The fluid variety of this professional linguist’s range emerges from the very first phrase of this, her third collection, in a poem entitled “Wanderlust Ghazal”: “My language is a Bedouin thief, delighting in foreign sands.” For this traveller poet, being transnational seems to form a sort of dialect in itself, a language even.
Mukherjee raises the bar early, still in the first poem whose reach is so global, it’s universal, bringing us to the point where we face
A grievous vastness to this world, beyond human
From here the Indian gods tell us that experience is beyond human ken:
The light of the moon cannot be rooted, Dipika, do not
There is an unabashed directness in the autobiographical “Bangkok, 1956”, in which the poet’s colour-blind father, back from his first foreign posting, presents his wife with a sari he believes to be rose-colored:
She sees a snot-green of silk—it reminds her of mold on damp
Further unswerving statements follow in “Sleep”, including:
My mother is not my mother;
she is happy.
Having spent her childhood in Delhi and Kolkata, then New Zealand from the ages of ten to fourteen, Mukherjee moved to the United States, living much of her adult life in Chicago; Shanghai too. She is happily undefined, asserting in “Migration, Exile … These Are Men’s Words”:
I am no woman-poet-migrant-in-exile.
Keep your labels, please.
She claims her rightful place non-geographically:
in the feminine infinite
we make our home.
Mukherjee takes current and chronically unresolved social issues head on, exposing aspects of Indian religious culture in “Going Back to Where I’m From”:
to many-armed goddesses who slay
demons, and darkness, and scarcity
of thought & women who are womb
and vagina, never brain or mouth;
She speeds through India’s burgeoning public rape culture more rapidly than the reader can process:
raped in temples, strung from trees,
disembowelled in a dark-tinted moving bus
Likewise, poems such as “This Shawl” could yet be required reading on educational lists, to re-evaluate norms for discussion of rape and sexual abuse. Some phrases here are as uncompromising as the behaviours they vilify:
Through the years this shawl, stained by the slow drip
of semen on a local train, the sudden shock of a penis
behind the guise of a lost traveler near home, the embrace
of a male relative, a stranger’s grope;
It gains strength through its refusal to badmouth the perpetrators; instead referring to
brought up badly
The loose sonnet, “Supermoon in April” is the most immediately accessible of several paeans to the poet’s father, to whom this volume is dedicated. Mukherjee honours lived experience here and throughout without fetishising pain:
Like water poured
into a vessel—in
to signal fullness,
my father says, I’m dying
“Dynamite” is that rarest of poems: one with lines centred typographically on the page yet nonetheless actually worth reading. Its text forms a slim column representing what we infer to be the Trump Hotel and Tower, Chicago, which the poem’s eight-year-old boy playfully envisions blowing up:
“Anyone got some dynamite?”
There is more here than the socio-political. “Printers Row, Chicago”, offers a possible mirror of its author, a bookseller who, while resisting assimilation, has bridged all cultural gaps to remain open to life:
In that tiny shop, lays bare the
nuance—the proclivity of
imagination—this audacious new world.
The holding over of closure at line ends, using the definite article ‘the’ and a preposition, serve to further that sense of awe.
“Mountain Echoes” makes much delight of play with Bhutanese girls Mukherjee meets on holiday; the linguist harvesting phrases from the many languages she encounters:
they teach me Dzongkha, gymtse-dho-shoko
grabbing hands to cut, cover, and swallow whole,
it’s a language of flashing fingers,
palms turning black-and-white, naap-ya-karp
human babble jostling in amity
This is so good, it could have led the poem in its first stanza rather than standing out further down.
There are many excellent poems here, including several profoundly spiritual ones. Placed among these, the poem from which the collection takes its title— “The Dialect of Distant Harbors”, paean to the Bengali language and to language per se—doesn’t quite deliver on the same level.
“It May Have Been the Third Glass of Wine” is potentially a charged erotic poem. The image “surfeit with food” in the first line, begs to be more specifically sensual. A later stanza offers the bizarre image:
later, in a dark theatre, by the light of copulating
serpents, the young man had declared a mad
Those serpents are surely the theatre’s carved decorative lamps; we are held in absurdity till that light dawns.
These trifles are pushed aside at the end of the piece by total absorption in the moment via the Hindu pantheon. Describing Mukherjee’s life-affirming, global trajectory, the invocation might have concluded the collection:
it’s that sibilant leap … yes,