Bird of the Indian Subcontinent
Playlist by Subhashini Kaligotla 6 poems
Stubborn, scheming, versatile, segueing between ecstasy and desolation, between a mythic raas leela and a modern day bar stool in the East Village, the heart in Subhashini Kaligotla’s poems is a slippery, politically incorrect shape-shifter. Combining wry honesty with delicate poise, the poet invokes the age-old theme of desire --its delirium, indignity, desperation and capacity for sudden, unbidden equanimity. Crafted with a capacity to calibrate the many subtle textures of longing, these are poems of precision, strength and radiant surprise.

— ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM, poet



This radiant poetry collection navigates the seismic journey of the heart across continents, time and legend. What does it mean to be faithful? To belong to a city, a country or a lover? Kaligotla employs a steely eyed precision as she tunnels into these vast questions. Bridging the silences in the great Ramayana and the lonelinesses that great diasporic artists bear, she’s able to unlock new insight into what it means to make a post-modern home. A gorgeous read!

— SARAH GAMBITO, poet
1. Self-Portrait as Caravaggio
Subhashini Kaligotla
2. Reading Akhmatova
Subhashini Kaligotla
3. How Xenophobic the Heart
Subhashini Kaligotla
4. My Heart Belongs to Daddy
Subhashini Kaligotla
5. Lepidoptera
Subhashini Kaligotla
6. Green Villa
Subhashini Kaligotla
At nineteen I turned myself into a god:
all muscle and sinew, flesh vital as grapes.
I would play the sybarite’s protracted tune
on my boys, my gardenias, my goblets.

Now so many things desert me.
I am a puckered version of my former self,
and this boy considers me with distaste,
forehead furrowed deep, afraid

to get too close. I lay him on cool cloths,
expose one brown nipple, a slim triangle
of chest. But his throat wouldn’t open
even if bitten by a lizard. He’s not

one for coy gestures: a shoulder thrust
in contrapposto, eyebrows arched
like bows. Tempt him with apricots and ripe
cherries, gold ducats and wine. Press him

to accordion and lute. What would be
the point? Body is a dead end. Obscene.
I give him disembodied, then. My head
on a salver. Let that be absolution,

ponderous in the muddy light.
Let the open mouth speak of the body’s
inability to hold on to anything it loves,
except to keep asking for more.

More goblets, more gardenias, and more
bare-chested boys in ruffled shirts.
This troubles me. To suffer love
is normal in a young poet. Forgivable.
Grown older, she’s expected

to abdicate the self and its small desires.
Our times are desperate enough
to push anyone out of the plush

office of the self. So why am I stuck
to love? Like the unweaned. Afraid.
I won’t argue this. Poetry ought to offer

more than chronicles of the men
who left me. But this wish to quit
the ego is as old as the promises

that start an affair. Tell me how
I can go on loving selfishly.
How like a mad politician railing against the auslander. Keep him out, keep him out, she hollers. Protect this sacrosanct. Smash that minar and stanch his lust, let it not grow like a rogue in this soil. O, stop, stop, stop this pollution. Offer fire-flower and camphor to the four directions. Where’s the holy water? Let it wash down from the mountain, flow from matted locks... O, protect this Hindu woman from the Muslim invader.
                                            When Râvan
drove down from Lanka, I climbed in,

tossing my chokers along the way,
the baubles, bracelets, and bangles,

so that casuarinas assumed the aspect
and glamour of Christmas trees.

What I want?
                    To stay on this island, coddled

by recalcitrant seas and jungles
prowled by red-eyed langoors.

                                    I’m his woman now.
            After El Greco’s The Crucifixion with Two Donors


You can’t stop trawling his belly
for the navel pooled there like a fish;
the eye now follows the fallow cloth
yoking the hips to the swell

of calf on the lifted and twisted leg—
twisted (you remember) in pain;
the mind considers mounted, recalls
the display of Blue Morpho in a shop

on Valencia Street, the one you first
walked away from, where row after row
of glass cases lined the walls, a phalanx
of moths; but then you stepped in

(had anybody noticed?) as if to stroke
one arrested head and another, staining
your fingers lapis to compliment
the dead, fooled by mere simulacra:

straining thigh muscles, pinned arms
reaching skyward, and the body
rigid from the ache.
1.

In the late afternoon I survey your estate.
A robin pecks in the front lawn,

prinias disturb the hibiscus; by six
geckos are out prowling the wall, hanging

by the porch. Soon the gardener and his wife
will come. The garden gate opens without a sound,

shuts with a clang. The neighbor’s fat labs bark hello;
I may walk across, or just look up

and say a word. Something to say
I see you in the world

2.

Along the roads’ asphalt, tall trees spread red canopies
and a familiar fragrance; flame of the forest

I retrieve from a distant place. Gulmohar.
To be alive in this heat, to be so unstinting

with flower, when evening brings sweat
not relief is to say being alive is reward enough

for hardship. Then, in the doctor’s yard,
a laburnum in bloom—

chandeliers of yellow, pendulous yellow,
the world is yellow, the stars must be this yellow.

3.

Seven is the time to meet the neighborhood
on the main road and its arteries.

Like the imported dog and his trainer.
A skinny German Shepherd, young and uncertain,

and the man, stringing the unfamiliar English
into an unbroken song: sit—sit—stay—

stay—good—as he pushes the animal to the ground.
Dog and man, finding their place in a world

where desire is the only master, and who says
who keeps the world and who loses his place.

4.

Turning back, the road is calmer, though some still walk
in the dark and the temple speakers emit

piped devotions. In the last lane beware
of dog, as two young Shepherds hurl themselves at the gate

no matter who passes. From the garden wall
a single solar lamp lights the path.

The air is humid and the flagstones wet.
The house is empty and the birds quiet.

The gardener has come and gone. The evening’s work
can begin. You left me a world when you left.-