The Intrinsic Weakness of Knees and Other Poems

    by Satya Dash

    Olfactory Games

    In the corridor on the ground
    floor, the dog smelling the orange

    to sniff out its intentions as if a shrunk
    planet had landed in sinister disguise

    on earth. Right above, on the first
    floor, the door snuck out of its loose latch

    letting a longitude of light ornament
    your shy calves. You rose, heaped up the medley

    of clothes lying on the floor like urchin stars
    banished from the ceiling and launched them

    into the laundry bin. And then suddenly
    remembering, you fumble through the pile

    to find a black vest, veil your face with it,
    smelling its fabric worn by your beloved last

    night. You’re hungry but your stomach is so
    full you can’t eat. You wear the black vest

    underneath a black shirt and go to work.
    You wait till sunset to have your breakfast.

    ***

    Movie Night

    In the garden, we saw a cat flex its body to take a shit. It watched us watching it. The awkwardness dissolved when there came the notorious sound of early morning traffic from its anus. In the cab back home, with the kind of self-assured poise we had seen the cat demonstrate, you opened two of my shirt buttons, unbuckled my belt. The night shifted moods. Saliva came running unabashed towards every milestone on that long tryst of a road. You said you wanted a mirror on the bedroom ceiling for a top-view of us making love. When the doorbell rang, I couldn’t find my clothes. Wrapped up in a blanket to hide my erection, I opened the door. A feather. A newspaper. An eviction notice. Things had a velocity I was struggling to keep up with. My coping mechanism was watching movies and going to the beach. On full-moon night to my surprise, the waves didn’t dare touch the rocks. The rare hare on the surface of the moon waned into extinction when you decided to leave the city. Who was I going to suffer for now? The river in the town dried up after I set my tongue to its water. It became in the day a graveyard of leaves, moonlighting seasonally as a bonfire alley. To blame for these disasters was the cursed heat of my mouth. When the leaves were burnt, their mint green veins melted into a rare iridescent ink by virtue of which most of the graffiti in the town was painted. There were anecdotes scribbled on the walls. One episode elucidated the time I waited for coffee, freezing under the rapid blades of the colossal ceiling fans at Goa airport’s boarding gates, when you called to wish: Happy Birthday. I was hearing your voice for the first time in years. Shivering, I mumbled—thank you. My birthday came three days later. Of course, we celebrated again.

    ***

    The Intrinsic Weakness of Knees 

    Lying low and mysterious like tombs
    Of bone, my knees invite glances of intrigued eyes
    When in a game of truth (and dare), to the question
    Of which body part in you would you want to replace
    With an improved version, I say I’d like to have
    Sturdier knees, and I’m immediately asked— for what?
    For running marathons, I say, carefully avoiding letting fly
    The possibilities of kneeling better at prayer or durability
    While making love, all the while loathing my instinct
    To say something odd or controversial in a public setting.
    Here in the rockiest part of Karnataka, the walls turn hot
    From the traversal of lizards, the floor lubricious
    From the spilled alcohol of styrofoam cups we had
    Earlier used to play beer pong, the little table-tennis balls
    Floating and rising like amber night suns supplying faint
    Light towards the inordinate whims of our hands and tongues.
    From the kitchen a mutton curry aroma greasing the air thick,
    Tantalizing for the tingly nerve that loves to lick, always alert
    To the strong-scented, to release on-demand a dramatic sneeze.
    Early morning, on a trek, before we reach the summit, a friend
    Whose apparel e-commerce business has recently boomed
    Tries to inspire— don’t let the fire of wanting to be recognized
    Overpower the fire of wanting to do something special, he says.
    My approving knees nod, quivering slow from the arduous climb.
    Atop the hill, looking down, all around I see fields of snoozing
    Rocks, scattered and watery in May’s shaky heat, eagles drawing
    Close sometimes, soaring regal over this exhibition of knees.

    ***

                              2021

    In a slow motion video,                my sneezing face
                               is an abyss                    seized by light and water.
                                          It’s a turning point
    for my shutterbug friend’s                        confidence. I loosen
    my shoulders
                                    to hug him tight,    feel the nest of his ribs
                                              humming                                the hope

    of a post-lockdown
    world. I am happy to contribute         to the renaissance
    of his creative juices,              just like I was                 to forge

    my father’s signature              to send you a prescription,
    the antibiotic working like a charm,                coaxing every night

    the frosty orchard of your sore throat                  into slow bloom,
    the seductive fruit                                of your words
    yellowing by the minute.

                           Your sickness aside, there is nothing I fear more
                           than my criticism of something
                           just because that something                   isn’t like me.

    My father cusses over the phone              and in anger, I spit
    at the wild berries
                                             imploring my paralyzed mouth.
    In the moments just after anger, my tongue, winged and arrowed,
                      is grateful to be rooted                 to the floor of the mouth
    where most of my longing lives,                        sharing space
    with a few syllables
                                              of prayer I have somehow not forgotten.

    Unexpressed feelings are unforgettable, says a poet
    in a Tarkovsky movie, the dense fog
                                               of his liquored breath
    settling over a swamp                              inside a derelict church.

                             Where’s the altar       where desire burns?
                             Inside the chest        or back of the throat?

                                          Across the country,
                                                                       ash makes small anthills

    of mercy overlooking pools of grief,
    the riverbeds speckled            with shallow graves,
                                                         rivers swollen                with bones.

    Time has stopped                            and yet there’s no time to process.

    Cumulous clouds                   of untimely monsoon

    foam into elephants                         inside my hallucinating mouth.
                                                                                               I wake

    with chills for a month, start praying
                               to a layer of exposed brickwork
                                                      in a corner of my room’s wall.
    During an evening storm, windows
                                                                of the city’s apartments spill
                                long shadow,
                                                 dark wind.
    I light a candle and its legacy
                                                          is the memory of your face.
    In the center of the flame, lips
                                                                                        part.

    I can’t tell if you’re smiling.

    Do you want to say something?

    Do you want me to say something?

    ***

    The night of four seasons

    March comes with the ghosts of winter
    collapsing on my bed, orphaned and fragrant

    as petals torn, rolled and crushed
    with wet thumbs. To my washing machine, I feed

    the bed sheet twice, the pillow covers thrice. And yet, a wetness
    grows velvet on the back of my neck like the persisting

    touch of the towel we drape across our backs
    lying on the terrace. Beneath the moon being slowly

    fashioned by the evening, naked. When you howl, it cracks
    me up; I hurt my stomach cackling. The ground appears raised

    like a coffin to receive the body of work
    known as mutual pleasure. Stars gleaming

    like newly minted coins nodding their shine
    at the starkness of our wealth. The sandwiches go

    soggy in the rain. Your lips part
    the fog in the morning. Around us lie

    leaves in the shape of a word our gummy
    tongues are too astonished to spell.

    ***


    Do you ever look at your own hands

    and wonder what’s wrong with them? Among the more vivid
    embarrassments of my life, ones that insist on staying relevant

    in the mind’s passive engine, is a failure of mine to connect
    a flash drive to a CPU in a jam-packed lecture theater, the professor

    assuming I had completed the menial task successfully, waiting
    for the icon to show up on screen to begin his presentation. A friend

    sensing my trouble, volunteered to help and slotted frictionless
    the candy bar of a machine, much to my dismay, right into its

    port. This was a decade back in engineering undergrad, when I was starting
    to understand machines, when I was starting to understand my body,

    when I was starting to understand after a brief limerence here,
    an infatuation there—there is no understanding attraction. My hands

    here too: sites of turmoil, the wrists in lonely prayer in my hostel room
    wringing the only four lines of verse I knew in Sanskrit, the palms glassy

    with Goa’s beady coastline sweat when I wondered why I was always sinking
    in love and never quite falling in it, a voice from the medulla tickling my

    nape when the one I liked sauntered into class, the voice offering a nippy
    hymn in resignation to the turbulence of fast youth: oh dear, here we go again.

    The same voice, in an entirely different context, rears its squeaky head—here
    we go again—when my phone refuses to charge. At the only Apple servicing

    center in the state, I wait in the queue for a couple of hours, reminding
    myself it is fascinating how so many folks are having trouble with their

    iPhones at this very instant in their lives. After the executive has a look,
    he asks, your battery is done, do you want to replace it? When I ask if I have

    a choice, he slides slyly across to me the latest model: you can always
    buy a new phone. He almost winks. I almost snigger. At home, I clean

    the possible buildup of invisible debris in the phone’s lightning
    port. After a heartwarming surge, the new battery gets stuck

    at 47%, leaving me uncompensated for the day’s hard
    work. How sad that a machine manages to break

    my heart. Such hope for validation hinged on this hardware marvel,
    the software running through its guts and bones honed every hour

    by engineers working in another hemisphere—it’s obvious
    evidence of our accomplishment as a species—but to distill fixation

    from achievement is something that hasn’t quite intrigued us
    the same way. The phone suffers as long as I do. My species will

    suffer long after I have stopped suffering. Breaking news pops up
    on my phone—ALERT: NASA predicts record global flooding

    due to lunar wobbles. My phone battery heats up a little
    and underneath I presume, the sea-level rises a little. How this dark blue isle

    of an old battery must have aged, little by little, over so many years. Any
    daily variation unremarkable, the cumulative ordained to be

    fatal. I used to prefer a cocktail called Apocalypse over tequila shots
    at a favorite bar on karaoke nights, believing it made my voice less

    melancholic, more mellow. Now, I’m tired of that word.
    I haven’t been to a bar in two years. My father has

    never been to one, or so he says. I watch him drape
    a wound on my mother’s knee with a band-aid. Reinvigorated,

    while cooking she adds extra cornstarch to the chickpea
    curry. She knows I like the gravy thick. The next morning,

    I wake up to a cloud in the window, disintegrating
    while passing. I glance at the battery

    bar on my phone, blinking blood
    red, almost drained out. Remembering

    the slots open today for booking my parents’
    vaccination appointment, I leap for the charger.

    Satya Dash is a recipient of the Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize and a finalist for the Broken River Prize. His poems appear in Ninth Letter, Denver Quarterly, Poet Lore, Prairie Schooner, Cincinnati Review, and Diagram, among others. Apart from having a degree in electronics from BITS Pilani-Goa, he has been a cricket commentator. He has been nominated previously for Pushcart, Nina Riggs Poetry Award, Orison Anthology and Best New Poets. He grew up in Cuttack and now lives in Bangalore, India.

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