Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp
A God at the Door
by Tishani Doshi
Copper Canyon Press
November 2021, $16, 128 pages, ISBN: 978-1-55659-452-6
With irony and compassion, Tishani Doshi takes on so many of the calamities of our modern world in this truly comprehensive collection. From the treatment of immigrants and women to the pandemic, climate change and political tyranny, she aims her words at the injustices and tragedies that sometimes seem to overwhelm us. But through her humor and wisdom she offers a tentative, fragile vision of a redemption available to all of us, an attitude we can all adopt. As she writes in “In a Dream I Give Birth to a Sumo Wrestler,” “How easy to forget / that all we have are these bodies. That all of this – all of this – is holy.”
The poems that address the treatment of women feel like Doshi’s most personal, the issue that strikes closest to home. Sometimes they are actually funny, such as “Advice for Pliny the Elder, Big Daddy of Mansplainers,” whose very title makes you smile, a poem about the ancient Roman philosopher who believed that a single drop of menstrual blood can kill bees. “I Found a Village and in It Were All Our Missing Women” is a more serious poem about women in a democracy systematically denied their right to vote (but still with humor: “They were not fatalistic. Could say apocalyptic fatigue / and extinction crisis in quick succession / after several rounds of Mai Tais.”). “Every Unbearable Thing” is implicitly about non-consensual sexual assault.
Politicians assuming control over women’s bodies, which is horrifying, is the theme of another poem that is still so boldly frank, pulling no punches, and artfully arranged on the page to suggest the female pubic delta, that it makes you smile.
I CARRY MY UTERUS IN A SMALL SUITCASE
I carry my uterus in a small suitcase
for the day I need to leave it
at the railway station.
Till then I hold on
to my hysteria
and take my
In “A Dress Is Like a Field,” Doshi writes about that (usually female) garment, suggesting the old male tropes about “temptation” that justify so much violence (as in “she deserved it,” “she was asking for it”).
A dress is sin. Take Marilyn. Take subway grate.
Take You must have had to paint that on you.
Flamenco ruffle, zipper, Cleopatra in gold lamé.
Later in the poem she writes:
A dress never loses its sense of the dramatic.
It knows how to languish across a washing line,
how to beckon from a mannequin, how to sit
puddled on a floor.
“We Will Not Kill You. We’ll Just Shoot You in the Vagina” is another poem with an arresting title. The title comes from Philippine president Roderigo Duterte’s actual orders to soldiers to shoot female communist rebels in the vagina. Dripping irony, Doshi writes, “It’s true. We’re useless without our vaginas. / How will you rape us?”
“A Possible Explanation as to Why We Mutilate Women & Trees, Which Tries to End on a Note of Hope,” “What Mr. Frog Running Away from Marilyn Monroe Taught Me about #MeToo” and “End-of-Year Epiphany at the Holiday Inn” also address the issue. In the latter she writes, “This country is losing her soul, / because politicians declare our daughters / safe as long as they’re parked at home.”
None of this can be divorced from politics in general, the patriarchy, and so many more of her poems tackle similar issues. “After a Shooting in a Maternity Clinic in Kabul” (think: Taliban) is one. “The Stormtroopers of My Country,” inspired by the Indian, Trump-sounding Minister of Home Affairs scorning Muslim immigrants, calling Bangladesh migrants “termites” is another, comparing the 2020 Citizen Amendment Act to the 1935 Nuremberg Laws. “A Blue Mormon Finds Herself Among Common Emigrants” is another poem sympathetic to the condition of immigrants.
“Creation Abecedarian” is an A to Z acrostic taking aim at the fundamentalist BJP minister of higher education demanding that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution not be taught in schools. This one is uncomfortably familiar to American readers! “This May Reach You Either as a Bird or Flower” is a poem inspired by 81-year-old Indian political poet Varavara Rao imprisoned in 2018 under a Draconian anti-terrorism act.
No wonder Doshi has a healthy skepticism about politicians of all stripes, and she has advice to impart. In “Instructions on Surviving Genocide” she concludes:
The soldier in the beret will say, Go there
to your people, your native people. I won’t
lie. It shimmers. Everything beloved. A vision,
a roof, waiting and complete. Take this picture.
The sweetness. Then walk the other way.
“They Killed Cows. I Killed Them” is a poem about the “cow vigilantism” of a rightwing nationalist Hindu party killing Muslims for killing cows. Horrifying political extremism.
The Indian government’s response to the pandemic also comes under fire. The penultimate poem, “Hope Is the Thing,” after Emily Dickinson, is a poem inspired by the story of a 12-year old migrant worker who was forced to walk home after India went into nationwide Covid-19 lockdown. She died of exhaustion after three days. The final two lines are: “Your final phone call is to the future, / We’re fine, you say. We’re all going to be just fine.”
“Tree of Life” is another poem inspired by the ham-handed government response, after the Indian prime minister Modi gave 1.3 billion citizens a mere 4 hours to prepare before imposing a lockdown in March 2020. Seven Bengali men famously quarantined in a tree outside their village. Hundreds of others died from starvation, exhaustion, suicide.
“The Coronapocalypse Will Be Televised” is a poem about the loneliness of Covid deaths, the title taken from Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” “This funeral song is different. It asks for us / to die alone, to step into a well with inflamed lungs.”
Silence is never magical in this republic.
We believe in procession, in utterance
in honoring the dead, not by shutting up
for a minute, but by going into the street
and beating a drum. This is how we greet grief.
Grief and survival are two themes central to this collection. It’s hard to tell, working through Doshi’s ironic tone, but survival is indeed a goal – to live! The question is, how? How to navigate around all the grief?
“Rotten Grief,” a poem inspired by the mysterious death of 300 elephants in Botswana, that may actually have been the result of climate change, may or may not suggest the yogic practices of Tantrism. The poem starts out with characteristic Doshi wit. “This morning I misread Tantrism for Tourism and it’s been downhill / ever since.” But later she writes: “I think of what this is doing to / all the rotten grief inside me.” In response?
The theory of spanda in
Tantra advises you to live
within the heart. I’m a tourist
here, so bear with me.
Spanda is the life force, the creative pulse of the universe. Another poem, “It Has Taken Many Years to See My Body,” is divided into the seven chakras; it deals mainly with breasts. But Doshi may be working toward a strategy for survival here. The final poem, indeed, is entitled “Survival,” the implicit theme throughout the collection – personal, national, tribal, global. Yet it contains the ambiguous line, “Hope is a noose around my neck.” Like all of us, Doshi is looking for strategies for survival. Everything is tentative, provisional; she doesn’t claim to know the answers. But she’s an illuminating guide. All of this is holy.
Tishani Doshi is a real pleasure to read for the casual sarcasm with which she considers the absurdities of existence.
About the reviewer: Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His latest book, Catastroika, was published in May 2020. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by FutureCycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is). Another chapbook, Mortal Coil, is forthcoming from Clare Songbirds Publishing.