Surabhi Balachander grew up in West Lafayette, Indiana. She is a recent graduate of Stanford University and currently works at Stanford’s Bill Lane Center for the American West. Her poems have appeared in Yes Poetry.
The Fall of the I-Hotel
A brick wall, slashed
with graffiti – “IF YOU LIVED HERE,
YOU’D BE HOME NOW.”
Dust turns the sidewalks pink.
If you lived here, would you be home?
A round-nosed woman confides in us
“My husband would not even have the courage
to ask for a job, he would take a menial job.”
“Do you feel white, manong?”
That’s the boomerang question.
The scene cuts
to a man hugging a melon,
standing in line for adobo
scooped from foil serving pans.
Framed in midmorning sunlight,
an old man is just waking up.
The walls of the room blush
with water stains.
“How long have you been here, sir?”
“I’ve lived in this hotel forty-five years.”
The concrete foundation of the Transamerica Pyramid
took three straight days to pour,
and during construction passersby
threw in thousands of dollars
of pocket change,
for good luck.
A crowd collects in its shadow.
Policemen ride their horses, rising above.
“These protestors are absolutely,
genuinely pathetic,” says the sheriff.
Held back by a human barricade,
arms linked. On all sides
eight bodies deep.
Off the highway, a billboard
for the latest episode
of Star Wars, a franchise I know
as a white person’s version
of the Ramayana. Set
in a fictional galaxy, as if
this one wasn’t enough.
At Point Reyes National Seashore the ranger
spins legends of Bay Area earthquakes.
Speculated: a cow pressed
between the fractured shelves
of the San Andreas fault. A fence
split, what was once connected now
twenty meters apart. Left a crease
of rolling, grassy dirt. I stand
where there is barely a seam, a site
where Sita could have been swallowed
into the earth. We forget that after the battle,
she was dragged through coals. Cast
from the kingdom that fought for her, forced
to return to the earth.
On the news a ten-foot head
of Donald Trump, in papier-mâché.
The crowd cheers as it burns, collapses
into ash. Is Donald Trump
Ravana? He doesn’t live on an island –
instead a tower top. Ravana was
a complex character. A benevolent ruler:
kept his own kingdom in harmony,
argued some. It’s hard to imagine
Donald Trump’s head burning yearly
at festivals, over millennia. Against this,
as villain, he doesn’t measure up.
Wandering the American Tobacco Trail,
I think the exile could have been
in North Carolina. Woods, forest,
jungle. Different creatures, but the dark,
directionless surroundings are effective
enough. Plenty of space for rakshasas,
and for the golden deer to run.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac Founded in 1792
carts full of frozen vegetables and
potato chips waiting next to tabloids
stacked opposite candy bars People magazine
speculation on Jennifer Aniston’s baby
and the Farmer’s Almanac below
the weather next February
it says is not a surprise, according
to traditional lore.
advice: thick and tight corn husks
predict a hard winter. hang the Almanac
from a nail. in your barn. it comes
with a free hole.
most of the streets in my subdivision
were named for birds. Longspur,
Grackle, Bobolink. Later, Spoonbill.
Grosbeak. the last dead end
was an exception. The road whose lots
were overgrown with dandelions
and Queen Anne’s Lace which faced
the highway and later a new church
that last road was Yeoman.
in the neighborhood we searched
for cardinals. mowed our lawns weekly
and fended off crows.
praised the farmer’s way of simple living
as we were surrounded by rows
of Roundup-sprayed soybeans and corn
advice: when the corn
wears a jacket, so must you.
word of the day: rupohobia. Fear
recipes: toffee popcorn. pumpkin
mac and cheese. a cold winter
this year. after harvest
we sit around the fireplace.
at Christmas forty below. don’t worry
about climate change. our future is cool.
North America’s oldest publication. since
the days of George Washington. since
the invention of the cotton gin. since
the time of three-fifths. since
Mad Anthony Wayne won Ohio
in Little Turtle’s War, Almanac
has waited. has witnessed. has predicted the weather
for two hundred twenty-five consecutive Years
of Our Lord.
not to farm out of a book but
to be united by the pages
in our hands one Bible and
the Almanac new every year united
by this and the soil in our hands
the soil in our tractor blades
the soil on our boots the fertilizer
on our boots the weeds we crush
united by the prayers we read
around meat and potatoes boiled corn
in our home united by the thanks
that this land is our own
The pressure is exhilarating.
in the Transbay Tube
As soon as the train pulls away from San Francisco
they rise out of their seats, scattered across the car.
They dance on the poles and rails
while we all speed through a hollow tube,
submerged and held to the bottom
with tons of sand and gravel.
Perfectly controlled spins, and
midair underwater somersaults,
while everything is shaking, under the Bay.
Under the weight of an estuary,
I am stable, even though
I hold onto nothing.
A long way from falling into laps
on the New Orleans streetcar, though even then
I was the one who remembered to bring quarters,
collected enough for the whole team
in the outside pocket of my wallet. They took my extra pennies
to flatten on the tracks, burned their hands
trying to climb a metal pole, while they waited.
And with the dollars I had left,
I bought them their first mangoes
to celebrate the first day of summer.
The train emerges into Oakland’s rainbow
of containers, shipping paused for Sunday night.
They stand on two feet in the center of the car
and we applaud. When the baseball cap reaches me
I drop in a few bills, crumpled,
from the bottom of my purse.
But never seen.
All those years I was losing blood
it was hard to imagine myself outside,
with my hands in the dirt, bringing life
to something, overturning what
was once there.
For years I could see my ugliness
reflected in other people’s eyes.
There was nothing beautiful about me.
Nothing I could give.
Is violence the only language we have
when we are trying to imagine restoration?
I always had to remind them
that none of us was native
to this country. That maybe
I did not belong here, but
neither did they, and in those days
I did not have the language to tell them
that at least my people were not
the ones who stormed in to kill
anything that already belonged
to this continent’s landscape.
I did not know how to tell them
that I could see the seams,
the scars. How that violence
was the only reason they felt
they belonged in this landscape.
Release a grenade
of seeds over remote islands
in Hawaii, following forest fires.
And sacks of pin-sized
flower seeds, over
the center of this continent.
We dream it, at least.
the water, the water, the water.
An upside down colander fountain,
shoots water like fireworks.
I am stocking up on mountains.
Hazy out the bus window.
The outline, the silhouette, the suggestion.
That sculpture looks like pasta.
We retrace our steps to buy a five-dollar bouquet of flowers.
When you’re rich you can sponsor an art bench.
Put it here, in this exact place.
White aluminum and pale concrete.
All the water I can get.
The weather is perfect.
A bronze statue draped
with a thousand paper cranes.
Giant-sized microorganisms carved into the sidewalks.
Street names listed next to them on glass tiles.
Dog lice. Dandelion pollen. Diatoms.
We walk past the lake for four miles.
Another fountain, and we sit at a picnic table.
Square, but missing
a wooden board.
Have you ever vandalized anything?
Once I wrote a poem on a bathroom door
at the Café du Monde.
I consider it, and then I don’t
carve our initials into this table.
Sun reflecting off the water.
Yes, that is due west.
Like the paint chip I used to carry with me.
that exact shade of blue …
aaj kal paon zameen par
nahin padte mere
aaj kal paon zameen par
nahin padte mere …1
After having been cut to pieces and
slapdash sewing myself together again
I have managed to emerge into clarity:
through the fire, the ether, to where
my laugh unzips hidden pockets of light
along my spine, to a world filtered
through oceans. It’s not so dense, anymore.
Falling facefirst into an Underground
Railroad compartment, a streak
of grainy dirt across my face.
I stepped forward without looking
ahead. Years later, after being held
facedown into a close-packed hole
the exact shape of my body,
I understand that feeling
of decompressing, of floating comfortably
towards an open space.
Clearing away spiderwebs
with my long-handled broom
borrowed from my grandmother
twenty years ago, in my own voice I sing
glory glory it’s good to be me.2
What if I could fill a wall of milk jugs
with everything I’ve forgotten — if,
as thoughts fell from my mind,
they dripped and collected there?
Even when I couldn’t access them,
I’d know they were safe, somewhere.
- The chorus of the Hindi song “Aaj Kal Paon,” music by R. D. Burman, lyrics by Gulzar. Translated: These days, my feet never touch the earth. The song appeared in the 1978 Bollywood film Ghar. Ghar means home.
- A line from “Real Thing,” a song on the tUnE-yArDs album nikki nack. In an audio commentary, tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus described it as “the bravest line on the whole album.”