In her second full-length poetry collection, Miracle Marks, activist Purvi Shah charts women’s status through pointed explorations of Hindu iconography and philosophy and powerful critiques of American racism. In these searing, revelatory poems, Shah reminds us that surviving birth as an infant girl and living as a woman is miraculous—as such, every girl is a miracle mark. And because education is often denied to girls, writing by women is a miracle. In Miracle Marks, Shah probes belonging, devotion, and social inequity, delving into what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be. Through sound energy and white space, these poems chart multiple realities, including the miracles of women’s labors and survivals. This collection spurs dialogue across audiences and communities and lights a way for brown girls and women who relish in spirit, intellect, politics, and justice.
|Publisher:||Northwestern University Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.12(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.40(d)|
About the Author
PURVI SHAH inspires change as a nonprofit consultant and writer. During the tenth anniversary of 9/11, she directed Together We Are New York, a community-based poetry project to highlight Asian American voices and experiences. Her first poetry collection, Terrain Tracks, won the Many Voices Project prize, and her chaplet, Dark Lip of the Beloved: Sound Your Fiery God-Praise, explores women and being. She currently serves as a board member of The Poetry Project in New York. Her favorite art practices are her sparkly eyeshadow and raucous laughter.
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Vast and awesome, the Saraswati's holy waters are supposed to have flowed from the Himalayas into the sea, nourishing the land along the way. But as the centuries passed and no one could find it, myth, belief and religion came together and the Saraswati passed into the realm of folklore. Now most people in India think of it as a mythical river.
Some even believe that it is an invisible river or that it still flows underground.
— "INDIA'S 'MIRACLE RIVER,'" BBC News, June 29, 2002
Even an illiterate Indian knows that the River Saraswati is "gupt" — meaning "invisible" — but definitely present ... She is the thread which holds together all the beads of our culture and civilization. She offers us a continuous document of our ancient civilization.
— DR. JAGDISH GANDHI FROM VIMLA PATIL, "Saraswati the lost river," eSamskriti, January 2009
The poet enters the game
There is an old Sanskrit word, Lila (Leela), which means play.
— STEPHEN NACHMANOVITCH, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art
Black blood of a star: bent
light or as we say —
* * *
— music coming from afar or within
& you know not.
* * *
circles of ardor, fertility
* * *
Chances. Your dance as
misplaced — laughter &
your troubles return into a praise, echo saint's song —
* * *
Mira says my marriage was a scandal. My love never was.
* * *
You spy a silver flute seducing your own drum, devotion as an alphabet without a final letter.
* * *
Women astonish you.
And then you become one.
Beating her soiled clothes, Saraswati reaches God and bursts into tears
In Hinduism the first menstruation of a young girl is a cause for celebration, with special presents given. However menstrual blood has generally been considered impure. At my grandmother's house, women were not permitted to cook in the kitchen, had different utensils, ate and slept separately. They were also not allowed to enter the prayer room. Nonetheless, when as a 12-year-old girl I visited my grandparents during the summer holidays, my loving and pragmatic grandmother spared me this embarrassment by asking me to not tell anyone about my periods!
— KUMKUM BHATIA, "Why can't girls enter temples during menstruation?," South Asian Parent
Where the river pulls off red
veil or living
shroud, a tiger sparks in woman's breast. When no one
is watching, the tiger learns to swim. It follows the river as river makes
as if there were no day nor night, no moons to keep mark. The river
has nowhere to be, no one to carry, no fabric to fold, no births to assume, no
opinion to praise, no red blotches to whiten, no sleep to solitaire, nowhere to hide sore breasts,
no need to compete the black cloud
for lavish rains, nowhere curd of sea, absorbing salts off a girl's thigh, blood off a woman's smile. Forgive your smeared
compound, lair for your cramp
scrap, piles for everything that is
usable, this stack of your own future limbs. You want
the power to turn
a trident into a spoon, your hand as the first cup from which a toddler
have you not learned?
You may birth your ruler.
You feel every
destination but perfection in this lifetime, your sore
skin as moon origin, as bountiful
At river's gather — clumped fabrics
of you. Measure: 21 feet. Measure: 27 feet.
how they bear scar
that could never be
tiger, I spun my destiny
as only water can — moving without
moving, being without breaking
whole. My lifetimes
since this river
conceived. Women rip
around me, keening longings,
the streaks of my salvation:
these spilled wants come apart,
Mark the blood of my limbs: once they were river too.
The way you have folded laundry, Saraswati folds continents
Her relationship with her husband strained apparently beyond repair, a 27-yearold woman drowned her two children — a six-year-old daughter in a washing machine and an 11-month-old son in a bucket — and then committed suicide at her home.
— "Mom drowns kids in washing machine, kills self," Hindustan Times, June 6, 2013
A monsoon born. She lays out a sari
of lakes molting. She hums the first lullaby she ever heard. Can you caress sunset? Your clothes
refuse to fold symmetrically. They have too many stories to be squared & tucked away. Each curve
of a woman's throat is drizzle, each reverie rumpled rains born as breast. Water can shape your skin
the way your regrets tide your beliefs. You want to be more than mantle, a man's public.
Such secrets can only be captured by rope,
topography of rungs ascending heaven as dark seas birthed. Flattened
against a floor, our scars yet stick out. As you lengthen
knots, you pray your soul
has found a new river
the way you hope
is ever stuck in this machine we call a home:
each compromise an unbirthing,
each argument a dry shore, ribs before prayer. May you each now have new bodies with new relations knowing continents move through lifetimes, that once- river provided dancing ground, sisters
is a memory of ocean.
Today, hope the laundry is dry, stacked neat, your children playing.
Fear only what tomorrow does not bring, the sorrows you never got
Maya knows how the day walks carrying heartbeats
Ask who unwombed
you. Question your own
the rules. Understand mystique
Flicker empirical. Collect
Drum these selves
in dust & borders of wars.
Speak through boom as if you have a choice.
Saraswati praises your name even when you have no choice
Patel, a 33-year-old woman who lives in Indiana, was accused of feticide — specifically, illegally inducing her own abortion — and accused of having a baby whom she allowed to die. The facts supporting each count are murky, but a jury convicted Patel ... she was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
— EMILY BAZELON, "Purvi Patel Could Be Just the Beginning," The New York Times Magazine, April 1, 2015
You had a name no one could hold between their
teeth. So they pronounced
a sentence. Had you the choice,
you would pilgrim to the Vermilion. It is no
Ganges, but you could dream for tiger's
blood, for eight tributaries to open
into palms bearing girls unfettered. Before your baby
was a baby, could it float? Could a stillness of breath be the air asking
for alchemy as you cast your life as a spell? These days the world is looking for witches. You had been
searching for an hour beyond labor, option
of pleasure, a choice unscripted by parents, borders unscripted
by choices, a passing salvation. You had not
expected this state — punishment for a wrung womb. These days
you mourn: when you are free, you won't be able to bear the children you
wanted. In silence, you pronounce your name as if it came from the crucible of river, from the first throat broken
into a cobra of desiccated streams.
Mira pulls a fish out from the banks of the Jamuna
The ocean of rebirth sweeps up all beings hard, / Pulls them into its cold-running, fierce, implacable currents. / Giridhara, your name is the raft, the one safe-passage over. / Take me quickly.
— MIRABAI (translated by Jane Hirshfield)
You know a fish thrown on the bank does not go on breathing.
— MIRABAI (translated by Robert Bly)
Flails in her hands, dark
with back & forths, so many
from one. She touches protestations —
sour memoirs/wracked pleasures — bequeaths the ache of constant swimming — eyes
towards air, scales absorbing
each stroke — & yet this one is unready
to be held. In touching,
she knows a beloved.
Back into the river she throws
the quivering thing — until
it is ready to be taken whole.
Maya offers light to an absent reality
Unsung tale: your soul.
Sound the glisten.
Old soul: re-living.
Consider response between a wave &
a particle, the difference and repetition as living.
re-versed, undone —
where your spirit
surrendered — less
pulse than hum.
Saraswati works water, hums generations
Worldwide, women and girls spend an estimated 200 million hours — Daily — collecting water ... "Just imagine — those 200 million hours add up to 8.3 million days, or more than 22,800 years," says UNICEF's Global Head of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Sanjay Wijesekera. "It's as if a woman started with her empty bucket in the Stone Age and didn't arrive home with water until 2018."
— MALCOLM G. FARLEY, "How Long Does It Take to Get Water? For Aysha,
Eight Hours a Day," UNICEF USA, March 1, 2018
Each day, your water tank
running, mind forgotten, clamor
of reminiscences, roar
of a husband past, buzzless
bungalow now left
to manage, to occupy, to mark as your own. Each day surprise of spilled news as marriage. Through wet stones, you hear wives'
tales & chant. Behind that, you burn, caged ocean as tremor.
* * *
A sea away, I hear
or premonitions, my
for a home to hold, a body
as meditation, as births
for which we are still
* * *
You seek to turn a door into a gate, unhinge a frame to make it a ladder — how you climb
up to the tank to coax water's pinched drip, how
& rest there on the ledge, gazing out, looking upon the near
or your neighbors — or your own gnarled hands — or
nothing — at all.
* * *
With four daughters, it's near a handful. That missing
son, a bent thumb, another iron gate to cross.
* * *
You mortar flour into breads & marvel: did the emperors erect arches, gate upon gate, to welcome the city or to keep us
out? Did they build their private wells as some girls trudged villages to rummage a pot of starving
rivers? You know not. The bread
rises, round, almost its own stomach,
a gnawing patient to give birth.
* * *
Forget the spilling tank. Forget the risen breads. I want to learn horses, how to ride gust, bear
ancestors through my hair, shatter
every dwelling into dispatches on a hero's quest, fill the well of our longings with visions of surrender, a self never in need
* * *
compels a world between waters.
Every expectation boiled.
You slice an onion and see
Columbus's breach, how exodus can bring you nearer
to where you ought to be, this next
world you are still working to —
* * *
Savor. Indoors, you dream.
a peacock feather
through my fingers —
resilience travels lifetimes, shaking
hunters & colonizations — utterance
as bouquet, revolution of heartbreaks.
* * *
In mornings, you petition
* * *
struck — a gulmohar fallen from a tree older than you — how
to pick its fruit, how a bud graces earth across dearth. How
your visions of life & death are like the walls of your own heart,
* * *
The value of water even before
The value of women even before the public sphere.
The value of a bed before
it is dusk, before you need
to make it home with the day's wash or sloshing pots or tomorrow's
How we live
for lineage, grains to mouths, spills to plenty, women to women. How
as a lamp in service
of being lit.
How we live, replenishing what we have spilled with day's making, cupping darks, sieving what we have
into a smaller
tank, into space of wanting for not & not
wanting for — boundless
reservoir of our wantonly spilled dreams.
Maya appraises what to do with all your stray emotions
Store music —
first rainbow struck pale. Shoot
all the mynahs
in your melodious
eyelashes. Nourishment is banter, a self as querulous exotic. You do not
know the converse of plenty. Threshold: grocery of marigolds & vermilions. Our touch
surfaces from darkness. Your hum
beside me: just another way to say
sorry. Black geyser crumbling.
Precision of an inexact proportion. Your arm
gesticulates, furious & loyal as harvest. What you never remarked but already relinquished. Perfect
is a syllable for absence.
Saraswati marks lineage of the missing
The United Nations estimates nearly 200 million girls around the world are "missing."
— CORTNEY O'BRIEN, "Did You Know 200 Million Girls are 'Missing'?," Townhall, September 22, 2013
I have known a grandmother and two have known me.
You search for missing limb, reveal a tree with disparate pattern of branches — one
whistling, the other — accordions of leaves. You expect a thinning
at the top but wonder if this tree feels terribly bruised, a woman
with half her hair, a woman blistering bald-
sense in wild stutter. Lineage often skips a relation. You search for an ancestor. In your dreams,
a daughter travels. She wakes you when
you need to rise, kindles in your skin scent of the tea she is about to brew. Another
journeys with you on a crowded road, haggling with the vegetable-seller for a better rate. She has gotten
so wise in so few years. Some mothers count off
years on a ruler against a white wall, children growing shoulders &
span of necks. If you could mark your unmade memories, every black wall
altars: room now for praise. A mythical river can spawn
but can a mythical girl civilize? You tell
one story and hope it survives.
A young girl holds a subway door for an old Chinese man who needs a few more steps to reach. The girl
says, Do not mind your battered
wings. The peregrine nearly became extinct: chemicals singing
generations. So you move
around your pain — from
to a shoulder, you float
across aerial silks. You pacific
says, now the peregrines are returning.
a river invisible.
a ventricle or chafe
a throat as you recover soar, a realm
where every elbow has room. Pain is temporary. Flight is not.
You see trees shedding leaves you never saw they bore.
You observe girls sleeping in the missing river.
You take out your ruler & in the unseen waters
— notch each body, growing.
Saraswati nods to the white man who, after hearing her liberation poems, embroiders
Even now, goddesses
This is the truth:
As from a fire aflame thousands of sparks come forth.
— MUNDAKA UPANISHAD (translated by Juan Mascaró)
The poet enters the game of lila
There is an old Sanskrit word, Lila (Leela), which means play. Richer than our word, it means divine play, the play of creation and destruction and re-creation, the folding and unfolding of the cosmos.
— STEPHEN NACHMANOVITCH, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art
Mud as if you are
being made & the mud is too. In dead
bed of quenched river, you see
a tiger's eye, graffiti
across every hearth
barred to girls, a swami's shed
skin, rows of tanks
seeking a water
mountains of ancestors.
* * *
her bangle — a stream
gossip of girls at a summer pool, clarinets chirping.
* * *
Your bangle, wet
more stories than our stars themselves.
* * *
Your bedroom mirror goes dark.
Too many rivers with new
* * *
You hear the voices of women who never
drowned, who could actually
drowned. You touch your skin and mark
a ghost, perhaps too many to count.
Saraswati dozes, two hands as a pillow beneath her head
I was seven years old when I first saw a Sacred Thread ceremony. As a girl, I was jealous of the attention and numerous gifts that were being showered upon my nine-year-old brother. What bothered me most was that my brother got to learn the Gayathri Mantra--the supreme and most sacred of all Hindu mantras, which is the basis of all other mantras and the essence of the Vedas ... I didn't get to learn the mantra ... The father teaches his son the Gayathri Mantra under a dhoti, which is spread out like a tent. It's whispered by the father into his son's ears. To my brother, the mantra was an opportunity to tease his little sister. Each time I asked him what they had told him, he would give me a mischievous smile and tell me "a secret."
— VISI TILAK, "A Hindu Bar Mitzvah," Beliefnet
Noise of her bangle at night. Secrets the days, whispers surprise to sunrise.
Caresses your arm as one's mother once did. Glimmer,
if not sleep or Saturn's rings, can be its own reward. Dreaming feels
too long, skin drifting
as song. She pauses:
can secrecy be a sound? She believes morning skillet
is underside of the sun, her breath is nest and bird, sister Gayatri
a jewel of some snoring sadhu's dream-drowse. The glass jars vibrate with beads & unpopped seeds — such unstruck belonging. From her
to gut to throat, from wrist to shoulder to ear, she hears murmurs, the tremors of one verse unspiraling, elongating, recycling
into night into night into night.
Excerpted from "Miracle Marks"
Copyright © 2019 Purvi Shah.
Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The poet enters the game 3
Beating her soiled clothes, Saraswati reaches God and bursts into tears 5
The way you have folded laundry, Saraswati folds continents 8
Maya knows how the day walks carrying heartbeats 10
Saraswati praises your name even when you have no choice 11
Mira pulls a fish out from the banks of the Jamuna 13
Maya offers light to an absent reality 14
Saraswati works water, hums generations 15
Maya appraises what to do with all your stray emotions 19
Saraswati marks lineage of the missing 20
Saraswati nods to the white man who, after hearing her liberation poems, embroiders "dowry" 22
The poet enters the game of lila 25
Saraswati dozes, two hands as a pillow beneath her head 27
At the edge of her bangle, Saraswati reckons with the one flame 28
Mira - as lit - through a triangle - of encircled wrist 30
Saraswati waits for silk & turns to cotton 32
Mira marks how dark can unveil blush 34
Mira seeks to unpuzzle warmth 36
Maya sees purity is false passion 37
Maya incarnates the phoenix 38
Mira inspects her forehead & offers a genesis 40
The poet enters the game of lila & marks 43
Maya admits there are two or more protagonists in this story 44
Maya speculates if - at this time - this is - (indeed) - the right train to - right now - board 45
On the platform, Maya troubles Arrest 47
Maya - on the brink of transferring - to the express 48
Maya lies awake, invoking an old flame 50
Maya marks a destination 51
Maya marvels what it would be like to have her Self meet herself 52
Maya challenges you to a staring contest 53
The poet enters the game of lila & marks a number 57
Saraswati says in my name, love the sweet of yourself 58
In the 21st century, Mira remarks - Krishna's ways of loving belong in a parallel universe 60
As she writes sky - 61
Mira longs to be more than a bride 63
Maya shuffles plates, hoping to generate electricity 64
Mira unfurls her hair into a bell when - from this ringing - mirror emerges 65
Upon catching snatches - of you - fastening strands of a woman's hair 67
When promise disappears, MIRA speaks to the thorns 68
Saraswati - rendering - between sparrows 69
Maya entices you to reach out & touch lightning 71
Mira barters infinity to raise her hand 72
The poet enters the game of lila & marks a number of miracles 73
Language & Lila: (Re)marks 75