Nikita Biswal reviews Suna Afshan

Belladonna is published by Broken Sleep Books/Legitimate Snack (2020)

This debut micro-pamphlet heralds an ecstatic voice from the Midlands. Suna Afshan is a rooted member of the literary community in Birmingham, founder of the Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal and director of the young Pallina Press. Belladonna, titled after a notorious variety of nightshade, views the world with a suitable breadth of vision – the herb was taken by women in Renaissance Italy to cosmetically dilate the pupils. Enclosed in a blank nightshade-blue cover is a 200-line poem set in four sections that eclipse the boundaries between life and death. The poem is endued with an original ability to translate the world into lucidity and mystique all at once. The words, to borrow a line from the poem, turn ‘darker and more magical than faith’ as we read. As Marina Tsvetaeva has argued, reading makes us complicit in this act of imagination.

At the onset, the poem is marked by a tendency to load words with meaning. Each moment is derived from a wider world of language where modifiers rule. Afshan writes:

I have drawn labyrinths of salt
Around fat, burnished slugs
Savoured that dreadful moment 
When sodium hedges led to dead ends.

These labyrinthine networks draw the poem’s images closer. Burnished slugs burn at the touch of salt and the moment is savoured on the tongue. The sodium hedges are clues to the ritualistic significance of salt, which is used to purify dead bodies and border homes to protect against jinn in Islamic traditions. Death is written into these dead ends. The moment is illustrative of Belladonna at large, where each turn of language calls on something else.

The images are reiterated, multiplied and confused to give the poem boiling edges. These are located in a specific duplicity. We simultaneously read and watch as the poem delves as much into sight (and sightlessness) as into language. The sky turns into toast as Afshan writes of ‘Tuesday, when lilac jam dashes / over buttery dusk, when the sun trips’. The slipperiness of images allows ideas to dash and trip, slip and spill into each other. Mother and child, God and corpse, feral and holy, flower and food, rot and beauty are fused together aggressively. The poem sways towards a stream of consciousness where conflicting ideas are freely associated to replicate the spirals of the material and spiritual universe. In the lines, ‘For an instant waking hurt as if the me-child snuck / Out of that doubled dream and chewed / Her way through to the heart’, ‘snuck’ suggests sucked, ‘doubled dream’ suggests double cream and ‘chewed’ strengthens the visceral links between the oblique and the libidinal. These transgressions are quite vivid; for instance when the sheet holds the washing line down or when literature’s treasured daffodils rot by the banks.

Indeed, decay is a prominent theme in Afshan’s swirling world. Decay alongside and of the body, religion, myth and food. As the poem draws to a close, these ideas tilt into each other. In a stroke of flamboyance, the poet draws our attention to a graveyard that is found empty when tilled – the dead have ‘already sprouted’. Life, death, decomposition and consumption fall into place cyclically. The body of the poem is closely tied to the mouth and tongue. This gives its delicate balance what Parama Roy has called a ‘cannibalistic sentimentality’. In section two, ‘Twilight Sleep’, Afshan writes:

The woman from the morgue—
[…]
Pressed me against her leather
And when I thought of latching on
I tasted salted Kashmiri tea.

Set against a morgue, the intimately flavoured act presents the poem’s way of milking ‘life out of the living’. ‘Belladonna’ borders on these poignant relationships between birth and departure. This is a kind of psychedelic writing where ideas are both connected and disconnected by rapid movements.

Afshan buries these trick connections in foxholes, potholes, piths of lidless eyes and pebbled hearts. These lacunae reveal a nascent, raw quality in the writing. After multiple readings, the poem seems half-cooked. The jagged line endings feel medium-rare at some points. Yet the poem invites the reader to return, from the last page to the first, to investigate its construction. Each reading crowds and emulsifies meaning, provoking the imagination. Nothing is too sacred in Afshan’s view of the world – perhaps not even poetry, which has a life of its own on the page. The poem does a fine job at domesticating these multitudes. Space, place and household are brought into being in one breath. The poem enunciates a mini-universe where ‘orb, ember and bulb’ are webbed together. Afshan asks for humble mercies:

Let the post come and come silently
Through the letterbox. Keep good sense
Behind our eyes, foil out of the microwave
And should we perish here, upon this mat 
Thinking of you, delay our funerals 

The verse turns deft in such moments of supplication. The repetition of ‘come’, together with the silence of post and prayer and the silent postponement of funeral softens the poem’s many, quick transitions. This subtle entwinement promises a poetry of immensity, to be crossed and uncrossed repeatedly.

Belladonna reminded me of a line in Jorie Graham’s ‘Prayer’, where she wonders if it is ‘My desperate eye looking too hard. / Or the eye of the world / looking too hard’. Afshan’s look on the world and the world’s reciprocal look back at the poem produces an enigmatic perspective. The poem excites a need to grasp that intangible sensibility which makes it move from one thought to the next. Yet this sense escapes the hold of meaning time and again, pleasingly unsettling the mind.

Nikita Biswal is a writer based in Delhi. Her criticism has previously appeared in The Times Literary Supplement and Review 31. She is on Instagram @nikitabiswal.

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