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Poems & Links ~ Lynn Chandhok



Kashmir, 1999

The clattering horse-drawn carriages, the horns,
the hawkers all fall silent in the flash,
then chaos rises, shattering paradise.
My loss is trivial: a childhood home
to which return would be a senseless risk
just to confirm that paradise was real.
True, even as a child I understood
that bitterness had bled into the earth
beneath the dahlias, leached into the roots
of zinnias, marigolds, to murky lakes
where lotus lay, flat-leaved, blooming in bright
profusions out of quiet pools. I knew
that past the ridge we climbed that August day
to find a hidden lake one might mistake
for sky itself, beyond this, nestled down
between the peaks were border guards, two bands
of men who, facing off, kept peace: the peace
men fought for, not the other peace—the one
we found that day along the mountain ridge, 
the air distilled, the silence cooled by clouds;
the peace that let the glaciers age unmoved,
and painted Himalayan peaks in grays
that shifted off the setting sun to blue;
the peace that marked the end of evening prayer,
the ancient song drawn down to whispering 
Om shanti, shanti, shanti, om.

We'll move again. Though the borders haven't changed
for more than fifty years, we can't forget
the train cars burned—a body for a body.
On either side, the only truth is loss,
and blame is strewn like wreckage or debris,
the storylines, disputed maps, redrawn.

The Bandh
Kashmir, 1970

The Jhelum River snaked past our back yard,
beyond the corn, the rows of ripe tomatoes—
where mornings we filled baskets, or our skirts, 
ran home and begged the cook to make us soup—
past brimming orchards of sweet apples, thick
groves of gnarled plum trees dangling black-skinned fruit.
The Bandh protected us from springtime floods
but blocked our view—built up so high the land
seemed like a shallow basin, till the day
we tucked ourselves between the barbed wire lines
and clambered up the dusty zigzag path,
up to the Bandh's high crest. For the first time,
I saw what stretched out on the other side:
a scattering of huts and smoldering fires,
smoke rising without the scent of prayer or food,
the river ambling, quiet, almost looming,
its current strong enough to wash away
the women who unwound themselves from yards
of saffron sarees, pounding out the silt, 
then stretching crimson rivulets of silk
to dry, billowing on the shore—or else 
the green-eyed children who would point and laugh,
their quick, white smiles grabbing the evening light—
even the goats and cows that claimed the path
and, edging us aside, clanged home at dusk.

That summer I learned bandh meant closed. I turned
the grammar over in my head. From here,
the view was clear. The setting sun laid pinks
across the river and the vale. Immense
chinar trees draped their boughs in silhouette.
Then we were silhouette against dim light,
our shadows thin as shadows cast beneath
a gauze of silk or smoke—and no less true.
The Closed, I thought, and turned back from the view.

The Carpet Master

At each loom, sitting Buddha-like, there's one
old man who reads the pattern off a scrap
of paper bag he's tucked into the strings.
The penciled letters look like notes. He sings
instructions like a prayer—the rag's a map
of roads that bleed like watercolor, run
the wrong direction, double back, then bloom
into a tree in bloom. The workers hear
the melody as knots, not notes, the line
as dots to be connected. Rows entwine
according to a master plan that's clear
only to the old man—until the loom
recedes, leaving a veil of silk threads bound
by what's unspoken, taking shape from sound.

Orders of Magnitude
Brooklyn, 2000

Out too late, on the avenue, I imagine—
or hope for—stars arched over earth like flowers
on darkened branches; satellites that fall
like messengers of old catastrophes;
bright red planets. Any of these would do.
But here, midnight is never broad or black,
the rooflines halve Orion, and the moon
in halo backlights aging cornices.

Once, I climbed switchback paths till trees gave way
to glaciers melting into lakes they fed,
resurfacing as islands, mirror on mirror,
like ice clouds skipping off a soundless sky.
There, nights were brilliant. God seemed plausible.
The cliffs might block the view, the valleys narrow,
but at a turn, it all turned to expanse.
That day, I found myself surrounded, cupped
inside a glacial cradle, while the clouds
unrolled like bolts of quilter's batting, fell
and hid the sky. I sat alone and cold,
a single goatherd's bell in hollow choir,
and waited. 
			Now, walking the avenue,
I know the clouds will lift. I know this too:
Orion cartwheels, vanishing in spring.
And still I find myself imagining
that city lights might falter, or just dim
one night, till constellations in their full
dimension brighten, as in heaven's view.
That sky might hail some new catastrophe.
At least I'd comprehend its magnitude.

Still Life, Sargakhet

A handful of peaches on a burlap sack,
the sack itself, asafoetida salt, 
a clean mud room, two more sacks for two beds,
garlic and onions strung like bride's bouquets, 
a garland drying in the entryway
whose husks will fall, whose seeds will plant themselves—
the ceiling thatched, smoked black, and dry as bone
even in this monsoon. Outside, the stone
blue patio, the succulents arranged
in rusting cans with red geraniums,
the pathway lined with sunflowers, beckoning
towards clumps of dahlia so dark red they're black—
all this, and still the peaches on the ground
look most like love, and take me by surprise.
Photo of Lynn Chandhok Writing