Behind the Poem: “N’s evening raga,” from children of air india

Renée Sarojini Saklikar's collection, children of air india, is a finalist for the 2014 BC Book Prize's Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. In her Quill & Quire review, Natalie Zina Walschots writes:

"The book is a testament, both vulnerable and damning. The poems replicate various personal and public responses to the [1985 Air India] attack: exhibits, archival objects, invocations. Saklikar wrestles with vast, devastating emotions, while at the same time gently cradling individual lives, allowing them to stand as their own record of loss. One victim “plays ice hockey,” another wears “black socks” of “fine-gauge wool.” Saklikar pairs the erasure of the victims’ bodies with the redaction of details in official documents and the retraction of evidence in court."

Here, Renée Sarojini Saklikar shares the story of one particular poem, which provides insight into the collection as a whole.

*****

Witness Statement: “… and of the poem, its boundaries and prohibitions—“

In the five-year process of writing children of air india, “N’s evening raga” was one of the first transcriptions to be set down on paper. I remember this poem’s arrival: evening, late spring, I am at my desk in my office overlooking the Fraser River. I turn away from the computer screen. Perhaps the machine is not even on. Pencil in hand, words appear, they form a lectern-like shape on the page, inspired by the one in the cedar-panelled church where my father once preached. Somewhere, down by the river where the trains shunt, there is a cadence …

This poem emerged when there existed only a handful of the portrait-poems, individual elegies, for those who died in the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182: 329 passengers and crew, including 82 children under the age of 13, as well as my aunt and uncle. I would sit amid family correspondence, court documents, press releases, inquiry reports, photographs, all the material that is Canada/Air India, and slowly, half-heard, barely discernible, voices would drift up from my archive immersion. At such moments, head and torso leaning toward the desk, cheek almost resting on paper, ear close to language—the words on the page were as if a signal that I was unable to receive—

 I would sit amid family correspondence, court documents, press releases, inquiry reports, photographs, all the material that is Canada/Air India, and slowly, half-heard, barely discernible, voices would drift up from my archive immersion.

In this way, I encountered the rupture: who was I to undertake an act of witness about mass murder. Frightened and overwhelmed, I sat and stared at documents. The thing seemed to demand a going out into the world of loss, beyond my own family, into the loss of others. What does it mean to commit murder? What is it, to lose a child, to murder? Everything about the bombing of this airplane, “Canada’s 9/11,” seemed off limits. To write about loss is one thing, to encounter the lives of the dead, real, or imagined, that became, quite another.  

Still, those voices kept at me. In order to allow the poems to make themselves, I had to detach from sorrow. So I created “N,” a poet-persona: niece, narrator, she is our guide into and around the Canada/Air India saga. Separated from the site of an air-borne bombing, whose trail is decades old, N is distanced from that moment, in which more Canadians died than in the September 11, 2001 bombings at the World Trade Centre in New York City … Canada’s 9/11 … The worst aviation disaster in Canadian history … The language that accretes around historical trauma becomes a kind of coating, exterior hardened into official sanctions that work against engagement. Our gaze shifts elsewhere.

 

I created “N,” a poet-persona: niece, narrator, she is our guide into and around the Canada/Air India saga.

To heed the call of the evening raga, to allow N to crack open the language that encased her story: well, that took years. For some time, N’s evening raga appeared in the beginning of the book. That did not work. By that act of bending close to the materials, listening, I came to see this poem as exhortation, to the reader and to the writer, to begin a search—

 

 

 

N’s evening raga

 

 

: rise and go,

search the world for its one true Book of Records,

                                    find the names of children

                                                entered, set down beyond longing—

                         all the children, everywhere, in every epoch and age,

                                    cut, scooped out, broken and scattered, buried in soil and water,

                                                children under the age of thirteen—

                                                every nation, field, and river with its own register

                                                            clenching at names                                          

                                                                        written in ink implacably invisible

                                                                        only the cool-fire resident

                                                                        in the tips of fingers that trace

                                                                        in the hands of a beloved leaning

                                                                        into a lectern, oak or marble,

                                                                        raised on a dais, this transmission

                                                                                   great gilt edged thing

                                                                        only the ice-fire of the loved ones of these

                                                                        dead children, will burn alive

                                                                                    will make legible

                                                                                    their inscription

 

 

Renée Sarojini Saklikar writes thecanadaproject, a life-long poem chronicle that includes poetry, fiction, and essays. Work from thecanadaproject appears in literary journals, newspapers, and anthologies, including the Literary Review of Canada, The Vancouver Review, Geist, Poetry is DeadSubTerrain, Arc Poetry Magazine, The Georgia Straight and Ryga, a journal of provocations. The first completed series from thecanadaproject is a book length poem, children of air india, about the bombing of Air India Flight 182, recently nominated as a finalist for the BC Book Prizes’ Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize.

April 24, 2014
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