The Indian poet A. K. Ramanujan (1929-1993) wrote in English and Kannada, a rich language of South India. He considered himself to be the hyphen in “Indo-American” and was a respected teacher and a wonderful poet. As you can see here, in my imagination this poem has a specific Indian ring to it:
Specially for me, she had some breaded
fish; even thrust a blunt-headed
smelt into my mouth;
and looked hurt when I could
neither sit nor eat, as a hood
of memory like a coil on a heath
opened in my eyes: a dark half-naked
length of woman, dead
on the beach in a yard of cloth,
dry, rolled by the ebb, breaded
by the grained indifference of sand. I headed
for the shore, my heart beating in my mouth.
A smelt is a small cold-water silvery fish; migrate between salt and fresh water (do you think that is significant?) When I hear fish ‘n chips I think of Britain, the former empire that colonized Ramanujan’s India. Who was making the breaded fish for him, I wonder? It could be a fishmonger, it could be Ramanujan’s mother.
And which memory distracts him from eating? The dead woman (length of woman is poetically interesting) on the beach, looking like a breaded mermaid. What is gained by the crude analogy between the breaded fish and the dead woman? Was she molested and left on the beach (I am aware of India’s rape problems)? And when the I in the poem remembers, why hasn’t he notified the police? Why was the I at the fish restaurant? Or perhaps the memory is years old and brought up by the appearance of breaded fish, just like a face and a song brought up the memory of terrible events in Netflix‘ recent series Sinner.
What do you think Ramanujan is trying to say: Is the lyrical I the perpetrator, or a witness?