12-17-2015

 

Vandana Khanna  

 

My Mother at JFK

Tries to pick up the cadence 
      of the immigration officer's

 

intonations, blurry and abstract--
      quick turns of the tongue

 

stroke the air with all the bustle 
      and weariness of this new world:

 

its thick accents and alleyways, 
      gypsy cabs and jazz.

 

She learned English watching 
      Audrey Hepburn movies where

 

every sigh sounded like music. 
      Clearly annunciated vowels

 

and consonants stood stiff 
      as sugar cane, as the British

 

nuns who taught her, who 
      rapped their speech across

 

her knuckles. At night, she 
      wants to wrap the cough

 

and sputter of scooters, 
      the low moan of oxen

 

around her like her mother's 
      shawl, but she can't hold back

 

the sheer demand of horns 
      and sirens, of America

 

seeping through her mind, 
      until her body throbs

 

and pulses with its rhythm 
      and rhyme. It makes her ears

 

ache, makes her forget a mantra 
      about new rivers and old gods.

The Blessed

 

Back when we belonged 
only to ourselves 
but didn't know it,

 

when dust coiled 
around our ankles 
with every step

 

we took away from 
the front door, when 
our breath still smelled

 

of raw milk, our ears hurt
with stories slipped
through the thin seam

 

of our mothers' mouths, 
tales that could char 
tongues to a black soot.

 

Our mothers who were
too scared to swim or curse 
or drive, bent us with their worry:

 

half a world away, brides 
were lit like torches,
thrown from kitchen

 

windows for their dowries--
kerosene-soaked saris 
flared like a brilliant sore

 

in the bleached sky.
Their words bit away at us 
with their tea-stained teeth.

 

Even in our innocent, 
American kitchens
the steel-tipped stove

 

stood bright, ominous--
made us shudder 
like a broken wing.

 

We were blessed--
our fate consecrated 
by an unlit match,

 

our minds, a pot boiling over 
with the salt and steam 
of all we couldn't imagine.

Madame Destiny

 

At eighteen, we drove out 
      of Philly, shook free 
          of creased skirts, legal pads.
                Charmed by quarter slots,

 

ten dollar palm readings,
      sand-grit tonguing the burnt 
          cove of our ears. Our ankles 
                salted and skimmed by sea foam.

 

Inside, Madame Destiny 
     murmured into our hands, 
          chanting our bad luck away: 
                unaligned stars and ex-boyfriends, 

phantom mothers-in-law. 
      The only boys we met,
           with crew cuts 
                and wrong-colored eyes

 

thought us tourists 
      and we played along
           as they leapt from one 
                hotel balcony to the next, flexing.

 

Their mouths traced 
      the lines of shadow 
          and light on our skin. 
                We forgot our destinies

 

the matchmaker's list
      of names, a humid curse 
          breathed into our ears, hard 
                as the ocean's slap at our backs.

 

Against all prophecies 
      and promises, our crooked 
          love lines frayed at the ends 
                like jeans. Our hope

 

turned stale as a Hindi 
      pop song-gone 
          in the flick and bruise
                of a blue bar light. 

-from Afternoon Masala

BIO: Born in New Delhi, India and raised in Falls Church, Virginia, Vandana Khanna earned her B.A. from the University of Virginia and her MFA from Indiana University, where she was the recipient of the Yellen Fellowship in poetry. Her first collection, Train to Agra, won the Crab Orchard Review First Book Prize and her second collection, Afternoon Masala, was the co-winner of the Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize. Vandana’s work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in journals such as Crazyhorse, Callaloo, The Missouri Review, 32 Poems and The Indiana Review, as well as the anthologies Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation and Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry. She has taught English and Creative Writing at colleges and universities across the country including Indiana University, Pitzer College and the University of Southern California.