Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Father Tongue - Danielle Lagah

Today's book of poetry:
Father Tongue.  Danielle Lagah.  Oolichan Books.  Lantzville, BC.  2007.

Danielle Lagah may be exploring the space between her Indian heritage and her Canadian life — but what happens for the reader is a headlong plunge into poetic joy.  These narratives come from a competing cast of characters and take a wide variety of routes but they are all heading in the same place, to a deeper understanding, and we get carried along.

Flour (1)

With each swallow of scotch my father's face gets

until he is in India again, nine years old, and the heat is
the afternoon sun and he and his uncle are walking for
days to buy flour. He must go because the government
say one bag per male and there won't be another chance
for months. Days of walking hot feet sore knees dry
cough and his uncle won't speak but only grunts

And when he's drunk he gets there

and the flour is all gone. His uncle doesn't take his hand
or touch his head, only turns to walk back home. The
weight they had prepared their backs to take is weight-
less but they bend their shoulders anyway, road for
miles and miles in front of them and my father's face is
so hot he shuts his eyes, falls in the ditch to sleep

Sundar's boy, I will say, when he wakes, Whose bottle 
have you sipped from?


These are deeply moving, highly emotional and constantly playful anecdotal poems that spill out like a family secret, a history from a newly discovered photo album. The spices and dialect may be less familiar but these are universal stories full of great empathy and a conflicting understanding of that space where two worlds collide.


The year I turned ten
my auntie Tage hid with my mother in the cloakroom
of the Guru Nanak Temple on Blackwood Street
wearing slippers of the softest silk
Gold tasseling, pale rubies sewn
to her scarlet sari, bangles clanking on her slender wrists
nose and ear connected
by a diamond chain
and surma sliding down her wet face

I kept watch for Mahnji at the cloakroom door, balanced
on the piles of big black shoes, camel-hair coats spilling out
into the arched hall
If this will make you miserable
my mother said to Tage, then you shouldn't
go through with it

Upstairs in the Gurdwara, the holy room
each relative touched forehead to floor
threw hundred dollar bills
into a brass trough at the foot of the altar
carved with wooden lotus

In the cloakroom, the sound of Tage's weeping
in the hall, noises from the temple kitchen
preparations for a feast—deep pots
full of chickpea, a coconut rice
Trays of jalebi and laddu
pakora and roti
being stacked on the counters

I saw Mahnji's red chunni first
as she swept around the corner, I
turned fast, lost my footing. She's coming

My mother and I watched Tage run
to the parking lot, tassels flying
behind her like shining stocks of wheat
her heart beating in our hands


There is a kind of joy of discovery in these soliloquies and monologues.  Lagah regales us with her ordinary family history but the telling of it makes it extraordinary because of her honest voice.  Every step feels and sounds right.  These poems honour where they came from and respect where they are going, this is family tradition and modern morality tale.

The Road To Jaipur

On the road to Jaipur there are men who keep bears
spear metal hooks
through each animal nostril. My father and I drive by these in a taxi
and the men make their bears do tricks for us, up on back legs
paws raking at the bright Indian sun. I close my eyes
and I am the bear, mind drowning in chain-noise, collar
choked around my neck. Or I am the man with the whip
and the hard mouth, flies
crawling inside my collar, fists closed
I open my eyes and know
I am neither one. My father is seated beside me, hands
quiet in his lap, face hushed as scenes
go by outside: a man, a bear, dust, pavement. No metaphors
to be found


Father Tongue is a testament to family, an international soap opera carried out and narrated by Danielle Lagah's poetic family.  How lucky to have a family who articulates such a fine line, such marvelous poems.  Danielle Lagah's Father Tongue is a tribute, an explanation and a coming to terms with family, culture, displacement and the future, her very sure hand brings all these together on one canvas.  It is lovely stuff.


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