Miracle Marks: Poems

Miracle Marks: Poems

by Purvi Shah


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810140387
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 06/15/2019
Pages: 96
Sales rank: 635,422
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.


Read an Excerpt



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.

* * *

Skirts flaring:
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

drinks. You
    you can


  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.

      These waters,
    how they bear scar

  rings, tried
  wombs, incarnations
  that could never be


      After encountering
    tiger, I spun my destiny
      as only water can — moving without
  moving, being without breaking
      whole. My lifetimes
    are prowling
  since this river
      conceived. Women rip
    around me, keening longings,


    hopes. Mark

  the streaks of my salvation:

    these spilled wants come apart,
      come home.

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
  no daughter

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
  to hold.

Maya knows how the day walks carrying heartbeats

    Resurrect flesh
  as rivers:
    Ask who unwombed

you. Question your own
  creator. Learn
    the rules. Understand mystique
      as beyond.

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.

      this verse
    re-versed, undone
      where your spirit



— 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
  overflows. Motor
    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
  murmurs. Legacy
    or premonitions, my
      own longings

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

you climb

  & rest there on the ledge, gazing out, looking upon the near
    stars —

    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

of repair.

* * *


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
    you kneel

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,
  pumping, bifurcating,

    relentlessly congregating.

* * *

The value of water even before
  a cyclone.

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
  we live,

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
  would need

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

So you move

    around your pain — from
      a womb
  to a shoulder, you float

across aerial silks. You pacific
    sky. She

says, now the peregrines are returning.

    Fury keeps

  a river invisible.

        You bruise
  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
  outlast colonialism.


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

source, blue

mountains of ancestors.

* * *

      Saraswati raises
    her bangle — a stream
  gossip of girls at a summer pool, clarinets chirping.

* * *

      Your bangle, wet
    with absences,


    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
    never be

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"
by .
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

Acknowledgments 79

Gratitude 81

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