whipchick (whipchick) wrote,

The Boatman

I wrote this poem in Varanasi, India, a few days ago, and read it at a poetry reading held by the students of Benares Hindu University. The theme of the reading was Identity And Crisis.

Three mornings, I have slept in.
Three mornings, no boat at dawn for me,
no pilgrims in bright sarees and white cloth wraps,
not just speaking a language I don't understand,
but living a life I can never enter
no matter how many matching dupattas I buy to hide my face behind.

Three nights, I have set the alarm.
Three nights, committed the boatman's name to memory--
Names here tie my tongue until they repeat--
Priya in Patna tells me about her father,
Priya in Varanasi takes me to her cousin's wedding,
re-pins my terrible saree pleats.
Now I can say, "Priya" if I meet another;
only a thousand more names to learn.

Rajesh the boatman I remember--Rajesh speaks little,
he does not take me to his uncle's shop,
he warns me away from the guide meeting the boat,
so I engrave his name upon my tongue.
Safety, silence, stillness, Rajesh.

And tomorrow--I swear it will be tomorrow--
Rajesh will row, and I will scatter the ashes of my father,
burned by the hands of strangers,
burned alone, without a god to watch,
without tourists respectfully not taking pictures,
burned in America, where we have no chants,
no bright fabric wrapping him into the bright flames.
Only me, five thousand miles across the world,
my hand in his gritty ashes,
the soft slap of oars on water,
and Rajesh, rowing the three of us into the sun.

A few minutes later, the poetry reading was invaded by monkeys. The waiters beat them back with sticks, and I remembered not to take myself quite so seriously.
Tags: declarations of intent, god, india, poetry, travels
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