Spinifex Press, 2021
Reading Usha Akella’s I Will Not Bear you Sons is like walking into the middle of a conversation. A conversation that seems to have been going on for a while, and yet is also one that seems to be waiting for you join so it could finally begin. One of the main reasons for this could be the thematic focus of the book, which is to articulate the feminist concerns with space, cultural legacies, patriarchies, religion, political redactions and the very complicated histories that women share amongst themselves.
I Will… is a collection of poems that has a rather urgent, demanding tone. It does not narrate daisies or lilies nor does it have the wistful fragrance of lost loves. The staccato tone that most of the poems engage with are in keeping with the emergent voices of the women who are speaking around the globe. Akella hacks through the undergrowth of patriarchal white noise with a machete, trying to find the roots that connect women all over the globe.
The book is divided into two sections, I and We. The first section brings intensely personal poems that mark the poet’s journey of self-discovery and the battles encountered in the process of un-learning one’s legacy and culture. The poem from which the book gets its title, is in this section and is remarkable in its execution. The resolute tone of the title carries within it the generational memories of hurt, erasure and an awareness of the obliteration of non-male identities.
So, let us speak of hands—women’s hands, generations of hands,
hands that wash pots with tamarind and mud and feed
drunkards of husbands, hands that pen poetry and fire the guns,
hands that write, harvest paddy with the rising sun,
hands that answer phones and stave off
rapists’ hands of soldiers from both sides of the border,
(I Will Not Bear You Sons, 19)
Akella uses personification to great effect and her metaphors ring true and breathe fire. There is a force with which her verse arrives that conveys the immediacy of her intentions. However, there might be the lingering feeling that the poems could have occasionally employed a little more subtlety. This line of thought poses an ethical dilemma on account of the rawness of Akella’s verse. The age-old debate of beauty and its nuanced treatment versus the diamond-edged hardness of narrating reality with warts and all raises its head with this collection. But these doubts are dispelled soon enough when one meets the personae who occupy Akella’s poems. The violence- physical, social, cultural, economic and racial absorbed by these bodies cry out for narratives that are organic, stripped of ornamentation and densely populated. There are lines that force one to stop and revisit them due to the brilliance with which they weave the premise and have the reader fall into the web of the verse Akella has spun. Take for example Harmony which speaks of a man being served dinner by his dutiful wife, as though a God is being given offerings. She is aware of his every need, when the sambar must be served without vegetables, with vegetables, or with just one preferred vegetable. The husband remains quiet, without a word of appreciation lest she become too proud of herself and fail in her subsequent duties. He thus, remains silent for her sake. The orchestra of this mimed performance goes on while the poet remarks,
And I watched exiled from this
soundless solemnity for a decade,
wondering why I could not see the beauty of it. (26)
And in Porcupine where she quotes a line from Kamala Das, she says,
I digest nothing I roam black tunnels at night,
I am a dart board unskinned animal salted,
dervish-vertigo prays often in my head.
The metamorphosis that women’s bodies undergo, the turns and twists of the female or female identifying mind are all laid out in graphic detail.
The second half of the collection titled We draws upon the intersections that connect women across time, the globe, culture and history. The many dimensions of life that Akella dedicates to women ranging from Meera Bai, Anne Boleyn, Draupadi to Sylvia Plath, Meena Kandasamy, to women in paintings, the goddess Katyayini, to Akella’s grandmother, mother, daughter and the women who remain unnamed, or who are named Astur, speak of violence, longing, love, cuisines, struggles to reclaim bodies and identities. The addresses to these women are deliberate acts of creating art through the very process of naming, an imbrication of the image in the mind.
There is a sense of grandeur in the poems of Akella as they travel comet-like across the various realms, illuminating realities and faces of women who have been relentless witnesses of the ravages and power narratives of history.
Usha Akella has produced a remarkable volume of work that shows the path for academically informed creative literature. Experimental in nature, militantly vocal, furiously urgent, I Will Not Bear You Sons is a collection that is intensely personal and deeply political. The footnotes point to the commitment of the poet towards her craft as she assiduously names her sources and makes the readers aware of the sheer diversity of lives she has connected with.
Akella must be commended for her intellectual integrity as she carefully documents the articles and journals she has read, marking a refreshing fusion of the academic and the creative.
I Will Not Bear You Sons is a resolution, a promise that women make. A promise to bring forth into the world, people who are unafraid to be alive, people who are not bound by the chains of ossified thoughts and who seek to heal the injuries perpetrated by ignorance, superstition and power politics.
I burst into petals of the sun,
I throw comet from mine
navel, I am sprouting auburn blossoms
I burn the day. I am hell,
I am your air
Centuries, breathe if you can.
(Recant at St Maxim, 120)
Sonya J. Nair