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Bob Sward's Writer's Friendship Series

Book Reviews

Need to Know



Issue 11: The Necessary Eye

Issue 10: Out on a Limb

Issue 9: The Missing Body

Issue 8: The Lily

Issue 7: Passages

Issue 6: No More Tears

A quick list to poets featured in this issue:

Melissa Ahart

Sommer Browning

Sarah Busse

devin wayne davis

Karen D'Amato

Yaakov Fichman

Donna Johnson

Vera Kroms

Li Bo

Li Qingzhao

Ander Monson

Christopher Mulrooney


Todd Samuelson

Maria Terrone

Mihai Ursachi

Sophie Wadsworth

G.C. Waldrep

Martha Zweig  

Stories Within Stories

World Hotel (Copper Canyon Press, 117 pages)
by Reetika Vazirani 

Reviewed by Valarie Duff

I was fortunate enough to review Reetika Vazirani's first book, White Elephants, which won the Barnard New Women Poets contest, published in 1996. Her second, and sadly, last book of poems, World Hotel, strikes the same easy balance as the first—a sensation of suspension followed by rapid movement—as the poet creates a narrative that deftly turns down avenues of free association. Her impulse is a relief in a world of poetry one rarely can sink one's teeth into—poetry that revels in its own opaqueness. At last, here is a poet with an imagination the reader can enter into, at least most of the time, as her stories waver between fact and fiction. The first half of World Hotel obeys the injunction of a voice that enters the introductory poem, “Hollywood and Hydroquinone”: I am your mother Invent me.” The next seventy pages (the first section of the book) are spent Inventing Maya.

At her best, Vazirani tells a story with the speed and associative surprise equal to that found in her prizewinning White Elephants. There are delightful stories within stories; her talent for layering is particularly evident in poems such as “Going to See the Taj Mahal”:

But what did I know of her except this tomb?
So I pictured her not a beauty, nor especially devout,
always slow to cover her head.
On Thursdays when the open market came
past the red stone quarry, she dressed as her handmaid
and took a poor cloth sack into town where she bartered
for beads women wore on working days; and secretly
with cheap dyes she'd paint herself into the wild casual
beauty of youth, kohl inexpertly applied but alluring.

Vazirani develops her characters and then escapes the confines of one speaker, one perspective, in a wilderness of detail. The most fluid and engaging poems are addressed as letters, and here we feel the full force of content, breath, music, image. Maya (the narrator of many of the poems) is not the only woman with a story; as in Berryman's Dream Songs, there is often more than one voice to a head. And Vazirani's straightforward employment of dialogue is as striking in these poems as it was in the first collection. The voice that surfaces in “Dream of the Evil Servant” (here truncated) is Maya, servant, mother, daughter:

We kept war in the kitchen.
A set of ten bone china plates, now eight.
As if a perfumed guest stole her riches...

The next day she wanted to leave at noon.
I said, Be back by four, I'm paying you.
She sat by the door,
she put out her hand,
her knuckles knocked against mine,
hard deliberate knuckles. I gave her cash.
Off to watch movies, off to smoke ganja.
Why didn't I dismiss her?
I don't know.
She got old as I got old.
I could see her sharp shoulder bones
tighten, her knuckled skull.
I had to look at her. It had to wound me.
Listen, said my mother. Yes mother, I listened, crouched in my head.

Looking over the flowered verandah she said:
Who are you to think you are beautiful?
What have you got to show?
Go sit on your rag.
All my life, I tended to looks,
they betrayed me. I bore you.
I am wretched. Be my mother. Be my maid.

There is an assemblage of form here, as in White Elephants; World Hotel plays with sestina (“Type A”) and villanelle (“It's Me, I'm Not Home”) while White Elephants explored the sonnet form (and sonnet sequence) to great effect. One appreciates the use of form here, but World Hotel concerns itself more with longer, looser poems. Unfortunately, perhaps because of this different approach, her line breaks are occasionally overly staccato and struggling. For all Vazirani's attempts to inhabit the speaker and to be faithful in rhyme and other techniques, the reader can feel thrust a bit too jaggedly around, as in “Personal Ads”:

So I paid her twice a week
a lot of money to say
I picked the set
his pale hotel room he designed
to hide out with someone younger
than his wife to ejaculate the wilddog
affection for the Dow Jones who knows
why I kept listening

Despite any missteps, she tends to rebound. Vazirani is not locked into narrative, just as she is not locked into free verse. She capably encapsulates a story in a spare lyric, needing no cast of characters, as in the powerful (perhaps even more powerful posthumously) “Quiet Death in a Red Closet,” here quoted in full:

Fourteen anniversaries.
Thirteen moons,
A baker's dozen.
Eleven moves.
Ten attempts.
Nine lives.
Eight spoons.
Seven of us.
Six survive.
Five children.
Four daughters.
Three stay.
Too far away.
In marriage,
Someone had to go.

The infrequent lyrical poem allows the reader a moment of rest and reflection in the wider arc and general pace of the book. At worst in this collection, Vazirani slips too far into free association, leaving the reader lost at the edge of a psuedo-narrative, bewildered. One occasionally wants to slow down, to pause before flying forward. World Hotel is not flawless, but Vazirani's strengths are apparent in her embrace of a mythical, legendary India that delights the imagination and the senses (as in “Letter to Jaipur,” partially quoted):

I wanted to tell you
about those years I sat with the children
in the kitchen teaching them to eat.

I wanted to phone you in Jaipur
with your own Ranjit and Ambika,
when the house filled up beyond belief—

the closets with the children's things,
the pantry emptying and filling.
I wanted to tell you, Rekha,

I made mistakes. I didn't fret
as when we were young.
I went on with the spot on the wall,
I wanted to tell you
before I send you my daughters
this summer—next time send yours—

Rekha, teach them the distance
between us is tiny—you see it
when the light pours into a room

dusted before the day rose.
Geography is airmail paper, that's all,
lint slanting in the sun's column.

She professes a sense of longing through her Maya that spans generation, country, and mind. And she will be missed.

Valerie Duff is currently completing her M.Phil at Trinity College, Dublin. Her work has appeared in various print journals, including AGNI, Antioch Review, and Denver Quarterly.


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