The elements that form the poetic self of Meena Kandasamy are potentially explosive. Dalit, woman, feminist and schooled in English poetry, it would seem that what she threw into the world would make it singe. That, however, is not the case.
In Touch (2006), her first collection of poems, she offered a volume of 84 poems that needed to have about 24 at most and those 24 needed an editor with a firm hand. With very little sense of the English language (the book is replete with the most insufferable errors and those are not the typos) and almost no sense of the poetic line, let alone prosody or metrics, the book was difficult to even finish reading. The themes were interesting: taking on Hindu patriarchy, re-writing Hindu mythology, contesting Brahmanical oppression, accounting for the pain of the Dalit community, the beginnings of using female sexuality as subversive. The executions were embarrassing. Well, it was her first collection.
In Ms Militancy , her new collection of poems, brought out in an elegant Navayana edition, she’s brought the number of poems down to 40, got rid of her prolix purpleness and tightened her line, her English has got better and her themes have all been honed at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. However, the results remain as disastrous, if not worse. What she appears to have gained from her stint in the States is an outdated and designer feminism, a blustering identity politics with no sense of irony and a mistaken sense that the pyrotechnic performative line is more useful than the more contemplative prosodic one.
From the hideously defensive preface ‘Should you take offence’ which seeks out enemies before she’s made any friends, there’s a lot of ‘f**ks’ and ‘c**ts’ all over the book. The ‘I’s and the ‘My’s’ that litter it show not the shadow of a doubt and in their self-appointed radicality and belief in their own subversive capacity, they make one brace before the book has actually begun. When a poet says ‘My language is not man-made’ and ‘My language is dark and dangerous’ it is time to roll your eyes; when she says her ‘c**t is beyond all culture’ and warns us ‘I seduce shamelessly,’ one begins to reach for a pillow to gag on.
But there’s no respite as Kandasamy takes a feminism almost four or five decades out of date and tries to shock us with just what a bad, bad girl she is. She has told us that she ‘strives to be a slut in a world where all sex is sinful’ but one does not know quite where that world is because it does not seem like the world she lives in.
Her world is suffocatingly heteronormative: her goddesses, her feminist icons (Meera, Andal, Akka Mahadevi, yawn, yawn), her rivers, her ordinary women
and her poetic ‘I’ seem incapable of envisioning a world outside of sinful, soaked heterosexual congress.
Indeed, the overriding and overarching ballast of the book is the sexual, specifically the female sexual. The Dalit poems are far fewer in this collection because it will not wash but the political poems that are around like the one on Narendra Modi or the one on the Tamil genocide in Sri Lanka can only employ the sexual that positions the woman in figures of violence that tell us nothing new.
The sexualisation does not work. The unfortunate fact is that the various women, including the intermittent poetic protagonist of the collection do not seem to function outside the counterproductive tropes of self-sexualisation (on male, heterosexist terms) and sexual violence either. The poems don’t do much at all in terms of mapping a feminist poetic response to the world that harnesses the sexual into a language akin to resistance.
This overconfident, sexually aggressive, unreflexive and uncontemplative collection shows us that the languages of resistance are not to be found in the elements of one’s marginalised make-up nor in the tired signatures of c**t-based feminism and Def jam poetic performance.
Neither of these normatively allow for the breaking out from stasis or the hollow
assurances of a subjectivity that does not see its own shadow.