Isabelle Thompson reviews Ixora by Prerana Kumar (Guillemot Press, 2023)
Ixora, named for a South East Asian flower commonly used in Hindu worship, is a debut pamphlet from a spoken word poet who presents a distinctive, modern voice that remains very much concerned with tradition. These are English language poems steeped in Indian and Hindu culture and vocabulary. As someone who is not from this background, at first I found these poems difficult to penetrate, because I needed to look up multiple words for each poem. However, the poetry opened up to me through the understanding that this is a collection interested in inheritance, in what we take from our parents and ancestors – the trauma and violence, but also the strength and defiance.
One prominent feature of these poems is their idiosyncratic punctuation. Apart from one poem (‘Moonflower’), none of the poems uses full stops. Initially, this can be disconcerting or confusing, but the uniquely constructed grammar of the poems made increasing sense to me when I saw it as consistent with the poetry’s themes and preoccupations. By omitting full stops, Kumar creates poems which inhabit their own pasts. The long continuous poems, unbroken by the most terminal of punctuation marks, never fully move away from their conception. They are constantly looking back at where they came from, struggling to break free, yet reaching for the new.
This is a collection interested in inheritance, in what we take from our parents and ancestors – the trauma and violence, but also the strength and defiance
The pamphlet looks at gendered violence within a family, exploring its roots and how it is handed down across the generations. This is notable in ‘My Father’s Eyes Make Any Thing a Son’. A father’s disappointment in having a daughter rather than a son is explained by an incident from his childhood:
Once as a boy, you loved begonias
braided into your hair, asked giddily
for a baby sister, and he rammed
your face under the scummy water
behind the house, pushed you
into the bank until your eyes stopped streaming
your kindness, until they turned
polished gravel in their sockets
Although restrictive gender roles, violence against women and familial violence in general is central to Ixora, women are simultaneously presented as strong, vibrant characters at the heart of the pamphlet and family. In ‘In Our Dream Nani Shows Me How to Shell’ the speaker’s grandmother has her fingers burnt by her husband: “nani’s husband offers her fingers up to the candle / when he learns she has broken her fast”. Yet those same fingers are shown to be deft and capable as she shells crabs:
this here small sea-god!
my fingers shell a sea-god then think
what they do to a man’s face?
Similarly, in ‘Evening Hair Ritual’, the speaker’s mother’s hands are sore from labouring in the kitchen: “Mama’s fingertips are bulbed to pearls / with the peppered throb of a day’s grinding”. As these raw hands tend to the daughter’s hair, the mother instructs her child on how to manage or overcome a man:
Slip through that butcher’s heave, she says,
breach the sails of his grip on your way
Feel him tangle in your heavy hair,
hold him struggling, taut-lined there
Think, you could make him
many things; a buckling rod,
a splintered mast
The influence of older female relatives on younger generations is nowhere more evident than in ‘Legacy Story: Drape’. Here, the speaker recalls watching her grandmother “drape a saree”. The poem ends with the granddaughter “pleat[ing]” her “grandmother’s leftover / body” as if using it as a saree. The speaker carries her relatives, their pain and their traditions with her, as something both beautiful and heavy.
Kumar’s extraordinary accomplishment is to fashion a collection which is rooted in tradition and the past, but which takes these and twists them into a language, a grammar, a poetry that is entirely new
Ixora also contains poems where the speaker attempts to break free from her family’s emotional legacy. The final poem in the pamphlet, ‘I Rewind the Second My Mother’s Girlhood Breaks’ includes the line, “I refuse her inheritance”.
Kumar’s extraordinary accomplishment is to fashion a collection which is rooted in tradition and the past, but which takes these and twists them into a language, a grammar, a poetry that is entirely new. Reading Ixora with its lack of full stops, its lush language and its blending of past and present feels like inhaling for a long time; I am yet to release my breath.
Isabelle Thompson holds an MA in creative writing from Bath Spa University. She has been published or has work forthcoming in a range of magazines including The Interpreter’s House, Stand and The New Welsh Review. She was the winner of the 2022 Poets and Players Competition and a runner up in the 2021 Mslexia Poetry Competition. She tweets @IzzyWithTheCats.