Roped in, we file past spectators too scared
to wave or let a shutter blink, although
only one sound can shatter this tableau:
a word for which the tongue is unprepared.
The column ends at a microphone stand
propped on a platform, giving one the sense
of mastery unearned. In our defense
this march was not precisely what we planned
when plotting our campaign on friendly soil,
committing tracts to memory in case
by staring down the contours of a place
we’d know enough to not be judged disloyal.
Night after night the lists are fed to us
by those who say to conquer is to binge
and yet who cannot quite repress a twinge
of fear that what they do is dangerous.
Words were acquired wholesale, their meanings still
dark, as if asking were impertinent.
To pause to note the view from our ascent
was thought to be ill-timed or laughable.
Instead we learned to recognize the cut
of their apparel, consonant and vowel.
A kind of etiquette, to run afoul
of which could jeopardize our stepping out
onto a stage that traffics on occasion
high school reunions, coaching seminars,
wedding receptions, dancers and cash bars,
but never has upheld so many Asian
Americans. Here we are, joined in kind,
regardless of our provenance or past
vocabularies, lexicons amassed
elsewhere and long ago. We left behind
those badges of our own state sovereignty,
trading them in for ribbons we might snag
by pulling magic letters from a bag
each of us hugs as evidence of plenty.
And plenty we were promised, too. To blend
right in, provided we could win ourselves
distinction first: tin cups to line our shelves;
cast-out spell-books; a title to defend.
Sunil Iyengar’s long-anticipated first book of poems, A Call from the Shallows, will be published by Finishing Line Press. Pre-orders are available directly from the publisher.
Sunil Iyengar writes poems and book reviews. He lives outside Washington, DC, where he works as an arts research director. His writings have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Criterion, Washington Post, Essays in Criticism, Literary Matters, The Hopkins Review, and many other publications. A Call from the Shallows is his first chapbook.
“How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,” Shakespeare writes, “Whose action is no stronger than a flower?” Sunil Iyengar answers the question in this dazzling debut collection with poems of poise, wit, and depth of thought. One seldom reads poetry with such a balanced, almost Augustan, sense of the poetic line and rightness of rhyme. A Call from the Shallows is a pleasure from beginning to end. – Richard Tillinghast
The poems in Sunil Iyengar’s A Call from the Shallows—classical motifs fixed in contemporary language—display an elegance rarely encountered in an era of professionalized, informal verse, as when his “roses in bloom, astonished at their own / brevity, throng the lip of the tall glass.” Iyengar’s formidable erudition and shrewd meditations come to life in each carefully constructed line. Even such reassuring comforts as a family home are thrown open, as when “a For Sale sign / sheltered against a fallen pine,” announces an “old Colonial free / of any claims to privacy.” Iyengar questions all we take for granted, permitting the reader a new way of understanding a confusing, yet, to Iyengar, still promising world, “so that we might transmit pity / instead of loss, defeat, or shame.” – Ernest Hilbert, author of Last One Out