Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar

 

On Versification

             —double acrostic for Alfred Corn

Perhaps it’s the kind of dream game you play in your sleep,
or the residue of books you’ve read, sitting in your armchair,
even—or perhaps especially—in retreat from memory’s palazzo
to those vague stirrings that resemble imaginative freedoms,
ice riding air toward its own melting, like how even bad vertigo
can be overcome if you sit on a ledge long enough to stand.
So you make and remake yourself in your own language entirely.


 

The Spirit Level

            a terza rima for the New Britain Industrial Museum

Hard hittin’ New Britain, some of my students intone
to describe their home for a few years or a lifetime
in that depressed part of Hartford County once known 

by relics in unphotographable pre-European times
as a fertile hunting and fishing ground by the Tunxis,
Quinnipiac, Wangunk, Podunk and Mattabesett tribes

who chipped arrowheads from coarse-grained schist,
naming the land Pagonischaumishaug, or White Oak Place,
though to say this in class, please professor don’t flunk us

if we can’t pronounce that, is what with a straight face
I get in response to evoking memories of these stewards
who seemingly have vanished without the faintest trace.

When English puritans left the King in droves toward
a place they could freely practice their religion without
persecution, they claimed that what they had explored

was discovery, and their own, no need to hammer out
a treaty by the ember of tallow candle or oil lamp,
it was theirs by divine fiat, till flash flood or drought

might eradicate them. So they settled a permanent camp.
Others followed, hemmed in by the Lamentation Mtns.
calling the region outside Hartford the “Great Swamp.”

Two Scottish brothers set up shop, men with countenances
like the Amish we are lead to believe, tinners by trade
who’d import metal from Boston to make plates, buttons,

and spindles to sell on the road, transported and displayed
in a hand-cart. The original Yankee Peddlers, now a pawn
shop on Main Street where you can buy an used suede

jacket and a four-string, then eat lo mein at a faux-Sichuan
take-out down the road. By 1806, Eli Terry had the first
clock factory in America cranking out a large spawn

of interchangeable parts made of brass, and he dispersed
hawkers to sell the wares, thus evolving manufacturing.
Their recent farmer ancestors may well have cursed

their dumb luck to have been born toiling and fracturing
the soil by plow, when their grandchildren’s grandchildren
shaped wire, wrought iron into shutter hinges, picturing

themselves as citizens of “Hardware City,” no longer sylvan,
but proudly urban, even starting to produce ball bearings.
Yes damn lucky, even if they didn’t yet have cars or penicillin,

for those were on their way & Stanley Toolworks was hiring,
especially if you were a recent Polish Catholic immigrant.
Now many of the factories, if even still running, are firing

their remaining workers without the union’s consent,
boarding up fire-prone buildings, padlocking the gates,
as some single mother of four can’t afford to pay her rent

and in alleyway grime there are men asleep on grates.  
What turned New Britski into an annex of the rust belt?
Why such dearth in one of the country’s richest states?

According to the recent census, the downturn’s felt
more by the select many, a cop’s average yearly wage
north of seventy grand while those who once smelt

iron ore to make hand-crafted tools are now at an age
where their craftsmanship seems the stuff of dream,
where a thriving industrial past has been exchanged

for an average per capita income that must surely seem
even less than it actually is. No jobs. No more Tool Town.
Still the locals gather to watch the local baseball team,

the Rock Cats, and a resolute toughness still abounds.  
Puerto Ricans have moved in, and the smell of morcilla
sausage stuffed with pig’s blood, rice, and spices, brown

as the families who eat it—wafts in the summer, Miller
High Life open on the stoop of the bodega as the kids
skip double dutch. The motto of faster, better, bigger 

seems to have realized its own limitations. Now in fits
and starts, taking a cue from Les Chasseurs Alpins,
the French soldiers from World War I (not the Swiss

as some like to claim), intrepid mountaineers with hands
hid in capes, immortalized by Irving Berlin as Blue Devils,
not Duke’s but Central’s, a new demographic demands

better treatment. Take the well-made sliding T bevel
you might use to round a corner, or the plane, handsaw,
chisel, hammer, mitre box or aptly named spirit level

that uses an air bubble trapped in alcohol to reveal a flaw
in measurement, whether something is crooked or just
right, plumb fit for support. Where’s a like tool for our law

books, to help frame zoning and tax codes? Scour the rust
from our eyes Saint Adalbert, allow us to cooperate with Pole
and Puerto Rican alike, remind us that fabricated from dust,

to dust motes we shall return, and teach us to love coal
black as much as we love white milk. It’s long past time.
There was always someone in charge of quality control 

at the factories, a supervisor whose job it was to supply
well-made goods to the consumer. Let’s each become
our own best product. Let’s love one another until we die.

 

 

 

The Nine-Year Kiss

            —distillation for Nelleke Beltjens 

I.
Lips
enmeshed.

 

II.
How kisses swim through lips,     
lotus petals enmeshed. Restored.

 

III.
Each phase passes out of habit, how      
your kisses, nearly actual, are still fraught    
with history’s energy-swarm. You swim     

visibly through shifting space with the mark    
of nature seamlessly found. Slippery lips,     
lotus texture shifts to lithe cheekbone hips           

lifting with mischief, petals that peal together   
with my laugher enmeshed in yours, ancient
longing made new as fragrant, restored song.

 

IV.
Add two to the seven-year itch immortalized
in the titular phrase & the Marilyn Monroe phase,
her standing on a subway grate as a train passes below,   
first iconic, then cliché. Out here at night nothing
breezes up except the moles and waves of meadow
undulating in moonlight past the habit of your front 
porch. I would have kissed you then, except I didn’t.   
Your swimmer’s shoulder tells my day’s stubble 
that the air between us still buzzes from a first touch     
nearly a decade in developing. Those monochromatic 
sculptures in your studio, actual objects with an aura   
that radiates in the dark when we stand still enough.
What would we tell our younger selves, those fraught
sleek figures slipping into a lake with loons, dreaming
to make work that might be recited in history’s record,   
lines of new combinations born of the ravening energy
between us then—as now—a swarm of flecked strokes, 
you and I invisible wireless signals trafficking the air,     
landscapes that swim through time lapse photography,
coast lines visibly shifting & narrow straits reemerging
in landmass over water, captured only through careful
attention. You reuse those materials in shifting contexts,
cut something out, paste it in white space to be scored     
with language. Collage the telephone pole into a crow nest.
Make the freighters coral reefs. Remix paradise from ruin.
If each intentional mark, even of gesture, radiates in time,     
of what we imagined then, what cannot now be manifest?      
It is in our nature to desire, which causes suffering I know,
but coincidence seamlessly turns into predestination,
as the time we lost ourselves we found ourselves again,         
closing time’s recursive slippery loop by feeding the snake     
its own tail. No lips needed when we can feast on fennel,       
pine cones, mushrooms whose undersides feel like lotus       
root, the textures and aromas enough for us to survive.         
Bark shifts to skin, under jeans the hint of filigreed lace         
that makes me understand edging, how to delay pleasure      
to experience it more intently. Nine years ago, lithe, alert,     
your cheekbone gem-cut, you appeared in my studio,       
resting your hips against the metal cot while we talked art.    
Now lifting the latch on your studio door, I remember       
how we parted then, with a few hungry, chaste kisses.     
I am always up for some mischief but you still go slow.         
Standing with a bouquet of wildflowers whose petals     
have dropped off in the dark prairie that I crossed to be       
with you before you leave this time, it’s quiet. No peal         
of dinner bell or chitchat, just us together and I marvel       
at how precise arcs with vibrating overlaps of color       
can be so painstakingly hand-drawn, my latent Dutch         
lover, a brain scan of our laughter, or the pulsating strings     
of cosmic sound compacted into energy enmeshed       
in each microscopic particle, billions of us dancing on       
a pin’s head, our networked desires, mine and yours,       
intertwined in utter newness yet ancient as hunting       
and gathering. Such longing belongs to our time-blind,       
touch-hungry bodies that made of muscle will turn         
to flint in this expansive New Hampshire meadow.       
It’s as if I were a rhododendron and you the book         
in whose pages I was once pressed, still fragrant.          
Before the stars envisage morning, we are restored,       
alive together to orchestrate song that flickers and endures.              




 


lips
enmeshed

 


how
kisses
swim

through
lips
lotus

petals
enmeshed
restored



each
phase
passes
out
of
habit
except
your
touch
nearly
actual
still
fraught
with
history’s
energy
swarm
you
swim
visibly
through
shifting
space
with
the
mark
of
nature
seamlessly
found
slippery
lips
lotus
texture
shifts
to
lithe
cheekbone
hips
lifting
with
mischief
petals
that
peal
together
with
my
laughter
enmeshed
in
yours
ancient
longing
made
new
as
fragrant
restored
song

 

 

 

_____

Pushcart Prize winning poet Ravi Shankar has published twelve books and chapbooks, including most recently The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks (University of Arkansas Press, 2017). He’s appeared on NPR, PBS, the BBC, as well as in the New York Times, the Paris Review, the Financial Times and elsewhere around the world. He teaches for the New York Writers Workshop, and his memoir in progress is entitled Correctional. 

 

 

  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.