a mouthful of sky
by Anu Mahadev
Get Fresh Books, 2022
Reviewed by Yamini Pathak
“pain is a crevasse. open. charred.”
Anu Mahadev’s second poetry collection, a mouthful of sky (Get Fresh Books, 2022) is not for the faint of heart. These poems meet the reader’s gaze square, with unflinching honesty and a deep abiding courage. Mahadev is Indian by birth and spent most of her formative years in India, moving to America as an adult. The poems here are spoken by a collective of Indian women’s voices: some of whom are educated, well-travelled upper or upper middle class women. Other voices include a sex-worker, a middle-aged woman seeking sexual fulfillment, a widow with an only son, even a famous archeological artifact in the form of a naked bronze dancing girl. Each one speaks her truth and bears witness to her own particular wounds. In giving voice to her yearning for acceptance and belonging each woman opens up to take in a mouthful of sky, and in doing so, allows the reader to share in her struggle. It must be noted that the poems might be triggering for survivors of domestic or intimate partner abuse.
A wildly passionate woman speaks often in these pages about her “naked body that loves to fuck,” her “mouth that swears,” and who sweats with a “hungry sweat.” I struggle with this woman’s stories – she is evolved enough to acknowledge her sexuality unabashedly, even embrace it but why does she allow herself to be abused and traumatized by her lover repeatedly? In the poem “how to break a married woman” the speaker destroys her marriage by taking on a lover who will
“next day: leave her to sort through her feelings herself
pummel through the day, barrel through her thoughts. let her regret.”
She wakes up alone in hotel rooms hating herself. What trauma has occurred in her life to permit this brutal treatment of her innermost self? We know she exists – she could be the woman we met at a party, she could be a close friend, or horror of horrors, could she be us? Mahadev brings us to these stark moments of discomfort. She provides no easy solutions. There are no happy endings for this woman, but the poet puts us in her shoes, evoking deep empathy and a stirring unease.
We encounter women across place and time, each with a unique story and her own stance in the world. In “sonagachi,” which refers to one of the largest red-light districts in Asia located in Kolkata, Mahadev explores the life of a sex-worker —
“a woman-child, her trapped identity belonging to her vagina’s highest bidder.”
“the dancing girl of mohenjo-daro,” is an ekphrasis on the bronze sculpture of a girl found in the ruins of the prehistoric Indus Valley civilization in modern-day India and Pakistan. The girl stands naked, hand on thrusting hip, wearing bangles that run up her arm. Her pose is confident and the speaker gazes at her in wonder.
“is she a goddess?
a slave? whom does she love? does she live, like me, for love?”
The book offers moments of relief by transporting readers to the lovely countryside of the poet’s native state of Kerala in India. In “schism”, she describes the landscape:
“drumstick trees cast their shadows on bushes
of sugandhi, kanakambaram flowers.
echo of the clink of copper pots, glass/ bangles, and measured laughter.”
But here too, the laughter is measured, and we return to questions of belonging. The speaker is at her mother’s house washing clothes, saying “I bring my scars here to be fixed.” Her immigrant heart cries “does moisture belong to a cloud? a cloud to a country?” A sweeter sensual moment is explored in the poem “malabar monsoon,” where the speaker sips her coffee, dreams of her husband’s lingering touch through an aromatic monsoon, bright with rain tumbling off the orange terracotta tiles of her mother’s house. Separation from the man she loves becomes a languid moment dripping with desire.
The voices in these poems never tiptoe around the harsh landscapes of their lives but Mahadev weaves an unmistakable music all through the collection. Her images shine to make us pause and savor them in our bodies. These are poems situated in the physical – seasons that remind us of “strawberries and cream” sucked into the mouth, “desperation like drops/ of excess sweat,” life, “a sloshing water pot on her waist.” It is interesting that the poet chooses to write the poems in all lowercase letters. It is as if the women are seeking to find the self-acceptance to be able to use the uppercase “I.”
I won’t promise you an easy read if you pick up this book, but then again, one of the primary functions of art is to disturb and provoke us into awareness of conditions foreign to us. These poems take us into the interior worlds of women —their fantasies, their betrayals, the hurts they hide from the world. As the speaker says in the dancing girl of mohenjo-daro,
“she must braid her hair
with fireflies that hiss in the crypt of her heart
yet she stands,
feminine, sacred — here, now.”
If you want to be shaken out of complacency, haunted by all that has been spoken and all that reverberates in the silences, a mouthful of sky is an intimate and essential collection that will stay with you long after you put it down.