Monday, November 14, 2016

Collisions on a Non-Existent Highway By Rosalyn Marhatta

Collisions on a Non-Existent Highway
By Rosalyn Marhatta
Red Dashboard LLC Publishing
Princeton, NJ
ISBN-13: 978-1535469135
46 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Avoid the musk of Orient jungles and the threat of tiger paws. Or don’t. Rosalyn Marhatta’s Collisions on a Non-Existent Highway doesn’t. Instead, she entices her readers into a movable feast of dangerous love, loss, and longing. She infuses her stanzas with cardamom-spiced passions in a pulao of cultural contradictions. From the first poem, Beware the Tiger Burning Bright, the exotic captures the imagination (not to mention the lust) of Marhatta’s youthful persona. She opens the piece this way,

His scent assailed me in the dorm stairwell,
Moved the staircase sideway till I stumbled.
It lingered in my nostrils, lured me to a lagoon
Where palm trees sang and he served skewered lamb
Sauced with love songs.

Marhatta sets the atmosphere for one coming cultural collision in her poem Epicurean Love. After a meal of curried chicken the poet reveals a bit of the magnetic attract-and-repel dynamic going on. She recounts her lover’s cautionary stories and her smitten reaction,

You spun a tale of a tiger
who leaped from a photograph
to kill a king in a locked room,
because the king could not escape his fate.
We argued about fate’s inevitability
On our second date.

You led me with your stories
To a land of silk sarees
And husbands who were gods to their wives,
And I touched your curved khukri,
the weapon of the Ghurka warriors
who pushed past fear to deliver death to the enemy.

We create the accoutrements of harmony in life’s composition, arranging them methodically to reinforce our personal narratives. Marhatta’s persona does this in her poem Himalayan Tea Song. Sitting with “angels in saris,” she breathes in the scents of masala tea and cow dung. The presence of mountain blue pervades all. But interruptions do occur. The poet notes one such intrusion,

My niece in pink silk
brings me chai tea
with milk, cinnamon,

sugar—four teaspoons—my tongue
revolts, stung by its sweetness;
a brown neighbor boy with a cherub grin

saunters by, his stomach a balloon,
arms and legs spindles
like a “Feed the Children” ad from Vogue.

I want to feed that boy
Dal, vath turkarie : rice, beans,
curried vegetables, but the sun

reminds me I’ll be gone
in a month …

Taste becomes geography in Marhatta’s poem Tea and Virginity. Detail dominates the mnemonic canvas. Little rituals more than equal the loom of the massive mountain ranges as gatekeepers to exotic hidden worlds. The poet explains this equivalence in her concluding lines,

The eldest sister
pours me tea in a glass. I wonder
how to lift a hot glass
with no handles
without burning my fingers,
how to sip like a lady
without drinking that milk skin
that floats on the top.

I grasp The glass
At the top,
Tip tea into my mouth,
Swirl its sugar on my tongue,
Inhale the cinnamon-cardamom
Infusion and taste the Himalayas.

Vicarious satisfaction in art, specifically the cinema, often saves the day by absorbing raw emotions and delivering a resolution of sorts. In her edgy piece, Bollywood Noir, the poet seems to relish the lead-up to an obvious violent denouement,

Maybe you never wanted
to brush your face against her breasts
that pointed to a heaven
where angels ply sitar
on your temple to soothe
away nightmares of Yeti fangs
at your throat.

Maybe I never took that cab
To the pink neon sign
Blinking “Desert Rose Inn”
Or saw through that window
How she perfumed
The light bulbs and fed you chocolate sex,
How she caressed your toes
I had kissed early that morning.

The poet embeds the title of this collection in her poem Riyadh Odyssey, 1982. Beneath the surface of Saudi society knots of foreign women chafe against medieval restrictions. On the other hand hospitality reigns supreme in this complicated culture. Marhatta observes the obvious from her protected confines,

Saudi women glided down streets
cloaked in abayas and veils—
black ghosts to most—
hiding everything womanly,
except wrists jingling gold bangles
and feet flashing fuchsia shoes from Paris.

Saudi men, all in white, flailing swords,
danced together on TV.
Fred and Ginger embraces
would have been erased
by religious police.
And we Americans craving commercials
with women in bikinis,
titled an onion-domed building
the pink tit.”

Setting out her last best meal of salmon with caper sauce, Marhatta’s persona imagines her former lover in his alternative universe, with an alternative wife, and eating an alternative meal. Her recipe of pathos with a touch of humor captures the time-scape perfectly. Here is the heart of the poem,

My meals must bite.

Once you would have fed me chunks of curried meat,
spiced and sliced through the bone,
with notes of cilantro and cinnamon rising high,
fed me raisins with sea foam rice,
and cucumber pickle in sesame sauce.

But now, you cook for another wife,
or probably she cooks for you.
Does she glide her body across the stove,
to spark a light to boil your beans?

If you have an appetite for spicy food and percussive passion, you’ll like this book.

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