“Light” and “Melon Cleaver” (and the other poems in this sequence) are based on stories I’ve known my whole life, stories central to my family’s history and identity. So, when I began writing them, I knew (more or less) the narrative I’d follow. This had never happened to me before. Usually, I write like a character from Grimm’s: I fumble in the forest, intent on a path that’s been eaten by birds. For once, my path should have been clear brick, not bread crumbs—but I felt even more lost than usual.
For one thing, I had a commitment to the literal truth—never a good situation for poets. I don’t believe a poet is any more obligated to tell the literal truth than a novelist. The lyric “I” is a work of fiction; if bread crumbs lead away from facts, she must follow. However, these stories didn’t belong wholly to me. They’d been lived and retold by my father, uncles and aunts. I wanted to tell them the way I’d heard them.
Context posed another problem. The poems revolve around the dissolution of British India. Many Westerners are unaware that India and Pakistan were once one country, let alone that their 1947 partition induced an enormous migration (the largest in modern history), notable not only for its size, but for its brutal communal clashes. I felt the need to provide background information, a sure way to strangle the life of a poem.
I also had in mind an admonition: a poet I admire once advised me to avoid direct depictions of violence in poems; he found them manipulative, an assault on the sensibilities of the reader. He admired (as I do) poems where a single bird in the town square can evoke the horrors of 20th Century European history. In the stories I wanted to tell, a direct experience of violence within a close community was the single most crucial issue. Could I address that kind of violence explicitly?
I thought the answer might lie in a broader framework. I spent months researching the major events of 1947: the Truman doctrine was proclaimed; Kalashnikov designed the AK-47. The partition of India and Pakistan was just one thread in a chaotic, bloody blanket. By weaving the events of 1947 into my family stories, I’d hoped to slip in the necessary background information, blunt the violence and use historical material to provide contrasts and surprises. This grand idea resulted in a glib, list-laden bit of verse, reminiscent of a pop song: “We Didn’t Start the Fire. . . .” I shelved the project for almost a year.
Then, I happened to be at a reading where a poet read several sestinas. I came away thinking about repetition: a word or phrase paced and repeated becomes an incantation, a ritual, a structure. Isn’t that exactly how the telling of these stories had worked in my family? And what about variation, the breaking of expected repetitions? Might it enact retelling, misremembering, the rupture of family structures and rituals?
I began to sense the path, the shape of a poem: a pantoum, with its circular structure and its spell of repeated lines. The repetition and variation of whole lines gave me a way to build up information organically, to create an intimate world and then break it. As I worked, I found the form providing a second voice, locked in conversation with the old, immutable stories.