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Dispatch 4.4—Melissa Cundieff-Pexa, Theresa Lola, Momtaza Mehri,  & photographs by Yatender
Mrigaa Sethi
Editor's Reflection: In the stillness that follows grief


For as long as I knew her, my maternal grandmother spent her days sitting cross-legged on her bed, her primary identity being her husband’s widow. She would occasionally rise to bestow us with the sublime pleasure of her cooking or to wrap herself in a pastel-colored sari and attend a birthday party, but over the years, she sat for longer and longer. Eventually, she stopped leaving the house, stopped even coming to the table for lunch, nodding off in the afternoons with her chin to her chest, the bedroom television blaring. Towards the end of her life, she got up only to grasp her way to the bathroom a couple times a day.
 
As a young adult, I used to find her choice a criminal waste—sitting like that, day after day, refusing the invitation of the world, inhabiting a grief that grew more ancient by the day. When she died after a brief illness, and my mother and aunt set fire to her funeral pyre, I was more irritated than sad.
 
Since then, though, while enduring my own difficult life transitions, I have thought of my darling grandmother more and more in the stillness that follows grief, realizing just how much actually happens in that space.
 
When I would sleep over in her room, as a child, I would wake to find her in that signature seated position, having been up for hours already, her thin hair covered with her chunni, her head bowed in deep meditation. Now a student of meditation myself, just scratching the surface, it occurs to me that my grandmother may have had a richer inner life than any of us, that she wasn’t losing much at all putting (to use a phrase from featured poet Melissa Cundieff-Pexa) “a curtain over that bright cage” that is the world and its invitation.
 
When picking through the bones and the teeth of the cremated, Hindus search for the aatmaram, a piece of the sternum believed to be the seat of the soul and pretty near impossible to find among the ashes. We found my grandmother’s perfectly intact. It resembles a figure in meditation.
 
Like the speaker in Theresa Lola’s, "Unveiling the Vow,"  there’s so much “I want to ask my grandmother” that I won’t have a chance to. But I do know that, from that bed, she maintained a dazzling cabinet of toiletries, foisting jars of cold cream upon my mother whenever she visited. She softened a once severe relationship with her daughters. She adored me, her little boy-cat, and taught me the stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata that still color my perspective. She enjoyed a new and depthless tenderness with her great-grandchildren who loved to run into her room and jump on her bed. Perhaps sitting is its own kind of engagement. And perhaps “silence is an archive,” as Momtaza Mehri's poem reflects. She’s not here for my questions, but as I go through my life, her answers occasionally find me.
 
No one really used it in her final years, but my grandmother’s name was Manorama—an old-fashioned, elegant name full of memory, the name for a brave princess, I imagine, in a period piece, a supporting character, maybe, in a forgotten chapter of the Ramayana. Hardly anyone has that name anymore, but when I consider what I would call a future daughter, it is high on the shortlist. My grandmother’s name is a reminder that “the end does not stand still // but rises all around the place where it falls.”

 
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from Reunion - Yatender
 
Melissa Cundieff-Pexa
The Conqueror, 1956

          The filmmakers knew about the nuclear tests but the federal    
          government reassured residents that the tests caused no hazard              
          to public health.

 

By the end of the movie, John Wayne’s lungs
will have burned through his armor. The director’s chair,

left out in the rain, will look as if

it has fever dreamed, and the director,
home by then in Los Angeles, will dream a heaviness

dropping from the sky. As it nears land,

he will wake to an idea regarding cause and effect:
the end does not stand still

but rises all around the place where it falls.  

By the credits’ last words, everyone
will have lost their breath.

A strand of blonde hair will have clung

to a stylist’s discarded black smock,
and her black shadow, also discarded in Utah,

will grow so long and thin with trying to walk away

it snaps. From an army base in Kentucky,
my young father will watch this film skeptically.

After chowtime, the pursed mouth of Susan Hayworth

will whimper, save me. While my father drinks
in the celluloid-lit darkness

a cold glass of water, John Wayne

will become the golden face of ancient history. Later,
my father will stand rigid before his sergeant

and note the lines of the man’s under-eyes.

He will think loyalty isn’t really all that cinematic,
but rather, cracked, like a dishrag

left to harden over a fence. By the end 

of the movie, my father will stare into a polished mirror,
flash to a photograph he once saw of the dead

and dying horses on the beach of Normandy just twelve years before.

(Sand fleas hopping on the horses’ eyes.
Eyes that end when gazing at one, white sky.)

So many cast and crewmembers with terminal cancers

will drink from the same cold glass
as my young father. My father will outlive them,

though he might ask later, for what. (To understand better 

the gun he talks to, or the bombs sleeping
inside their aluminum drums? To grow familiar with

the clouds and sound that fill the air, having gotten there

not from above, but from within?)
By the end of the movie, it will be the dirt

under the actor’s nails that hums

well after their passing. When only my father and I are left
in a backyard in a small town where he’s retired,

I’ll think about the rain’s angle, sip my wine, stay quiet.

In the conversation we’ll never have,
I’ll tell him not to look too long at whatever remains.

But he won’t hear clearly, and will ask me to speak

again, louder this time. This time,
to pull a curtain over that bright cage.

This time, to make the horses go away.
 

from Reunion - Yatender
 
Theresa Lola
Unveiling the Vow

 
My grandmother lifted her dark veil,
              it made the sun look like a patch
              of my grandfather’s skin.

I want to ask my grandmother if “Till Death Do Us Part”
              means that my grandfather’s funeral
              is also her wedding of separation.
              She stood at the altar of his casket,
              read his eulogy like a wedding vow
              where she was marrying off her desire to live.

I want to ask my grandmother if she will rebel
              against “Till Death Do Us Part”
              by slicing out my grandfather’s heart
              and preserving it while his body decays.

Her face is usually tense as an unripe fruit,
              but grief can squeeze tears from the stiffest things.
              My grandmother stared at the hole dug
              for her beside my grandfather’s casket,
              counting down the days till she moves in with him.

I want to know if “Till Death Do Us Part”
              means she will have to peel off her love for him
              at the same rate his skin will yawn off his bones.


 
from Reunion - Yatender
 
Momtaza Mehri
Of musk & misinterpretation



 
from Reunion - Yatender
About our contributors
 

Melissa Cundieff-Pexa received an MFA in poetry from Vanderbilt. Her poems appear most recently in Ninth Letter, Linebreak, TriQuarterly, and Four Way Review. She lives in St.Paul, MN with her two children.

Theresa Lola is a British Nigerian poet. She was shortlisted for the 2016 Bridport Poetry Prize and 2016 London Magazine Poetry Prize. She is a Barbican Young Poet Alumni and is part of Octavia Collective led by Rachel Long and SXWKS collective. She won the 2017 Hammer and Tongue National Poetry Slam.

Momtaza Mehri is a poet, essayist, and meme archivist. Her work has been featured in DAZED, Sukoon, Berkeley Poetry Review, VINYL, and Bone Bouquet. She is a Complete Works Fellow and winner of a 2017 Out-Spoken Poetry Prize. Her chapbook, sugah lump prayer, was published in 2017 as part of the New Generation African Poets series. She also co- edits Diaspora Drama, a digital platform showcasing international immigrant artists.

Ao Kim Ngân (a.k.a. Yatender) is an image-maker based in Saigon, Vietnam.

To read more work from these writers, view hi-res versions of images, hear new media, and see archived issues of Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art, please visit tonguejournal.org »
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