“Poem in Which the Word Is Not Spoken” by Tanvi Roberts

Tanvi Roberts


There was never any evidence of it, between 
them: my parents slept with their door wide open, in case 
we should call, my father’s breath so close 
I could hear the scrape of his snoring, which he would deny 
in the morning. I heard how my mother woke early and turned 
her body again and again, like a dog 
trying to rest. When things were given—at birthdays and 
Christmas—they would stumble, tilt forwards 
and clasp their arms around each other, 
like putting on a necklace. The only time the word was spoken, 
beneath a winter skylight, the stars hid their faces, and my father 
said I’m sorry, it was a joke. Sweat prickled thistles 
into my armpits, which were growing hair before 
everyone else, and I was at the worst stage of puberty, 
all hair and no breasts, which meant girls at birthday parties 
called me monkey. The only time I heard of it, 
from my mother, was when I was grown, and had 
a boyfriend—I knew she had seen, 
sometimes, like a child who does not know yet, 
me sitting on his lap, on the far-off sofa, the shag 
tartan blanket thrown over us—she had heard, through the paneled 
glass window, small moans, and asked why 
cuttings of pubic hair wrapped in tissue—as if 
they might grow into flowers—appeared 
in the foot-closed bins before I left 
home. So she sat me down in my bedroom and asked 
how far I would go with this boy, as if there was an answer 
apart from no. Well obviously I wouldn’t—I said—she stopped me 
before the word was spoken—I was 
glad—she had protected us both. In her life, 
there had been no one to guide her before that first night, 
and even the loss of blood each month was a trauma. When it happened, 
I wanted to go to her with jasmine in my hair 
and in my hands pulihora, the roar of curryleaf in oil. I wanted to go 
after headbath, shoes left at the door, and tell her 
how soft my skin was, afterwards, how little 
could not be washed away. I wanted to take her and hold 
her, not flinching, but I knew 
that was not the way in our house, where we dealt in everything 
except. So I stitched my mouth shut and found 
I was hers—I had made myself her daughter 
by my denial of it.

from Rattle #79, Spring 2023


Tanvi Roberts: “Once I was at a reading by the English poet Lavinia Greenlaw. An audience member asked her why she wrote poetry, and she answered elliptically, ‘Poets are often people who have difficulty with words.’ Several years later, I can’t find any better reason than this: Poetry allows us to struggle and play with words, to devote our attention to trying to capture the ones that cause us less difficulty, and to create an alternate world populated by those words.” (web)

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