Wednesday 25 October 2023

Poetry 2023 Longlist, Sonali Pattnaik

 “the adventurist” 

glorious, she peaks across

‘distant’ lands

they’re closer than I’d like to believe

but then I’d like to believe in her

that the far away is traversed

through an exploring spirit 

and crisp cargo pants

with the sun fondly caressing her hair

so wondrous her stride as it divides

my shrunk-screen horizon

she smiles a freedom’s smile

and I am all 16 x 9

her hair lies in golden twists

reflected across my iris

the perfect accompaniment

to her territorial discoveries

I cringe as she looks 

right into the lion’s jaws

into the heart of darkness

I thrust a fork into my plate,

smarting over domestic injuries

I believe her adventures

avenge my defeat

and place food inside 

my silenced mouth 

she jumps, steers, climbs

and lands on her feet

she strolls, steers, prowls,

lands on her teeth

all the while she

unfears her invisible audience

cruising along with her

noiselessly listening

as she speaks in cultures

as she trundles through forests

and sticks her tongue out

and holds it there

to taste new sap

to spar with a saap

and giggles as it lashes about

and just like that, with a flick

of the invisible camera

she’s onto another adventure

before I have swallowed my 

bite coated with saliva

I wonder, as she takes a boat ride 

down a spiteful river,

with a helpful local,

on day two of a one hour show,

could I ever be her?

could I be a wanderer

a taster of poisonous sap

a fearless foreigner-

foraging my way through the ancient 

and alive distant lands?

just then arrives the scene

of a Bangladeshi railway station,

‘that explains the unidentified

previous scene of the angry river-

this is close to home’, I figure quietly.

she appears in khaki and dusty white

swimming against the tide

jostling for space in a sea of men

their darkness contrasted against her white

waiting for the delayed train, 

clear in visible monsoon sweat.

not just another woman in a maze of men

double gazed by both the camera’s invisibility

and the more unsubtle gape of incredulity,

she is the one who can look back. 

then the words fill my ears and eyes

and I become one with the incredulous eyes:

“as a Westerner, this may feel a little odd,

but they mean no harm.”

she has never been looking at me

wondrous exploration, 

I am reminded with a crushing blow,

by a few English words, 

is not necessarily an ability 

it is a historical accident

of the colour of skin

a sign of the territory you were born in

a right to label as ‘new’ what lies ‘unknown’

to select eyes and minds who own

and distribute the tools and text of ‘discovery’

a thrilling historical mea culpa 

a glorious falling

into a dark continent that redeems

anywhere in the world it could be

populated by gaping savages

in need of light, terrifying

and harmless indeed.

the adventurist is closer to home 

in the lands she braves

than that sea of dark eyes 

watching her on a railway station 

in a nowhere town (in Bangladesh), 

or mine for that matter, 

an educated Indian woman, house-broken

and projecting with a lingering gaze

at the black and white scene,

before me, can ever know,

our irises catching the reflection

of distance 

and fallen glow

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