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Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods by Tishani Doshi review – bold and brave

By December 20, 2018No Comments

Source : The Guardian

It’s impossible not to cheer for the poet’s third collection, with her reflections on female bodies and violence feeling exceptionally timely


Tishani Doshi’s third collection, Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods departs from the more transcendent, restless poems of her previous collection, 2012’s Everything Begins Elsewhere. At times, Doshi’s work still hovers over inner landscapes of longing, where the self trails its mortal question across a personal geography from south India to Europe. Her skilled engagements with form, as in her Jungian Postcard, a sestina for Carl Jung, alongside her wry humour, most evident in Ode to Patrick Swayze, continue to show the range and dexterity of her voice. Poems on ageing and family are wrought with a similarly deft irony, laying out the grim absurdities of women’s bodily surveillance from without and within.

In the opening poem, Contract, the speaker appeals directly to her audience: “Don’t kill me, Reader. / This neck has been working for years / to harden itself against the axe.” In exchange for love, the poet commits to various kinds of self-destruction and resurrection, forming a pact with the reader that allows them both to thrive, to “live / seized with wonder”. Straight away, Doshi’s remarkable and knowing blend of irony and sincerity subverts any expectation her reader might bring to the page. Elsewhere, her poems sound a stark warning, grounded in a refusal to suffer violence or shame. Doshi deliberately sets out the boundaries of the female body in order to challenge those who might lay claim to it. The title poem is a haunting vision of retribution, drawn both from the murder of Doshi’s friend Monika Ghurde, to whom the collection is dedicated, and the rape of Jyoti Singh on a bus in Delhi in 2012. Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods is a chilling call to arms whose forceful, oracular incantation compels us to listen to girls “wrapped in cloaks and hoods, / carrying iron bars and candles / and a multitude of scars, collected / on acres of premature grass and city / buses, in temples and bars.”

Doshi’s poem is exceptionally timely, although it was written before the rise of the #MeToo movement. Each line thrums like a war drum whose rhythm belies its anger. Violence is no longer confined to the woods, that dark interior of childhood fear and desire. This is no fairytale. The wronged and murdered women who transfigure into birds “pecking / and humming, until all you can hear / is the smash of their minuscule hearts / against glass” are coming back to confront society’s complicity with gender violence and their anger will no longer be silenced.

Lesser violences, more quotidian infringements on the female psyche, appear in Meeting Elizabeth Bis/hop in Madras. A response to Bishop’s In the Waiting Room, where a young Elizabeth screams at a photo of “black, naked” women with “horrifying” breasts in National Geographic magazine as she sits in her dentist’s office, Doshi updates this moment of revulsion at ageing to modern-day India and her own horror at the impossible standards of beauty found in glossy women’s magazines. By transposing Bishop to Madras, Doshi cannily reverses the colonial lens on the ubiquitous misogyny of the western world: “What kind of fucked-up / message is: You can be your own Barbie?”

A good deal of transformation occurs throughout the poems, where order and chaos are perfectly hinged and inseparable. Love in the Time of Autolysis is one such transfiguration, a spilling forth of life from the lover’s body in death:

I will touch your discoloured skin,
your beard, the sundry coils of hair,
as your body morphs from man to farm.
It will almost kill me to see the swarms
of blowflies colonise the fens and flowerbeds
of your nose, mushrooms vaulting
from the mud of abdomen, skin so blue
and mottled, the bloat and putrefaction.

Doshi rejects the fetishising gaze of her audience: while Monsoon Poem nods to current debates about the exoticising of writers of colour by a white readership, Your Body Language is not Indian! or, Where I am Snubbed at a Cocktail Party by a Bharatnatyam Dancer, is a retort to monolithic identity and its prohibitions from within a cultural identity: “So, having arrived this far, spare me, please, / if I choose to be mysterious. If I delight / in dilutions and the vagaries of neither here / nor there, and display no seals of authenticity.” It’s impossible not to cheer the boldness and liberation enacted by much of this book, and to be stirred by its bravery. To paraphrase one interviewer, Doshi is writing the anthems of her generation.

 Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods by Tishani Doshi is published by Bloodaxe Books.

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