Preeti Kaur Rajpal
Reviewer: Karen Corinne Herceg
Preeti Kaur Rajpal’s haunting debut collection, membery, explores the impact of colonialism and displacement from a deeply personal perspective. Rajpal’s family is uprooted after the violent and poorly orchestrated 1947 partition of the subcontinent that became India and Pakistan after three centuries of British rule. Millions were forced from communities that had existed for a millennium, igniting genocide and violence among factions forming new territories and governance. Rajpal’s family were Sikhs caught in the devastation of one of the largest migrations in history, a minority compared to the larger Muslim and Hindu communities. These poems reveal the heartbreaking consequences of injustice, discrimination, and misperceptions resulting from their migration and move to California. After the partition, the government “relocates the family into hidden / mountains once caravans of millions snaked across / a bloody border striking august heat under threats” with “my family’s dust membered by 1947’s dusk.”
Sections of the book are divided into udaasi, which expresses melancholy, disappointment, and resentment. It also describes the subtle breezes that travel between northern and southern trade winds of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, mirroring the division between two worlds. In the poem “PATRIOT ACT, MISCELLANEOUS,” written entirely as footnotes at the bottom of blank pages, “#13 origin story” refers to the spiritual journeys of Sikh Guru, founder of Sikhi:
we call his travels udaasi
through world-ethers the word
udaasi which sounds
like melancholy in punjabi
udaasi which sounds
like odyssey in english
udaasi which means to be
outside of the home
Thus, udaasi becomes a physical and spiritual quest.
There is one short poem before the first section titled “manglacharan,” meaning a dedication to bringing the great knowledge of Sikh texts into English, where Rajpal describes her voice as “opening my hollow.” The first udaasi speaks of her native tongue and begins, “my first language falls / from the uncoiling jute ladder / of my father’s mouth.” The second udaasi reflects her experiences in Patiala in southeastern Punjab, northwestern India, with words and imagery morphing between two worlds and languages. Rajpal’s cross-lingual expressions give insights into the collision of American and Punjabi cultures. Form and rhythm vary and follow a trajectory that blends and mimics the disorientation of separation and assimilation. Rajpal allows her feelings to dictate form. The poems are written in lower case without punctuation. Even shades of type vary to create visual manifestations of emotion, the formats custom fit to the messages. Colors and images are vivid, especially red, which she employs symbolically throughout the poems, representing beauty and blood. It is thematic and emblematic given its various and often primitive connotations of power and love but also of aggression and violence. In just a few samples of many, she writes “i repeat the song / to flood my own red river,” “my mother’s tongue imprinting an argot alive to all the reddening,” “the red rust of woman’s witness,” and “the red brick of loss.” Misperceptions of their ancestry as Sikhs, not Muslims, in post 9/11 America allow a “red night of another exile” and “setting the family on fire / a red fruit.” She speaks of “the drummed go-back-to-your-country snare” and the “unlistening punches my brother his turban bare / his hair unraveling america again at its red alert door.”
Britain and America are held responsible for colonial domination and resistance to assimilation. In “the ticking,” Rajpal states, “the brits’ pulse / their records of wrist belonging in the scroll / of dismembering.” She adds defiantly, “I will draw my own face on the clock setting / back to the hour the crown pulled out.” In “the archive,” she reclaims her heritage with, “I drag my finger to transfer a queen’s / viceroy from british to our Punjabi hands.” In “watching the wagah,” a wagah being a town noted for its border between Pakistan and India, she writes, “I sit sweating with the Indians a daughter / red instead of with the sun-burnt americans.” Later her grandmother “just arrived in the country yet lost in an American / hospital needles and thread into her belly” rests in counterpoint to her mother, who “weaves a new garment.” Caught between two worlds, Rajpal’s family visits their exiled relatives as “american children,” yet in America they are in “a new country of many / languages where no one spoke.”
Before the sequence of footnotes that comprise “PATRIOT ACT, MISCELLANEOUS,” Rajpal states, “my grandfather said :: always read the small print,” and later notes how they were marginalized and became “the small print / of another country.” She follows the etymology of words and definitions like a road map to truth. In “the scent of a s l l l i l c l e l d orange lingers,” she uses line separations scattered throughout the poem to emphasize specific words and invite us directly into her world. She speaks of ecdysis, a molting process that sheds a flexible exoskeleton into a new tougher one; of dustsceawung, a residue of dust, and how the past pushes into the present; and lafz, or utterance that refers to all sounds produced by the tongue. Rajpal wants nothing to be forgotten. membery reminds us that the consequences of diaspora live on equally in the DNA and collective memories of its descendants but also in the global community regardless of whether it is aware of or wishes to acknowledge those repercussions.
While Rajpal provides notes to guide us through unfamiliar words or expressions, I suggest reading the poems first to absorb their emotional and intuitive impact. Rajpal is “in the language of my own membering” and asks to “let me live / in this long / shadow.” But beyond that shadow is an irrepressible spirit. As expressed in the closing poem:
one day all i have will leave
the water carrying her memory
rivulet by rivulet snaking
back into the ocean
in this water still
or moving i must
Preeti means love and is a fitting final word for this powerful, restorative work.