Art & Culture

We look so alike

Sridala Swami
Sridala SwamiOct 27, 2014 | 14:45

We look so alike

In my introductory column, I optimistically wrote about the impossibility of sustaining a panic attack for two weeks. I ought to have known better: it is indeed possible to have a low-grade panic attack for a fortnight when one's inbox fails to provide any submissions whatsoever until just a few days before the deadline.

Every one of my fears came true: people offered me illegal medication; some sent in poems not to prompt, though - thankfully - those were poems and not entire manuscripts; and until the very end, going by the lack of submission, I feared that no one had read the column. 


Luckily there were poems, though not as many as I would have liked. A good percentage of the poems ignored or had only the most tenuous connection to the prompt. These poems I will not discuss at all in this response column, however promising they were - and some of them were, in fact, better poems than the ones that responded to the prompt.

Those that wrote to the prompt seem not to have read the poems I had linked to, in their entirety. I don't know what those who submitted poems made of the prompt or the poems in the previous column, but I learned something important: that while good poems come only from careful, attentive reading, most readers tend not to give poems, not even their own, the attention they deserve.

The poems by A E Stallings, Lisel Mueller and Natasha Trethewey engaged with the image in different ways, but at the centre of each poem was a clear object being engaged with: a photograph with its undeniable specificity - this shape, these glasses, this beach - and behind the particularities of the image, the larger idea that anchored these objects.


In the poems submitted, it was hard to fix on anything in the poem as specific to a photograph that the writer had before her. It leads me to believe that nobody actually looked at a photograph of themselves before sitting down to write the poem, let alone a photograph that was the earliest image of themselves that they could find.  

A few of the poems were, to the contrary, about people who were confronting their age though the images. In Gayatri Lakhiani Chawla's poem "6x8", a woman has

Worry lines on the forehead

hidden under two inches of foundation.

Punyasloka Mohapatra's poem "Clicks" has a man on his deathbed, and a woman that she calls "the moon's daughter" who does mysterious things with "her magic wand". After the woman has in some way eased the pain of the man on his deathbed, there is a photograph:

After fifty years, we faced the lens, 

For the last time, I was a dead man then:

An hourglass that had completed one turn

Some poems refer to a younger self, but don't describe it as it is in the photograph. Instead, what is described is the person they have become, the bundle of disappointments in store for the innocent creature we cannot quite see. David Jairaj's "At Forty Two" asks:


What is he thinking?

The wide-eyed fool.

Life doesn't get better,

Dreams don't come true.

In "Sepia Trains", Arathi Menon says:

Happier, kinder, funnier, prettier 

She looks like someone I want to be

Forgetting so easily

That she was who I am.


I don't have the energy

To visit her history

Or tell that shiny, new future she sees

It won't be.


She looks at me

Bright and chirpy

Unaware, how brittle she is

Her garish happiness

Will crash

Splinters, mocking, sneering

Every single smile her soul throws-up

But she doesn't know that,


For me, the remarkable thing that these poems share is the idea of regret and a sort of weary cynicism. The words and images in these poems are not particularly original - in fact, the poems would have done better to have avoided the adjectival excesses they allow themselves - but they all point away from nostalgia for childhood and towards a realisation of mortality tinged very slightly with fear. In fact, in the first part of Jairaj's poem, the photographic object is as of a man already dead, and lacking only the garland around the photograph with which we signify the passing in this part of the world:

He's always been there.

On top of the dusty

Shoe-rack, His Majesty.

A candle to his right,

A bunch of keys, his left,

Unpaid bills under his sill.

The other thing that struck me about these poems is how pedestrian the descriptions are: "Dark circles under dark brown eyes", "Then fell the curtain and over was the show", "Happier, kinder, funnier, prettier".

The one exception is from Gayatri Lakhiani Chawla's poem, where she uses the phrase "a graveyard of mouths". It is a striking image and a memorable phrase; what it needs is a better setting than it has in the poem.

I have deliberately not quoted entire poems because every single one those I've quoted are more like rough, early drafts of poems. I would advice everyone whose work appears here to rewrite and edit their poems ruthlessly. Avoid contortions of language and syntax in order to achieve a rhyme. Edit your lines down by removing everything that is unnecessary. You will find that a lot of what you've said can be said more succinctly with the right choice of words. Be specific; pick details over general and vaguely philosophical observations.

And above all, avoid clichés like you would a persistent creditor.

Before I go, I'd like to leave you with a line from Pierre Peuchmaurd's poem "September Alone" (from The Nothing Bird: Selected Poems by Pierre Peuchmaurd translated by E.C.Belli, Oberlin College Press, FIELD Translation Series, 2013.), which is the essence of all that the poems that I quoted here were trying to be:

Time grows timorous; we are going to die, we look so alike.


Thank you all for your submissions. I hope you will continue to write, re-write, edit and polish; and, of course, submit to future prompts.

Last updated: October 27, 2014 | 14:45
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