Book Review, poetry

TQL Reviews Terracotta Dreams ( A Book of Poems and Musings)

“With dawn I followed the dew,
Drops on the green, they dripped,
In concert and the soil quenched.”

“Oh! She has smelled many and more elixirs,
Yes she has smelled of flowers, of perfumes fine,
Of fresh morning breeze to the prayers divine,
Of warm slumber afternoons, to the last dew dusk,
Of night’s cold robe filled with twinkle mass,
But her senses filled only with his essence!”

– Monalisa Joshi

The Establishment: Understanding Editor, Language, and a Poet

Editing is an art that has shaped many great works of literature. The job of an editor becomes more crucial to shape a body of a novel, trimming it down, making a sensible pause here and there, but this art of editing is rare and rare are the editors now in our world, those few who have it and who have known the beauty of pinning themselves down to allow a sinking text to float for the love of literature.

On the other side, editing of a poetry book is neither discussed much or talked about except in workshops or seminars where time is a privilege for those who are able to have a critical look from the eyes of another poet. Out from the institutions of learning, a world of capital market arrives on our face and it does not like poetry because it does not pay or create a serviceable value, and yet poetry is becoming the major force of twenty first century where n number of people are arriving from deeper silences with new curiosity or as first learners in their families without worrying too much about the world of extreme mode of capitalism. It is poetry which speaks when everything becomes unclear and blurry. It allows in that brief space, an encounter with our world as it is and like a magical wand, the poets keep coming with new verve to excite a generation that is hooked on mediums of technology. It is a positive value in times of great mishaps of fact and fiction blur, because when people try to reason out their lives in our contemporary period, poets arrive with an ecstatic feeling of production of texts which are shaping the consciousness of people living through the connected world of digital theatre. Poetry expands our world even if there is a chaotic network of too many things at once.

As I started to write this review about Terracotta Dreams, a poetry book recently published by an Indian woman writer, Monalisa Joshi, I wondered about the role of journals, publication houses who sift through materials to give voice to some at once while keeping behind a log of many others who never make it out in the world with ease. It is hopeful to go back to Susan Sontag and her equivocal hope on breaking the barriers of high and low culture, if one were to see what poetry is doing out in the world. It however also adds a certain dilemma on small presses and journals that have to give wings to others who are not streamlined in the mainstream of letters, while hoping for a financial break out to arrive. In most cases, it does not happen and this lack of support in arts is more prevalent in India where no such government support or outside institutional support has ever existed except in small pockets of privilege, class and older people of literate backgrounds who are tuned into a sense of cultural bias, that is to not allow outsiders or new age people. How can one hope for an intervention in matters of financial support and moral support to such people who want to see a different platform where youth can arrive and speak amid youth and not older people, where no labels are needed of familial reference of elitism. Literature suffers in India because of this reason. The traditional modes of supporting arts and literature through government aid in regional languages as well as English language is a very closeted network of oldness where nothing new has happened in terms of outreach of regional and national literature to a wider audience through mechanisms of public discourses, modern technology, suitable employment of right people in right places. This space is occupied by few and even with modern means of communication, there is no firm support to new age people.

Language and Chores: Indian Women and Writing

Editing is an important art but reviewing a book of poetry is also important. Poetry often finds a small mention along with new featured novels and rarely do they have a proper column dedicated to their art and craft which is the opposite of prose writing. One clear reason is how poetry leads a reviewer to wonder about this art which has had to struggle for its moorings in public imagination and how it has no potential readers because of the lack of interest to understand poetry in the first place. The invention of novel somehow could have led to the epic verse form to go back and let the world of imagination and digression arrives in the form of storytelling. A poem can however speak more than a novel could, but as so the present situations, we have hardly good reviewers for poetry.

To pick this book by a relatively unknown author has made me see the role of language and poetry because a poem or two can be reviewed minutely, but a whole collection is an ardent task at hand, to give justice to the voice of a poet. The work by Monalisa Joshi is not a perfect piece of collection, but I have reasons to review it and one of them is grammatical errors which is why I had to evoke the condition of editing in the publishing industry and the need for celebrating poetry.

Monalisa Joshi is a blog writer on WordPress and BlogSpot. She is currently writing a work of fiction. She is a mother of two young sons and is a woman married to a man who is a silent supporter and observer of her creative penchant, of putting her passion and hunger in writing which has, in her own words, become an uncanny reflection of her world. Terracotta Dreams is her second book of poetry after “Stirring Spoonful of Emotions.” She does her chores of home amid writing activities and is an editor of an online magazine, “Plethora Blogazine.” She is also an active member of an international poetry group known as “The Awakening Poets.”

The book is divided in two portions. One is a collection of poems and the latter part is full of musings. In the preface to this book, she expresses gratitude to her mother who taught her kindness, love, and strength and believes in her artwork through the element of love as she says so:

“it inspires me to write fantasy poems, romance, and love poems, ballads and more. Maudlin emotions also inspire me to write but it is glee when I am most productive.”

The collection of 81 poems is a mélange of romantic love, yearnings, depiction of Indian women, places far and near in a language that is metrical leaving a faint assurance of an old English form of sonnet. She is deeply inspired by Elizabethan poetry and Victorian women poets like Christina Rossetti, from where her deep affection for ballads and folklore poetry arrives. The poems are long and exquisite with their material texture of abstract words used to ponder and reflect on life, but there are errors too in poems. I did not mind them, because one reason I thought was: “it was a quick job to publish it and yet it had known years of silence.” I do not mind mistakes which are grammatical and possibly this shows the state of editing and lack of human resources in the field of literature in India. The most beautiful parts of this collection are the musings as a poet which are brief, fragmented and carry the finest quality of confessional art where there is no need to bother too much about authority and how a poem should be written.

There is a recurring theme of antiquity in her poems of love and yearnings which play open the dichotomy of cage and light while the meaning to drive the point towards both is shown through shadows which are dark, haunting at times, and yet are rooted earthly in expression. It is a gradual release of expression through words that allows a poet the very precise medium where things are collected, nuanced, and understood.

It is the poet who knows how shadow works in showing the light of a poem to impress upon its fabric, its colour, its breath, and its desires. A poet always opens things and in this old ballad inspired poems, Monalisa shows such beauty of restraint and release, in holding a line, surrendering to the art while reflecting on one level how wings do not remain for long and how despite their being gone, the lament is there of what was present around the fall into the void. It is ethereal to see how she weaves back and forth to show the loneliness of it:

“Withered and tattered pieces fell,
From my bare body, emotions melting,
Down my cheeks, in white rivulet,
My eyes swollen red, I hide my face,
I stay behind the doors, a tiny space,
The curtains flow at times when soft,
Gust blows; it soothes me with the scent.”

In this above quoted lines from the poem, “I am not a Goddess,” she later opens up the horror of being lost in a web while telling us how the past always creeps up in loneliness, where the void is questioned, where the doubter in her mind arrives when she says looking back at the grave, a facade where dreams have cracked open and yet there is a strong sentiment to capture the heart, “I am a wingless woman, I have the curves. Yes!” which turns into a yearning for love, an eternal potion of it while flowing endlessly with struggles that were present:

“Go to pilgrimage! Bow my head to whom?
My peace is devoured by you, my darling!
Making love to me still in times of havoc,
Haven’t you been much demanding lately?
Forgetting evermore, that I am not a Goddess…”

There is a seething amount of suffering that arrives from beneath the grave in remembrance of a past that is alive and yet unreachable. This is pertinent feeling that is present in many poets like A.K. Ramanujan who show the nostalgic side of life in suffering, to ease the pain, like her poem, “I Stood a Mannequin” which charts out a hazy description of infancy, youth, war and old age and yet there are constant plays of mirror and shades to describe each emotions that passes through her, when her poems open up the sensual desires carried within and outside to a lover:

“Quivering she took his coarse hands to,
Her heart that thumped loud and swift,
Beneath her supple bosoms, his heart now,
Dancing to the tune of her swift beats.”

This is one of the finest poems in the collection which most of the time evoke the longings of the poet in love. There are other poems, however, where fear is equally emoted about falling into a trap of maze where the urgency to hold someone dear to life is present in a manner which shows how intimately vulnerable we can be as humans without touch, kindness, desires that make us alive as humans and most importantly hope which allows us to cling to it, even though the path is not clear.

The collection of disparate and distinct poems do not go well together most of the time, but if they are seen as independent creations charted over a long period of time, then they make sense of the flowery language that is weighed at times in eighteenth century poets in strictness and at times it flows like a mundane detailing of tea, cups, love, places.

There is evocation of muses, nymphs and fantasies of the poet in many poems which are altogether stitched in other verses where detailing of Indian life as a woman is shown through the chores and silent banging of the kitchen, the spices, the sarees, the bindis, the teas, which altogether reflect the reality of Indian women revered as Goddesses while keeping them behind the closed rooms in chores here and there to bend and bend over and again. One cannot overlook at such heightened reverence given to Indian mothers by men as Goddesses of homes to keep the family unit intact, because these men further the same project of patriarchy while selling her the version of Goddesses to take away her energies which can be spent well in education, emancipation and change. How would Indian women arrive on the roads with pots and pans to show how they live silently weaving their own stories where heroes always are the sons. This is a problem of tradition and rootedness, where a daughter from a normal Indian family learns precisely at a very tender age when she is asked for her help in chores, even if she is being sent to the school.

This gaze is shown in her poem, “Indian Goddesses of the Kitchen,” where she affirms the identity of Indian women as Goddesses of the kitchen while showing the creative energy that flows with her being as a member that holds the family in check, in control while spending that energy in chores. It is a celebration of the endurance of Indian women who cook and rinse and tell stories through silences, but what is evident is that the poem works against itself to show how this image of the women has been sold to her while not providing an equal position in terms of finances, education, and ideation. I am obviously talking about the average Indian women who come from rural towns, cities, village, whose education could have been stopped just after schooling years as if the graduate college is not meant for her to taste what is freedom like.

This theme is best conveyed in “That Long Silence” by Shashi Deshpande, where the lead protagonist, an educated and liberal woman of a middle class family goes through the scrutiny of male gazes and who fights back to not change her name according to her husband, to know how the history of women in India has been written in homes and chores, and to know how with a literature degree the woman understands her place, her identity after contemplating and detailing about her daily life revolving around her parent’s family home, her husband’s home. It is a work of literature that truly captures the heart of India and that is the women who aspire, who struggle and who have to move through the chores and create their own language to speak.

The musings of Monalisa Joshi opens up that aspirational desire to reach out and grab the dream even after knowing that there are setbacks and hurdles:

“I was standing alone on the world’s stage,
The impish sprite laughed from behind,
Mocking more often, I had no horde to hear.”

In all this, however the identity of being shaped by Indian women like mothers, aunts, the poet seems to embrace the peculiar Indianness of these women in whose reflection she follows her craft as a poet while celebrating Indian womanhood:

“Myriad women on the mirror who,
Stood tall, beside their men, my mother,
And aunts, I have seen them all,
And now I follow into their,
Footsteps and feel proud of them all,
The legacy of gracious Indian,
Womanhood continues with me,
And shall with,
Many alike of our reflections.”

This celebration is of agility of being an Indian woman against the face of bleakness, of having an ability to smile through the pain which moreover speaks about them being at the edge of receiving a silent treatment of ignorance, as if whatever the Indian women did was out of love and compassion. Which also begets a series of question as to:

1. What is the price for this compassionate side of Indian women who inhale in their lungs, the spices and aromas as Monalisa describes jubilantly in one of her poems?

2. What are Indian women made of?

3. What is the cost of her tears, her agony, her comparative jealousies, her moribund fears, her need of warmth, her need of solid heart to push through all that the dark days can bring?

4. What makes her wild to desire and dream, to control and release, to understand suffering and happiness equally?

Anais Nin had echoed that it took hundred men to write about a woman because the woman showed a different face to each and which shows how important is to experience life as a woman with myriads of colours unlike a single white colour that absorbs all―if one were to consider the oral narratives which they keep moving in their hearts and minds to teach their children about the world when everything is going down in the drain, when they offer their silent gaze to fight back and take the place that you want as your dream. Is that ability of storytelling known to many?

It is not, because the world of dominant letters pushes back these women to mould themselves like men, while in reality they need not do such a thing but to embrace their womanhood which knows the ability of understanding and transcending the pain of body (menstrual rivers), the world of stories, and the world of magical healing which they bring with them as carriers of words, as silent storytellers because they shape men and women equally through their wild languages and because they know how to raise children with authority and freedom to mould them as free dreamers which no father can give except pushing the need of discipline to berate his children.

This equally, on opposite side, shows the role of Indian mother which has been a constant site that is of the Indian mother who is always the mother of suffering, compassion, and agility. The problem is their typical role which has been caged around chores with a consistent negligence of her role in the family as the provider of warmth and balance to her husband and her children which shows her silent suffering in between dishes, where pleasure of life is bound inside the walls. This is where neither feminism, modern or its different variant, has ever talked about such women who keep churning out the same role over and again, educating her children, helping them believe in their dreams and then she is shunned like a cow as if the metaphor were real: milk the cow and milk the woman, no difference is there in-between. This is a legacy of close-knit system of communities in India, where such woman adjust their lives while equality and education of women is closed to women like her, who are the majority of Indian female populations.

It is so that her oral narrative is also going through amnesia, as she becomes the carer, the giver of the family while financial literacy is far away from her to release her into the world of freedom.

Supposing, if woman could be like the eternal void where on one hand, everything is stored or kept unto them to forget like objects to objectify her appearance or glorify her through metals, diamonds, fabrics, while keeping her at the center to neglect her feelings, her thoughts, her stories, then would it not say enough about the Indian women who are used like a sacrificial matter while throttling them in the homes to be the face of family? This position gives birth to compassion in her while in reality it is she who has been kept asleep deliberately to not know more about the world.

There is a problem of navigating modernity for her through traditions and this role of Indian mother is quite compressed and shown in a poem ‘Morsels of Love’:

“When the whole town was asleep,
Shutting down their doors till evening,
She remained awake, holding a plate full,
with lunch, a plate full of coastal meal,
She fed me with her hands bite by bite.”

The imagery might have changed now in modern India (upper class demographic, because there are many Indias which are in silence), but the essence of the Indian women remains the same as the carer who sacrifices her dreams, her life to uphold the virtue of motherhood.

I knew the book I took to review had its flaws which needed attention, but I took it after a year of ignoring review work for the magazine, because of the notion of not presenting anything with which I could not relate. To read through her work, you can buy her book here:


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Monalisa Joshi
Author of Terracotta Dreams