All Illumined Seer: Michelle Cahill's Vishvarūpa
by Michelle Cahill
Five Islands Press
Reviewed by Tara Safronoff
The reader of Michelle Cahill's striking book of poems, Vishvarūpa, will be both delighted and disoriented. With roots in Kenya, London, Sydney, Goa, and with remarkably expansive knowledge, Cahill challenges her reader with a range of references. The patient reader's efforts will be rewarded. Vishvarūpa, meaning "having all forms and colors" in Sanskrit, is a fitting choice for the title of this motley collection of poems. Cahill uses a quotation from the Bhagavad Gita in her epigraph which foretells the kinds of poems that will follow: "The tortoise can draw in his legs/The seer can draw in his senses/I call him illumined." These poems seek wisdom in withdrawal, in the near-absence of self, in a retreat from the world (in a dream, in a poem) that allows one to see things in their fullness.
Cahill begins the collection with "Something Like a Reverie." Cahill writes of a dream-like state, an intense vision in which image is meaning and the conscious self is diffuse, nearly absent:
It happens that you wake before dawn,
dreaming you walk the empty streets
as unfinished threads of rain stitch their
needlepoints. Your bare feet stumble
over fruit, half-eaten, clipped from trees
where sulphur-crested cockatoos hang,
conspicuous as bleached handkerchiefs.
The speaker experiences something like a reverie, not a reverie exactly, but an experience that is between words. These first lines of Vishvarūpa are characteristic of the collection in many ways: the stirring image, the sense of being in the middle of things—the "threads of rain" are "unfinished"; the fruit "half-eaten." One notes the domestic imagery of "bleached handkerchiefs" and of meticulously embroidered rain. Indeed, Cahill returns to the image of stitching many times throughout her poems—we read of a "splatter of moss/sown like a seam through stone" in "The Abbey," of lips "sewn by moonlight's threads" in "Fakir," rain "threading down/to where we stood" in "The Chase," a dragonfly's flight like a "cross-stitch lacing the pool" in "Childhood." Is Cahill too heavy-handed in her use and reuse of this image? Perhaps, but the images are lovely, apt metaphors for what so many of these poems address: the stitching together of alien elements, the connections between lovers, cultures, cities.
In "Agape" Cahill presents a prose poem with an original, wry voice; the speaker narrates a romance's beginning and end with poignant humor:
My tutor in anatomy was an American research student with a slit in his heart like a mailing box. It was dark inside that wound. You couldn't see inside but you could easily post messages. For months I sent him hand-written notes and he turned them into roses...
Their scent drowned out the acrid smell of formalin. They bloomed in my basin, my bed and in the pages of my textbook...
...One day the slit in his heart was sutured neatly. My tutor's appearance became woody like a fruit tree that stops flowering...
...So it was back to the dictionary, back to cadavers and back to the bones. I learnt to tolerate the acrid smell of formalin. I learnt that pig heart is reasonably similar to human heart, making porcine tissue ideal for transplantation, and running little risk of rejection if treated with serial dilutions of glutaraldehyde. It was a source of great comfort for me to discover that we are akin to other species, in matters of suffering.
In this surprising and satisfying poem we again see the image of stitching, but here the sutures prevent connection. What nerve Cahill has to use a phrase like "serial dilutions of glutaraldehyde" in a poem, and she pulls it off masterfully. And while the speaker's lover, the inadequate "American research student," provokes heartbreak, the speaker forges a connection through her suffering and her study. She recognizes herself as part of the "we" whose capacity to hurt connects us not only to each other but also to the rest of the living world.
The speaker in "Agape" charms, but it is hard to identify her clearly as Cahill. Indeed, in many of Cahill's poems we get little information about the poet; we do not know who she is even at the book's end, for it seems impossible that one person could hold such multiple identities: poet, medical student, Australian, Indian with an Irish name, Londoner, adventurer, avid smoker, sandwich-cutting mother, scholar of Coleridge and Hindu mythology. The reader of Vishvarūpa experiences an acute sense of displacement. One reads each poem wondering "Well now where are we?" geographically and otherwise. Moreover, the poems are not organized in sections of any kind, and this is a substantial collection of over fifty poems.
Nonetheless, a closer look reveals that Cahill has thought much about the placement of her poems. Her two poems "Sita" and "Hanuman" seem particularly well placed opposite each other. "Sita" tells of a transvestite prostitute once witnessed by the speaker as a ten-year-old tourist.
She came from the chawls of Karnatipura,
those ancient five-storey houses with their long varandas
swanned by ladies of the night, who leant over banisters...
She came from the chawls of Karnatipura,
jangling her ankle bells, with deep-throated taunts
prodding me on the train to Andheri when I was a foreigner
in my own country. I was ten years old
on summer vacation, packed in the Ladies' carriage,
dressed in t-shirt and Levis, among the garlands, the ghagras;
ingenuous to her chicanery, her occult skill;
not knowing beneath her sari the unspeakable scars
of custom and ridicule.
Like the transvestite, the poem's young girl is also an awkward amalgam. She is foreign and yet not so; among the Indian "garlands" and "ghagras" [skirts] of the "Ladies' carriage," the girl is dressed in the epitome of Western style ("t-shirt and Levis"). Furthermore, her Western style is androgynous, so she dresses as a boy would in the overtly feminine "Ladies' carriage." Though the child does not make explicit connections between herself and the prostitute, as an adult the poem's speaker secures their link in the simple act of remembering the woman's existence. The poem ends with the unadorned record: "She came from the shawls of Karnatipura, a bathhouse/where she lived with her mothers, her sisters and her friends."
On the opposite page Cahill places "Hanuman," a tribute to the shape-shifting Hindu monkey god. It is Hanuman who rescues Sita in the Ramayana and puts an end to her suicidal despair, so it is fitting that the poems "Sita" and "Hanuman" speak to one another. In "Hanuman" the speaker is again a tourist, someone who has "crossed two oceans, ferried through the straits of Malacca" and who has been "swept in currents of borrowed language to the steps" of the Ganges river. The time is dawn and the speaker expects soon to see visitors scatter the ashes of their loved ones in this holiest of rivers:
Soon, in the breeze, kites will rise and plummet with the ash
of burning flesh. I too am a kite, the strings of my words tangle.
Hanuman, it is said the shadow of a god measures thirty yojanas.
You overcome calamities the size of mountains. Your shadow
slips between temples, an alter-ego moving between two worlds.
The poem ends with a paean to this unique god who can confront massive obstacles while deftly maneuvering in narrow places, who can shift skillfully "between two worlds": between genders, between cultures, between the living and the dead. "Sita" and "Hanuman" show that for Cahill, the ability to thrive in liminal spaces is a precious and highly sought skill.
The notes in Vishvarūpa are necessary for the humble reader who does not possess Cahill's far-ranging knowledge, and it would be helpful if they were expanded and better organized. For example, the notes for "Deva Loka" come after those for later poems; moreover, the first line of the poem includes a reference to Parvati, but Parvati is not included in the poem's notes. The Western reader, after finding the notes in the first place, is on her own with Wikipedia to find out who Parvati is, and only in the notes for a much later poem does one read Cahill's description of the goddess.
Yet even the uninformed reader can revel in Cahill's musical, meaningful language. One is struck by particularly lyrical lines: "the cigarette's/ember in the pin-cold night" ("Nasreen"); "We swim laps in tandem/riding a pink foam noodle" ("Childhood"); "Mudlapping, mud glitter, water shadows/shallow browns and green"("Cowan Creek"). One marvels at Cahill's perspicuity about the crisis-addicts in "After the Headlines": "I heard patients in the waiting room speak about/this latest disaster, as if fate's occasion signaled/some compelling universal law that I should dread." She enjambs her lines skillfully, as in these lines from "Dying to Meet You": "Yet, you're right. No one is dying to meet someone/like you" and "How then to measure a grief which I sometimes desire/to share?". Cahill's talent has not gone unnoticed; she has been shortlisted for the 2012 Victorian Premier's Literary Award, Australia's most prestigious literary prize. In Cahill's fine poem "The Piano Lesson," the person addressed is described as trying "to get behind all the music this world/makes." The poems in Vishvarūpa suggest that Cahill, with her wide-ranging subjects, her investigative intellect, and her melodic turns of phrase, is valiantly attempting nothing less.