Reviewed by Yee Heng Yeh
In this collection of 64 poems, ShivaniSivagurunathan turns a keen eye upon the natural world. Well—not just the natural world, though it is the main subject of most poems, and is featured at least in brief flashes in others. But the weave of assorted imageries across the six sections refuses any tidy demarcation between what is natural and what is human, seeming to question this definition itself—what do we mean when we say “the natural world”? Is there anything that can be “beyond” nature? If nature, as Google tells me, is defined as “the phenomena of the physical world collectively”, the poems’ consideration of the physicality of every thing, human or not, reveals that nothing is not physical—breath, memory, connection, grief: all are bound, all are earthly.
In the ode-like poems, too, there is a sense of devotion, attention as a form of prayer, to small creatures and smaller details—which, we discover, are not so small after all. They contain in themselves the enormity of abstractions, such as history, such as evolution. A python “unpacks it stomach / full of dark air and dreams”, a “syndicate” of grasshoppers are “professorial” and “antediluvian”, ladybugs “know the science of draining”, cats and hedgehogs complete the night.
The density of language and observations in these lines requires close, careful reading—if this collection is a jungle, you wouldn’t get as much out of it by hacking your way brusquely through the thicket as you might by picking your way unobtrusively through the undergrowth, finding your footing in the mud, turning over each leaf, alert and curious. I admit in some poems I got a little lost myself; in repeat readings, I sometimes find my way to some sort of clearing, where an understanding flashes in the sun; other times, I am still stumbling onward in the dim light filtered through the canopy. In the latter, I may wish for a little signpost here and there, maybe in this stanza, or the next… but perhaps this is the point: that some discoveries can only be made when you’ve been lost a few times, circling the same area constantly, before you realise, Ah, so that’s it!
With the metaphor of the jungle I don’t wish to convey a sense of impenetrability—the poems are frequently lifted with a wry, playful tone, or carried forward by the incantatory rhythm of repetition. Most of all, the language is startling, brimming with crisp images and well-turned phrases. This tides me over even in pieces that I find ambiguous in meaning or context.
Some of my favourite lines include:
“the slug opens itself / like a painting’s avenue”
“a whole life / in the blink of a grasshopper”
“a tissue-paper world emerges / as a country for ants”
Incredible stuff. Or how about in what is probably my favourite poem in the collection, “Sai”, which reads almost like a fable: “you have / joined your ash, / the cleanest sum of things”. Reading that, you just can’t help but be persuaded by the thought that ash really, truly, is the cleanest sum of things. Or in the wistful “Life After Rain”, which perfectly captures the feeling that “something crucial happened / while we sheltered and dream”. Or (circling back to the inherent physicality of existence, particularly our own) the simple shattering truth in “Being Myself”: “I take biology for granted”. As we all often do.
Here I will stop quoting more lines, hard as that may be, so that the poems can speak for themselves in their entirety, but permit me this last one: in the final poem, the persona prays/sings/urges/commands, “May you vanish from you”. I find that, reading my way through these poems and encountering new worlds within worlds, I did vanish from myself—at least for a little while.