“Wildness became my familiar,
and I became its mistress” (from ‘Nightblindness’)
In this collection of poetry, Sharanya Manivannan’s writing lights up pathways through neglected terrains where those who loved too much and too fiercely are tucked into once their stories have been palatably tied up by history. The deep dark forest, the underworld, dusky corners of the afterlife. Sharanya’s words reach far into the depths of these wild landscapes to excavate stories and lessons on love and longing anchored in the voices of Sita, Inanna, and Lucifer. The Altar of the Only World (HarperCollins India, 2017) is poetry that calls upon what has been othered in stories set by patriarchal paradigms and embraces them for their unbelonging. In the process, this book challenges the reader to explore the unseen nuances of mythology - questioning who were we allowed to empathize with when these stories were told to us, how did we reshape love for the sake of maintaining oppressive illusions, and how do we allow ourselves to reclaim the voices of the disgraced; to speak to them as equals, to hear them out and in extension hold space for the parts of ourselves that we have pushed into the shadows.
“Know this: all of you can burn in isolation, the light of what you are held opaque within the eyes of those who watch, but they will neither look away nor venture closer. All of you can burn and still none will surge towards you. At the distance of the arsonist’s arrow, in the shadow-smoke of ambuscade, they wait for you to turn to ash. For the blazing heart of you to raze itself out, so that they can say that you had wanted to turn to cinder, that you had always smouldered too brightly to save.” (from ‘Self-portrait as the Island on Fire’)
Towards the end of the Ramayana, Sita’s exile was brought on by Rama’s sudden paranoia over the question of her faithfulness during the time of Sita’s abduction. Even when their own country questioned Sita’s loyalty, Rama with all his god-given gifts failed to stand up for her. Nevermind that she was held on strange land against her will for most of the epic, she was then sentenced to live out the rest of her life in the woods after being thrown into fire, a trial that proved her loyalty but did nothing to halt the stigma impaling her or the grief that followed,
“You promise no fire could touch me
the burning ghat of my heart” (‘Torch’).
In an ancient Sumerian poem, Inanna journeyed into the underworld to confront Ereshkigal - some readings identify Ereshkigal as symbolic of Inanna’s shadow self - died there, and was brought back to the realm of the living by trading in her husband’s soul for hers. Lucifer, infamous for his refusal to bow to man when God commanded him to - not knowing how to devote himself to anything other than the Beloved - gets stationed in hell for eternity, burning brightly in our skies as a light-bearer,
“you too can survive the impact,
you too can bear the weight of light” (‘Meteorite’).
Light and dark meet in these poems to reestablish wholeness between opposing forces. Love lives with displacement, transmuting grief into healing and redemption. Both Inanna as Ishtar the morning and evening star, and Lucifer as Morning Star link us to Venus, goddess of love, as well as the planet whose astrological body informs in us the ways we connect and express intimacy. These mythological and symbolic narratives act as checkpoints in the navigational map of ‘The Altar of the Only World.’ Along the way, Sita also finds Surpanakha and Draupadi for us. The collective presence of these archetypes of longing and unbelonging are felt in symbolism, imagery, and language that is sublime and cosmic - eager to be traced and retraced like Ariadne’s thread deep into each poem where we perhaps might hear our own shadow’s voice reverberating through.
“Worlds moved as devotion refused to bow
to laws untrue, so fierce that even now
when exiles string their syllables and write
she glows luciferous in chthonic night;
lit from deep within, not just from above.” (from ‘Venus of the Diaspora’)
In ‘Women Who Run With the Wolves,’ Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes, “Over time, we have seen the feminine instinctive nature looted, driven back, and overbuilt. For long periods it has been mismanaged like the wildlife and wildlands. For several thousand years, as soon and as often as we turn our backs, it is relegated to the poorest land of the psyche. The spiritual lands of the Wild Woman have, throughout history, been plundered or burnt, dens bulldozed, and natural cycles forced into unnatural rhythms to please others.”
The world of women in myth and folklore has been flayed to pander to the patriarchal gaze. A girl-child is placed under the weight of shame very early on, nurturing in her the impulse to shrink and deflate herself. She is expected to carry this shame, shaping her every action and desire around it, through adolescence and adulthood. Those who deviate from this are rejected, tormented, demonized. Labelled as wild, foreign. Forbidden. Othered. Sita, Inanna, and Lucifer embody this fierce grief of The Wild Woman - we recognize her lamentations in stories that span through time and cultures. Of La Llorona, Demeter, and even Qays whose longing for Layla transforms him into Majnun. All of them, “only a lover, starved in abandonment” (‘The Suffering’), left to the mercy of a neglected psychic wilderness once the object of their love is no longer within reach. This contrasts with how palatable versions of history construct wildness for the patriarchal masculine. Through this lens, the deep forest becomes a meditative place for men to practice asceticism. But for the woman, it's a place where she is cast off to, preferably to never return. In this stigmatized wilderness, absent of communal belonging, those who embody the grieving Wild Woman may find freedom to express themselves away from judgmental eyes - but this landscape is ultimately a space where one is severed from loved ones, from the world they have built for themselves, and at times even from their basic rights. As Estés writes in the chapter about The Skeleton Woman, “Love costs. It costs bravery. It costs going the distance, as we shall see.”
Diane Wolkstein writes in the introduction of ‘Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer,’ “With Inanna, we enter the place of exploration: the place where not all energies have been tamed or ordered.” The poem ‘The Ascent,’ is written in seven vignettes that reflect the seven mes (decrees of the Goddess) and adornments Inanna prepares herself with for the journey, the seven gates of the underworld she must walk through, and the seven hymns of praise bestowed upon her at the end of her journey. Sharanya has arranged ‘The Ascent’ with each vignette marking the threshold of a gate as well as of a chakra point so that when we read, “ask for the thing that gives you back your heart,” at the first gate we find “muladhara,” signifying the root chakra. The poem suggests that we start each transformative journey with the seat of the body where it connects to the Earth, “take your sandals first.” In the oldest known written poem, Inanna was asked to surrender a piece of apparel before entering each gate. She is naked and physically vulnerable when she reaches Ereshkigal. And as the narrator of ‘The Ascent’ plunges deeper into the underworld, symbolic for the shadowlands of our psyches, our awareness as a reader is guided up the energetic channels of the chakra points until we get to:
"ask for everything
it was yours to begin with
but there was just no other way”
When we reach the seventh gate, we reach the crown chakra. As the body enters the heart of the underworld, the inner self reaches a doorway to ascension. A place where the love that matters most is the love the Self gives itself - whole and complete, even when alone. When Inanna is killed by Ereshkigal, her most intimate relationships are put to the test. Lacking any grief over the death of his wife, Inanna's husband was chosen to replace her soul in the underworld. Inanna returns, whole and husbandless. This poem as a symbolic and poignant representation of healing - of facing your shadow self, of asking and letting go, and of acceptance - is the epitome of the phrase, to hell and back. And that is indeed what transformational experiences of love - what healing through grief - can look like. Brutal and beautiful.
“We are proof of what happens
when a curse is inverted.
How from grail of blood
and fire-sacrifice emerge
the true twice-born,
who having transcended time,
between worlds.” (from ‘Fire-forged, Blood-born’)
The poems in this book are skillfully written and arranged into a narrative that starts with breaking the self open at ‘Hanuman,’ “Take from me all I can give,” and finding completion with a sense of renewal in ‘Gathering,’ “Precious one - listen - we are still here.” Sewn into these otherworldly poems and rooted within each mythological character is the Self as protagonist. Sharanya’s dexterity in infusing the most intimate moments of being human with the mythological, mystical, and lyrical results in writing that carries great impact and luminosity. ‘A Country Contains Nothing’ is a pantoum that explores displacement by utilizing the “partition” of repeated lines arranged like an echo shattering against itself on its journey back to its source. Pantoums originate from Malaya (formed by colonizers before its post-colonial construction created borders around Malaysia, Borneo, and Singapore). In Malay, it’s known as pantun berkait because each stanza refers back to the previous one - where the second and fourth lines of one stanza are repeated as the first and third lines of the following stanza, and the first line of the poem is also the final one. Like the trajectory of a colonized country, this poem goes through the process of mutilation, with repeated mention of a longing “beyond our control.” A longing to return to what has been taken away by deconstructing “who we are from what claims us.” A longing to reconcile with where we come from and how such a thing is purely “based on happenstance.” Rarely do those who call any country home get to have a say in how this home treats them. This wounding is especially felt by individuals of displaced, marginalized, and stigmatized communities.
We see this happening across the globe with what the media have termed refugee crisis - governmental bodies trumping over the rights of those without paper identities, wars and ignorance forcing separation between families and loved ones. And with the everlasting psychological displacement of diasporic lineages and communities torn by toxic constructs of race, class, and caste, some for whom no amount of money or education could clear off “the dust of this much displacement” (‘Remember Me in Mud’) from their histories. Poems like ‘A Country Contains Nothing’ show without telling us that the true crisis lies with how false hierarchies are arbitrarily drawn and preserved, distorting the ways we have chosen to love ourselves and each other. And perhaps even how irrational yet consuming it is to want - need - to belong somewhere or to someone. To be part of something we can touch,
“What I’d give to be inside - even
if - a country contains nothing.”
In wildness, there is grief. In displacement, longings grow bigger than what ordinary life can offer. Stories then grow larger than life, consuming and becoming worlds of their own. These wild landscapes may not be conventionally attractive - mainstream media either glamorizes grief into an unhelpful caricature or pretends it does not exist. In the shadowlands within us are where we will find the parts of ourselves that we miss when we mourn losses we experience through exile and separations. It is where we find ways to heal and continue choosing this world that we share. The journey of reading this book is one that challenges the intellect and emotions to find their connection back to the intuitive self that is vulnerable, fearless, and wants its voice heard without being flayed or sugarcoated. In ‘The Altar of the Only World,’ Sharanya reclaims these muddy spaces of folklore and mythology that have been othered, merging the epic with the mundane and the personal with the universal for us to see that grief, like love, is beautifully and frighteningly extraordinary.
“Beloved, betrayer, witness with hooded eyes,
how do I bear this, except by way of testimony?
How do I tell you, except by telling you:
How because of longing I almost died.
How because of language I lived.” (from ‘Testimony’)
P.s. These are my views and interpretation of the work, influenced by my personal responses and reactions. Fun fact! It took me seven months and three readings of this book to write this review. Returning to these poems over the course of these months allowed me to unlock a deeper understanding of the wild underworlds that pulsate so vividly throughout this collection (and in us). To be honest, I was frustrated by my own delays but just like reading this book - traveling through its labyrinths, meeting the characters, allowing the vocabulary in it to expand mine as well as my heart - I had to let it take its time. I understood that there were things I needed to see and feel before I could write a response to this book and I hope I did it justice. I'm still rereading the poems in this book and discovering new layers in them - I love it so much. My heartfelt thanks to Sharanya and HarperCollins India for sending me a reviewer's copy and to Miggy Angel for the proofreading and feedback <3
'The Mythology of Love' by Joseph Campbell <http://www.mythicjourneys.org/newsletter_feb07_campbell.html>
'The first poet,' <https://thequeenofheaven.wordpress.com/2010/09/05/the-first-poet/>
‘Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer’ by Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer <https://archive.org/stream/input-compressed-2015mar28a29/done-compressed-2015mar28a29_djvu.txt>
‘Women Who Run with the Wolves’ by Clarissa Pinkola Estes
‘The Rama Saga in Malaysia’ by Alexander Zieseniss
‘The Encyclopedia of Myths and Legends of All Nations’ by H.S. Robinson and K. Wilson, edited by Barbara Leonie Picard