|Arsenic Lobster poetry journal||
Lullabies Are Barbed Wire Nations|
Two of Cups Press, 2014
Read Nandini’s poems in Arsenic Lobster
Issue Thirty-two Summer 2013
Nandini Dhar is a cartographer, a map-maker, stitching with a fish bone needle twenty-one magical prose poems, the “countries of chewing and swallowing,” into the chapbook Lullabies are Barbed Wire Nations. Dhar is an alchemist, transforming women—Mother who “had taught us to be afraid/of everything,” Grandmother who “rode a skillet around the house,” ju ju lady, Dollmaker Granny—from abusers to the abused. She is a linguist, with her incantations and repetitions, speaking in the voice of Toi, twin sister of Tombur (a split Bengali word, toitombur, meaning “full to the brim”), where, in utero, their tongues hung from “lips like goats.”
The twins live in a saffron “neighborhood of aunts and older sisters.” The landscape is an actual one–Bengal–but also a dangerous, feminine world:
When Tombur and I walked into the crevices of the city’s ossuaries, we did so
with the tentativeness of their guilt. Like a gash from an axe. Lustrous red...and
we learnt this was the price you pay when you try to step in to the footprints left
With pointed precision, Dhar divines a whole world for the girls delicate as fish bones, sharp as needles.
Our grandmother had taught us that fish filets were lost atlases. The bones rivers
and cities on maps. We poured over the riddles of fish names….Til our fingertips
bled, eyes swollen. As we unoccupied the seams of our skirts of sheyalkanta
after an evening of hide-and-seek.
This transfiguration, the alchemy, is the thread that holds together the poems, the silken voice of Toi, who tells the “history that occurred inside the mouth.” For all the fabulism in the poems, the book is the story of two girls, who, from conception “Long before we became twins and sisters…were dolls–carved in our mother’s dusk-time dreams...each a color of the rainbow.” The dolls, which become Barbie dolls later in the book, are seen as giant, monstrous “tall as our house,” causing the other girls in the neighborhood to “cut themselves up. The layers of fat....The swellings on their tummies.” They come to represent “the body” that Toi fears, in the “darkness of these bedrooms,” when the women “kept on sucking the same piece of pickled lemon, gossiping about the younger women in our neighborhood.” Lullabies ends when the girls are ten, in school, recalling the rainbow colors, but having transformed into something more than female, more than physical:
We wanted to do things. Rama did things. Ravana did things. Were therefore
protagonists. We did away with the princesses. In the new play Tombur was
writing I was to be the rainbow. And it’s easy. All I had to do was wear a rainbow
suit and do a bridge on stage. Byas.
The women provide the magic, and the menace in this collection. Mother, “The song. Then the slap./The death wish. Our torn hair between her fingers,” transforms into Grandmother who “rode a skillet around the house, the end of her sari tight around her waist.” They teach the girls about fish bones sucked dry and hot needles to pierce ears. They carry and cook bags and bowls of rice starch, call the girls “stupid little girls.”
But if Mother creates the twins by “braiding her own emptiness,” if she “dreamt of the dolls,” then it’s the horrifying ju ju lady, the Dollmaker Granny, who receives the unwavering wrath of the twins. Ju ju lady is forced to churn out monster dolls, “[t]he human-dolls she made lacked any recognizable arms and legs, or hairs, or eyes which could shut close.” The final image of Dollmaker Granny is of her being strangled by Toi, stuffed in the closet “where the ju ju ladies belonged,” her tongue hanging out.
The mouth and the tongue, glottal maker of linguistics, are images in Dhar’s book as ubiquitous as fish bones and rice starch. Yes, as much as Lullabies is a “history that occurred inside the mouth,” as much as a magical, feminist navigation, it is also a story of language, and the spells that repeat and transform. When the twins were infants, Mother “found my gums on Tombur’s brows: twins curled up together, trying to eat each other up.” The ju ju lady’s tongue is “broken and harmless as a used fork,” and she carries a gunny sack of the “sobs of stolen children.” In Tales from Grandma’s Bag, the headmaster gives Grandma back “…the reflection/and flexibility of her tongue.” Even Grandmother’s own voice was “inside the clay goat’s throat: hoarse, nagging, phlegm inside,” the phlegm the color of “banana leaves.” These mouths are powerful: “Tombur held on to my hand, her fingers clasping mine like a tortoise’s mouth.” In the end, the mouth–words, language–enables the twins to claim their survivor heroes:
But within the stickiness of the chewing gum on our teeth, we made Anne Frank
speak in Bengali….Because we could not fill each other’s silences, we held
between our fingers two broomsticks. One for each of us. Rama and Ravana.
Buddha and Bhutum.
Nandini Dhar’s Lullabies are Barbed Wire Nation takes us down “the alleyways of the atlas” drawn with “curse-words and tears.” This is a world studded with Bengal tiger fangs: gorgeous, rare, muscular, divine. The complications of the double-helix twinning spin a silk web. Dhar’s nation hurts, but oh, the hurt is delicious. Savor it, on your tongue, full in the mouth.
Review by Jennifer Martelli
Jennifer's chapbook, Apostrophe, was published in 2011 by Big Table Publishing Company. She’s an associate editor for The Compassion Project: An Anthology, and lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts with her family.