Ranjani Murali received her MFA in poetry from George Mason University, where she taught creative writing, English, and composition. Her poetry, nonfiction and translations have appeared in Pratilipi, Phoebe, elimae, Cricket Online Review, Kartika Review and elsewhere. She was the recipient of Vermont Studio Center’s Kay Evans Poetry fellowship and a nonfiction fellowship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA, the Rayaparol Poetry Prize and the Almost Island First Manuscript Contest 2015. She currently volunteer-tutors for an adult literacy program in Chicago and enjoys working with her Japanese students.
SINGING CANCER: ARS FILM-POETICA
Anand jumps to his death from the staggering height of two feet,
where leukemia has been waiting, on a tape (played at this final scene)
for the audience to absorb the gravity of his absence,
his khadi kurtas condemned to eternal hanging from hooks the size
of tennis balls. Such emptiness adorns this pallid death-scene that
if a small child were to squeeze into this room, tearing apart the cloth
projector-screen, no one would turn to smile at its cherubic face or its tender
pink fingernails. Anand’s friend and his wife are in a paroxysm of rage, wringing
curtains and bedsheet corners but the fall has passed and the voice
on the tape is affectionately teasing them, calling them into a world
of bright poppies and painlessness, a rhythmic clicking (not hushing)
replacing the voice after the signoff— a series of muffled hammer-strikes.
Then, as if on cue, the cast starts sobbing, occasional sniffs spaced out— half beats
of sorrow conducted by the trembling tape player. The bewildered child of our
imagining is still standing in this frame, tugging at the dead man’s hung kurta,
and this waylaying of fiction by our own personal fictions is thus complete.
This child of matinee-hooting and mid-city commutes,
a threshold being, latches on to us, suspending our passive armrest-tapping,
churning our stomachs at the thought of a cancer guttering up
our veins, turning our bodies into a reflection of every instance
of flinching or fraying in the movie-reel, our minds a freeze frame suspended
between seeing and being seen.
selves appear naked
on the river bank
the machine wings
–“An Image of Leda,” Frank O’Hara
On screen, an elevated thermocol throne probably filled
with hay. Puppet head, we call the king. Below,
the pious sage is chanting toward the woman. Dance, very fastly,
the subtitles read. I snicker into my popcorn;
but I never disobeyed loyalty, she begins,
swaying lightly by the hip. Puppet head paws
at her, outlining an hourglass, contorting his torso
and lips, claiming she is taunting his manlihood.
As she careens to a sa ri ga loop, I get up, smoothing
my skirt, clutching the popcorn to my stomach.
Someone screams eyy, figure da going going and I
stumble, suspended in a reel-freeze between sweaty feet,
a tautly pulled-in belly button zooming into our faces,
and a string-pulled desire—all measured into the one
kernel that remained unpopped and lodged in
my molar. Whoever propped me back up
with warm hands, breath fogging my ear, probably missed
the woman’s ironic lyric earth, breeze, sky, come save my virtue
and the dizzying twirl at the crescendo, where she
stops only to flail her arms toward the gilded roof at intervals.
I walk past the rows of heads craning and twisting
with displeasure at my intrusion, a stray blade pulsing
against a smooth rotary. The same heckler calls out eyy wait
dorling where you going? as the actress dances a stream of blood
into an unfenced balcony, where a throng of snarling,
cotton-stuffed, cross-eyed vultures claw into her
mouth. Puppet watches the scene from the durbar, relishing the long-shot,
long enough for the stunt double to try and fight off
the cloth vultures, long enough for the pious sage to recite
a four-stanza prayer in a monotone, long enough
for the dubbing artist to render screams from a mouth
full of blood, a mouth shorn of molars and music.