Book of a lifetime: Only the Soul Knows How to Sing, By Kamala Das


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The Independent Culture

As a child I used to think poetry was written exclusively by dead men; that it was a benefit extended to them well after their bones were disintegrating, or they floated about on clouds strumming harps, or whatever it was dead people did.

I imagined these men (usually bearded) composing sonnets at their desks in the afterlife, finding messengers to transcribe them into the books we were made to read at school, torturing us children with their antiquated poems about daffodils, cavalrymen and pottery.

Then, during my final years of school, I discovered Kamala Das: a poet who was not only alive, but a woman; an Indian one, at that. She wrote about matriarch's bosoms and Dravidian blood, pubes and orgasms, lunatic asylums and unfinished houses where cut flowers reeked of human sweat. Love frequently entered and departed her poems along with husbands and lovers. And the sea was always panting in the corners, "a ceaseless whisper in a shell".

The book that spoke directly to my young adult heart was Das's selected works, Only the Soul Knows How to Sing. This was the mid-1990s. India was changing, opening up her pores to a liberalised economy. The internet was taking off, and I suddenly had the mad idea of becoming a poet. In Das's work I found both an invocation and an invitation. "We are all alike,/ we women,/ in our wrappings of hairless skin."

Only the Soul Knows... is a book that has travelled with me for many years. To read it now is to encounter a palimpsest of all my earlier selves. Pages blemished with exclamation points, circled words and underlined sentences. Markings of pleasure. That language could risk sentimentality, be irreverent and instil desire all at once, was a kind of revelation to me. Mostly, I was thinking: you can actually say that in a poem?

Kamala Das was the first poet I'd read who dealt with sexuality openly, who dared to defy the "categoriaers" by writing about gender and violence. She was criticised, of course, for that too-muchness that women writers are often accused of. Too much menstruation and domesticity, too much about grandmothers. Way too many treacherous men. She made poetry "undead" for me. She hinted at alternative ancestries – a family tree that connected her to Akhmatova, Andal, Sappho, proving that while the obituary for poetry is constantly being pronounced, poems themselves continue to breathe. Poetry wasn't just the preserve of men. Dead women could do it too.

Tishani Doshi's new book is 'Fountainville', published by Seren as part of their Mabinogion series