Critical Introduction

by Nuraliah bte Norasid, 4 Nov 2015

Pooja Nansi moved to Singapore from Gujarat, India with her parents at the age of one and a half. A regular in local and regional poetry scenes, she has made appearances at events such as the “Poet x Poet” Series held at Booksactually and the GoGreen Poetry Slam at Kuala Lumpur. She also makes a part of the Mango Dollies, a song and spoken word collaboration with Anjana Srinivasan. Their gigs include the ones at the Esplanade Presents series in January and May 2010.

Writing as a member of a minority group and one that is expressedly immigrant, she explores in her poetry issues ranging from identity and belonging, to love, and the construction of a contemporary feminine identity. Nansi writes in free verse, occasionally employing the Japanese forms of the senryū and the haiku.

Her first collection, Stiletto Scars (2008), is an assemblage of poems that are categorised into five sections, each headed with word(s) beginning with the letter ‘H’: “Homes,” “Heart,” “Head,” “Heels and Hips,” and “Hurt and Hope”.

She retains an attachment to her birthplace, imbuing nostalgia through songs, evident in “listening to murkesh,” through the figure of her grandparents, as seen in poems like “dadaji,” as well as in the expression of a desire to speak Hindi as her forebears have spoken it. Bombay is cited in poems like “wandering senryu” and “landing in Bombay, december 5th,” where stark contrasts are established by aligning the enduring reality of poverty alongside the luxuries found within the fictions of cultural materialisms:

A cardboard house by
the drain. The children in it
sing Bollywood hits. (“wandering senryu”)

Billboards screaming at us all,
telling us we cannot do without brand XYZ shampoo,
when the knobby kneed kid standing underneath it is
short of food. (“landing in Bombay, december 5th”)

These harsh contrasts reveal the underlying hypocrisy within popular culture. However, Nansi brings out an honest and ironic sense of homecoming in spite of its foibles.

The perception of Singaporean life in Nansi’s poetry is one of meticulously constructed living rife with misgivings. In “a rant,” her poetic persona wonders at the country’s reductionist notions of multiracialism and multiculturalism—“there are four races / when [she] sees at least five / different shades of brown”— and takes on state social policy, such as the Mother Tongue policy and government campaigns to increase the birth rate. Tastes are “taught” and “lines of segregation” are “thin” behind the country’s united front.

In line with the views of ‘Singaporean identity’ in her poetry, a critique of the country’s education system comes through in poems such as “frustrated senryu,” “teach less learn more,” and “a teacher’s time-table”. It is a system where “thoughtless words, derived of models and standardised answers” (“frustrated senryu”), mute “gifted kids” when asked for their own opinions, causing them to be in great danger of spiralling down a gyre of homogeneity.

The section “Heels and Hips” mainly explores the state of being a modern day woman. Nansi’s persona of the conscious woman dares to seam the contrasting aspects of school ma’am and vixen of the nightclubs, fashion, and yes, stilettos. After taking a fall from a broken heel in a club before an audience of boys, in the poem “judas shoes,” she tells them coolly that she teaches boys their age. In “how to be a stiletto,” a woman is acknowledged as both “a tool and a weapon all at once” and that she does not simply suffer for beauty for men but for herself as well. Nevertheless, weaknesses are not to be shown in a public domain where it is actually expected, but in a private one—unseen. However, as Nansi’s poetry in this section shows, this is not a withdrawal but a coming out, a new age blossoming that Nansi herself does not shy away from. In the same way, she urges everyone to embrace a positive narcissism before performing “I am beautiful”—anthologised in her second collection, Love is an Empty Barstool (2014)—with Srinivasan at a January 2010 Mango Dollies performance at the Esplanade, Singapore.

Her love poems, aptly categorised in Stiletto Scars under “Heart,” are not embarrassed about manifesting women’s desire in descriptions of orgasmic ecstasy and through voices demanding to possess:

How it is that I am scared enough of losing you
that I want to break your fingers
when I am holding your hand
just so you will
remember
whose you are. (“jealousy”)

On one hand, the woman wants and takes control. And she has full license to do so. On the other, the woman’s body is a work of art, created by the lover—“Your lips are paintbrush / [b]rush strokes / the bright red of varnish / on my fingertips” (“transformation) and “He loves my body like he is painting / the Sistine Chapel with his tongue” (“affront”). However, reflecting a modern era where the male body, too, is ravished by ardent female consumers in commercial advertisement and popular culture, Nansi’s poetic persona, too, looks upon with desire on the body of her lover.

With regards to love poems, it is in the beautifully haunting Love is an Empty Barstool that we delve into the sentiment’s painful side. Of the compact collection, Nansi reveals in an interview with Jollin Tan for Wallflowers Magazine:

[It] captures a precise time in my life when I felt like I was figuring out how to move beyond loss and also wondering what it meant to love.

I was also questioning if I had the capacity to be vulnerable as I needed to be in order to let someone in, or brave enough as I needed to be to let someone go.

“Bar Room Haiku” begins the collection with a sense of someone downing a shot, for the burn necessary to handle the painful governing emotions of most of the poems within. Precise in her images, Nansi finds the clarity of love and loss through the presences found in traces of objects:

how do I say this
but the instant noodle dinners you make me
are better than McDonald’s french fries
which I think are in turn better than anything
in any gourmet restaurant I have ever tried [ . . . ] (“French Fries”)

Two blurred photographs.
Old scarred skin.
Small places in me you didn’t manage to find.
Twelve Australian coins,
two-year-old-emails, and goodbye
finally
coming into words. (“What’s Left”)

Love is an Empty Barstool is where trace and solidity converge, where paradoxes of “empty palms” and “bursting heart” (What’s Left”) are the only way to explain loving another so much that we hold them close when they are miles away. That said, the blurred lines do not simply exist in the coalescence of word and meaning. Pooja Nansi is also interested in creating a conversation between the genres of poetry and song, performing her poetry alongside songs written by Srivinasan and other songwriters, as well as mashing up the works of others —Charles Bukowski with Townes Van Zandt, Carol Ann Duffy with Gillian Welch—seaming poetry with lyric, marrying sister forms of art to create contemporary daughters brave enough to be a “blues song”.


Works Cited

Nansi, Pooja. Stiletto Scars. Singapore: Word Forward, 2007.

—. Love is an Empty Barstool. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2014.

Tan, Jollin. “Pooja Nansi”. Wallflowers Magazine 2 Mar 2014. Web.