Reviews / February 2011 (Issue 13)

Learning to Hear Mani Rao: Mani Rao's Ghostmasters

by Reid Mitchell


Mani Rao, Ghostmasters, Chameleon Press, 2010. 80 pgs.

This is a chair
You may as well
sit on it
It's no good
as firewood

These lines conclude Mani Rao's Ghostmasters. In an off-hand manner, we are invited to linger—to remain within these poems. Rao has become a master poet, and as with many master poets, her poems have become more difficult and demanding. Any reader comparing 100 Poems: 1985-2005 to her latest collection, Ghostmasters, will quickly spot the growth and change as Rao pursues her self-defined aesthetic, myths, and—yes—theology. Nonetheless, Mani Rao insists that her poems are not difficult, which forces me to the conclusion I am not very smart, which is consistent with many other aspects of my life and explains most of it.

Consider the sequence "Slough," poems about poetry, and my difficulties in reading it. Even the title presents immediate ambiguity of meaning and sound. Which "slough"? The word Bunyan uses in "The Slough of Despond"? Or the skin that we slough off?

It's the second. "Slough" gives the volume Ghostmasters its cover image: the Ouroboros (a concept perhaps better known to my generation by the vacuum cleaner monster vacuuming himself in Yellow Submarine). "Slough" begins "Nude the poet has to fashion masks out of his own diaphanous slough." Rao is saying that that is what poets work with for material, their own sloughed off skin, the detritus of their lives and bodies, and that all they make are masks, not true faces. We create from our own waste—that which we excrete.

This first stanza—or perhaps poem—"Slough" is followed by this:

Slough must be eaten to the last shred
On the last journey tracks made by the head must be covered up by the body.
Coil to the shape of a bracelet
Place tail inside mouth
Fasten clasp.

If we try to read this as a stanza developing the image of the beginning, we immediately plunge into incoherence—why are the poet's masks now being eaten? So, while we are still dealing with slough, we must start afresh with the images—though not the ideas of the poet. Rao explained this to me by saying that the stanzas are not linear and narrative, but instead "beads on a string."

This second stanza also simultaneously gives us the Ouroboros and a piece of Ouroboros jewelry: artifice. It reminds us of Yeats, who wanted to become a mechanical bird to sing to Lords and Ladies of Byzantium.

This leads to the third stanza, with its staggering opening: "The womb never leaves a child." This womb, both the mother's and the poet's creative process, is also related to the "Void," to which Rao refers in other poems.

The womb never leave a child.
You wear it on your back even as you look for it in absent-minded mourning.
The new skins you grow as slough.
But this is flesh – kin –
Slide back into its canoe
Bark curved from memory
And thus dressed go    to the shore     your bride        death.

We never create ourselves, but are created; we seek our origins, but all of this is more matter for the poet—more slough.

It is sometimes hard to recognize in the midst of all this heavy-lifting, that Rao can also be hilarious. Although "playfulness" is not the first word to come to mind to characterize Rao's poems, she actually puns on words, plays with sound—indeed, follows sound to let it create its meaning.

       Some frogs gargled in the gutter

Some frog gargoyles on the path ("Auditorium")

Rao has acknowledged that in the English language, she sometimes misses sound combinations—consonant clusters—more easily available in the languages of India. Rao has compared her sound to mantras; we might also think of scat-singing. Like Eliot, she is willing to blend high and low diction.

She also seems an heir to Gertrude Stein, who sometimes allowed sound to create her images and who possessed a broader sense of humor than her detractors suggest. Perhaps Stein's most famous line where the words are used primarily for the sake of their sound combination is her portrait of Susie Asado, which opens "Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea."

Follow the sound. The poem that opens Ghostmasters offers the line "Blackbirds will burst a packet of tacks." We hear the blackbirds rising in flight. In the poem "Air at a sniff," the word "Rrrrrip" is repeated three times; "straycow" and "honeybell" are single words; the penultimate line is, "Come graze ghost bees." In another poem, "Abra macabre" replaces the usual "Abracadabra."

As for humor, Rao includes this section, presumably a parody of the second "What the Thunder Said" in T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland," in "Auditorium":

Thunder, stupid
Air fell back
Fire sprang forward
Did anyone see the script
Those who saw were struck
Others heard about it
What did they hear?

Compare this to T. S. Eliot's less-informed use of Indian scripture.

Then spoke the thunder

Eliot opens "What the Thunder Saw" with Christian imagery—the arrest of Jesus—but ends with a list of Indian terms: "Datta. Dayadvan Damyata Shantih." Mani Rao is a student of religion; her new translation of the Bhagavad Gita has just been published. Does the poet protest, in her own fragmentary poem, the use of Indian religious terms as "fragments" Eliot has "shored up against...ruin"? Is all that readers who are ignorant of Indian philosophy get from Eliot's use of these terms the equivalent of "Duh"? Then again, concepts such as the Void are indeed said to be inexpressible through language; perhaps "duh" is as good an attempt as any.

Sometimes the humor appears self-referential. The poem "End of scene" begins "We don't see each other any more." Then the poet asks, "Was it art for art's sake/or did we get some poems out of it"? (I cannot speak for Mani Rao but I have several times tried to console my broken heart with the thought, "At least I got some poems out of it.") "Writing to Stop," a poem written in opposition to writing, indeed written to force the poet to stop writing, notes that "The only writing really necessary is one's Last Will and Testament/and even that implies a lack of trust." (Another poem notes that "When/you are dying you change/To prose/The family finds out who gets what/You are finally understood.") Going back to the poem "Auditorium" once again, it concludes, in Krazy Kat diction,

Must scratch
Pass pen please

The question is not how far any reader can follow Mani Rao along her paths, paths of images, of sounds, of ideas. The question is how much will you learn on the trip?

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