[Review] In the Country Where I Live: Two Collections by Rochelle Potkar

{Written by Kate Rogers, this review is part of Issue 42 (December 2018) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

❀ Rochelle Potkar, Paper Asylum, Copper Coin, 2018. 103 pgs.
❀ Rochelle Potkar, Four Degrees of Separation, Paperwall Media, 2016. 133 pgs.

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I was introduced to the work of Indian poet and short-story writer Rochelle Potkar when she was passing through Hong Kong in the spring of 2017 and read her splendid, feminist poem, “Keyholes,” at the poetry reading series OutLoud. An excerpt from that poem, which can be read in its entirety here, follows below:

We hide our wet lace behind a trellis of plants, our voices honeyed from jaded soap operas.
Our requiems are parties inside our heads, earphone to earphone.
Tolerance in the diorama of this rented place.
No door of solace or shame left open.

They will keep boyfriends. And.
They will come with trouble. And.
They will eat meat. And.

But sometimes we translate into vixens: late night-girls with eye masks,
returning on the stairs – shush! the landlord is insomniac
to stilettos and side slits of little black dresses,
books, menstrual cups, and spandex.

Who will take responsibility for them? And.

Emerald nights pass into agate mornings,
the sapphire of our head scarves and prayer mats
from insular to secular near our 2 by 2 boxes.
We curl each night against thoughts of saffron eyes, bloodshot.

If the nights fall over our skin, our bodies become bottles
of wine, with a crack against it. Dripping … dripping …

They will get raped. And.

That poem, its whispering chorus of gossips, its defiance and passionate intensity led me to want to read both the works featured in this review: Paper Asylum, a collection of haibun—an interesting hybrid form first developed by Japanese master poet Basho which features short reflections summarised by haiku, and Four Degrees of Separation—Potkar’s 2016 collection of poetry. An alumna of Iowa’s International Writing Program and the Charles Wallace Fellowship, at the University of Stirling, Rochelle Potkar often writes about subjects long taboo in her native country.

In India’s The Wire, writer Sujan Bandyopadhyay points out that,According to a recent report by the Livemint, about 99% of cases of sexual violence go unreported. If true, this would put India among the nations with highest levels of crimes against women.” Bandyopadhyay elaborates:

Recent incidents of rape have stirred the conscience of the nation. Even as India reels from the shock of the cases in Kathua (Jammu and Kashmir) and Unnao (Uttar Pradesh), there are more such incidents being reported almost on an everyday basis, such as the ones in Surat (Gujarat) and Nadia (West Bengal).

These barbaric incidents at various parts of the country have once again put the spotlight on India’s poor track record in protecting its women, almost five years after the brutal Nirbhaya case, in which a young medical intern was gang-raped and tortured in a moving bus in South Delhi.

Although the rape and murder of the female medical intern led to changes in India’s legal system, including the passing of stricter sexual assault laws and the creation of fast-track courts for prosecution of rapes, under reporting of sexual assaults against women remains a huge problem. Women are afraid to come forward. This is another reason to read the courageous poetry of Indian poet Rochelle Potkar.

After having read both Paper Asylum and Four Degrees of Separation, I feel the haibun is the form best suited to Potkar’s voice. On the Academy of American Poets website, writer Aimee Nezhukumatathil describes haibun as:

a prose poem with a haiku. The haiku usually ends the poem as a sort of whispery and insightful postscript to the prose of the beginning of the poem. Another way of looking at the form is thinking of haibun as highly focused testimony or recollection of a journey composed of a prose poem and ending with a meaningful murmur of sorts: a haiku. The result is a very elegant block of text with the haiku serving as a tiny bowl or stand for the prose poem.

At their best, Rochelle Potkar’s haibun are indeed “highly focused testimonies” which end with the “murmur” of a haiku. The strongest examples in Paper Asylum are feminist portrayals of women. In “Selena,” Potkar traces the evolution of a marriage from its early passion to a wife’s loss of freedom. Selena is told by her husband to “[d]ress like a married woman. My woman” and berated “her if the side slits of her salwaar kameeze were two wide, or if her leggings were snug, showing off her thighs.” The prose section ends with the haiku, “shells of snails remain / the same / our holiday homes too.”

Another haibun sympathetic to the isolation and vulnerability of women is the powerful “Seed,” in which at age thirteen, the narrator considers her breasts “growing, budding nuisances that feel weighty and uncomfortable under my petticoat and pinafore.” When she “graduates” to a bra, the she is accosted by a group of boys as she is walking home from school: “A tall boy reaches out, grabs and squeezes my breast.” Not until she’s older does the narrator realise, “in the swelling years of [her] womanhood … there is an archive of these very common things.” The haiku which ends this passage reads: “phosphorus sky— / the gulmohar bursts / aflame.” (The gulmohar, a red flowering tree native to India, is an apt metaphor.)

“Stillborn” evokes the vulnerability of women just as well, although it is from a young boy’s perspective. The narrator’s father’s shadow “rises every night with the silhouettes of knives, blades, sickles, belts and whips, growing and looming over his mother’s face” to whip her “so hard that the shadows in his dreams flicker like a TV set, or candle wick.”

But Potkar also writes beautifully about love and loss. In “About-turn,” she assumes the point of view of a man missing his lover: “he poured everything into her like an ocean into a jug of wet earth.” The first haiku in the middle of this piece reads: “fish catch—the boat swinging / in surrender.” He observes that “seas were moving, rivers too … She changed course.” The man grows so thin he is “floating in his white shirts, … so he seemed dubious even to himself.” A second haiku ends the piece thusly: “autumn rain … / the leaf wilts to the / chameleon’s skin.”

And in the most lyrical of all the haibuns in the collection, “Entombed,” the narrator is leaving home for the first time:

… its taste of black stones, grainy mud, the rain through flower petals, the silhouette of unsymmetrical trees … I am taking the wedding songs of women, its banter of drunk men …

That was all I needed, but now it’s you, who showed me the moon’s halo and that its three-fourth gleam is as important. My eyes sting.

I am taking your long fingers, your half-moon nails, your voice covered in daggers, your quivering naval button, your ignorant Adam’s apple … your spit and stubborn disposition …

The Taj Mahal stood in all these years in one place, bathing under its crescent.

Only I move, collecting bones, aches and souls.

The passage ends with the haiku, “silting skies—between his homecomings / she loses her ground.”

My favourite piece in the other collection under review, Four Degrees of Separation, is “Skirt,” which has been made into a short film. It is worth quoting large chunks of that too for its courage:

I watch a video of women cycling in short dresses talking
of how not to flash.
They wide-angle their legs, pull the back of their skirts
and with a coin and a rubber band marry it to the front of
their skirts;
it becomes a pant.

I think of their legs in the sun, delicately agile on swerving
bicycles.

In the country where I live, clothes that show leg, armpit,
curve of breast invite brutality.

… Short skirts are not about fashion or suiting body types,
but about freedom.

The poem, “Shape-shifting” is a tighter poem on a similar topic where the narrator advices her reader:

Grow lard so you can’t be seen
retreat, refuge, go where the sun isn’t.

Or invade.
Walk the streets
expand like a river of rage

There are many other worthy poems on a variety of subjects in Four Degrees of Separation. My only criticism of Rochelle Potkar’s poetry is that it can often have too many conjunctions and prepositions. Her poems are, at times, too grammatical and read too much like prose. (Examples can be found from the excerpts above including the beautiful poems “About-turn” and “Entombed.”) That tendency towards prose in her poetry is why I think the haibun is the perfect form for Rochelle Potkar. I have been so inspired by her collection Paper Asylum I may write some myself!

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Kate Rogers.jpg

Kate Rogers‘ poetry is forthcoming in Elsewhere: a Journal of Place and Catherines, the Great (Oolichan). She was shortlisted for the 2017 Montreal International Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in Twin Cities: An Anthology of Twin Cinema from Singapore and Hong KongJuniperOfZoosThe GuardianAsia Literary ReviewMorelThe Goose: A journal of ArtsEnvironment and CultureKyoto Journal and ASIATIC: International Islamic University of Malaysia. Kate’s poetry collection, Out of Place (Aeolus House –Quattro Books) debuted in Toronto, Hong Kong and at the Singapore Writers Festival between July and November 2017. 

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