Saturday, March 29, 2008



terrain tracks by Purvi Shah
(New Rivers Press, Moorhead, MN, 2006)

Travel, whether literal or metaphoric, is a major theme in Many Voices Project Winner Purvi Shah’s poetry collection, terrain tracks. Though not the only thing this collection is about, Shah’s poems also relate tales of the immigrant experience, and they touch on a number of familiar subjects: generation gaps and the longing for “home.” Much like the collision Shah’s speakers hope for, her words collide: her lines are often packed full of compelling images and luscious sounds.

Action, or the aforementioned travel, exists as a place for contemplation. On a flight on Mother’s Day, the speaker brings a peony on the thousand mile flight as an offering to her mother, a woman who lives far from her. Here, as in so many of Shah’s poems, the images in the poem serve as a metaphor for the relationships people have with one another. The speaker balances the peony with “the right blend / between clench and slippery / grasp, holding on and letting / go.” And, for this speaker, this balance “does not arrive naturally.” People in this collection are balancing not only time, but distance between one another, as well as the distance of generations.

As the collection progresses, there is more discussion of assimilation, and the aforementioned generation gaps. In the poem, “I remember when we were holy, Immigrant Song #1,” a mother watches as her children grow up and become interested in Western culture. The speaker says, “Most / times I understand too well / how they are growing apart / from me. They work, spend / their money on blue jeans.” When the mother speaks about her own desires as a child, the tone of the poem is one that is somewhere between calm and resigned. It is only later in the poem, with discussion of “our elders thrown / to the streets by their own sons,” that the mother pulls her shawl tighter and contemplates what “everyone” used to say about her new home: that “this country / will cost us our children,” does the speaker pull her shawl tighter.”

The idea of lives converging, after parallel journeys, recurs in this collection. In the poem, “Back track,” the speaker wonders, “though we are careening / in opposite directions, could these lines circle upon themselves to reach / the same vanishing point?” With distance, there is often longing, and with longing, there is often the hope of reunions. The speaker wants to “plot stations, / count the points between us, then take a dingy eraser and smear / the graphite into one streak, unsegmented, inviolate, indivisible.”

Nature is as much a character as the speakers of the poems. In the piece, “Cultivation,” Shah weaves memory, the land, and a relationship into a complex study on exploration and longing. She writes:
We could listen to the way flowers
open like thunder, the bold unfurling
to begin, the spreading, a drum
scatter, the wet wash.

As much as your hands, thoughts
make me tremble. You banish
the light because you want
me to come to bed. Images
of fields, opening
like an accordion, sweet sonnets
of wheat, I am dreaming, not just
of you or the tight warmth
of your fingers when the hands turns
around body, but also of harvesting, bending
a back to retrieve the tall
fruits of rain and soil. I reach

my favorite spatch
of skin, the nexus
of hip and waist, the curve
an ellipsis, like a song on its way
to higher notes. The window open

and beyond the city grime, the smell
of soil waiting
to be overturned, and seeded,

a body to be explored.

Here, though there is reminiscing and the recollection of what has been, there is still hope for the future. Shah still smells the “soil waiting / to be overturned,” and the poems in this collection mimic this exact action: they turn experiences over and around themselves; they exist as spaces of contemplation. The land, and images in general, are just as much a part of a person’s life as the relationships between people.

For Shah, the world is always swarming. In her poem, “The world swarms,” the speaker is “balancing” their way through the snow and desiring the syncing of lives. “Even in the trails where snow / has been cleared, we bumble / through our lives. I wait for you. / And right now the world swarms.”


Lisa Bower is here.

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