“What is the profession of the culture-hoarder? Who are the gatekeepers?” Prageeta Sharma asks in her poem “We Have Trees Now,” taken from her latest collection Undergloom. And these questions—along with several others contained in “A Situation For Mrs. Biswas,” a long narrative work detailing the speaker’s emigrant father’s forced job resignation–-encapsulate at least some of the volume’s pertinent notions and conceptions. The first generation American daughter of parents who arrived here from India in 1969, the nature of Otherness is central to Sharma’s work but, as an Associate Professor in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Montana in Missoula, one that increasingly presents complications; in the final poem in the collection, “Chicken Before Chiasm,” the speaker asserts, “It is the Others who did this to me. Did I tell you I was becoming one of them?” To be a gatekeeper is to be someone who not only sets the rules but is also intimately aware of their importance, their purchase; one has to be able to discern what to keep out and allow in. In a similar vein, culture-hoarding is, at its core, an act borne out of insecurity— what another culture, any other culture, deems valuable and relevant we deem illicit, merely because its origin doesn’t belong to us, didn’t derive from us. In “We Have Trees Now” Sharma continues:
Are we awaiting cheerless ambivalence to greet us in the West?
Cavernous and cloudless, unaffected by beauty. Let’s be petulant,
this is us now, we say. We can’t help but find ourselves lustful;
crying alligator tears with pails to our eyes, we didn’t know we were here
we kept saying, we don’t know how it happened.
Although the poem itself is not overtly political—Sharma is smarter than that—it does implicitly place value judgments on cultural notions rarely acknowledged or recognized in contemporary poetry. People from the West are breezy, flighty, curable, whereas people from “back east” possess a “permanent downwardness of spirit.” Yet despite that fact, such people “back east” are inevitably happier, content with themselves, their place and station; they don’t have time for “cheerless ambivalence” because the world is continually happening everywhere around them and “cheerless ambivalence” is in no way, shape or form a valid response to such incessance. Undergloom is not a sorrowful collection, not in the slightest, but the familial and cultural notions that Sharma prods and grapples with in the volume are ones that, simply put, many other contemporary poets don’t seem very interested in prodding or grappling with. It’s to Sharma’s credit, then, that she is willing to and the book’s scope is exponentially furthered as a result.
Culture-hoardings notions and the like aside, Sharma, perhaps surprisingly, is nevertheless a genuinely funny poet, one whose humor is deadpan and acute. The opening stanzas of “Poetry Anonymous” read, straight-faced:
Do not fall in love with a poet
they are no more honest than a stockbroker.
(Do you have a stockbroker? If you do,
your poet is with you because you have one.)
Nodding to the herd mentality contemporary poets are often susceptible to, “Popularity In Poetry” asserts “If A thinks that all poetry is this and that/ B must believe A/ To the exclusion of all else;” the poem ends with the couplet “I recall Anselm saying all this popularity in poetry/ Is for the young: let them grow out of their batman suits.” And lines in “My Own Subjectivity Bothers Me” are simultaneously forthright and deceptive—“Poetry is a fundraiser for the faux-haughty, / but also a trident for the humble.//This is an achievement.” The points being made in each of the above poems deal, at least in part, with artistic self-absorption, a necessary trait for any creator—without it a sculptor wouldn’t be a sculptor, a composer a composer, poet a poet—but Sharma clearly delights in poking gentle fun at what others take so seriously. As Marianne Moore—who Sharma name checks in her poem “People Absolve Themselves And Eat Their Young”—famously declared, “there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.” Undergloom’s author is thus aware of this fact—and the humor in her poetry refreshingly extends outward by extension.
Being that Undergloom is Sharma’s fourth volume of poetry and third on celebrated press Fence Books, the work in the collection exhibits a confidence—in tone and delivery, metaphorical conceit and linguistic disjunction—that is admirable. At the same time, however, it is also subtly innovative; it’s clear Sharma isn’t interested in rehashing what she or anyone else has written previously, and the poetry in Undergloom is topical in the sense that it is of its moment whilst not being defined by that moment. On the bus, in your bed, at the park, in the bathroom, Sharma’s poetry and Undergloom in particular is worth reading and studying. Your orders are clear. Go forth.