Review: Poems of Encounter in Dipika Mukherjee’s Dialect of Distant Harbors


Cover of "Dialect of Distant Harbors" by Dipika Mukherjee
“Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are,” suggests philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. Based on her collection Dialect of Distant Harbors, Dipika Mukherjee would agree, I believe, but “landscapes” here would have to be plural, because in addition to geographical landscapes, these poems embrace multiple settings, languages, weather, generations, relationships, and traditions and rituals, both spiritual and secular. Through experiences both lived and dreamed, her poems invite the reader to discover beauty, danger, and heartbreak by exploring new worlds and revealing heart-stopping moments of intimacy. The harbors she describes are distant but never forgotten, both welcoming and estranging.

Although they are not named or numbered, we can see by the choice of extra spacing between each group of five to seven poems in the table of contents that Mukherjee has created seven sections for this collection. Throughout the book, each section is separated by a graceful lotus mandala, similar to those that adorn sacred texts and women’s hands hennaed for special occasions. These seven symbolic pauses serve as a constant reminder of the overarching message of healing, resilience, and rebirth in all the poems carefully gathered here. They also invite the reader to pay special attention to seven central themes: generational roots, the misogyny and physical torture women suffer, the passing of time, the horrific violence of racial and cultural hate, mortality, migration and exile, and the value of travel.

In this collection, Mukherjee invites us into her own travels, trials, and triumphs as well as those of her family and of global communities. She presents moments of intense beauty paired with a necessary recognition of suffering. We see this in the poem, “Going back to where I’m from,” a running title that leads us to:

is to return to women who are goddesses,
incense smoke, and drumbeats & women
who bury infant girls in the ground, into
milk vats to drink until they drown 

We find more of this paradox in numerous poems including, “While his guitar gently weeps, I turn” in these lines:

The evening news
scrolls on the ABC marquee “Death toll . . .”
but we dance, singing with mingling exultant
breath, over this transient field of joy.

As she travels in this collection from shore to shore and encounter to encounter, Mukherjee’s honesty and vulnerability earns the trust of her readers as her profound imagery reminds us that really knowing beauty requires acknowledging pain.

Mahmoud Darwish once said, “Poetry and beauty are always making peace. When you read something beautiful you find coexistence; it breaks walls down.” In this collection about paying tribute and bearing witness to what has been lost in cultures, in languages, in families, the inclusion of moments of danger when the speaker is bereft and disoriented encourages the reader to recognize that everything exists simultaneously. This is particularly evident in the second section of the book. Here we encounter poems that speak directly of misogynistic physical and emotional violence, such as in the chilling poem, “The Shawl”:

this shawl knows how tenuous
the threads, how easily torn . . . this shawl,
is now part of the communal sloughing,
slouching uneasily toward
losing all our cover-ups.

These poems are also profoundly in conversation with other contemporary poets who write about how language forms character. In Mukherjee’s “Bangkok, 1956,” the tone and imaginative reconstruction of the past is in conversation with Eavan Boland’s “Lava Cameo.” In this poem, Boland explores the ways stories are formed from “rumour…or a folk memory…a hint…” She suggests:

there is a way of making free with the past,
a pastiche of what is
real and what is

Both poets invent a way to understand the core beliefs that form an individual, and a family. Both poems imagine a past that creates a foundational narrative about ancestors. Mukherjee writes:

                                    I will not be born for another nine years.

It is my father’s first foreign posting; my mother is his bride.
She leaves a sprawling home in Calcutta and fifteen play-
mates to take his hand, crossing black seas to go where he
will go. In a house as vast as her natal home there is the two
of them, a maid, a gardener’s family … only silence speaks
her language through cavernous days.

In addition to those core narratives, the landscapes we live in and the languages we speak formour character. This collection additionally uses the navigations of cities, bodies of water, and continents to explore how place also forms character. Here we move from Wellington, New Zealand to Amsterdam, to Kuala Lumpur, to Bhutan, to Door County, Wisconsin. In each of these places, the autobiographical meets the metaphorical, as it does in “Migration, ExileThese Are Mens Words”: 

my language weeps its wedding melodies
in many dialects, many tunes—
In my next life, O God, don’t make me a daughter—

Exile, Migration. . . what meaning then?

Mukherjee uses her own stories of travel and exile and transforms them into paradigms for what anthropologist Margaret Mead called “nesting in the gale.” That is to say, finding home in newness and challenge. In “Foreign Passport,” for example, the speaker describes her fear and fierce protectiveness when customs officials question and threaten her son.

His passport was too foreign.

They said, There is a lookout,
the computers are slow, it may take some time.
I could see my nine-year-old son blinking
As they led him away.

I was not to be silenced.

And, in “After the Ice Storm,” Mukherjee is metaphorically reunited with her grandmother, dead thirty years now, on another continent, a different season from a distant land: “I touch the icicles of a frosty winter, / feeling her benediction / in the prickle of my scalp.” Even in this frigid, far-away land, the speaker remembers her grandmother and one of the pearls of wisdom which she has been gifted:

She says, Hair grows lustrous on a beautiful woman.
A man, encircled in its silky cloud,
never wants to leave.

In reading this collection I was reminded of “An Introduction” by Kamala Das, who wrote in both English and her native language, Malayalam, and whose poetry was also centered on personal experience:

Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak,
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone.
It is half English, half Indian, funny perhaps, but it is honest,
It is as human as I am human, don’t
You see?

Like Das, Mukherjee’s skill with the intricacies of language coupled with her introspection on her own experience with migration, suffering, joy, and the transformative power of memory masterfully weave together the personal with the universal. From “Damp Red Earth and Pouring Rain (Pankti)”:

It is merely meat and rice—yes—
but what you now hold in your hands
will transport you to open fields
of saffron blowing in the wind,
of damp red earth and pouring rain.

I would also suggest our response to Dialect of Distant Harbors is this: breathe in and breathe out deeply, and enter Mukherjee’s language and landscapes, those fully realized universes that are dear to her heart… and now, to ours.

Lynne McEniry (she/her) published some other wet landscape with Get Fresh Books. Her poems have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and were recognized three times for the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award, most recently in 2023. They have been widely published in journals and anthologies. Lynne leads workshops and edits manuscripts and journals for various non-profits. Born in Yonkers, NY, she lives in Morristown, NJ where she teaches at Saint Elizabeth University.

Review: Poems of Encounter in Dipika Mukherjee’s Dialect of Distant Harbors

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