Voices and Verses

National Poetry Month: “Benares: The Holy City” By Rukmini Kalamangalam

Houston’s Youth Poet Laureate reads a poem set along a sacred riverfront in her hometown in India.

In this sound portrait, we meet poet Rukmini Kalamangalam. She describes her “love-at-first-slam” experience with performance poetry, her typical day, and how poetry is a defiant art. She reads her poem, “Benares: The Holy City.”

Rukmini Kalamangalam is currently a senior at Carnegie Vanguard High School. Prior to being selected as Houston’s Youth Poet Laureate (2017-2018), she was on Houston’s youth slam poetry team, Meta-Four Houston, in 2015 and 2016. In 2018, she was named Youth Poet Laureate of the Southwest and a National Youth Poet Laureate Ambassador. Her poem, “After Harvey,” was set to music by Houston Grand Opera. She has been published in the Houston Chronicle, ABC 13 Visions, News India, and Voyage Houston. She has been recognized by the Harris County Department of Education and Scholastic Writing Awards.

 

BENARES: THE HOLY CITY

The city is burning
Or maybe it’s just stars the river
Caught between her banks
I can’t tell
The haze is a curtain covering the open kitchen window when
The smoke alarm screams
Mamma, aag lagi hai
                                    Mamma!
If a holy city burns and he lights a beedi from the ashes, will he be spared?
The temple spills soot like a blackened mouth, like teeth
Falling out of the old man’s head
When he spits
                        splat
Tobacco
Turns the sands of the river bank to liquid rust
The city of lights is burning and the corpses queuing for cremation
Delight in the warmth
The city of lights is burning and the reflection in
God’s glasses looks like sacrifice (salvation)
Did you know
                        That anyone who dies in Benares is saved?
Did you know
                        That this time, the line at the gates of heaven is so long it trails back to Earth?
Bodies stacked like firewood
Waiting to be collected
Only the dead poor1
Tied down with bricks at the bottom of the river can breathe through
The smoke and close-press of people
The river is cool to the touch, and
They long for heat
Bloated fingers strain for the
Surface like
Smog-blue algae, a forest of waves
Did you know
                        Someone set fire to the city of lights?
With all its people like struck-out matchsticks and now,
The city is a crescendo
The cries of the living
Rise like morning prayer
(Hindu-Muslim koi farak nahi)

 

Notes & translations:
[1] In Benares, those who can’t afford to cremate their loved ones simply throw the bodies in the river without burning them.
Aag lagi hai – There’s a fire
Beedi – cigarette
Hindu-Muslim koi farak nahi – There’s no difference between Hindu and Muslim

This poem is reprinted with permission of the author.

Music used:  Meltaway (excerpt) by Kris Becker from Expansions; Morgen, op. 27, no. 4 (excerpt) by Richard Strauss from Timothy Hester: The Classical 91.7 Sessions; U plavu zoru (excerpt) by Pink Martini from Hang on Little Tomato

To learn more about this series, go here.

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Catherine Lu

Catherine Lu

Content Producer & Announcer

While growing up in Chicago and Houston, Catherine’s love for art, music and creative writing was influenced by her teachers and parents. She was once concertmaster of the Clear Lake High School Orchestra and a four-time violinist of the Texas All-State Symphony. A graduate of the University of Chicago, Catherine...

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