Poetry Issue #48

After Waking

By Karthik Sethuraman


Flame, hushed to embers, exhaled into a final/syllable of smoke. Can I call this a prayer? A wet/wick, sesame oil, matches under straw, and/when I lock the door to the house, I remind myself…
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Image: “Celestial” by Julia Muench, fiber art, 50×74 in., 2019

Karthik Sethuraman

Featured Poet

After Waking

Flame, hushed to embers, exhaled into a final
syllable of smoke. Can I call this a prayer? A wet
wick, sesame oil, matches under straw, and

when I lock the door to the house, I remind myself
death is a matter of fact not judgment. At least,
I hope so. My father and sister drove to the hospital

a while ago, and I haven’t silenced my phone, hidden
from any emergency, missed my mother moving
from bed to bed. I swear I’ve asked for safe passage

even when I don’t believe in highwaymen or tolls
for doors shut. My mother does, and she talks to me
about the things she can, the cost of butter, its weight

in our veins, how to fry an eggplant and save a portion
for a child who doesn’t dine at home. When my father talks
to her surgeon, he lowers himself, and I think every absence

is polluted with some kind of news. Earlier, I marked
every mention of her name with a blessing but sometimes
I double marked and stuttered. In elementary school,

my speech therapist explained that some children
find concepts they can’t articulate and pause, hold
themselves, stretch each sound into a question, a prayer.

When she opens her mouth, her first words are to
my father. He smiles like we do when we cannot hurt
the ones we love, so she looks to me. As a child,

whenever we watched the weather, she would complain
about promises of partial sunlight and passing clouds.
If we could be that simple, I imagine my mother,

after a few days in bed, would rise and reanimate,
know every forecast, where they begin and end.
I haven’t held my words for a long time now, and

I don’t intend to, but she shakes her head, saves
herself for another day. I don’t know if she still
tampers with smoke detectors, if she trades

americium for silver, lines it under her mattress.
If she’d let me, I might have lifted her shoulder,
traced the routes of the bandits, what they stole,

their leftover tracks, the great train robbery. Some day,
she’ll tell me I never could lie to her but how could I
— she’s sleeping on her side, I shake her from

a dream, a water tower with the lock jimmied,
a boy in the middle floating, wading, and she asks
why I woke her now. I say someone had to.

Unclad Roughness
after Forugh Farrokhzad

Against idleness, you warn me
— too many portraits, one for
another with hourly calamity
so we delay a day, a month,
every morning casting a net —

I’ve roamed too far pretending to
bridge some unknown distance.
This form is indicative of that where
by two or three in the afternoon
in a neighbor’s yard, hidden from

delirium, you cross my lips, slipping
into the corner, my cheek, and what
time is it when I unfurl the blanket,
tuck in your fingers, and what do
you know as the hours move across

your face. Do you hear this poem, me
saying many things, knowing none.
If I brush your hair, tug at the curtains,
a buzzing, my mouth, a path barely
lit to where waiting is contested

by present, future, by the boy who,
fetching his lawnmower, knocks on
my head, and when I turn into the heat
next to you, the wake. Like us, a poem
may meander, revisit old loves, step

into their homes to find them frozen
in great mysteries or nearer in small
silences. They may hold each other
tightly, clavicles arched, remaining
unsure of how and when to pass.


When someone
                                    when I
  crash into my
                                    my own
        I’m left with pieces
 a trail of crumbs to my
sternum, hollow.
                                    I cradle
an egg   tip it against my
  against my nose sharp in
the milky air
                               the scent of
sunshine against the wall.
                            the soul within
wet   half-shaped, orienting
        itself along my axes
                               chirping with
the ticks on my watch
my pulse in its mouth. On
occasion   I taste venom
  feel fissure
                               look for my
syringe to draw the distance
into a capsule   mark it for
safe disposal.
                               A shadow
drifts under the door
                           keeps me company
suggests words to say while
I rest my eyes
    staring into another room
      a night lamp delineating
who is
  who isn’t.
                            Most of being
is this way   myself
                              & myself
separated by a thin, hard
                              waiting for
the moment we break.

Prayer mistaking silence for love

Which words when taken
from me will taste metallic
in my mouth

before buying groceries
must I pray

must I pray for milk
for its shape
mixing in the mouths
of different men

for the word itself
perched on the lips
of the brave

for my way of
coming to terms
with what I see when

I sit next to my sister
the honeysuckle tucked
under her hair

the hymn marching through
my mother’s tongue the fire

kissing her hands and the
hands of her love my father
watching his father

in a frame tying a knot
around his mother’s neck

it goes down easy
blood chilled just right
and who am I to ask

about truancy the only day
I skipped school I found a
duck in our backyard

her eyes grey and green
in patches huddled
over hatchlings
suckling them or
maybe my biology is

wrong but I remember

asking my mother to
leave out some milk
and her lukewarm reply

honey, don’t you know
to save yourself for those
who can use you.

For and after Stanley Plumly

I need to know how a thing lingers, sunlight spilling
    into a room I know is shuttered and its scent, bare

like the space behind my mother’s hand, a memory
    I file into meter by meter where someone, some

other me, extends past a closed door like noontime
    or a story, another one my mother rests behind.

What waits behind the blinds, if I could open them?
    Before sunset, only a knock at the door and a glass

of water, the weight of the walls and their fullness.
    And so much coldness, more than maps of adjacent

plots or their vacantness, my mother lying behind some
    other, leaving gaps in her story for me to linger,

holding on to what little I know in my nakedness,
    my mother like a winter carrying her shade inside.

By Karthik Sethuraman

Karthik Sethuraman is an Indian-American living in California. His works have appeared in Hot Metal Bridge, Lunch Ticket, Berkeley Poetry Review, and Fugue, among others. One piece, “Saramakavi,” was performed at the Asian Art Museum where he was a Kearny Street Workshop writing fellow. His chapbook, Prayer under eyelids, is forthcoming from Nomadic Press. In addition to English language poetry, he spends time reading and translating from the broader Tamil diaspora.