Thursday evening we danced at SF State for an opening featuring art from the diaspora. The event was titled "Picturing Parallax." I was surprised by the title; I always associate parallax with Parallax Press, the publisher of Thich Nhat Hanh in Berkeley (with whom I filled in briefly for a production editor on leave). But "parallax" also means the resulting appearance of difference when something is viewed from different positions. This is both a diasporic and poetic thought (as well as a Buddhist one). While we waited to perform we were treated to some fabulous poetry from Shailja Patel. I'm pulling an excerpt of her poem "How Ambi Became Paisley" from her website to share it with you here. It's hard to be an appreciative listener when you know you'll be on stage next, so I'm taking some blog space now to address her wrenchingly personal and beautifully challenging work.
Patel traces the beginning of paisley to Mosul, Iraq, and its original trade in fabrics sent to Egypt and Rome. In Punjab the paisley pattern is called ambi. The British public became so enamoured with ambi that weavers in Paisley, Scotland, created their own version of ambi in imitation Kashmiri shawls. Hence the development of the moniker "paisley." Patel discusses the shape of paisley, "Ambi. Form of a mango – fruit that ripens and rots the dreams of all South-to-North immigrants. A shape like a peacock feather. Half a heart, sliced on a smooth s-shaped curve... Image a child could draw in a single stroke, free form, and still produce something elegant." After hearing her poetry performed, I was surprised to find that Patel writes her poems in paragraph blocks. When spoken her words are melodic, rhythmic, and rise and fall in verse form. On the page they look a bit more like an essay.
"Kashmiri shawls. Woven on handlooms, patterned with ambi, rich and soft and intricate as the mist over Kashmir’s terrace gardens. First taken to Britain by bandits, aka ‘merchants’ of the British East India Company, they wove themselves through the dreams of Victorian wives, like the footprint of a goddess no one dared imagine." I love that Patel calls the East India Company officers "bandits" because that's a truer description than "capitalists" or "merchants." And the mirrored image of Victorian wives dreaming the Kashmiri legend of "the footprint of the goddess Parvati, as she ran through the Himalayas at the dawn of time" is beautiful. But I also appreciate the way Patel eviscerates imperialism and capitalism. Her description of how British intoxication with an exotic pattern inscribed itself painfully on the individuals and cultural history of a country is immediate. Patel's poems are about displacement, loss, and the emotional dismemberment of migration, or "migritude." But the true gift of her poetry is her revelation of the deep and tangled history beneath the small dewdrop on your scarf or necktie.