Looking Is a Sacred Act: A Conversation with Sati Mookherjee – Michigan Quarterly Review

Looking Is a Sacred Act: A Conversation with Sati Mookherjee

Sati Mookherjee’s debut poetry collection Eye follows the exile of the poet’s grandfather from India to pre-World War II Europe. Directly inspired by her grandfather’s memoirs, Mookherjee tells not only the dramatic story of his journey and his longing for home, but also a larger story about the orbits we follow throughout our lives.

Erica Reid: When we talk about memoir, I feel like we often talk about the author writing about their own experience. In Eye, you use your grandfather’s memoirs as a springboard for your exploration through poetry. Can you talk to me a little bit about your process—how you came upon your grandfather’s memoirs, and how they inspired your poetry? Do you consider Eye a memoir?

Sati Mookherjee: That is such a great question. I do not consider it memoir, no. The reason is that I’m refracting my grandfather’s story through my own sensibility, which is what a poet does anyway.

Going to the first part of your question, I knew my grandfather really well. I was born and raised in this country, but I spent my summers in India. I spent three months of the year at my grandparents’ house in India, so I knew my grandfather really, really well from infancy all the way through my adolescence, to when I was married and a mother. In all phases of my life, he was a constant figure.

So I knew his stories, and I also knew that he was writing his memoirs, and I believe it wasn’t until after his passing that my mom typed those up. It was still in the Bengali font, but it was typed, which was easier for me to read than handwriting. So I read his memoirs in Bengali—but he had already passed away at that time, so I couldn’t ask him questions.

That’s how I got some of the details. For example, in the passage where he’s describing school, those sorts of details I got from the memoirs, not from him. The way they used a scraped leaf as paper and wrote with a sharpened little piece of bamboo dipped in ink, and the way the school master cupped his hand around my grandfather’s little hands to teach him to make the letters—all of that was from the memoir, that kind of detail.

At my reading, I end by telling people, “Please write down the stories of your childhood. What seems incredibly ordinary and banal to you is something that your people will cherish.”

ER: I had a very similar experience. I realized that I didn’t know the story of how my grandmother was born, and I was lucky enough to be able to ask her. And she was saying, “Oh, nobody would be interested in that, Erica.” It ended up being this fascinating story about her being born in a car and how there were no men around because this was during World War II, all the men were deployed, and so it was just this world of women trying to bring this baby into the world. And she was like, “Nobody would think that was interesting,” and I’m just riveted.

SM: Exactly. Even that’s a really dramatic story, and there are parts of my grandfather’s story that are also really dramatic. But what I find interesting—and again that’s what we do as poets, we just observe everything with a kind of wonder—the dramatic parts of my grandfather’s story are dramatic, and that’s fine, but the most ordinary little things are also so intriguing.

ER: Let me look at a particular passage, because I’d like to get a sense from you of how much of this is your grandfather and how much of this is you, and I thought it might be best if we looked at a few lines and maybe you can tell me.

In “Dukkho #15,” you describe your grandfather in his laboratory and you say:

One evening, in the midst of some frothing experiment

he became aware of a low buzzing, a hornet dying
on the workbench, its deathspin
centrifuge-rapid. He could almost see
the clear pellet of soul spit out. This death overwhelmed him. 
He put his head to the table and wept.

I read this passage and it felt so specific. We’re watching a hornet dying—is this a detail you pulled from somewhere or something that you imagined?

SM: That’s a great question. My mom asked me the same question—“Wait, was that in the memoir?” No, that’s a great example of “all of that is me.”

The chemistry is me, because I was pre-med as an undergraduate. I spent a lot of time in those laboratories, which largely remain unchanged. The sleek black countertops and the beakers and the frothing and all of that. That’s all pulled from my life. The hornet I remember, I don’t remember where I was, I was in college and something flew through the window like that and spun and spun and spun and died, and that just was this oddly shocking experience for me. So no, that was me.

And then the Roma, the Travellers, seeing them through the window, that was also me, because for a long time I had a real fascination around the Roma people of Europe and the stories about their migrating out of India, and so that was also me. I think that’s another reason I wouldn’t call it memoir, because it’s all my own impressions that I’ve braided in and used his story as a vehicle for that.

ER: The collection is called Eye, and before we even read your poems, you give us an epigraph from Ralph Waldo Emerson, which calls the eye “the first circle” as well as “the highest emblem in the cipher of the world.” There are eyes all over this collection—there are third eyes, there are cat’s eyes, there are dreaming eyes. How did that come to be a central image in your collection about your grandfather?

SM: I love this question because I love talking about this part of it. Emerson’s essay is quite extraordinary. Actually, I have it right here because I reference it all the time in my readings.

The next sentence in that paragraph is Emerson saying, “We are all our lifetime reading the copious sense of this first of forms.” If you read that “Circles” essay by Emerson, he’s interested in concentric circles and this sort of rippling effect. What he says is that all of nature is organized in these concentric circles. So, before eyes, I was first interested in the concept of circles—

ER: I was going to ask you about circles too, because there are coronas and orbits and rings and globes and loops of prayer beads—

SM: Yes, yes. [Emerson’s] “Circles” was the very first thing I was interested in, honestly. What started this whole project was the notion: What if our lives, which we think of as largely static, aren’t? For example, for myself, I grew up in the town I live in now, and I’ve lived other places in my life, but I ended up coming back here. In some ways it seems like I haven’t really moved, in that sense. But what I find fascinating is the fact that we’re always in motion, even though we don’t fully realize it. I mean we literally don’t realize how fast we’re moving around the sun, right? But even beyond that, there’s you and I intersecting in this moment in time, which has to do with your grandmother being born in that car, and these powerful historical forces that moved your people across the globe, that moved my people across the globe, such that you and I are intersecting in this moment. We’ve moved toward each other, and then we’re going to move away from each other. I just find that so interesting.

I find the physical circles—the migratory patterns of birds, Indian nomadic Indigenous people’s circular paths—I find that motif super interesting. Unlike Emerson, I’m less interested in concentric circles and more interested in orbits and how they overlap and where they intersect.

What I wanted to do in the book was start with that notion, which is why the opening poem starts with the ringed Earth. But then I wanted to move to a metaphysical place and sort of posit an argument, although not explicitly—I hope it’s not explicit—that this motif of orbits is not just our physical journeys over the physical globe, but in and out of this life as well. And that directly comes from my Hinduism, which informs the book.

That’s why later in the book you see this—there’s my unborn, unconceived daughter who I sense somewhere out there, and I ask: am I orbiting her? Is she orbiting me? And so what I’m getting at is this same orbital trope, that is not just across the globe but in and out of this life and whatever’s beyond this life.

Then, when you ask about the eye, I’m not even sure how it happened, but the reason for that is that—first of all—eye and orbit are synonyms, which is kind of cool. This is the orbital pocket [points around her eye]. But the other thing I wanted to do is make the argument that looking is important, that the act of attending to is a sacred act. That’s why the second epigraph is from the Bhagavad Gita, which is a text of Hinduism, and that Chapter 11 is seeing God, and the description is “eyes on every side, perfect, diversified.”

So why is the eye important? Because it’s the agent of looking. Why is looking important? Because it’s a sacred act. I also try to make that argument that the act of prayer and my grandfather’s gaze as a scientist are the same act, which is of close observation.

And I would argue that’s what makes poetry such an important art form, because what we’re doing is attending. What I think is so cool about poetry is we’re not just looking at what’s there—like the word, the rhyme, the line break—we’re looking at what’s not there. We’re looking at the white space, we’re looking at the caesura, the pause. We’re looking at what’s there, we’re looking at what’s not there, whether you’re a reader or whether you’re a writer.

That’s why the book is called Eye, because I wanted to assert the importance of observation. And then again, I take a jump from the physical into the metaphysical, because as you pointed out, we have the third eye which represents insight. And so there are times in the book where somebody will close their eyes to see better. So it’s not just about physical sight, it’s about seeing deeply, in the sense of insight.

ER: Another passage I wanted to ask you about is a short line in “Dukkho #7”—you say, “He loved best the preparations / in the days before, ordinary things turned holy.” I pulled that out as another microcosm of your book, which I think is exactly what you’re talking about.

To go back to what you were saying about little moments, cooking with saffron is an image that comes up for me. Those little details peppered throughout the book that really feel like they are “ordinary things turned holy.” And I agree, that is also the act of poetry. Is that a belief of your grandfather’s, that impacted your writing? Or it also sounds like your faith has an impact on this part of your identity as a writer and as a poet?

SM: In a way that took me by surprise. When I say, “informed by,” I really mean “informed by.” In other words, it was not intended to be a sort of argument for or against. Does that make sense? It’s just a core belief that the act of attending to is a sacred act. And the more I think about it—it’s interesting because then you have the observation effect in physics, that the act of observation changes the object being observed. But then it also obviously transforms the observer—I mean that’s another argument for poetry. It’s all so fascinating. It was so rich and fun to explore.

ER: I hear you have a new book forthcoming this year, Ways of Being, which Alice Derry selected for the 2022 Albiso Award. In what ways might this collection feel like a departure from your debut?

SM: In some ways it’s completely different. Eye is expansive, it’s historic, it’s epic. You have the voyage of my grandfather and the second World War breaking out. Ways of Being is completely different. I take that lens and I turn it inward.

Eye is a narrative. Ways of Being is a self-portrait, and it’s a portrait of confusion. It’s a portrait of those moments in which grief and loss alter us and we’re shocked and confused by that and asking, “Who are we, now that the old world is gone and there’s this new world?” It’s really a depiction of those moments. And as such the poems stutter, the poems take a step forward and take a step back. The poems are unsure, the language really reflects that sort of uncertainty. In that sense it’s very psychological, whereas Eye feels more philosophical to me.

What’s very similar about it is that it’s also paying close attention, to gradations of feeling, and questioning language itself. Questioning the sound of a voice, the weirdness of the fact that you and I are speaking right now and it’s just a series of sounds—they emerge from my mouth and dissipate. Really asking or exploring the limitations and the possibilities of language as we try to grapple with our identity changing with loss.

ER: I don’t get the sense that anything you write will not be about close observation.

SM: I think you might be right about that. I think it’s a really important tool in the toolkit. And honestly, it’s gotten me through, because frankly I was super depressed when I wrote Ways of Being, and I felt really lost. I felt like I had nothing to say as a writer. I decided I was going to write a poem a day describing how I felt, just looking at what it felt like to be lost.

ER: Your ways of being.

SM: I decided, “This is my way of being right now, and I’m going to describe it. I’m going to observe it closely.” You will imagine my surprise when that turn into an award-winning book.

ER: Congratulations, by the way. No small thing.

SM: It seems sort of surreal.

ER: What it says to me is: that person who’s struggling is not alone. That the message you are putting out there about that struggle is something that resonates beyond yourself. It’s something that I think we all need.

SM: That’s why I want to talk about it, because what I want to say to people—and writers specifically, but to everybody—is that when you feel that bad, you can still have agency, because even in your describing that, you have a kind of agency. Does that make sense?

ER: Absolutely.

SM: There is a kind of agency even in depression—again, it’s that act of attending to that saved me.

That’s all I had to fall back on, that’s all I had. “I feel like I have brain fog. I’m going to write about what brain fog feels like.” “I feel like I can’t be in my skin, I’m going to feel what that feels like.” And so that’s what I did. I think there might be something of value there that I do want to share with people.

Sati Mookherjee is the author of the poetry collections Eye (Ravenna Press, 2022) and Ways of Being (Albiso Award, MoonPath Press, forthcoming in spring of 2023). Her collaborations with contemporary classical composers have been performed or recorded by ensemble and solo musicians. Nominated for three Pushcart Prizes, and recipient of an Artist Trust/Washington State Arts Commission Fellowship Award, she lives in the Pacific Northwest. satimookherjee.com

Erica Reid lives in Fort Collins, Colorado. She earned her MFA at Western Colorado University and serves as assistant editor at THINK Journal. ericareidpoet.com

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