Your Voice is Not a Slice and Other Poems

    by Rahana K. Ismail

    Mothers Deal with Termites like Time

    The almirah is eaten shut
    by insatiable voracity
    this world is
    in the universe
    of termite mouths. My mother
    recounts scorpions
    of termite bites,
    antness of their hurry,
    blind vultures in their hunger
    to gulp down order
    like distorting convexities
    our lives pose
    through the phone.
    I can’t
    hear you, I say.
    Amid what’s lost
    in transmission, she is counting
    for me the times she walked down
    holding mountains
    of half-eaten sarees
    she is burning with kerosene.
    I am
    taking a break, she says
    between one round of burning
    and a fierier one after our phone call
    ends and I go to fix myself
    something to eat.



    Formic Acid

    Surely they have multiplied.

    From I-can’t-keep-leftover-dosa-open-on-a-plate
    to Lock & Lock containers with leakproof lids
    in my more frequent Nesto carts and our greige walls
    splintering up like attic mirrors. You notice them first
    in your house; diligently name them
    by color, size, eyemuzzlelegs. I note the sting;
    how each needles in, how each percolates connective tissue,
    how each stays unrequited
    in a pool of feigned ignorance,
    a willful disregard to understanding.
    Mealy-mouthed, we never draw up words
    from the cabbage rings of our wells. We swim like frogs,
    skin-breathing, veiling the truth that we are neither frogs,
    nor do we possess ranine brooding or well-dwelling habits.

    A connection is also a way to rupture. I am trying to erase
    the line by widening it so much so that we become as definite
    as what connects us.

    I put up my ways of resistance: buy dozens of tangerines,
    churn vats of lime, wipe countertops clean with powdered
    anthills of citrous peels. You linger. I am forced to hand-pick
    cloves out of rice, sweep ground chalk from my windowsill
    after every morning coffee-and-call. You greet good morning.
    I concoct remedies powdering sugar, pouring
    half a pack of baking soda. I google: another use
    for crusted borax stashed by emptied detergent cans,
    abandoned peanut butter jars.

    I know you must have waged your own war: spritzed vinegar,
    sprinkled talcum powder, planted ant-baits. You retain
    your frog traits of silence.

    I pluck dead ants peppered on my fridge door casket.
    My thoughts tweezer them off from the sleep-bundled bedsheet,
    from laundered shirts, terry bars, moon-rim of the water pot,
    from sealed-yet-infested almond packets.

    You drill holes along your wall skirting, seal ant-gel in place.
    Late in the evening, we sweep laterite dust
    from your tiles when the workers leave. We linger
    here: having to wiremesh-scrub with the raw, primordial
    earnestness and enterprise to make something that exists,
    something that breathes and lives
    vanish. You bring in painters.

    You know about their vespoid wasp ancestors. I know
    that they survived mass extinctions. We keep
    quiet like summer-frogs.




    Kadalinte aghadhathayil ninnu orirutt ooliyitt vannu enne pothinju—Muhsina K Ismail


    A spherule of darkness swims up from sea-depths and wraps around me/

    We alternate trapping each other/

    To have dragnets launched from my sea-vessel and held down by lead weights and buoyed up by gourd floats/                 is weaving years of yearning with spruce root fibres and wild grass needles into a smooth knitting of love I can line-fold and carry in my hands into invaginations of your bay/

    To be a fisherman and knot bellies of windchimes into a singular emotion/         is a kind of genetic endowment/     

    I am an aggregate of all the piered cloudforms I have taken time to absorb at your sea-washed window/

    To have gathered the strength to wait through your saturated currents and the grit of your love patiently/                    means crab-shells, plumeria, opened box of diwali sweets on my table on different times of the year begging to be cross-linked to a coherent narrative by picking up hidden cues in every object you leave with me/

    Me as in all my past selves—sternum-and-scapulae, millstone-and-mustard, the wistful-and-vengeful— mouse into cracks of the sky reflected onto my ship-deck as I grow desperate for help with my spooling gear and the warping head of the winch. I am deckhand and commodore when your wavelets draw my waterline/

    Laid out flax nets amounts to hope of a haul-in, the prospect of trapping your shoal of colours, myriad ways in which you inhale my soul, many ways you move through it/

    I am a by-catch of our love eclipsed by the countless ways sky intervenes/ 

    A drop of your darkness swims up from your depths and traps my skin/

    Carry me there then/

    beyond the glisten of your lens instead of may-be-glimpses, likely-reflections:

    your fish, mostly water:

    bristle-mouthed and dagger-teethed, dripping bones and phosphors/

    If you inhere in hinged jaws, and scale-less elongations, if you inhabit recurves and define lightlessness by a drawstring-shut reservoir of bottomless light-ness, that’s where I want to be/

    I will teach you how to ret and weave flax, wait for the tide-dip, walk/

    Let’s ford sea-glass and surfaces with what we have stashed in our 8000 years of deepening drunkenness/



    Your Voice is Not a Slice

    Keep the onion full to the roots, keep aflame
    the purple skin in face of mandates to peel it

    slice it. Keep bitter the bitter gourds. Never
    salt or soak it. Let okras plunge deeper

    into glutinous etymologies of ‘lady’s finger’,
    ‘bhindi’, ‘quimbombo’, ‘gombo’, ‘bamies’,

    measureless strings of language attached
    & detaching from spider-loop strands. Keep

    cabbages true to overlays—it’s not adornment,
    it’s substance, survival. Let it grow ripe with

    jungleness the spinach inheres in. Don’t
    line them by length or slice them to strips of

    color. Keep brinjal in the sleekness of its certainty
    making known the planetariness of our minds,

    our memories. Don’t fall for the treasonous axe
    of blades, of bigotry. Keep ivy gourds small

    and plenty. Wear abundance like sand,
    mirror-stripes like light. Keep snake gourds

    twine around slights bends sharper turns. Let
    the ravenous growth strangle hands that spring

    to contain it as you’re told to keep it down,
    prune it, pare it, or to keep it unused in mildew.



    What We Need is the Iron Certainty of Trunks

    our grandmothers misplaced. They grew old
    by convention, just to keep counting. Get yours in material
    and heft them to those houses. Plonk them
    on their floors. Occupy space
    without shame and time like a lesson.
    Than waiting for people to stitch new shapes
    for you, lock your own clothes. Before they walk you
    to their squared-out clothes-closets and point, flood yours
    in your trunks. Celebrate the splinter where a trespasser
    gets snagged, the warded-lock that snaps open loud,
    the dent that marks the face. Bring more to
    your trunks, more ladderbrakes from the moss-walls
    of water-wells, more of what you think
    is lovely or kind or yours. More of your sure voice, more
    tenderness. Not ironed out—but as iron
    that rusts with age, as iron that needs care, as iron
    that’s loud and lasting, as iron that scrapes
    its myths that wouldn’t wash off, as that wouldn’t
    budge, as heavy in your hand, unapologetically. Brim
    your trunk with all that. What we need
    is the iron certainty of our trunks.



    Meeting a Friend after Decades

    Topform Restaurant, January 2023

    Every crammed up word was to assuage guilt
    of a later falling apart, drifting away.
    It wasn’t meant to happen just means it
    happened. Interposed silence is a window—how
    we grew into each other. I hope she sees that,
    how it resembles. If we can ignite a candle
    we have enough ocean left. Memory doesn’t reach
    within snail-lengths. We order biriyani
    to mirror our two-decade old Friday routine.
    A rusted small gate: fallen coconut fronds, dry-brown,
    a house behind, a balcony, a small clearing of masonry,
    a corner to sing hymns, a coffee pot, how do we
    get to it. She says, I like the biriyani, though I know
                                                   it’s nothing like it.

    Rahana K. Ismail is the author of ‘Newtness’ released by Yavanika Press in 2022. Her poems have been featured or are forthcoming in the Yearbook of Indian Poetry in English (2021, 2022), The Penn Review, The Lighthouse, Usawa Literary Review, Muse India, POSIT, Alchemy Spoon, Ink Sweat and Tears, Barzakh, Bending Genre, nether Quarterly, Contemporary Haibun OnlineAainanagar, Aleph Review, Chakkar, Alipore Post, Last Leaves, Farmer-ish, Stone of Madness, Foxglove, Hakara, Qissa, Verse of Silence, Pine Cone Review among others. She has read her poems as a panelist of the session ‘Defiance and Daughters’ in the Glass House Festival 2024.

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