drew me to this work and his other works. They are peopled by creatures and objects, and yet unpeopled. There is so much absence.”

Indian poetic heritage has been vital to her as well, particularly the premodern period. Kaligotla admits that she can’t get enough of the many and diverse “tellings” of the Ramayana, and that she is absolutely in awe of, and grateful for, the elasticity and capaciousness of this tradition. “I like that I can intervene in this discourse and add my voice to this incredibly heterogeneous chorus,” she says. “It is gratifying to know that I will be understood by my audience without creating context and narrative, and without heavy exposition. I can sing my own idiosyncratic song as Sita, and can count on readers to bring their myriad understandings of her emotional experience, from so many different strands that are alive and active in the culture.”

She also admires Sangam poetry, which she came to know through A K Ramanujan’s translations, and has been deeply affected by Bhakti poetry in Tamil, Telugu, Hindi and Kannada (again, read in translation). The uncanny language and imagery of the Jahangirnama, as she says, have piqued her curiosity recently, and she is now considering ways of incorporating it into her second book of poems.

Kaligotla reveals that, for her, creative stimuli come from vocal jazz too. “In fact, it locates poetry in the body, as well as in sound and the individual’s idiosyncratic and particular expression of emotion,” she continues. “That’s why we respond to a poet giving voice to her poems in a reading: we finally hear the poem’s intonations and inflections, its stresses and rhythms, and its music as it were. And this music reaches us through the body’s sensory apparatus. This is why I hear Billie Holiday’s flirtatious drawl when I think of ‘Them There Eyes’, Nina Simone’s threatening delivery when I think of ‘I Put a Spell on You’ and only Etta James’ mournful rendition of ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’.”

“Poems are spells, and they are songs and incantations, prayers and praises, laments and dirges, and curses and complaints,” Kaligotla concludes.

~Lora Tomas is an indologist from Croatia. She co-edited and co-translated into Croatian two anthologies of contemporary Indian writing.

An earlier version of the article had an error in the description of the book’s cover. The article has been updated.

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