Anu Lakhan (sort of) in Conversation with Shivanee Ramlochan
Anu Lakhan (sort of) in Conversation with Shivanee Ramlochan
In Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, Shivanee Ramlochan teaches us about things that gnaw. So coherent yet dazzling, it feels like a thing born fully formed—Athena from the head of Zeus—and there’s a frightful headache in it for someone along the way if they think about it for too long.
If you are keen on getting to know human folk, Haunting may prove a bit trying. If you are interested in fantastic hybrids of men, women, birds, supernatural beings, forest creatures (including trees, obviously), mountains, oceans, blood, you will fare better. These are the personae dramatis of these tales. I mean poems. No, I mean tales. While the deftness of the verse is well-worth obsessing over, if you don’t look out for the sharp character depictions, you’ll miss more than half the fun. The main thing to remember is that everything has personality and mindscape. And almost everyone is pointy and bladed.
The collection does not want for drama and movement. Gender, gendering, regendering, mixed-martial-gendering. Violence and virulence. Love and fire. Fire and suturing. Healing and breaking. But poetry never needed to concern itself with great matters (not that it does any harm to have a few at hand). No, the only thing poetry ever really needs to remember itself is good craftsmanship. In Haunting, language is the most haunted of all the possessed things; the most chimeric of all the unclassifiable beings. In this work, we find no sweet magic tricks but surgical precision. A Josef Mengele clinic and surgery, possibly, but clean nonetheless. Look out, too, for structural Frankincision and fancy-stitchwork-sentences.
You have a sense not so much of having finished the book but of being lucky to get out with your life. From the position of reader or observer, there’s a switchblade understanding of the work. Sudden and disappearing before you fully understand what you’ve understood. Like a thing you’ve always known (or feared) but didn’t have a name for.
Ramlochan’s confidence in her craft brings a sharpness to the voices in Haunting’s memorable menagerie of characters. To interrogate the poet’s intentions, it feels necessary to further interrogate the personalities at large in her poems. Fortunately, Ramlochan is willing to indulge such an interrogation. With thanks to their creator, what follows is an interview not so much with a poet as with her poetry.
I saw our daughter in the grocery store again. . . .
She was using her talons to tear through meat packets.
—From “I See That Lilith Hath Been with Thee Again”
Anu Lakhan: Child, little feral beastie, I am concerned about your dietary habits. I’m not judging but maybe if you tell me about the nutritional value of what you consume, I’ll know you know what you’re doing.
Lilith (whom we suspect of being a bit fidgety) replies with a scrawled list:
- Oxtail by the pound: badmind.
- Beef chuck: stamina.
- Imported Italian hand-shaped sausage: pleasure.
- Whipped cream on discount, near expiry: practicality and sheer need.
- White wine, value brand: any port in a storm.
- Rotisserie chicken: bone-throwing.
- Maraschino cherries x3: the cultivation of jealousy.
- Microwave popcorn: to make use of the microwave.
- Honey-soaked pears: this is in the subterranean HiLo Supermarket beneath Massy Stores, for hybrid beings and folklores only.
- The sweet girl in the parking lot, after: because we all have to eat.
Everyone knows I am a haunting
—From “Duenne Lara”
AL: You have preferred a spelling of duenne, leading us to a female understanding of the personae so named. But sometimes, and I think it’s the cadence more than content, really, what I often hear is when. Especially in “Duenne Lara.” When as question. When as certainty. Thoughts?
Duenne Lara leaves a series of voice notes on WhatsApp:
I find it compelling that you think so, Anu. Up to a year ago, I didn’t think the name of the collection would come from me. I still find it vaguely surprising, though it now forms part of the known landscape. For me, it is like walking along the same stretch of beach one has walked on for twenty-nine years and forgetting every time that there is a lighthouse at the edge of the bay. I forget the name of the book has come from me in the same way: completely, in quiet oblivion, until I see its semaphore breaking the dark ocean open.
The “whens” you hear strike me as similar: the unplanned expectation of an arrival that one feels instinctively, bone-first, whether or not one can attach an hour, or destination, to the coming: either of a duenne, or of a book’s first name. I think a forest must be as full of “whens” as it must be of all other suggestive sounds. In this way, hearing when for duenne feels to me like the natural translation of the forest: imprecise, suggestive, mischievous. What, after all, might be the answer? “A long time.” “In your sleep, with a knife under your tongue, holding your sister’s hand.” “Not soon enough, and the seas are rising.” “Sunday, please the Goddess.” If you find that there are any certain answers to such questions, or any safe places to receive the answers, will you let me know? You can find me on the beach, forgetting lighthouses ’til I see them.
Your father said not to take faggots to your bed, so you called them festivals.
—From “Vivek Chooses His Husbands”
AL: Sex: Discuss. (As the old format of high school essays used to go.) Or, trying to get closer to what I want to ask: sex with desire, sex with violence, sex that brings about the life of folkloric creatures. Anything?
Vivek responds, as self-appointed spokesman of the entire collection (you can read his specific (mis)adventures in the book’s final two poems, “Vivek Considers the Nature of Secrets” and “Vivek Chooses His Husbands”):
If you can’t beat ’em, fuck ’em. I say this sincerely, having been subject to both: whatever you can choose to have done with your body for pleasure rivals whatever’s done to it in someone else’s name. Look, I’m not a prude, but neither do I abhor prudishness, because that’s its own beautiful, puritan autonomy. I’ve used others, and had others used against me. I’ve listened, kept the counsel of my own body, and I understand within myself where the limitations of my body lie: that is, nowhere at all. Maybe we’ve got to stop thinking of sex as something that’s done to us, that we do to others. I can tell you that I was begotten in great violence, and perhaps most of my life in and out of bedrooms has been an attempt to erase the stain of that violence, or else to spread it all over me, causing my mother less pain. But it doesn’t work. You can only steer the raft of your own survival, after the flood that either washes you out or makes you come. Maybe that’s original violence. I don’t know. Maybe sex is the litmus test we take every time we want to break something inside ourselves, something that tries to drag us back to the first, final blow.
There lies an ache
in the place I was ransacked. Only this poem knows it.
—From “The Red Thread Cycle, VII: The Open Mic of Every Deya Burning”
AL: I’m interested in the idea of restraint in this collection, the thing left unsaid or half-said. In many ways the work seems to tear—stormlike—though everything. But where the storm makes no considered decisions about what to destroy and what to let stand, the writer may have some thoughts on the matter. What’s your story of incomplete stories?
The voice of “The Red Thread Cycle” speaks:
To tell the truth, sometimes it is essential to tell very little of it. Have you ever seen blood seep from beneath a closed door? Sometimes, the sight of that blood is all we can handle. We tell ourselves we want to know what’s behind the door, but sometimes? It takes a lifetime to soak up the blood, on your knees. Let no one tell you this isn’t holy work. Let no one say that the small truth, the one that starts the bloodletting, isn’t enough to be going on with. For while it’s true that holding back might kill a man, giving too much might be the surest way to kill yourself.
Women wearing the same gloves, sorting the same straight-backed pins
between the prayers of their teeth,
are taught to deserve nothing more than an acreage of sorrow.
—From “The Abortionist’s Daughter Declares Her Love”
AL: Straight-backed pins, teeth, surgery, forests, fire—all words we’ve heard before but I do not believe you have preoccupied yourself with conventional dictionaries to take their meanings. So, what do you have to say for them? Or what do they say for themselves?
The Abortionist’s Daughter refuses my invitation to meet in person. Instead, I am faced with the horror and wonder of her missive. It is a hand-stitched sampler. (Thoughtful girl, she has even sent the hoop for reuse, as if I’d ever have the time or the skill.)
AD sews: The best way I’ve found to staunch a terrible wound, or to break bad news to a survivor of such a wound, is to do it clean and direct, with as little sentiment to shake the hands as possible. Hence the inclusion of straight-backed pins into my medical practice. I haven’t told anyone this before you, Anu, but I became an abortionist because I couldn’t be a nun, despite all the advice of my mother, who started the family trade out of necessity and other secrets. I wanted to live my whole life in the service of something pure, something pagan, something far more substantial than my own minor days. Hence the inclusion of teeth, which require no explanation in terms of their value to both religious service and abortion-work.
If I depended on the conventional definitions of surgery, all the women I serve would be dead.
For forests, please ask “Duenne Lara” (though I think, since the book was given a name from one of her ribs, she’s been spending more time on the sea).
Fire is at once simple and mystifying. Did you know I’ve had my abortion clinic razed three times? Once was intentional. Once was an act of God. The third time I’m still trying to figure out. Who knows what a body might conclude based on that? I try to act in accordance with the clarity of fire, which never pretends to be anything it isn’t. Which razes mercilessly. Which guts without any pleasure but the certainty of knowing the field has been laid bare as birth.
AL: Thank you, all creatures of this collection, for your time and words.
- Birthed in and resident of Trinidad and Tobago.
- Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting is her first collection of poetry.
- She is the book reviews editor for Caribbean Beat Magazine, the assistant editor of the Caribbean Review of Books, and the former book reviewer for the Trinidad Guardian’s Sunday Arts Section (2012–17).
- Shivanee also works and writes for the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, the Caribbean’s largest anglophone literary festival, and Paper Based Bookshop, Trinidad and Tobago’s sole independent bookseller specializing in Caribbean Literature.
- Shivanee was the second place winner in the 2014 Small Axe Literary Competition for Poetry. Her entry, “The Red Thread Cycle,” was originally published in Small Axe 47 and forms most of the second section of Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, along with newer work.
- She was shortlisted for the 2015 Hollick Arvon Prize for Caribbean Literature and is an alumna of the 2010 Cropper Foundation Residential Workshop for Caribbean Writers (Toco, Trinidad), the 2016 CaribLit Fiction Editing Workshop (Georgetown, Guyana), and the 2016 Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop (University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados).
As both editor and writer, Anu Lakhan works across poetry, fiction, criticism, and essay. Her work has appeared in Bomb magazine, Caribbean Review of Books, the recently launched Pree, sx salon, Explore Parts Unknown (web companion to Anthony Bourdain’s television series), and Wasafiri. She lives and works in Trinidad and Tobago with a growing number of pets and a dwindling ability to remember their names.