I Will Not Bear You Sons by Usha Akella, Spinifex Press 2021, was virtually launched by Dr Robyn Rowland AO on 23 March 2021.
I agreed to launch this book spurred on by three things:
FIRST, how can anyone resist a Spinifex invitation! Publishing feminist literature for almost 30 years, Susan Hawthorne and Renate Klein have contributed more to world literature for, by and about woman than we can ever give them thanks for.
SECOND, I was interested to read poems from a woman whose name Usha means Goddess of the dawn from Sanskrit and Hind . And I’m so envious of that!
THIRD, I read an interview with Usha. When asked Why do you write? “She said It is my form of breathing. Literally, I suppose. I was a chronic asthmatic as a child and youth while growing up in Hyderabad which meant many days in bed by a window. I wrote to keep myself alive and feel alive. Perhaps the writer’s sensibility in me was formed in those days. This predisposition to cast oneself as a witness, to stand apart and record both worlds that are within and without. To learn how to watch and listen to the world was formed by those days in bed. I think that the primary reason is unaltered, though I am no longer in the grip of that ailment. I write to know I am alive”.
This I thought, is a kindred poet. And yes, here it is: poetry full of life; poetry from both the inner meditation and from the difficult real world. Poetry which MEANS something and does not play word games.
Complex, passionate, inspiring, challenging, brave, confronting and often angry, this book reaches broadly, ranges widely. The dynamics of dark and light are well-balanced, though at times, we need to take a moment, breathe again, as the violence against women poems strike flesh.
The historical, cultural and spiritual/religious range and allusions are extensive and had me, uninitiated in Indian culture, reaching for Google, and that is an experience I’ve always enjoyed. The journey into greater historical understanding and knowledge from poetry is not so regular an experience. My own work delves into history and culture, so I was fascinated to see the process at work in Usha’s poems but in a totally different culture and history.
A book is not merely a collection of poems, but needs to take the reader on a journey and keep us travelling. And these poems are well ordered to allow the dynamics to balance, particularly those of the dark and the light.
Usha’s poems also sing. Like incantations, or mantras, they ripple with music. Their images are striking, powerful. Yes Usha ‘birthed’ a festival titled Matwaala, meaning ‘intoxicated’, and her work is intoxicated with image.
Themes in the book range widely.
*The creation of poems – these are marvellous poems reaching for and capturing by their elusive wings, the essence of poetry to the poet, the ethereal nature of a poem’s origins.
Usha has a great gift for rhythm and a clutch on metaphor. Often turning words into strange new vessels, she paints much colour and vibrancy into her work:
In ‘Not Enough’
a voice that is a bell in the bones
a presence the taste of cardamom chai
a day ripening to the colour of crushed cherries
and in another poem ‘the crochet shadows of trees’
Here is a segment of her beautiful prose poem ‘Erasure’, on the process of creating the poem itself, with a footnote by Bashō “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought”
Like leaves, like chameleons, her poems. The color, peeling a little
differently, sometimes like hibiscus, something like mangoes, leaking
juices, staining pages. She, chasing herself. The poems were butterflies
in the sun. Her net caught none. They left like swallows, like bats, like
penguins. They left unafraid of homelessness.
…. Others whirled like dervishes; and some left
a cold blanch on her cheek. Others were re-named so strangely they
were bewildered, mumbling distracted, begging to be claimed. Soon her
poems, a silent kingdom spreading like an ink stain on the earth’s eye.
Like a ghost she enters them, erased gradually, seeking what the great
Her use of metaphor, to vibrate sounds in her poems and her recharging, returning of images is often stunning. A powerful example is this poem dedicated to Eva, the first witch burned in Germany in 1572. I’ll read all of ‘Recant at St Maximin’ here because it sets up the ear and the mind’s canvas for this wonderful use of language. Hear her passion; see the grip of image.
Recant at St Maximin
So, this is the hinge-work of skin
in keeling flames, those the caves of eyes
slurping my pain,………… pitchforks like
an alphabet staked ………..in the ground
………….. this is bone-sheen,
………….. like fishscale sear in yellow water;
………….. the eyes want more,
more pain, want ………… incantation to leave my lips to save myself
so I can be tossed back in again like a penny in a wishing well
of epileptic flames ……….but this is my mouth melting ……..smile-grimace
I mouth something like …….forgiveness …………. curse
…………… these are words melting
…….this is how orange feels.
………….. I pour myself out of myself molten lava,
………….. scarlet-ribboned skirt
city of lightning, an orange waterfall;
………….. ………….. body-liquid-pain one.
I burst into petals of the sun,
………….. I throw comets from my
…..navel, I am sprouting auburn blossoms
………….. …………… ………….. I burn the day. I am hell,
………I am your air.
………….. ………………. Centuries, breathe if you can.
Usha has said in interview that every poem must invite dialogue as a poem and not as a political agenda. And strongly feminist, she lives up to that promise in an area fraught with creative problems.
*Violence against women and girls;
These are powerful poems of anger, of confronting truths in the worst of events. Crucially, the poems name actual women and girls who have suffered because in poetry it is always the intimate politics, the particulars, that grab. Her feminist voice is so strong, it strikes almost physically and is visceral. ‘In Enough!’:
People let us say it.
Bring back our caged children to a field of sunflowers,
open our land to people as we would our palms
to catch a raindrop,
bring back Aylan in blue shorts
washed up as a fish, snuggled in sand,
let us not say again: he did not make it,
let children not have to tell their stories.
Let us bring back Gulsoma, seven years old,
oil her back scarred like a cluster of sardines,
let us hear her laughter before she was married,
let Malala not be shot in the head, let Karla
not have to say 43,200 times raped.
as Usha writes in her poem for Anne Frank:
Anne is neither the beginning nor the end,
we sacrifice our children in all our bungling
any newspaper in any city is proof.
Go to Gadhra!. Go to Serbia!
Go to Afghanistan! Go! Go! Go!
*Spiritual / religious pathways
Yoga, Hinduism, the Goddesses, the Christian Mary – the spiritual is woven into the fabric of her poems and so are dreams, dreaming – boundaries with real time often blurred.
*Life choices and the complexities of freedom are canvassed. How to break free. How to remake a life anew. There are parable-like poems such as the wonderful prose piece ‘Darbar of Frogs’. The antithesis of a fairytale, the swan is gradually plucked to fit into frog culture. No-one is listening to her. She speaks of her pain to her father. but nothing. Then eventually there is the rising
noticed, miraculously, it seemed like her feathers never wholly disappeared.
The more they plucked, more sprouted. She lived in pain but sprouted quills
to write her songs.
And one day, the swan looked in the mirror and saw only one reflection—
hers. Just like that, one day it happened. She’d also learnt to live alone for so
long she became unafraid of anything. And her voice came back stronger
and sweeter than ever.
She lifted up her stripped wings and flew away. It was a wobbly flight. But
*What can be gleaned from poets who have gone before across cultures: Sylvia Plath, WCW, Virginia Woolf, Kamala Da, Mirabai and the Sufi, Sanskrit poets appear. Importantly I felt, in all this her response to Woolf was a reaffirmation of her own life in ‘They cannot persist in a sunlit room’ for Sylvia Plath:
Even though I’ve dipped my nib
in the dark ink of her well
I’ve been a woman sobbing on my bathroom floor
I’ve been a hanging woman from a noose of an ancient culture
Still, I am not Sylvia
*Loneliness and belonging:
of course for a poet torn between countries, relocated into a vastly different culture, issues of loneliness and belonging whip out of lines frequently. In ‘This is Just to Say to William Carlos Williams’ …the comparison between WCW’s poem on plums and the eating of mangoes with childhood grandparents raises “a sweet homesickness’ in the ‘sticky dribble on the chin”.
And from sailors in ‘Scuttlebutt’: we hear
Embayed, we belong to two lands and as the flag of the water erodes the
bulkhead of our hearts, we begin to belong nowhere.
Yet the poems hold an ambivalence; a love of colour, flowers (hibiscus, marigolds), fruit (mango, persimmon), spices of India, but it’s also a country for which ‘I could feel hate’ for its capacity to ‘bend a woman’s light’, writing of her paternal grandmother, in ‘Memoranda for Baama’. Yet her own mother’s light burned on, ‘a raging demoness’, and one from whose story her own “heart was being prepared as a torch / to carry the story onward”.
*Family and its various faces. In ‘Requiode’ we meet the poet’s daughter Anannya, whose laughter heals, so that not all poems “ache with loneliness”. And here is companionship through continuity of women, “the chord of lineage”.
Marriage in India is painted large as a kind of currency exchange. Of course, it is more universal than just one country. The trap of goodness, the mythical image of the good woman, the constant task of man-pleasing; the almost slavery of it is written into ‘Harmony’, with a mother-in-law cooking, presenting, re-presenting food, urgent for perfection, for male approval. Marriage is often entrapment
From a Brahmin Niyogi Woman to a White Woman
I keep myself white as snow
I live in my suburban home
yellow stucco and stone
and the stones in my pockets grow.
I stay within glass walls
where duty and goodness call
tipsy in dharma resisting booze
watching as they crack and break
watching Virginia Woolf inching into the Ouse.
While we’re on family … The stunning title poem ‘I will not Bear you Sons’, “can glisten like a fresh wound” So casually the devastating sexist muttering … “I want a grandson” the “merely harmless old man’ says; ‘give me sons’”, before leaving a family celebration where the women work tirelessly to please. The poet writes:
no-one heard the river of my mind become glacier
no one saw my heart become a glass paperweight
on the fluttering pages on my breath.
And the poetic rage that follows is itself a mantra with Usha’s almost ecstatic rhythm of anger, and her validation of the power of ‘the dark one, the mad one, the monster one, the one I’ve seen come out of myself to tell the world truths with a tongue of fire’ instead of the women with ‘plastic perfection’. Then her curse
I will not give you sons,
to make sure you are not resurrected
For the dark ones, dark like us,
the spitfire ones, the ones with sparkle and soul-fire
I will not bear sons, my womb will be dry,
for my daughter to grow as a sunflower rooted in earth
for her power as woman …
to watch her undenied, unstoppable by male siblings,
to let her lift herself to the sky with your blood
to see your sap grow in a woman’s body …
I will not bear you sons.
Finally, Covid has to appear to a distraught questioning poet.
In ‘7.8 Billion Caved’
The mind is like an abacus now
computing deaths on the excel sheet
of consciousness; from the Spanish flu 20-50 million,
from the Black Plague 50 million, from Covid …
Yet families, in ‘Reemergence’ create “a new pattern of reality”, a quiet dance of simple human actions in harmony and kinship, and with an imperfect acceptance
Spring is upon us – this too is reality _
the sun’s golden bombarding drenching suffusing,
this beauty is undeniable – a world savaged by light
saved by light, singing with light.
And what of love? Those are poems that breech the ugliness of the world. Again in ‘Requiode’ for Anannya, hear it:
the house is her,
till she came we inhabited
geometric squares and rectangles
softened at the moment of her birth,
the walls began to unfurl as petals,
we gave off a new fragrance,
the doors opened as envelopes filled with money,
the stairs were stairways; all definitions expanded,
the house became the moon revolving around her,
she our earth, our sun, never mind she was born
in the dead of winter, she was fire, she was hearth,
she the prophet whose teachings I learnt through
my expanding heart; there is no dark side to this,
no irony, no appeasing the cynicism of this century.
I declare this book launched through the many countries we can and are reaching. Let it change you, reader. Let it uplift you and your voice.
Usha, it’s been a pleasure to meet you through this work. Your powerful feminist poet’s voice is heard.
May your fire always burn.
– Robyn Rowland
Robyn Rowland has published 14 books, 11 of poetry, most recently Under This Saffron Sun – Safran Güneşin Altında, Turkish translations by Mehmet Ali Çelikel, (Knocknarone Press, Ireland, 2019); Mosaics from the Map, Doire Press, Ireland (2018) and This Intimate War Gallipoli/Çanakkale 1915 – İçli Dışlı Bir Savaş: Gelibolu/Çanakkale 1915, Turkish translations by Mehmet Ali Çelikel, Five Islands Press, Australia; Bilge Kultur Sanat, Turkey, 2015; republished Spinifex Press, 2018. Her poetry appears in national/international journals, over forty five anthologies, eight editions of Best Australian Poems. She has read in India, Portugal, Ireland, UK, USA, Greece, Austria, Bosnia, Serbia, Turkey and Italy and is published in translation. She is filmed reading for the National Irish Poetry Reading Archive, James Joyce Library, UCD, available on YouTube. e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7KfJL_otFc; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E-gzWdQlBEE. A definitive interview on her work can be found at https://thebluenib.com/robyn-rowland-in-conversation-with-denise-ohagan/