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“A grievous vastness to this world,” writes Dipika Mukherjee, “beyond human experience.” With wonder and empathy, and even rage, Dialect of Distant Harbors summons a shared humanity to examine issues of illness and family in the home, as well as redefine belonging and migration in a misogynistic and racist world. As the world recovers from a global pandemic and the failure of modern government, these meditations are incantations to our connections to the human family—whether in Asia, or Europe, or the United States—and focus on what is most resilient in ourselves and our communities.
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Dipika Mukherjee is the author of two novels: Shambala Junction, which won the UK Virginia Prize for Fiction, and Ode to Broken Things, which was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. Rules of Desire is her short story collection. She has published two books of poetry, The Palimpsest of Exile and The Third Glass of Wine, and received the Liakoura Poetry Prize in 2016. She teaches at the Graham School at the University of Chicago, as well as StoryStudio Chicago, and holds a doctorate in sociolinguistics. More at dipikamukherjee.com.
Whether writing ghazals or haibuns or unpacking the brutality of recent historical events, Mukherjee’s Dialect of Distant Harbor is a hybridic journey of storytelling, translations, reportage, lyrical unfoldings, and acts of witness. Language and lineage take center stage as the palimpsest of memory, history, and utterance is explored. Though steeped in elegies for the dead, Mukherjee’s book is also praise-filled and empowering as she guides us through a detailed terrain of muslin petticoats, Weird Al, Calcutta heat, and “black / diamonds under bare feet,” as well as the rich odors of smeared chutney, woodsmoke, and ink. By the end, I feel Mukherjee’s “benediction / in the prickle of my scalp.”
—Simone Muench, author of Orange Crush and Wolf Centos
Among contemporary poetry exploring the complicated subject of “where I’m from,” Dipika Mukherjee’s work stands out in these frank, fast-moving, and musical poems. She takes us into worlds of food, fragrance, and “goddesses,” as well as “women / who bury infant girls in the ground, into / milk vats to drink until they drown.” Her poems reside in Chicago, Calcutta, Delhi, and Door County, Wisconsin, as intimate as they are political. A woman relaxes on a downtown sidewalk enjoying an impromptu concert by a street musician, and a mother arriving at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport is panicked when her nine-year-old son is led away for an inspection of his “foreign passport.” A poem takes its epigraph from the widely publicized gang-rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in Delhi in imagining a communal shawl “stained” by physical evidence and memory worn by all women who experience sexual violence. As a poet with a doctorate in sociolinguistics, Mukherjee enjoys and honors languages, occasionally mixing in Bengali, her “magic chalice.” She has a well-tuned ear and feel for form, knowing when to write in tight, alliterative lines, when to swing across the page, and when to write in the prose of a haibun. Reading this book is a sensory pleasure.
—Debra Bruce, author of Survivors’ Picnic, What Wind Will Do, and Sudden Hunger, winner of the Carl Sandburg Award
Mukherjee’s latest poetry collection is penetrating. Dialect of Distant Harbors is an intercontinental and reflective sheaf of poems on aging, illness, faith, and family written in a keen diasporic music. Mukherjee is skilled in various poetic forms. Her vision is clear and her sensory awareness of the stuff of human experience is stunning. As she says, “sometimes the third eye is a camera, / sometimes a fist to the heart.”
—Maya Marshall, author of All the Blood Involved in Love
In Dialect of Distant Harbors, Dipika Mukherjee’s masterful lyricism and storytelling complicate the immigrant narrative: “hundred is the sum of me . . . I have a hundred ways to be.” From her native Delhi to her adoptive Chicago, to New Zealand, Kuala Lumpur, and beyond, her poetic kaleidoscope refracts the self like “the light / of many Buddhas carved into stone, holy and potent.” Lush, fierce, and tender, these poems sing of family and childhood, love and loss, while grappling with cultural identity, migration, womanhood, and race. If, as Czeslaw Milosz says, language is the only homeland, then to read this book is to rediscover that beloved yet elusive soil, and “to live again / in that house on stilts, taste / the sharpness of anchovies / dried on bamboo vines.”
—Angela Narciso Torres, author of What Happens Is Neither, Blood Orange, winner of the 2013 Willow Books Literature Award for Poetry, and To the Bone
My language is a Bedouin thief, delighting in foreign sands;
It understands the erasure of monks, the ritual of palimpsests.
English has no word for Hemanta. No, not Autumn, nor Winter.
No Harvest Goddess in a veil of mists opaquely drawn.
The evening lamp in her hand gleams lambent through the fog;
Her voice merges into the howling wind. With abundance, desolation.
Every year, Mount Kinabalu is still wreathed in monsoon clouds.
Cloud messengers may be different, but some still speak of love.
Malay lascars sang of narrow boats, with pineapples stacked too high;
A grievous vastness to this world, beyond human experience.
Wanderlust is a disease. Incurable. Deep from within, it chortles,
The light of the moon cannot be rooted, Dipika, do not even try!
from “Aphorisms from the Malay Archipelago”
As quietly as the sweet potato burgeons, so quietly
does the iron rust. I, of east-west, modern-ancient,
wanted to glide
like flying squirrels, from areca to date frond,
certain I, not the wind, caused trees to sway.
Moored now, a pea
expelled from shell with no husk to shelter
under—what is gravy if it doesn’t fall on
rice?—even the sunbird touches ground
or is an aphorism, a cautionary tale: no matter how
you chop water, it doesn’t break.
from “While his guitar gently weeps, I turn”
While his guitar gently weeps, I turn
to State, past Lake, follow the melody drizzling
melancholy into a Chicago night, lake breeze
a caress of yearning, for yesterday, yay yay.
I am drawn to this: a busker, his stage the street,
strumming a guitar, his voice soaring over
the traffic hum as he begins, Here comes the sun.
Dialect of Distant Harbors
Pub date – October 2022
Trade paper – 6 x 9″
Notable Voices – Poetry
5 Horizon Road, #2403
Fort Lee, New Jersey 07024
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