Escape Velocity

by Sridala Swami

I have a folder on my computer in which I keep not only every poem I write but also the poems of other poets who have exchanged work with me. When I first created the folder, it was called ‘Women at a Tangent’. In 2004, four women – poets – including myself, began work on a collaborative project, and called ourselves by that name. No work emerged from that collaboration. One died; another one’s particular tangent took her far away and the two who remained were no longer interested in working together.

And yet that folder remains unchanged, and that is where I keep my work and the works of others. I can’t bring myself to pull my poetry out of that place and rename it for fear that I would no longer recognise it in another shape or under another name.

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In the last five years, I have become adept at letting things go. I watched as my father, in the last stages of his illness, tore up bitter letters from his family that he’d been storing for years. Two days before he died, we were in hospital and waiting for him to be discharged. The last bottle of albumin was taking time to drip into his veins. A nurse came in and adjusted the speed of the drip. In a short while, my father had a high fever and delirious; doctors and nurses came in and out of the room while I held his hand and prayed. I could not let him die in hospital.

He survived that night and the trip home the next afternoon. Through that last day, as we watched him struggle to swallow a mouthful of food, as we severely rationed the water he craved but could not have too much of, I struggled to imagine a life without him. I couldn’t, of course; this kind of loss is not about imagination, but experience. But for the first time that night, I made myself think of what he might want instead of my own fear of what I would do without him. The next morning, in the quiet half hour before the day’s demands needed to be met, I said for the first time: If he cannot get better, let him not get worse.

That thought was permission: when it was time to wake him up, he had gone and I had said my farewell without even knowing it.

There’s no choice in losing things or people. There are no decisions to be made, no moment when you have to master yourself and say, “Now. This is the right time.”

Letting go – that’s something else. There is no time to allow the choices to fall away until there are none left. You have to let go at a point where things are still potential, when something else could have happened. You have to let go in the full knowledge that regret will almost certainly follow.

*

Wong Kar-Wai made 2046 and screened it at Cannes in 2004. After the screening, he took the film back to re-edit and released a ‘finished’ version months later. What people saw at Cannes in 2004 is another 2046; a work-in-progress, a version that no longer exists.

Before Cannes, Wong told his lead man, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, that he might need him for some more scenes, so he should be sure to keep the moustache the character has in the film.

Tony shaved off his moustache.

Wong still re-edited the film after Cannes, but there could be no more new material. At least not with his lead man in it. The film had to go out into the world putting its flaws and its beauty on public view and there was nothing (more) Wong Kar-Wai could do about it.

I have a manuscript of poems that I wish had a moustache so someone could shave it off and say to me, ‘Enough!’

At this point, I want someone else to decide for me – like Tony did for Wong – that this manuscript is done, that it does not need more poems or new poems, and that the poems do not need reworking or reordering.

Because this is what I’ve been doing for the last year: I’ve added poems then cringed at how much I hate them, and have removed them; I’ve made a non-negotiable list of poems – poems I will not leave out – and panicked at how thin that leaves my manuscript. I’ve written long notes to myself about the shape of the book and what every shift of poem in it means. I tell myself I know how Wong Kar-Wai felt. I tell myself there’s a better version of this book just out of my reach and if I work at it long enough I might achieve perfection.

But through the process of holding on to this manuscript, I have come to recognise the fear that does not allow me to send this book out yet. What if there are no more poems, ever? What if this is not a season of fallowness but a prolonged drought?

If I don’t write any poetry, can I call myself a poet? Like the folder on my computer, can I continue to name something in a particular way, when what it contains is something else altogether?

In the last month, as I prepare to send out this manuscript of poems, I remind myself that the poet Adil Jussawalla has had a book of poems out this year, after nearly three and a half decades.

My own manuscript is called Escape Artist. The irony is not lost on me.

And so, even though the thought of having nothing left –not one single new poem – is terrifying, I am finally ready to let go of these imperfectible poems.

Escape Velocity