Ravi Shankar’s Poem, ‘Exile’

The poet Ravi Shankar.

Something I’m always interested in is examining person and place in art. That is, who am I and what is my place in the world? Who am I as a complicated, contradictory individual? What is my place in the world in relation to others? What is my place in the world in relation to the physical space in which I occupy?

The latest poem I’ve come across gets at the complications with trying to answer those questions. It’s another poem I’ve found by browsing foreign poetry, albeit it’s odd that it’s considered foreign because it’s from American poet Ravi Shankar, who was born in Virginia. Shankar is an associate professor at Central Connecticut State College and a faculty member of the first international MFA program at City University of Hong Kong, according to the Poetry Foundation.

Also, fittingly for the poem I’m about to discuss, he’s been called a “diaspora icon” by The Hindu, the English-language daily newspaper in Tamil Nadu, India. Perhaps, then, that complexity with place, both physical and metaphysical, is why this poem is classified within the “foreign” category.

One of the other neat things about this poem of his I came across is that it was actually published by Cherry Grove Collections, a Cincinnati-based poetry publishing house, which is my home city in the 2004 poetry collection Instrumentality. What a small world after all, huh?

The poem in question is, “Exile.” The poem is rather long, so I won’t replicate it in full. Here is an excerpt:

If, as Simone Weil writes, to be rooted
Is the most important and least recognized need
Of the human soul, behold: I am an epiphyte.
I conjure sustenance from thin air and the smell
Of both camphor and meatloaf equally repel me.

That excerpt in particular resonated with me: All human beings want to be “rooted” somewhere, but Shankar does not feel as if he belongs anywhere. Even more specifically, I was struck by the image of an epiphyte plant. That, since it’s not rooted in anything, it grows on the surface of other plants, albeit, it’s not a parasite since it’s getting its moisture and nutrients not from the plant, but from the air, rain, water and from debris accumulating around it, according to the ever helpful Wikipedia. If you’re rootless, this is your existence.

No matter what juxtaposed existence he’s lived, whether that’s wearing a “lungi [again, thanks to Wikipedia, a lungi is a skirt-like ethnic garment worn around the waist, and originated in India] pulled between my legs,” or “driven a Doge across the Verrazano in rush hour,” he’s still bound by those stereotypes. That’s the irony of it all, is that others do try to “root” him by stereotypes, so wherever he goes, others are trying to anchor him in place by the stereotypes of an Indian, the language, the culture, the religion, whatever it is. And he’s an American, mind you! But that “American mask” doesn’t cover the “Indian mask,” as it were.

Those stereotypes, by the way, have real world implications, as notably, Shankar apparently (I hedge only because it’s from Wikipedia and this particular claim doesn’t have a source) won a settlement against the New York City Police Department after they racially profiled him under the department and city’s racist stop-and-frisk policies in 2009.

He told NPR he was driving back to Connecticut when officers ordered him out of his car for a field sobriety test, but then the officer claimed he had a warrant out for his arrest, and arrested him. But it was for a completely different person. Apparently, the arresting officer also called him a “sandn*gger.” Awful and disgusting.

Shankar would go on to have some other issues with the law, issues that seem more legitimate offenses on his part, but that aforementioned experience was obviously wrong. But all of this gets back to the point: Humans are complex, and human experiences are complex. None of that detracts from the poem.

And to get back to the poem, I think all of this amount to being both rootless and bound at the same time. And then the poem’s closing three lines:

This alien feeling, honed in aloneness to an edge,
Uses me to carve an appropriate mask each morning.
I’m still unsure what effect it has on my soul.

That’s another feeling that resonates with me, the wearing of an “appropriate mask,” and what effect is it having on the nourishment and flourishing of our soul to live such a dichotomous existence? Between the real self and the masked self? Between the rootless self and the bound self? Heck, even on a basic level, what does it do to the self to perpetually navigate a world of stereotypes, no matter how you live your life and what you do? To juggle the “diaspora” pull of India and the present pull of America?

I imagine it weathers your soul, sort of like the plant the epiphyte is upon.

What do you make of this poem, and do you relate to it, on a human level, as I do?

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