I can’t believe what an abundance
of silk must be spun to wrap the congregation
of women in these streets! The deep greens
of its tamarind neighbor are woven into
the flaming leaves of the cotton tree; here,
it is otherwise not December. Unlikely pairs–
fuchsia and yellow, emerald and warm orange–
flatter the necks of rich and poor; neither
are deprived of glittering ornaments.
Yesterday, the City of Palaces fell
nothing short of monumental; Calcutta seemed
to me a glory. Its palms flowered into bananas,
coconuts, and bull hearts; its white plaster walls
feigned marble, after rains. Crowds were accommodated
by thousands under one ancestral banyan.
Parting the seas of streets, a sheikh announced
his service. Those who had hired the washerman
piled their clothes on a moving heap:
a pair of saddled cows he’d tied to a rope.
Water was stored in large tanks, like tabernacles,
throughout the city, and those called wellers
were to offer it to the washermen. I saw one
at the far end of the Ganges handing a small child
to the waters. The Ghaut, the great castle
of ash, burned only the rich, but the river
took in the child’s still limbs. Gently,
on her forehead, now colder than the water,
the man laid his hands. He looked up for a moment
before backing away. He watched her hair, bangles, feet
float out of sight, out from one of the mouths of the sea.
“City of Palaces” is a list poem, like a travelogue, but with lovely music and a sweet-sad ending. From the first stanza onward, there is very careful attention to phonetic clustering, and also a joy in the sounds of exotic words, banyan, tamarind. I like especially the way the line and the grammatical unit do not always coincide; by ending some sentences in the middle of lines, the author brings together images that are not unified by the sentence: women and “deep greens” get together in one line, as do the waters and the crematorium Ghaut. This practice of starting a new sentence in the middle of a line also gives the poem a lot of forward momentum; the syntax pulls the reader forward, while the line holds you back.
As with “The Sugar Cane Train,” the movement in “City of Palaces” is away from the disinterested tourist’s-eye-view toward a more loaded witnessing. The poem starts with surfaces–women dressed in colorful saris, trees flowering, crowds of people–and then moves in closely to focus on the image of a man sending the body of a dead child to sea. No lecture is given here on inequity, on the injustice of such a death, and such a burial–the speaker merely notes that only “the rich” are cremated, and then goes on to give the sad moment the attention it is due. –Andrea Selch