Poets from Elsewhere

Illustrated by Emily Thornton Calvo


Introducing Tina Barr

It’s such a pleasure to introduce the Guest Poetry Editor for the international issue: award-winning poet, editor, and teacher extraordinaire, Tina Barr. Tina’s poetry and scholarship first crossed my desk early in both our careers, and we have followed each other through our poems since. I revel in the lush descriptions in her work, a poetry as syntactically precise and intricately worded as the poetry of Marianne Moore. About the natural world, moreover, Tina’s poems are often as rich as Moore’s in their incisive, unobtrusively ethical observations. Consider the following lines from the first stanza of “The Ecology of Atlas,” a poem which describes its subject before identifying him as a butterfly: “Four white patches arrest us, the whole / embroidery complex as a Chinese robe, silked / in oranges, whites and greys. Even his segmented / carapace is eyed on its underside. … Under a microscope / his whole cape is mailed with shining platelets, / a roman army’s phalanx glinting their shields so sun / becomes a weapon. Seeing him … is to learn regard of a small god.” We have no idea at first where we are, and no choice but to follow these lovely, wide-ranging descriptions through to … not quite the thing itself in this first stanza, but rather to a sense of the divine in Nature. By the second stanza, we know that we have been adroitly led through worldly details to both understanding of and reverence for nature’s magnificent creations.


In settings of breath-taking beauty (catch Tina’s YouTube clip below), she has contemplated a world at once glorious and threatening. In her most recent book, Green Target, as in both poems she includes in this feature, the awareness of the beautiful world is fraught with pressing details of global violence and the dangers of climate change: bees buzzing among flowers remind the poet of the sound of man-made drones dropping bombs; viruses now infest the sea’s bounty and our bodies. Tina’s is a profoundly moving, exquisitely attuned poetry: to live with, perhaps to mine for wisdom.

In addition to Green Target, which won the Barrow Street Press Book Prize and was awarded the Brockman-Campbell Award from the North Carolina Poetry Society, Tina has published Kaleidoscope, The Gathering Eye, which received the Tupelo Press Editor’s Prize, and three chapbooks. She is the founding editor of The Shining Rock Poetry Anthology & Book Review (http://www.shiningrockpoetry.com). I invite you to check out Tina Barr’s own poetry further, and now to discover the poetry from around the world that she has selected for this special international poetry feature.


Poets from Elsewhere

I was thrilled to be able to read submissions from so many different writers, from all over the world. It was wonderfully exciting when I came across a poem that I found arresting. I looked for texture in the language, rather than a more demotic style – strong imagery, a level of the dramatic, a compelling sense of emotion, allusion—and I was most taken by the element of surprise, in, for example, a poem about an iceberg, by New Zealand poet Elizabeth Mornin, or in the Serbian poet Dubravka Djuric’s poem “Nostalgia.” I was also taken with a poem’s geography that might indicate another location on the planet. But plenty of poems simply persuade us with their level of emotion, for example “Despite” by the English poet Susan Wicks. I was lucky to be able to consider poems in translation, and I understand the level of skill involved in rendering a translation that comes close to reflecting the original. The Vietnamese poet Lâm Thị Mỹ Dạ’s work appears straightforward; then an image catches our imaginations, “As we shout, holding our years in our arms.” The same strength in imagery evolves in French-Canadian poet Nicole Brossard’s poem from a series, Lointaines, and the sense of the erotic in a line like “I know to swallow the oyster and its salt of claire.” I find her poetry’s slightly evasive quality most intriguing. The Greek poet Liana Sakelliou’s work is less dense linguistically, broken by stunning imagery, “Comets slice through dense leaves, / enormous tree trunks light up and snap.” Israeli poet Linda Stern Zisquit’s narrative poems light up through references to outer locations, outer travel, as well as the inner world of the psyche. The American poet Margo Berdeshevsky, who lives in Paris, likewise takes the reader on a journey, through juxtaposition. I love the ways the leaps work in her poem “Canyon.” These are a rich array of poems; it’s your turn to read them.



The First Iceberg

An eyetooth can be dreamed
arising from the horizon,
a blue and white
toppled monument
or a smallish continent
unmoored from maps.
Through your binoculars
you gain confidence,
it becomes obvious,
grows into the Guggenheim,
a kaffeeklatsch of penguins
chatting at the balustrade.
You win an expedition prize
for your sharp eyes!
By morning you
are surrounded by
an armada of ice ships,
crabeater seals lounging
on the decks. You sway
with the swells, take
your coffee on the bridge
as you continue south.
By tomorrow the ice
will have locked you in,
you’ll awaken to
the throb and cry
of engines straining
against the floes;
wandering albatross
skim through
your ice dream,
fly for hours
without flapping
their wings.



[a New Zealand native tree]


At a certain height, the Horoeka transforms itself—
The lance-like leaves fall from its lanky trunk,
The crown overflows like a fountain
With lush leaves, blossoms, seeds, safely
Above the reach of the giant Moa’s beak.
Pointless now—
Giant Moa extinct,
Stout beaks,
Stacked neck bones
In tall glass cases
In the avian section
Of the museum—
Still grow
Like lampposts
In the bush,
Like the stone obelisks
That sprouted everywhere
After the Great War.




for Bridget
(Anitra’s Dance)
In spite of – when I hear
this music from Peer Gynt a child
comes tripping, tiptoeing towards us
even though I’m thinking of the months,
the years of waiting
and your two miscarriages, the way they never
came to anything but grief, no new
beginning – and yet here we are
again, while in your other life
you have two sisters and the three of you
still dream of Moscow. There is laughter
even in the Chekhov, laughter
in the theatre bar when it’s all over. And today
the sun comes reaching, glancing through the leaves
outside, and they are changing
colour, look, and dancing to Anitra’s dance, a spider’s
spun a single shaking thread
across the window right to left
and top to bottom, twisting, glittering – despite.


Sun in February

I step out through the automatic doors
and see them in mid-distance, a young mother
with a pushchair, and before they can get closer
the child leans forward – torso, arms extended, fingers
brushing the warm tarmac – and then raises
her small self again, her two hands lifted
into sunlight through bare branches, sky, as if
to receive their thanks. Apart from me
she has no audience. She is
too young for self-restraint or sentiment, too young
for climate-change, for words. Her deep obeisance
and upstretched arms describe it all
without exaggeration or self-consciousness
in the short arc her body makes
the way it is.




Translation by Thúy Đinh and Martha Collins
Now the years have taken flight
None of us can escape time
Come, let’s be serene like the wind
As we shout, holding our years in our arms


Time Drinks Me

Translation by Thúy Đinh and Martha Collins
Like a cup of strong bitter coffee
Time drinks me
Drop by drop
Drop by drop
The clock on the wall
Tick tocks
Time drinks me
Time drinks me
Time oh god
Time drinks me!



Cities with their oysters

From: Lointaines
Translation by Sylvain Gallais and Cynthia Hogue
salt on my lips, I love
this savor of intimate matter that nourishes
thought, wine, the naked shoulders of summer nights
in Sète, in Sitges and the whole valley of Memramcook
my head upstream of silence
I know to savor the oyster and its salt-fresh claire 
[Original French © Copyright Éditions Caractères 2010. Translated by permission of Éditions Caractères. English Translation © Copyright Sylvain Gallais and Cynthia Hogue 2021.]


Two sections from “Portrait Before Dark

Translations by Aliki Barnstone
I wear sunglasses with owl frames.
You have a robe wrapped around you—
our honeymoon.
Something in the emptiness—
a light-hearted life streams above the other life.
Only in brokenness does the light come in—
love from far away.
The sea draws us to this—
we don’t know
what we expose.
Once more music splits the air
and I’m afraid.
Shall I dance fear?
Shall I temper its vanity?
Comets slice through dense leaves,
enormous tree trunks light up and snap.
I recall when I thought
we would be safe.



Corona Summer

We drive all morning in the heat,
stop for shakshuka in a desert café.
We go away for four days
“up north” into the hottest days
of the summer when it is already
no longer summer but September.
Now looking out on Lebanon,
the tightness loosens. We take
the new cabin. I have no memory
here. Just a whiff of what filled
the old. Sick with love each time.
A night without dream is punishment,
the Talmud says. But if one studies
one can sleep. All the ancient sites
are booked (Corona allows a limited
number.) Or just closed. The way Elul
comes to block the freeway, demands
an upright and new direction –
not to count the places missed
but look out from where you are:
So Kursi and Korazim remain unseen
and my husband still asleep
will not want to drive again in this heat
only to arrive at Katzrin and Beit Zeda
to find the gates locked and a splatter of
bathers unmasked in a littered stream.



Make me thy Loome then, knit therein this Twine
And make thy Holy spirit, Lord, winde quills
— from Edward Taylor’s “Huswifery”
The addiction, hard as it was, ended.
I ran out basically of the chemical,
no drugstore in sight to supply me
with more. There’s no addiction if
there’s no drug. Right? Yet I went on
wanting to speak with you for a while.
I remember a desperate call,
a sense of no bottom, no hold in the ship,
no reason to stay afloat. But then it
passed. As if without effort, or volition.
Where is that word from? And where
does that stale smell come from?
Unwashed. The music beats down the street.
Someone is having a party. Twine,
this collision of forces, pulling me upward
to flower, and down to a network
of knotty roots. Now you are threaded,
woven into the twisted web
of that other time. The real fix has
been here all along, replacing you.
I speak to him with ease. I don’t even
need to say want, or will. Every day
is like breakfast, a sunlit garden
where we wipe the dew off the table
and the sleep from our eyes.




I wasn’t looking for a thing
Things were looking for
me—said the lens-man
Walker Evans who shot the dead
—those post-mortem babies in
cradles, mothers on their after last
breath beds— it was the fashion
then, in black and white
My mother died on Mount
Lemmon, a poet writes, we
took her up the mountain as she
was dying so she wouldn’t
have to die in a bed. Toss my ash
from any high hill I’ve said
when anyone asked. I am
called the blonde hawk.
Do you want to die in Paris
the shaman woman asked me one
masked night as an owl dipped
wings over her canyon and we
whispered by fire glow through
the hour— I don’t know, I said,
we had been speaking of a barefoot
island I’d left for the gray city of
light, its global branch.
The owl came to her window
where the shaman had left me
to sleep, I wasn’t looking for a thing—
things were looking for me
— bedded in the still.
Not photographed— If
I should die before
I wake I pray the lord my
soul to take, my mama painted
that on my childhood wall
before the fall,
before the rise,
before she climbed~




I wake up to meet a foggy dawn
I sleep like a hamster on the bottom of a clear ocean
The scent of a submerged comma filled the kitchen
Soft teas and the logic of conquest prevail
Houses are uniformly—in gray—move away from the view
The window to the world like a hole in a cardboard box
Litanies of night flaunt themselves in store windows
The quality of writing depends on the remote quality in the distance
Of lit-up mountain peaks of the Alpine landscape
On the world map or in the cartography
Of its amended contents
—Bye, Bye
In Bombay
These new names reveal new faithful moves
With a mere brush on rice paper
In Zen one finds peace and inspiration
Then delves into tattoos of space figures
Three dimensions don’t suffice
Everything eventually takes its course
Toward the foot of rocky mountains
Toward the edge of the Mediterranean
On the borders labeled with directions
I lug myself between them
Guided by the path cut by sliding glaciers
Full stores are a marvel
Gorges of new products through which
Cave people chisel smiling
As a little more champagne
Ferments in my brain
Scores of young people have come to listen
To the frenetic poet
Here holding the flower of oblivion
Translated from Serbian by Biljana Obradovic
[1] Nostalgia is a vintage-style café in Ljubljana, Slovenia. During the 90s, it was where people from different parts of the former Yugoslavia gathered. The space was designed with objects and photos from the time of socialist Yugoslavia, and the poem deals with this mourning for the country that had disappeared.
[2] The poem was written in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The poet left Belgrade for Ljubljana in October 1998, when people anticipated the NATO bombing of Serbia. People in Belgrade joked that Belgrade’s new name was Bombay – because the root of Bombay, “bomb,” expressed how Belgrade was awaiting bombs.



Two Poems



Beyond the porch I hear yelps, putts, sounds
turkey hunters call cutting, a swirl of calls:
the scribble of gobble. Then they flock,
move around each other. Males’ heads
turn blue; they open their tails. They screen
themselves behind brown, black-edged
fans, ends tufted beige.
Snow scatters on
violet hyacinth, or white as stripes
on lower feathers males drag. Flakes
turn to hail, pepper the ground, the size of
The tom walks on a hen’s back,
settles her, then folds his whole fan down
for the spurt, climbs off.
A hen sifts onto
a clutch, prods, turns her white eggs. A
moon’s orbit later, tufts brown, black,
chicks exit on pronged feet, one after another.
Under goose down’s pockets, my husband
is my comfort.
In June’s family’s compound
on a lake in Canada, we played Mahjong
in the big cabin, where her parents slept.
Us kids trooped to a bunkhouse. Once
I was sick and slept in her mother’s bed;
a bat swooped, looped until her father
slammed it to the ground with a racket.
Upstairs in the attic space hundreds
hung, folded, like origami I never
mastered. Floorboards inches high
in guano, but we never considered
histoplasmosis, bathed in an inlet
we called the Ladies “Salle de Bain,”
tossed the tube of emerald Prell,
the Ivory.
In Chengdu markets men
smoked in cafes under cages of finches;
no one knew bats would transfer virus.
For sale on a table, in bowls of water,
jade circles: white, emerald, lavender.


Fire ant bites blister into a nub,
dry to a black circle; scabs
spin off. But the man stuck with
a fish hook, his hand bubbled black.
Vibrio floats off coasts, Magnolia
Beach, Ozona, Anna Maria,
eats a leg, kills a man after crabbing.
No saint intervenes for those with bacteria.
A woodpecker taps its Morse into hickory;
a hummingbird shivers at the screen.
So much rain: I cut back Lucifer
crocosmia; mildew browned its green
blades before red laddered its arched
fronds. The arches of Alaska’s blue
glaciers dissolve, the way popsicles
melted on our tongues. From Noxema’s blue
jars, paste on our noses let us pretend
we were Indians. Once sharks cruised
past a red nun buoy. Mounds of mussel shell,
left by Matinecock, lined pearl blue,
glistened; clams they beaded to
wampum bleached white. A virus
has dissolved all white matter in my
brain. Mornings, I claw up chunks of violet’s
pink nubs. What can’t be killed:
crabgrass, dandelion, ground ivy.

The New Director

Illustrated by Emily Thornton Calvo


I rush from room to room. The noise is deafening. Shrieking, shouting children. The rooms and the children are hot and sweaty. Has someone been using a spray deodorant? I sniff anxiously. Thoughts of asthma attacks and irate parents fill my head. In each room are members of staff, some applying make-up to excited, glistening faces. “Does this look O.K. for Annie?” one asks as I whizz by. The child looks like a 1970s icon with dark brown foundation, blue eyeshadow, and bright red lipstick. I shrug uneasily. “Remember, less is more. Maybe tone it down a bit?”


In another room, children are changing into their costumes. Some of the boys are wrestling in the corner. I stride over. Don’t get cross with them. Stay calm. You need them. “Boys, boys,” I say with a coaxing smile. “Are you ready? Don’t damage your costumes. Come and help me put the programs on the seats.” I regret this as soon as I’ve said it. There’s no guarantee they will behave any better in the auditorium, and there they will have an audience. Even though the play doesn’t start for another hour, I know that the hall will be full of families silently striving to sit on the front rows; these bitter battles go on until the show starts. I have put reserved signs on the staff seats, but someone (not me, coward that I am – I’ll ask the new teacher, who won’t know what’s ahead) will have to go and move people from these seats. Parents glare angrily at anyone who tries to remove the coats or bags on “saved” seats. In the past, there have been actual fist fights over this, but I wasn’t director then. It was someone else’s problem.

Have the class teachers got their registers? Are all the children here? I check and re-check anxiously. I feel sick. The absence of a child with even the smallest part can throw the whole show off. Improvisation does not come naturally to children. They are much more likely to stop and stare vacantly at me (sitting directly in front of them in my director’s chair) if the expected line does not appear. Yes! I knew one would be missing. She’s always late. After asking her friends if they’ve seen her, I race across the playground to find the list of home telephone numbers, mentally cursing the mum who, although perfectly pleasant, will not appreciate the necessity of punctuality tonight. As I run panting into the office, I see them strolling across the playground. Strolling! As if they have all the time in the world! “Hi, mum, I’m so glad to see you. We’re running a bit late. Please can you take Olivia straight to her classroom to have hair, make-up and costume done?” My words come out in one long, breathless rush. “Oh Mrs Fox, how nice to see you. Olivia’s so looking forward to the show. She’s learnt her words and been practising every night…” I catch her arm in a death grip and hustle them across the playground, smiling at her in a frantic mask of civility.

It’s time to line them up. A straightforward job, you might think. Wrong. They have to line up in the right order. In silence. Seventy-five exquisitely excited or nauseously anxious children. I fall back on the tried and tested ways: shouting, pleading, threatening them with no playtime tomorrow, and finally, the trick taught to me by an old hand (the previous director), I lie, telling them that I have heard (only a whisper you understand, it may or may not be true) that there is a famous casting agent in the audience. This mythical person is looking for children who are not just good, loud actors, singers, and dancers, but children who have control over themselves, children who can line up in the right order and walk silently into the auditorium. It works! With only a few whispers and stifled giggles, we are ready to go.

We walk in a long line across the playground to the hall. I run up and down alongside the line with feverish exhortations:

“Sing up.”

“Have you got your prop?”

“You can’t go the toilet now. I told you all to go before. Oh OK, well if you must …” I detail a staff member to ensure her safe return and carry on.

“You’re all amazing.” It’s actually a bit late for the positive praise bit, but I realize that earlier, in my panicked state, I may have been a little, a very little, domineering.

I hate this walk for many reasons; the main one is that they have to walk outside with no shoes and socks. The health and safety implications of this are terrifying, ranging from broken glass to broken legs. Again, pre-directorship, I never gave it a thought. Once we reach the door of the hall, the shushing from the staff and the “Be quiet children, the audience will hear you,” from me are louder than any noise from the children, who seem to have finally realized that the show, their moment of fame, is actually here and are suitably awed. We creep in.

It is pitch black. And hot. Gosh, it’s hot. Why is it so hot? I sidle out again. “Sally, is the heating on? Well, turn if off!” There is the usual scuffling and pushing as the children argue fiercely in whispers over who sits where on the benches, even though we have practiced this many, many times. But I don’t mind; it happened even under the old director so I assume it’s normal. There’s the occasional sound of a baby’s cry or a toddler voice, quickly silenced. The parents know they’re not allowed to bring the younger ones, but sneak them in anyway. I make a mental note to identify who has broken this rule and give them a stern look later when the lights go up. My parental powers as director are limited to this. I make my way to the center aisle where the director’s chair and lectern are set up. No parent has dared sit here! Perhaps they have more respect for me than I imagined? I place my script and water bottle on the lectern and check that my glasses are around my neck. As prompter, I daren’t be without these. I stand and give a hard look or two to some children in the back rows who appear to be … eating? I signal to the teacher who slips around to deal with them. A deep breath, thumbs up to the pianist, to the lighting and sound guys, and off we go.


Author's Comment

This story is about the first time I had taken on full responsibility for the extremely popular school summer show. I was very nervous. Much more so than the children. Like a swan swimming serenely whilst paddling furiously under the water. Afterwards, I was stunned by how many people commented upon my calm handling of the performance. It made me wonder how often the facade we present to others is, in fact, in direct opposition to the reality.

The Resistance of Shakuntala

Illustrated by Emily Thornton Calvo


In troubled times, I turn to the ancients. I’ve been thinking a lot lately of the story of Shakuntala and The Ring of Recollection. This is a play in seven acts written in the early fifth century CE by Kalidasa, who is considered to be one of the great poets and writers of classical Sanskrit literature.


We meet Shakuntala, a young, orphaned maiden who is being raised in the forest hermitage of a great sage. One day a great and good king (more about him later) comes hunting in the forest and sees Shakuntala, is entranced by her and she by him. They fall in love. They have a hasty marriage before the King is called back to his palace (and to his other wives, none of whom have given him an heir) – but before doing so he gives Shakuntala a gold ring with his royal crest on it as proof of their marriage and instructs her to come to the palace in due time.

But because the play needs drama to satisfy its audience, things have to go wrong. In this case, Shakuntala unknowingly invites the rage of a visiting sage. In her lovesick and now pregnant state, she fails in her duty to greet and attend to this great holy man. He puts a curse on her that when she goes to the King, he will have no memory of her. After a couple months Shakuntala goes to the palace with an entourage. When she arrives, sure enough the King has no memory of her. She reaches for the ring only to find it is gone – it must have fallen off her finger when she bathed in the river. The king accuses of her lying. He says, “When naïve female beasts show cunning, what can we expect of women who reason? Don’t cuckoos let other birds nurture their eggs and teach the chicks to fly?” Shakuntala replies: “Evil man! You see everything distorted by your own ignoble heart. Who would want to imitate you now, hiding behind your show of justice, like a well overgrown with weeds?” The king is taken aback by her anger; it seems so genuine. Still, with no memory of their forest marriage, he cannot take a pregnant woman as his wife and she is ordered to leave. But her entourage refuses to allow her to return with them. Nobody will take her.

This is the poignant moment where we feel Shakuntala’s pain – by denying paternity, the king has denied her any legitimacy in this very strict society.

She cries out “Mother earth, open to receive me!” Witnesses say she is miraculously whisked away by a ray of light. And she disappears from the play until the end.

At this point in the drama, which I read partially as a story of a great injustice against women, I have to admit that Shakuntala is not terribly satisfying as a character. What after all, is her act of resistance? Apart from a small outcry, she accepts her fate meekly and is rescued not by her own agency but by the kindness of the divine world. Her resistance is not a satisfying feminist pink pussy hat wearing protest.

As fate would have it, a fisherman is apprehended by the royal police trying to pawn a gold ring with the royal crest on it. They learn that he found the ring in the belly of a fish. When the ring is returned to the king, the memory of Shakuntala returns and he realizes he made a terrible mistake sending her away. “This cursed heart slept when my love came to wake it, and now it stays awake to suffer the pain of remorse.” He sends his men to find her, but to no avail. He descends into self-hatred and self-questioning; no one can cure him of his heartsickness. It is the king who is the more compelling character. In the fifth century, it was believed that it was through the king that the natural, social, and divine worlds have unity and order, so when the king learns of his mistake, not only does it affect his heart, it undermines his whole sense of dharma, of duty to his subjects because his action caused injustice.

Finally, in Act 7 he finds himself in a celestial realm, in the abode of a demi-god. The king sees a little boy playing. He says, “Why is my heart drawn to this child, as if he were my own flesh? I don’t have a son. That is why I feel tender toward him…”

Of course this is his son, born by Shakuntala. It is in this celestial realm that she has been living. So the two reunite, the story of the curse is revealed and they understand that neither one is to blame. The cosmic order of the universe is restored. 

And it is only at the end that I come to understand the beauty of Shakuntala’s action. She raises her son to know that his father is a great king. She does not forsake her love of the king. In doing so, she inherits her rightful place in the kingdom and she retains her purity and her power. Her great act of resistance is to hold on to the truth.

Towards the end of the play, a sage says to Shakuntala:

You were rejected when the curse
That clouded memory made him cruel,
But now darkness is lifted
And your power is restored –
A shadow has no shape
In a badly tarnished mirror,
But when the surface is clean
It can easily be seen


These are lines that speak to me: A shadow has no shape in a badly tarnished mirror.

Having lived through the four years of the Trump presidency, like most sane people I was outraged. What was happening to America? How could the very ideals of freedom and democracy be so undermined by a terrifying emperor with no clothes surrounded and supported by willful ignorance and greed? Suddenly I found myself more patriotic than I’ve been my whole adult life. Violent white supremacists were taking my America away from me, the America that beckoned my parents to its shore over sixty years ago with its promise of enlightenment and education.

But what has been my resistance to this injustice? Have my pink pussy hat- wearing, my phone banking, letter writing, and clicking on the ‘donate’ button been nearly enough? 

Could I at least look closely into that badly tarnished mirror? The struggle of the last years has been to try and fashion some relationship to the capital T of truth. Not just the truth that has been under attack by false news and alt news and outright lies, but the kind of truth that Shakuntala holds on to, that ultimately redeems her and sets the world right.

At first, I questioned this surge of patriotic loyalty. Has America ever been this rosy place of freedom and enlightenment? I kept hearing the voices of Black people who scoffed at the idea. And there was the Standing Rock protest to remind us of the genocidal origins of the country and the continuing rape and plunder. And then I read Dark Money by Jane Mayer, which documents the successful takeover of the government by billionaire free market fundamentalists. But even with this clear view of the ugliness of America, I confess I am not a cynic at heart. Truth also demands that I look honestly at my own experience in this country. I have ridden the immigrant’s dream. I have had a wonderful education and a crazy amount of freedom to fashion the life I want. Mine is the position of ultimate privilege – to be able to fight for the rights of others. 

The shape of the shadow I see so clearly is the civil war between the Western and Eastern mind as it plays out inside my head. The western mind believes above all in free will, in the power of the individual. A western mind does not allow us to accept our helplessness in the face of great injustice – we must fight. After all, we have the great examples of Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez and Gloria Steinem. But the eastern mind plays tug of war with that belief; as we head toward the inexorable extinction of our species, I cannot let go of the idea of karma. All that is, and is meant to be. Fate written by an invisible hand against which we have no power. Isn’t our idea of heroic individualism just connected to false ideas of ego, ideas, as the Buddha advises us, we should be working hard to rid ourselves of?

The truth is, I think I will always waver between these opposing views. They create a necessary tension within me – the tension that allows me to live in two worlds – the active voice and the questioning voice. Interestingly, the one path through the opposing forces of free will and karma is the idea of dharma, of duty. It is this path that the good king followed, for he is working out his personal salvation by trying to do his duty, to right the wrong he inflicted on Shakuntala. Following our own personal dharma, our higher sense of duty to the Truth, offers the most compelling path out of the quagmire.

So what truth do I hang on to? For the poet Kalidasa, the capital T-truth is Siva.

Barbara Stoller Miller, in the introduction to her excellent translation of this play, observes that Siva is called the “the God who is half female,” and that the male and female aspects of existence are bound into a single androgynous figure. Miller asserts that these concepts are fundamental to the meaning of Kalidasa’s writing.

Although Siva as a figure of religious worship does not work for me, the idea of Siva does. The vision of unity brought out by halves is where I will ultimately lay my hat. The truths I hang on to are the corny ones of the heart – the capital L truth of love, the capital B truth of beauty (so much in evidence in Kalidasa’s language), the capital F truth of family and friends and fiction. I hope I can serve those truths dutifully. I will hold on to resistance in its many forms, manifested so beautifully in the figure of Shakuntala. Still, I hope in her next life she won’t be so noble, and I hope she will inspire a great uprising against the powers that be.


Author's Comment

I wrote this piece in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election in 2016 for a Writer’s Resist event. I questioned the meaning of resistance, and whether I was doing enough. I had recently re-read Kalidasa’s famous story of injustice “Shakuntala and the Ring of Recollection.” I had to resolve for myself Shakuntala’s seeming passivity, and it made me reflect more deeply on how Kalidasa’s world view might actually instruct us on what we were going through in contemporary times.