The Singer of Alleppey (Shanti Arts, 2018).

Review by MaryAnn L. Miller
Pramila Venkateswaran, in addition to The Singer of Alleppey, has had six other books of poetry published and has won many awards. Raised in Bombay, Venkateswaran lives in New York and teaches English and Women’s Studies. She is a Poet Laureate of Suffolk County, NY. She directs Matwaala: South Asian Diaspora Poetry Festival.

Venkateswaran who never knew her grandmother Sitala, memorializes her as The Singer of Alleppey, who lived in southern India. Venkateswaran creates the persona of her grandmother, thus, also becoming the singer. Her story is divided into parts of a day, beginning appropriately with Night. The initial poem “The Long Shadow of Evil” sets the tone for Sitala’s poignant music. She recalls the slap she received from her groom at their wedding: the beginning of the abuse she would suffer in her marriage:

A bird bangs itself against glass and falls.
That’s how I feel when he slaps my face.

I know the difference between sinking dark
and womb dark: My marriage is dung. (13)

Sitala faced her marriage and wrung out every bit of joy, finding meaning in ordinary events as in “Come, Dance with Me In the Rain.”

I want to rub this song into the earth,
cup handfuls of wet mud and drink its smell…

Look at me dance,
my pirouettes have peeled the skin from my soles. (18)

Sitala is singing and dancing herself into oneness with the earth. She is saying: Don’t forget me. I existed. My skin is there in the mud. I don’t care if it kills me.

As she memorializes Sitala’s legacy Venkateswaran inserts a Tamil traditional children’s song into the poem “Lullaby to Ward Off Death.”

I sing kaiveesu amma kaiveesu
                        kadaiku polam kaiveesu, picking up
their little arms and swinging them
back and forth, imitating the stylish young. (28)

This song is documented on YouTube from several contemporary sources and I found myself fascinated listening to it in Tamil illustrated by charming cartoon children carrying out the activities of the “stylish young.” The cartoons describe going to temple, shopping and other daily events. (Mama Lisa, Bumble Bee) We are brought into the present through issues that women have faced in the past and still do. The political times are inevitably present in Sitala’s life.

There are poems here that talk about cow dung, miscarriages, births, Margaret Sanger, and the attempts in India during the 1960’s to curb the birth rate. Some might remember when vasectomies were freely performed in clinics at railway stations. Sitala speaks in Why I Could Not Plan My Family, 1960:

… All I want to say is I’m glad my daughter can visit doctors
to get advice about when to have babies and how many

instead of getting pregnant and trying to drink vile
cocktails produced by the local quack… (83)

            The poem provides a pivot to the present that Venkateswaran deftly uses to place her grandmother’s experience into relevance to our own experiences of mothering or being mothered. She includes Notes (109) that explain Tamil references and language. There is another deftness that is evident in Venkateswaran use of poetic form. For example, her eloquent use of the pantoum in “Karma Blues” as Sitala reprises the pain of her husband’s true nature:

Can I recover the song I dreamed at dawn?
The cock’s shrill crowing scattered the notes
I held together with all my strength.
Mist fills the hollow where the song dwelled.

The cock’s shrill crowing shattered the notes
Like love silenced by a train whistle.
Mist fills the hollow where the song dwelled
Thickening as the hours pass. (42)

Finally, in “Single, 1947” the widow celebrates her freedom on the death of her husband: “A widow, / I’m free. / India is also free.” (86) There will be hired mourners at his funeral. (90) The fate of women is tied to the fate of the country. The persona of Sitala, in The Karmic Cycle, wrote a final letter to her daughters. (103) I found myself fortunate to be included in the receivership, savoring the skillful integration of language, persona, and poet through the historical richness of The Singer of Alleppey.

Thirtha (Yuganta Press, 2002) 

Review by Michelle Reale (from SAWNET bookshelf)

      It is difficult to imagine that professor and poet Pramila Vankateswaran ever had trouble putting pen to paper. But in a recent e-mail in which she discussed her writing process with me, she revealed just that. The "shock of arrival" in the United States left her with a peculiar form of writer's block which lasted an astonishing 5 years and, in her own words was "probably due to the shock of being removed from familiar images." If one can imagine that during this time Pramila's mind was processing all of the strange sights and smells not to mention the inevitable conflicting feelings generated by the transfer to a new land, then the rich lushness of her Thirtha poems can be that much more appreciated. In her foreword, Pramila explains it thus:
A central metaphor for the immigrant in America, journeying is not merely the physical movement form place to place, temple to temple, but is the act of opening oneself up to what each moment offers. Along the way, the pilgrim becomes the conduit for the voices of other people speaking form the emptiness of displacement or the fullness of having arrived. In recording the intimate and commonplace particulars of people's lives, her images mix and dissolve, recreate and replenish experience, attempting to discard divisions and create newer harmonies. Thirtha, ultimately, is this process.

Thirtha is divided into three parts -- 'In the Haze of Continents', 'Lighter than Water', and 'Thirtha'. The poet sets the reader upon her own journey moving through a time when the sense of physical displacement results in emotional inertia. This is exemplified in the first poem of the collection, The Well. To this reader, it brought the somewhat comforting realization that "journey", the real thirtha, transcends physical place and is as much a journey of the heart and mind as location.

In The Well, the poet begins with an image that is in stark contrast to the literal and figurative warmth of India:   

In the wake of fall's birds I cross Greenwich Mean, clouds and steel holding us above the thin, dotted slicing time. Heaven is cold. Snow fans out, fails to ignite words.
      The poem goes on to assure the reader that though there is a moment in which thoughts, words and feelings seem impenetrable, they are there, nonetheless:
Stories lie in the body's well. I am the thirsty crow dropping stones into it until water rises to my cracked lips, freeing sound.

Ultimately, Thirtha moves the reader by its struggle to know oneself and the world.

For the uninitiated, the collection contains a glossary of Indian terms, but the strength of the poems are such that one will not feel necessarily compelled to consult them. Venkateswaran makes the journey one which almost anyone can relate to, as her images are at once very particular and very universal. The expression of journey lies in wait within each and every one of us, wherever we may find ourselves:

Words rise where waters weave around tip or cape; where lands shreds, where depths let go of trees, only shallows here to wash our feet before entering silence.

Behind Dark Waters (Plain View Press, 2008)

Review by Prathim Maya Dora-Laskey (from SAWNET bookshelf)
20 October 2009
      This impressive volume of poetry is framed on a cosmopolitan, global scale and fleshed with intelligent and compassionate observation. Although, there is the odd, once-in-a-while ode to nothing in particular, most poems in this second anthology of Venkateswaran's are anchored firmly in mythologies that may be traditional or contemporary, ranging from the Ramayana to the saga of Aung San Suu Kyi. Furthermore, each poem is powerful with fluent lyricism and I found myself reacting to the tonal reverberations of seemingly simple lines long after the physical act of reading. Consider for instance, "...loss weighed like a gold coin/in the bottom of your chest" with its pithy coupling of emotion (chest = heart) to economics (chest of treasure).

Pramila Venkateswaran is a professor of English and Women's Studies and her engagement with both of those environments would be obvious even if the bio note did not take care to inform us. In fact, some of the best poems (of the several excellent poems in this volume) are those that corral her incisive analysis of the language with her feminist sympathies. In the poem titled A Sound's Body, for instance, the epigraph that posits Trinh Min-ha's idea of "linguistic flesh" is coupled with Assia Djebar's point that in Arabic, "woman" and "wound" share a common sound, which leads Venkateswaran's addition to this growing feminist palimpsest:

Like in Tamil ponnu girl and punnu wound
flesh word word flesh
are separated by a vowel change.
      And further down, for its companion in English
off-internal rhyme and homonym
I see woman flesh out woeman
witness a sign’s power over our experience.

The poems -- about sixty of them -- seem to sample everything from pathos to conversation to humor. Apart from the skilled multicognitive acrobatics, there are anthems to mothering daughters and mentoring students, cultural misunderstandings and agit-prop lyrics. And although this sounds like a veritable medley of disparate styles, Venkateswaran's very recognizable, extremely potent voice radiates from each of these poems. It is a voice so potent, in fact, that I feel no contradiction in wishing this slim volume with its small-press credentials a far-reaching distribution and a considerable readership. 

      Trace (Finishing Line Press, 2011)

      Review by Kamala Platt
      20 February 2012

        At times poetry can transport a person, not only one's mind, but one's entire body to an unfamiliar place and in doing so make one feel recognized, as if she belongs. Pramila Venkateswaran's Trace does this for me in relation to those acts, small or large completed with conscious purpose & awareness, and by opening the world of meditation.

        The first poem is the title poem in which Trace ultimately becomes "a swiftly vanishing sweetness." That might also define Pramila Venkateswaran's 25 page collection-- I could easily write on each poem for each stands on its own/ has its own breath & breadth and also functions in relationship to a wonderful, and brief, collection. Indeed, a functional range of meditation's depth and breadth through word is brought forth in the title poem Trace as it is in many of Pramila Venkateswaran's poems in this collection. We see not only where her mind ventures, but also where her body dwells in meditation, for they work in tandem--in the poems as in the Yoga Practice the poems evoke: "The body's pose/ and the poem's body/ are at attention" (3) to quote the first lines.

        In "You Are That," (4) a friendly code-switching begins: whether one is familiar through cultural connections with South Asia and/or with Yoga, or not, one can pick up overtones of significance of the languages used in these poems, albeit, with study, for some, and with the acknowledgement that each reader's interpretation touches a surface, others reach from a different slant. In this second poem of the collection, the poet identifies her relationship to Patanjali, as implied in the phrase "Tat Tvan Asi"; the poem's last stanza

        You are that
        twin certainties
        joining in the
        invisible mirror
        held up by a disappeared
        could be seen to mirror the front cover art. Indeed, the artist, Jayashree George, evokes a visual image that corresponds with much of the poetry's imagery -- a view within the opening of the hands in dance, the seed, beej, or the solid exterior cradling a watery green line of life water, the inanimate encircling the alive, my mind goes on ... Wanting to clarify and "complexify: definitions for which I (not someone with any formal Yoga training) was approaching Pramila's words, I looked up some of the poses and less familiar words. The word "beej" in the poem "Mouthing God" brought me to websites such as and Somehow the process the poem initiated, the seed, if you will, is what this poem observes in the relation of word and seed in the mouth of God.

        As someone with a birthday in early February, "February Meditation" (5) caught my attention. The poet narrates her meditative journey: from "New born" through confrontation of the "Tsunami of thoughts" and "unhappy endings" that weaken her and return her to an unnoticed "undercurrent," by which she is "cradled" then fantastically lifted "to the tallest pine" where she is "as light as nothing." As a reader, I am transported on a journey I will probably never take, and think back to another poet's friend's "Viaje." While it may seem odd at first thought, to compare raulrsalinas' "Trip through the Mind Jail" to Pramila Venkateswaran's meditations on meditation, the connections between the worlds of these poets suggest that transposition may be more about finding common "trace" in divergent experience than some kind of "universality."

        Like these poems, the entire collection has its own integral chronology that takes us through various poems/ poses (and places) to the final poem: Shavasana (corpse pose); but should this sound like a predictable ending, think again. The last lines suggest otherwise:

        I welcome
        this death
        that generates life
        this un-song/ that contains
        songs of aliveness,
        this receding
        into the beginning
        before I became, before this body
        touched the elements.

    Book Description: Ardha Matsyendrasana

    Imagine that fish motionless on a lonely shore
    listening to Shiva whispering the secrets of yoga
    into Parvati's ears. The burden is no longer
    the goddess' alone; the fish suddenly gains
    divinity, pronounced by Shiva himself
    as Lord of the Fish, to spread on earth
    a rarefied mystery.

    A path opens on earth beckoning all
    to trust it to take them to the answers
    they seek.

    Oh, to be that fish! To let the spine melt!
    My right hand wrapped around my left knee
    moves further toward the outer reaches,
    so my torso aided by the momentum
    of my left hand swings further left, until
    I feel utterly wrung.

    I surrender to Matsyendra, my mortal
    effort replicating a fraction of his amazing dexterity,
    while desiring his natural, chosen blessedness.

    More about Pramila Venkateswaran
    [Poetry] [Reviews] [Bookshelf] [Sawnet]

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