Reetika Vazirani (1962-2003)

Reetika Vazirani was born in India and raised in Maryland. Her debut volume, White Elephants, won the Barnard New Women Poets Prize. As poet Marilyn Hacker writes in the introduction, White Elephants is “about the intersection of two cultures, about the richness and confusion, the conundrums, the music, the flavors, the constant questioning of a genuinely multicultural existence.”

The recently-released World Hotel vividly portrays the clashes between mother and daughter, between lovers, between eastern and western cultures, and between colonizers and colonized. In a review in The Nation, Grace Schulman wrote that Vazirani “creates poetry out of opposites: the sacred and the secular, exile and belonging, humor and wry sadness. Her poetry is a delight.”

Vazirani’s honors include a 1999 Pushcart Prize, a 1998 Poets & Writers “Writers Exchange” award, a 1994 “Discovery? The Nation?” award, fellowships from the Watson Foundation (for travel and study in India, Thailand, Japan, and China), the Sewanee Writers Conference, Yaddo, and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference.

Educated at Wellesley College and the University of Virginia, where she was a Henry Hoyns teaching fellow, Vazirani also taught in the graduate workshop at the University of Oregon and at Sweet Briar College and served as an editor for Shenandoah.

Poetry Center Reading:

Spring 2003

Excerpt of the sonnet sequence White Elephants

[29] White Elephants II
We might’ve been better off somewhere else,
passing through in caravan, on elephant.
Here, white elephants seemed odd to us.
As if elephants they also show up as white,
my father said; he said these things a hundred
times: My children must become doctors,
a good profession for the immigrant.
Never fear the sight of blood for God is great.
Those first years in Maryland we quoted him
nightly, as if hope would make us doctors
or repeating English words would replace
a former accent with none. But there was
always the scent of spices on our breath,
and bronze elephants waiting on the front steps.

From WHITE ELEPHANTS (Beacon Press, 1996)

English

Their Army barracks were fun in the jungle
outside Lucknow, wide paths to tan buildings,
and men wore caps with quarter-moon fronts.
Do caps keep the moon from shining in?
What do they think of ours-we have a hundred
names, a hundred phrases, and in England
there’s just moon, that’s all. And think of the quick
words they used–Hello. Cheers. Thanks very much
old chap. Little words from a locked
box and twenty-six letters. So few.

I saw folded napkin, fork-knife-spoon,
cloth and glass and gin-water, gin-tonic, gin-soda;
eating places off in squares like beds
at Christ’s Church, headstone, footstone, grass
between. Then the General, he said, Neat,
and a bearer brought a clear drink on a tray.
The silver cutlery clicked on the plates,
words like a storekeeper’s coins. I didn’t want
to leave, but at thirteen hundred sharp we filed out
by a hundred olive quarter-moon caps.

The soldiers
made paths through the jungle to let light in,
wore caps to keep it out, and officers
drove at noon while we sat in the shade.
My uncle, a general, said they are great
adventurers, but their own country is an island.
And when I said island, it was a mint leaf
on my tongue, an almond slice, a moon
with its thin rays on the windowpane.

From WORLD HOTEL (Copper Canyon Press, 2000)

It’s Me, I’m Not Home

It’s late in the city and I’m asleep.
You will call again? Did I hear
(please leave a message after the beep)

Chekhov? A loves B. I clap
for joy. B loves C. C won’t answer.
In the city it’s late, I’m asleep,

and if your face nears me like a familiar map
of homelessness: old world, new hemisphere
(it’s me leave a message after the beep),

then romance flies in the final lap
of the relay, I pass the baton you disappear
into the city, it’s late and I’m asleep

with marriages again, they tend to drop
by, faithful to us for about a year,
leave a message after the beep,

I’ll leave a key for you, play the tape
when you come in, or pick up the receiver.
It’s late in the city and I’m asleep.
Please leave a message after the beep.

From WORLD HOTEL (Copper Canyon Press, 2000)