Vandana Khanna Interview, with Julie Brooks Barbour
One of the first things that struck me about this sequence of poems was the voice of the persona. A favorite line of mine is “So you can see I am an empty bowl careful / with my wanting.” Parvati’s longing, which arises in different ways, threads itself through each piece. Could you talk about your use of persona in these poems?
For this particular sequence of poems, it felt necessary to use persona to bring the myth of this goddess from the pages of a book, from the stiff, pink-cheeked statue in my mind, into a woman with a mix of human desires and faults, who wants to be accepted, who wants to make someone notice her. I’ve always been drawn to persona poems, to their complicated, back-talking nature. I’m thrilled by the way they argue with what I think I want. Their pretense and performance offers some small measure of “truth” that goes beyond my own self and beyond expected ways we view “icons” and “gods”. Thus, Parvati becomes a girl who can’t help but try to please, who wants to be “good enough”. Persona felt like the best way to translate the complexities of these emotions, to allow them to be difficult and uneasy. Also, it was my one chance to play at being a goddess—who wouldn’t want that?
One of the things I love most about these poems is the complexity of emotion that you mention, and how it changes based on the situation of the persona. Parvati becomes very much a part of the human world with her complex desires, which don’t just rest in sexual desire. As you mention, she’s a woman who wants to be noticed, but she also has the power to obtain that attention, as we see in “Parvati Tires of Waiting for Shiva.” Could you talk about the theme of desire in the narratives of these poems?
There are many stories surrounding the goddess Parvati (as she is often referred to by hundreds of different names and myths), but the ones that intrigued me the most were about her resolve to lure Shiva from his isolation in order to marry him. The idea that Parvati’s “worldly” desire for Shiva required her to give up life’s pleasures, to give up participating in desire, captured my imagination. I wanted to explore how the difference between desire and austerity can be thin, how wanting and not wanting are intricately tied together. It makes me think of what we do to achieve our desires—of what we are willing to hold on to and what we are willing to give up.I find this idea very intriguing, about what we’re willing to do to achieve our desires, and am interested in the ways this idea threads its way through these poems.
Are these poems part of a larger project? Could you talk about other ways you’ve explored this idea in the story of the goddess Parvati apart from the poems included here?
These poems are part of a larger collection I’m working on that focuses on some of the stories of Hindu mythology. As I was writing these Parvati poems, another voice, the voice of an unnamed goddess, started emerging. This voice was more suspicious; she questioned everything in the world around her. She was looking for answers beyond her own personal experiences. She wanted to know what it really takes to be a goddess and who gets to decide. What makes someone holy? And, why would anyone even want to be “seen” as a goddess? The idea of desire in these poems transcends the individual narrative of Parvati to consider more universal or elemental desires: the longing to speak a “truth” and be heard, to make a lasting impression on the world, to be holy. These poems try to investigate why we need or want these things from our lives.
Parvati Practices Her Austerities
The first thing to go: the word soft,
the clean teeth of a comb, the color red.
Then, I forget what I look like, or don’t care:
weave twigs in my hair for clips, make believe
mushrooms are pearls, sheathe my feet
in slippers of dried mud. I teach myself
to hold the hum of OM in my lungs until
I’m holy, until you open your eyes and notice.
So you can see I am an empty bowl careful
with my wanting. I can wind the hot gnaw
of hunger into a tight spool, a body ready
to snap, ready to sing any song you want
from the thin reed of my throat. My narrowing
shoulders proof of all I’ve given up. Look for me:
a girl in a white sari the color of bone, a girl wrung
free of this world. Tell me this time I’ll get what I want.
Parvati Tires of Waiting for Shiva
Even the peacocks refuse to stay—only
grey-streaked birds, dumb and restless,
nip at my shoulders. See how well I suffer—
in puja for a hundred years, season after season
of my skin’s sweat-damped rind, of my lips
a chapped mantra of mud, breath of belladonna.
I have shunned music and salt, cleaned
my body with the ash of dried leaves, unbound
my hair. It stands, strand after wiry strand,
errant and black like my will. I can line
your eyes with kajal to protect against every
evil, offer you a dowry of plucked lotus,
their tongues a bitter blue. I can bribe
the holy out of you.
Parvati Laments Her Reincarnation
My body a revision of bones and skin,
face a dim-lit moon looking for its place
in the sky. How many times must we
rewind, start the story over? The stink
and heat of a wife’s work stuck to my skin,
then you—smelling distant, of moss
and meadow. Each time we meet
something gets subtracted: the peculiar
beat of my blood, the browned husks
of my eyes. Read my palm, tell me where
to stand. Lie and say you hear the river
rushing through me, vein by vein.
Parvati, in the First Blush of Love, Has a Premonition
You pretend not to notice
how we are whispered about—
the birds all thieves, line their nests
with our chants. I can’t quiet the hot
clatter of my blood, more miracle
than I imagined, and still this wonder:
every morning you touch the smooth
slope of my neck to see if I’m real.
In the dark, my thoughts are good
at bringing heat to your face.
In the dark, we believe in the lie of us.
Bless me with your thumb in red paste—
tika-marking my forehead. Leave behind
this night’s throb and pulse on my skin.