biblio-excerptise:   a book unexamined is not worth having

White Elephants

Reetika Vazirani

Vazirani, Reetika; Marilyn Hacker (intro);

White Elephants

Beacon Press 1996 (Paperback, 108 pages $15.00)

ISBN 9780807068335 / 0807068330

topics: |  poetry | india | diaspora

Reetika Vazirani cut her wrists and killed herself in 2003 in a well-off
neighbourhood of Washington DC.  Before she died, she had also killed
her baby son, whose father is the noted American poet Yusef Komunyakaa;
apparently their relationship had soured of late.

This is her only book released some years ago, and it had won a minor prize.

Going to See the Taj Mahal

When we set out on the train to Agra
I thought, What an old palace we are going to see,
        it’s an old grave.
I was tired when we reached the station and you hired a taxi
to take us to the steps of the Taj Mahal;
you couldn’t even wait until morning,
said it was something to take in by moonlight,
white marble against black sky is a great sight in moonlight
        you said
(marble just cleaned for a holiday).
And there beyond our driver’s wheel I saw the domes—
the large dome and the four surrounding domes.
The silhouette stood out so clearly that for a moment
I forgot this fact in the midst of the splendor
(the long stretch of grass leading up to the site):
the Empress Mumtaz, she bore fourteen heirs for Shah Jahan—
absurd to forget Mumtaz at her marble grave,
marble banded with prophecy and verse.

But what did I know of the Empress except this tomb?
So I pictured her this way:
she was not a beauty, nor especially devout
(always slow to cover her head).
On Thursdays when the open market came past the red
        stone quarry,
she dressed as her handmaid
and took a poor cloth sack into town
where she bartered for beads women wore on ordinary days;
and secretly with cheap dyes she’d paint herself into the wild
        casual beauty of youth
(the kohl inexpertly applied but alluring).
Then she gave her sack away or left it on the road
should someone find it hoarded in her suite—
the Empress buying this five-and-dime garbage!
And she imagined her life without the constant royal curfew.
There were places she couldn’t go—there were even daily
        attractions at the well,
attractions too scandalous to list.

If only the Emperor’s architects knew her!—
to free them from the illusions which inspired the tomb,
to free them from the wished-for glamour of a Mumtaz.

other review

Winner of the 1995 Barnard New Women Poets Prize.  Reetika Vazirani committed
suicide in 2003.

    A SUCCESSFUL Indian-born poet who wrote eloquently of emigrating to
    America cut the wrists of her baby son with a kitchen knife before
    killing herself by slashing her own wrists.

    The bodies of Reetika Vazirani, 40, and her two-year-old son, Jehan
    Vazirani Komunyakaa, were found lying in a pool of blood in the dining
    room of a house in Chevy Chase, a north Washington suburb.

    Ms Vazirani left a suicide note referring to her husband, Yusef
    Komunyakaa, 56, who is considered one of America’s leading poets and is a
    Pulitzer Prize-winner. Mr Komunyakaa, an African-American from Bogalusa,
    Louisiana, began writing poetry while a soldier in Vietnam. He is at
    present a professor of creative writing at Princeton University. He had
    made no comment on the deaths of his wife and son.

    Ms Vazirani’s suicide has shocked the American literary world, which saw
    her as a promising poet who had established an individual voice.

    Her first book of poetry, White Elephants, which took eight years to
    write, won the Barnard New Women Poet Prize in 1996 and her second, World
    Hotel, published six years later, won the 2003 Anisfield-Wolf Book
    Award.Last year she become writer-in-residence at William and Mary
    College in Williamsburg, Virginia, and in the autumn was due to take up a
    position, with her husband, at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

amitabha mukerjee (mukerjee [at] 17 Feb 2009