Book Review: Frazil by Menka Shivdasani
By Jhilmil Breckenridge
Author: Menka Shivdasani
Publisher: Paperwall Media
According to the dictionary, ‘frazil’ is the soft, needle-like ice on top of lakes and rivers that are too turbulent to freeze. Living in Lancashire, near the lakes, I often see this. Thanks to Menka Shivdasani’s new collection, Frazil, I now have a word for them. The poems in Frazil are a lot like the needle-like ice, glittering and beautiful on the surface but hiding angst within. Her unusual imagery allows you to see the world forever altered while her humour lurks, teasing.
Shivdasani’s wry look at women, their worth as defined by breasts and ovaries, in the poem, ‘The Whole Deal’, states, “It takes much to know the burning coal / that lay inside of you / is now a charred and empty space / and the river is no longer red.” Much of this collection, spanning 37 years from 1980 to 2017, speaks of love, desire, sex, and issues that concern many women, but her keen mind also writes, with sarcasm, on religion, eating fish, bees, the ethics of killing animals for our own pleasure, and of course, as with many poets, death – there are a lot of death poems in Frazil.
‘Bees’, for instance, mulls over the beehive adjoining her own home, sharing the same wall, and ends with, “Now I carry their sweetness squeezed into a jar, / alone again, except for that one queen bee / who keeps flapping about / wondering where her home disappeared.” Poetry is often political and Menka Shivdasani’s politics is displayed clearly and openly in her work, be it talking of how a bee’s home is as important as ours, or in ‘What We Do To Our Gods’: “… we serve death on our dining tables / and the taste on our tongues is great.”
Some of her poems are chilling and demand re-reading as ‘The Clinging Vine’: “Put her in cold storage: / let the grey metallic doors / shut upon her. She will / taste good when the time is right.” You wonder who she is talking about when the poem continues, “Lastly put her into the shiny processor. / Choose the blade with care / to ensure the texture’s right.” This poem has a dystopian feel and just the right hint of menace.
Although several of the poems in this book worry about a woman’s age, the concept of a sell by date, and the hag just beyond the doorway, there is a strong feminist angle of being strong and being able to withstand anything, as in ‘Iron Woman’ — “Hammer me into sheets; / stretch me into wires. / I will turn into a plough, / or light up / the world in return.”
Cockroaches are peppered through the book, as are rats, and it makes you smile and wonder about her existence in India, where middle class homes often have these pests that are taken for granted. Right in the beginning of the book, the second poem is ‘How To Kill a Rat’, where various ways of killing rats is described with humour, but then asks the important question, “No, it isn’t easy to kill a rat, but what does it take / to live instead / with the enemy / beneath your skin?” and you realise that the poem is not about rats at all! Shivdasani is really good at setting up unusual stories to lead you off the track and then, like the master poet she is, she lures you in for the kill. Yet, you wonder, because there is always something held back, something the reader is always searching for, a feeling that there must be more to the story she tells. And in this way the dialogue, the journey continues, between poet and reader, between the story and our own lives.
‘Pest Control’, again starting with a cockroach, compares people, lovers (?), friends to cockroaches, mosquitoes, lizards and ants: “I stood there unmoving, / like a can of pesticide, / full of poison, / all of it inside me.”
Frazil is a large collection of poems, some written when the poet was a teenager. This is a collection to savour over a few months and can’t be read in one go as I often like to do with slimmer poetry collections, or those with a theme. That said, there are some themes that resonate and echo throughout and the ones that seems to haunt the poet are those of unborn children, barren women, the mortality and impermanence of the body. Madness also lurks within these poems, be it in titles like ‘Schizoid’ or possible dark periods as in ‘Mica Chip’ — “the splinter from a boat sunk long ago / will prick, but nothing is felt”, or in the heartbreaking account of communal violence and rioting set against a backdrop of love in ‘The Price of Potatoes’ — “Madness is when a person is herself, not what the world wants her to be.”
Although I have met Menka Shivdasani in person, it is only through reading this that I realise I really like this person, how her mind works, and the things she stands for. In her ‘Epilogue’, as she makes peace with her advancing age and the wrinkles, you sense a grace that is strong yet gentle. Frazil is a collection that makes you question, rethink and then settle back into your own body with a sense of solidarity — that we are all heading to the same end, that the journey may be tough, but that the ride is worth it.
Jhilmil Breckenridge is a poet, writer and activist. She is the Founder of Bhor Foundation, a mental health charity. Her areas of work are mental health, domestic violence and trauma. Jhilmil is currently working on a Ph. D in the UK and her poetry and other writings have been widely published and anthologised. Her debut collection, Reclamation Song, was shortlisted for the prestigious RL Poetry India award in 2017 and will be released later by Red River Press this year. She tweets at jhilmilspirit.