Review | The View from Zero Bridge, by Lynn Aarti Chandhok
| Anhinga Press, 2007
Divided consciousness, assimilation, and stereotypes: many fine first collections have been written that explore these issues; in other words, the experience of being a hyphenated American. Even the best of these books, however, tend toward a similar approach. As they explore identity, they establish binaries, casting one culture against another, often while expressing a sense of estrangement from both. In her first collection, The View From Zero Bridge, Indian-American poet Lynn Aarti Chandhok avoids that approach. While she does transition the reader back and forth between India and Brooklyn, her interest mainly lies in the assertion that, “On either side, the only truth is loss.” The poems in The View from Zero Bridge emphasize convergence rather than division, and for Chandhok the point of convergence most often is loss.
Many of the poems in Chandhok’s collection are elegies and she crafts them with a probing, painterly eye and offers them as an act of bearing witness. Here, for example, is “On the Fourth Morning, After Cremation”:
The men do this: Remove their shoes. Step down
the long gray stairs into the ash. Wade in
and run their fingers through to find, still warm,
the pieces of her bones that have endured.
Collect the fragments. Fill a burlap sack—
not large—it might hold rice or flour if not
these bones. Scoop handfuls of rose petals, soft
as ash, into the bag. Then tie it up.
For hours, drive the road along the river.
Look to the cold, worn landscape. Find the spot,
the clearing where the river’s arc casts back
the daylight. Disembark. Remove their shoes.
Roll up their pantlegs to the knees. Wade in
across the stones to where the current’s swift
but tender. Balance and untie the bag.
By handfuls, place her gently on the water.
And I do this: Stand on the shore and strain
to see. Compelled, unbidden, I remove
my shoes, and roll my pants, and gingerly
negotiate the river and its stones.
I’m taken in. I do not cast the bones
but watch as, with the petals, she departs.
She travels fast, her stiffened body gone.
The petals dance upon the surface, flash
then flicker, undiminished, in my eye.
Chandhok does not call particular attention to what a Western reader might find foreign in this scene, nor does she use the poem to launch a comparison of Indian and American death rituals. Instead, she documents the scene with reportorial care—the men do this, and I do this—which creates for the reader an expectation that what follows is factual. She also stands aside, not casting bones, but watching, and her detachment allows for empathy and the possibility of consolation. In the space that Chandhok creates between herself and the poem, readers are allowed to slip in, to palm some warm ash and feel it sift through their fingers.
Chandhok is very much a poet of the natural world and, for her, loss is often rooted in the earth itself. In “Marketplace,” set against the violent backdrop of Kashmir’s history, “bitterness had bled into the earth,” and in “Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 10/01”:
Lily pads large as hammocks, amethyst flowers,
pond scum and weed so thick, I start to think
I could walk across it, but the railing
and cold, black water peeking through the reeds
remind me what seems permanent will change . . .
In Kashmir the earth holds blood like memory, linking loss to nature. In Brooklyn, a month after 9/11, the natural world seems able to support the speaker, but the black water and the railing—and what a wonderful word choice “railing” is, with its connotations of protest and of being out of control—remove any illusions of permanence. Again, the care given in the description of each place emphasizes what is familiar rather than what is strange, and creates the opportunity for the reader to experience rather than observe.
Chandhok’s poetry is finely attuned to the interaction of the human and natural world and how that interaction creates the experience of place, whether that place is Kashmir, where she spent many summers as a child, or Brooklyn, where she currently lives with her husband and two daughters. In the title poem, “The View From Zero Bridge,” set in Srinagar, India, we are given a view of
a young man in an orange, cabled sweater
swinging a bale of okra to his shoulder;
a pyramid of eggplants on a scale;
a farmer setting weights to balance them,
the wind across the Jhelum billowing
his gray pajama. After the shutter closed,
the farmers tipped their heart-shaped paddles, turned,
rowed back to Dal Lake’s maze of floating gardens.
The narrator observes from the periphery and these observations accumulate into a rendering of a unique and knowable place where locale and action are inextricably linked. Chandhok creates this convergence through a heightened awareness of how sensory details accrue to create an experience that transcends geography. Her poems have a rich physicality, full of texture, sound, and color. In a marketplace in Kashmir, “lotus lay, flat-leaved, blooming in bright / profusions out of quiet pools,” while in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, “The rose petal, translucent in late sun, / reveals a web of veins that arc and spread / around themselves like curls of silver wire.” Chandhok’s portraits are acts of attention created with a panoptic awareness that ultimately makes whatever world she represents tangible and real.
Chandhok turns her poems much like a potter, seeking a unity of form and function. “The Carpet Factory,” a sonnet, illustrates her formal dexterity:
A wood shack on the riverbank. Inside,
through dust-filled shafts of light, bright colors rise
and drown the warps, transforming their brown threads
to poppy fields, the Tree of Life, a wide
sun hemmed by cartwheeled tulips, fountainheads
that spew blue waterfalls of peacock eyes.
With furious fingers mothlike at the weft,
the children tie and cut and tie and cut
and tamp the knots down, turning blade to gavel.
Each pull’s a dust-cloud plink—bereft
of music. Toothless men spit betelnut
in blood-red stains. Everywhere, reds unravel.
The bended limbs of saplings twist and part
and weave into the prayer rug’s pale silk heart.
This poem itself is meticulously crafted and beautifully realized. The form and the content merge seamlessly. Chandhok’s prowess with creating vivid imagery is a true pleasure. One can see the slants of light, the children’s fingers darting at the weft, hear the plink and watch the blood-red spittle seep into the ground. By taking such care with her images, the poet has created an intimacy and familiarity that transports the reader into a world that is fully formed.
The specter of child labor hovers over “The Carpet Factory,” and Chandhok confronts the issue through imagery rather than polemics. The children’s fingers are enraged yet fragile, they tie and cut and tie and cut, and the repetition, the act itself, is “bereft of music.” The line break after “bereft” allows the weight of what it is to be stripped, to be without, to hang in the air. And how not to see these children as “the bended limbs of saplings”? Chandhok’s approach is subtle yet ultimately more compelling than an overt indictment.
The collection as a whole is fully formed and the poems display an impressive emotional depth that is driven by a remarkably mature voice. The natural world is a unifying and universalizing force, and Chandhok is scrupulous in her lush descriptions. The poems in The View From Zero Bridge are inviting and sensual, they create a milieu the reader can fully inhabit, and, by making the strange familiar, they allow for the possibility of understanding and hope.