On elephant’s shoulders, Sudha Rao, The Cuba Press, 2022
Poetry books are so often objects to treasure, physical treats to hold.
Sudha Rao’s On elephant’s shoulders is exactly this, with its exquisite, embroidered cover image (sorry no acknowledgement of source or creator). The interior design is equally appealing; a perfectly sized font with ample space for the poems to breathe and readers to sojourn. The title also captivates, and I especially love the fact there is neither definite nor indefinite article to support ‘elephant’. I am pirouetting on the title, imagining elephant as both anchor and viewing platform. Falling into the title, over and over. I am both grounded and liberated.
The opening poem, ‘Warp and weft’, establishes the collection as a book of arrivals and departures. It sets the scene for recurrent motifs, ideas, words, images – and I love that. The poem is divided into three parts: passages, shadows and braids. The three terms are an excellent guide to the book as a whole. I am particularly captivated by the recurring ‘braids: there are plaits, the father’s hands, the grandmother’s hair, the South Island rivers, a way of writing, a way of living between here and there, this home and that home.
“I am a bracelet of memories bearing the weight of your bones.”
from ‘Threads across waters’
The poetry, in keeping with braid notions, exudes both economy and perfumed richness, an evocative serving of detail. The detail enhances a scene, a series of relationships, poetry as musical score. The detail may be repeated, as in echoey ‘braid’, you might move from the scent of turmeric to a ‘sunflower flowering’.
What renders the collection poignant, especially in its poetic tracing of a migrant’s experience, is the presence/absence braid, whether we are talking geography, kin, food, gestures, memories. Everything feeds into a braided version of home that is near and far, intimate and longed for.
[…] When you crossed
old waters, did you know
how cold new waters would be?
I talked about stitching when I recently reviewed Elizabeth Morton’s terrific collection Naming the Beasts, and stitching seems appropriate here, especially bearing in mind the sublime cover. Stitching is a way of talking about poetic craft, about the little threads that are both visible and invisible parts of the art and craft of a work, in the edge and the tension. Sudha has stitched her poetry in threads that gleam of the everyday, the detail so alive with living, epiphany, challenge, but that also work behind the scenes as the poems flow like little exhalations. Measured. Mesmerising. Magnificent.
This is a collection to treasure.
“‘There is rhythm in the cabbage tree when it combs clouds.”
from ‘Keeping time’
Originally from South India, Sudha Rao migrated to Dunedin with her parents and trained in classical South Indian dance. She moved to Wellington to establish Dance Aotearoa New Zealand (DANZ). Sudha’s poems have appeared in literary journals and anthologies in New Zealand and overseas, including Ko Aotearoa Tātou | We Are New Zealand and Best New Zealand Poems. Sudha was a participant in the International Bengaluru Poetry Festival 2019 and performs in Wellington with Meow Gurrrls.
The Cuba Press page