Words on Rosary of latitudes by Usha Akella
TRANSCENDENT ZERO PRESS,
Book Review by Pramila Venkateswaran
“Octavio Paz, in November 1951, opened the door of his hotel and plunged into a Mumbai street; a door is a wondrous threshold, an imaginary line between spaces.” Thus begins Usha Akella’s Introduction to Rosary of Latitudes, her latest collection of poems. Her invocation of the liminality of the threshold space that we encounter in writing poetry acts as a guidepost for the glittering array of poems that take us from country to country, from Macedonia to Israel to India. Rosary is a meditation on place—the senses, history, language, memory and imagination that a landscape evokes. And the writing that wells up from each place makes her and the poems open the door to discovery.
This doorway opens up in many poems, such as “Istanbul,” “Kalishta Monastery,” “St. Naum,” “Monk’s Cell,” “Dakshineswar 1 and 3,” “Nicaragua,” “Peddling,” “Basilica of G,” “Jerusalem,” “Gethsemane,” “Bethlehem,” and “The city in which I find my beloved.” These poems compel with their surprising imagery, unexpected leaps and turns, and astonishing endings. There is also a silence in these poems beneath the telling. So, while place becomes the inspiration for Akella, the poems go beyond any compulsion to narrate a story or describe a place. As Keki Daruwalla says, in his laudatory foreword that a writer who is writing about her travels needs something more than sensitivity; she needs “empathy, a feel for people and place, and the alchemy of language to go with it to transform the place into something else.”
Some of the poems achieve great formal delicacy as in “Monk’s cell” and “St. Naum”, “Bridges of Struga” and “Kahlista Monastery”. Poems like “Volcano Masaya” startle us with their surprising opening. The first line beginning with the “cigarette stub of Satan” leads to the image of the “prisoners of war” “tossed in” “like pennies in a wishing well,” the lines enjambed and broken with space and line breaks. The form of the poem is like a conceptual poem—the broken lines in the middle of the poem appearing like the bodies thrown into the volcano. Another conceptual poem is “Monk’s cell at Kahlista monastery” that appears like a thread-like line passing through the eye of a needle.
“Nicaragua” is another poem that breathes well, is expansive, and imagistic, in the couplet form. It is an ode to a country that is old and replete with the juice of history that the poet tastes in its monuments and speech.
Akella has a unique ability to present imagery in surprising ways. Akella reflects on the title in many of the poems, most of all in “St. Naum:” “Perhaps the earth passes through the saint’s fingers as a rosary bead…” opens this poem that invites the reader to listen to the beat of the earth. Punning on “beat” and rosary “bead,” the speaker, a pilgrim-poet, asks the reader a series of questions, all suffused with wonderment about the earth as creative source and human creativity. The haunting melody of “The city in which I find my beloved,” through the echoing naming of Santorini, the poignancy of people opening up their umbrellas and listening to poetry in the rain, startle us with the love people have for poetry in places that are bombarded with war and poverty.
The movement of Akella’s lines is reminiscent of South American poets such as Octavio Paz and Coral Bracho, especially in the merry flow of many of her poems, unencumbered by the period; she uses the comma at the end of a line or enjambs a line to continue with the thought onto the next line or stanza, thus breaking the rigidity of English grammar, and allowing us to experience the multilingual voices of the people from Greece to Brazil.
Unlike a typical poetry volume, Rosary is punctuated with prose segments that are reflections of some of the places she visited, such as Turkey and Kolkata, and they form the perfect backdrop for many of the poems. We see a poet for whom there is poetry in prose, and therefore the prose and poetry sections feel seamless.
Many of the poems are located in places that have seen terrible horrors of war, exile, famine, and poverty. Akella offers us beauty where one feels despair. She is able to show how our perception of color and form, as well as our creativity, offer possibilities in a world that is on edge, weeping “tears of blood.” Her words in Rosary are “balm for [our] wounds.”
As Rosary shows, Akella is far more than merely the poetry ambassador for the City of Austin; she brings the globe and a labyrinth of mystical journeys to us in this volume.
About the reviewer
Pramila Venkateswaran, poet laureate of Suffolk County, Long Island (2013-15), and author of Thirtha (Yuganta Press, 2002) Behind Dark Waters (Plain View Press, 2008), Draw Me Inmost (Stockport Flats, 2009), Trace (Finishing Line Press, 2011), and Thirteen Days to Let Go (Aldrich Press, 2015) is an award winning poet who teaches English and Women’s Studies at Nassau Community College, New York. Recently, she won the Local Gems Chapbook contest for her volume, Slow Ripening. Author of numerous essays on poetics as well as creative non-fiction, she is also the 2011 Walt Whitman Birthplace Association Long Island Poet of the Year. For more information, visit www.pramilav.com.