Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment by Minal Hajratwala

Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey

Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment is published by The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, one of whose patrons is Carolyn Forché; Hajaratwala is also fortunate enough to have attended workshops by poets as diverse as Li-Young Lee and Kim Addonizio, among others. The book is many years in the making, and all the richer for it.

An epigraph for Part Four, ‘(avatars) gods for a new millennium’, describes Hajratwala’s approach to sourcing material and producing her work:

‘From the Vedic perspective, truly effective poetry…fashions wholeness out of what otherwise may be experienced as brokenness, constructing cosmos out of chaos.’

William K. Mahony (The Artful Universe)

This is a big, noisy collection, with a lot going on, but there’s a lot of skill in it too. Hajratwala’s passions and obsessions are woven deftly into each other: the convergence of body and spirit, sensuality and soul, oppression (of women, of ‘queers’, and of a country), and rebellion. There is edginess and joy, anger and tongue-in-cheek humour underlying the whole experience, and reading Hajratwala is an experience. She works well with dichotomy and paradox: ‘My intimacy’s with the seven million’ (‘Dialogue of the Lady Monsters’). I find myself deliciously enjoying her irreverent, intelligent connections, her intuitive understanding of humanity.

We know we’re in for something interesting from the title and cover, which displays a collection of headless Kali-like arms in gestural poses inside a labelled jar. The physical book is larger (more bountiful) than usual, about the shape and size of an ipad, which gives Hajratwala’s longer lines room to sprawl across the page without spilling over.

The first poem is ‘Angerfish’, a sequence in four parts, in which the conceit of the fish beautifully deflects what the poem is really talking about, a feature that runs through the collection:

I was raised without the fish
as some children are raised without candy
or time.

No one in my family spoke of it
as no one spoke then of cities
or queers.

Her similes – and there are many – are flamboyant: ‘the roots of trees pushing themselves out like amputated limbs still feeling themselves itch’; ‘their leaves like velvet paintings inscribed with gold cowboys or dying landscapes of fruit’; ‘our lives glowed like islands, some large as empires, others solitary jagged rocks that scraped the fickle sky.’

Speaking of empires, this is another recurring theme: ‘Empire made us monkeys, robbed us of our lips and palates’; ‘the walls had strange white accents.’ Hajratwala displays insightful awareness of oppression: ‘They want to use us, even our words.’ But Hajratwala is never simply doing one thing, and her treatment of subject matter is as varied as her range. There are numerous mythical references – to Melampus, Diotima, Teiresius, Achilles, Arjuna –as well as other writers, from the classical (Socrates), to the contemporary (Marie Howe). In ‘Dialogue of the Lady Monsters’, Lady Gaga strikes up with Casssadra of Troy, who warns her: ‘Ego is nothing. The gods are cruel. Don’t become one.’ Lady Gaga’s tone is somewhat more contemporary: ‘Hey C, Googled you. Hot stuff!’ Their tonalities and demeanours shift as each speaker adapts to the other’s register.

Hajratwala’s lyricism is at its most seductive when she is writing about food: ‘the fish has grown in me / like bubblegum or seeds of water/melons’ (Angerfish); ‘I will lipstick its beak with cranberries and thyme’ (Her Discourse on the Leaf); ‘lightly blessed with cumin and salt’ (Her Discourse on Art and Shortcuts):

So open your mango quick & slick: wash it, stand it up, slice in parallel thirds in two curves around the pit. Let the slivers fall lotus-like, hairy core flop to one side, submit to gravity’s random, disinterested dance.

(Her Discourse on Art and Shortcuts)

She excels in striking, unexpected juxtapositions of words: ‘tart sherbet of the heart, petty scrotum lust’ (The Goddess of Lemons); ‘the crickets breed belief’ (The After-Dark Humming Confusion). As her titles show, this is exhilarating, extroverted poetry that surprises on every page.

Hajratwala is also blatantly sexual, even (outrageously) invoking the divine in the sexual act:

Only the prostitutes in the temples know God. They have sucked & fucked him, run their fingers down his spine & up his cavities, heard him moan and beg for more. “God,” they like to say, “is one ugly motherfucker.”

The exotic language of her culture is one of her weapons; she sardonically points out to us that her political messages are often cunningly disguised in a sensual wrapping:

Just the word
chanted like a sutra silk silk silk silk
brings the poetry buyers to their knees
stoned on the musk of exotic suffering.

Whatever we say
love war race hate
if we wrap it in silk
they will take it home,

The closest comparison I can arrive at is Billy Ramsell’s recent collection, The Architect Dreams of Winter, which conflates spiritual and sensual language with that of computer networks. Like Hajratwala, he uses multiple voices, his book is similarly shaped and sized, and his lines, like Hajratwala’s, breathe right across the page. In fact the ‘architect’ of his title is also a goddess.

As with Ramsell, sensuality is only one of Hajratwala’s weapons. Another is humour. Part Three, ‘archaeologies of the present’, is divided into twelve sections, and to give you an example of Hajratwala’s approach absorbing social media registers, here are some titles, complete with hashtags: 1-00 The Beautiful (Tags: star, blood, cellular, closet, homo, hegemony); 2-00 The Professionals (Tags: sugar, pastry, rules, sky); 3-00 The Fiddlers (Tags: progress, promise, sins, sugar); 1-01 The Gamblers (Tags: glue, whip, ingredient, history, repeat, custom, life, stars).

For most of us (and even for the gods) it all comes down to food and sex. One innovation is Hajratwala’s frequent references to ‘The We’ and ‘The They’. (Initially you think it’s a typo. But of course not. Everything in this book is deliberate.) Here’s an example:

Milk is a celebrity so The They celebrate the thin film it leaves above the lip, a new fetish for millionaires, like botox or submission.

‘7-00 The Hungry (Tags: eat, eating, ate)’

Though her orientation is Indian, Hajratwala – raised in New Zealand and elsewhere, educated at Stanford – is not constrained by the boundaries of culture or nationality. Her years in the States have left their impression, and her image-base is a concocted from a merging of cultures.

One flaw of this lucky bag collection is that there’s too much going on. Reading is like channel hopping, being served up morsels of excitement with each image/sound byte. It’s the kind of collection you can’t read in one swallow. But then, you wouldn’t want to rush it. Like a chef who uses a certain spice with panache, Hajratwala serves up this extravagance with wonderful echoing motifs which pull the whole collection together.

I haven’t even mentioned Part Four yet, which, surprisingly, is a play, complete with eight characters, many of whom double up as other characters. Set at the turn of the millennium, it depicts a magical otherworld that ‘shifts from temple to suburbia to abyss.’ I’ll leave you with part of the Prologue:

VAC ((the fearsome Vedic goddess of speech): Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the new millennium. Please turn all cellular telephones, beepers, and mobile computing devices to the ‘vibrate’ setting. Vibrations can be very pleasant and do not offend the gods. Take a deep breath. Now please clear your minds of all preconceived notions, emotions, feelings, perceptions, desires, hormonal rushes, hunger pangs, hot flashes, itchiness, and other distractions. Here we are at yet another beginning of time, when each of us, divine and corrupt, must recruit loyal followers to our cults, lest we disappear into the mists of –

For a taste of something different, Bountiful Instructions does what it says on the tin.