One of the brightest gems of Uma Menon’s poetry collection Hands for Language comes only two poems into the first section of the collection. “Citizenship,” like much of Menon’s verse, both heeds and subverts that old creative writing class cliché, “the specific is universal,” to dazzling effect. The poem toggles between the specific and the universal so dizzyingly that Menon is simultaneously speaking of both the human experience of birth and a particular story of repatriation:
my mother tells me that i cried when i left
my first country: maybe it was just
the jasmine or maybe it was the fear
of naturalization to another country or
another identity or maybe
because my mother would never be
my country again
Menon structures her collection in four parts: birth, discovery, becoming, and rebellion. The sections align the progression of her own life with the life of her collection, resulting in a volume of memoir as well as of verse. But in the end, Hands for Language is not a traditional memoir with an isolated protagonist; it is a memoir self-aware of its own interdependence.
The image Menon most frequently evokes is motherhood—that of her own, the motherhood of a homeland (as in “citizenship”), the notion of a mother tongue, and the motherhood of the earth itself. This matriarchal nucleus results in a collection in which feminism is not a political stance so much as a truth of life: understated, elemental, matter-of-fact. Even the universe is cast as feminine in the subverted creation story “The Universe, A Woman”: “They say the universe formed with one big bang but / we all know it must have a mother.”
The universality of her central metaphors—motherhood, as well as light, speech, and birth—cast an ethereal, dream-like quality about Menon’s collection. Some might call this quality timelessness. This is not to say that Menon is not grounded in the present day; her poems discuss immigration, environmentalism, colonialism, and feminism, and in fact the ones that do so directly are often the most powerful. But the best of Menon’s poems evade the broad strokes that would fall prey to vagueness while still maintaining a distance from the poetic sin of didactic advocacy. “Border violence” strikes this balance masterfully by grounding a contemporary political issue in the human heart:
this is where i draw a line
i say to the words
that tear me apart in two [...]
your arrogance is it fenced
is it concrete does it split me
vertically or horizontally
Likewise, “Giving a Mongoose a Plastic Bottle” tells the wrenching story of a single mongoose “sinking its warrior teeth / into plastic trash.” “Mongoose can’t read” the choking hazard,
Menon reminds us, but she makes herself complicit in the sin against earth and mongoose: “This land / gave me a life & I’ve / given it bottle caps.”
Menon plays with universality and specificity not only in terms of her themes but also with her content. Hands for Language layers mythology atop personal experience to create an impasto effect, a canvas toward which the reader must step closer and closer in order to fully appreciate its artistry. You will find yourself Googling as you read through Hands for Language in order to read the story of Akbal and Birbal, to locate Orlando’s Laxmi Plaza on a map, to define the form of Arabic poetry called a ghazal. In plumbing these allusions, we meet Menon on her own terms: a second-language poet who has personal experience with the communal griefs of belonging to more than one place, and who will gather up the fragments into a collage to show us what it is like.
Fall 2020—the season that marks a national election, a return to school amidst a pandemic, a reckoning with America’s racial history—is, to put it mildly, a time when all of us would be well-served by upping our listening game. But by some metrics, we have never been so socially deaf. As a high school teacher in metro Detroit, I have never felt so urgently the need to provide my students with the tools to seek out and empathize with a diversity of opinions—nor, frankly, felt less competent to give them what they need in order to live well in an increasingly riven country.
Menon’s approach in this collection gives us a simple, elegant way to listen to others better, in the classroom and in life: begin with the universal and move into gradual specificity. We do not all know what it is like to be bilingual, female, South Asian, or a Milwaukeean, as Menon does. But we have all experienced the universal citizenship she envisions. Which of us has not cried leaving our first country?
Beginning with commonality primes us to erode the distinctions between self and other, softens us to the desire to learn more about the particulars of the people around us. Menon models this for us in “dictionary: tanpura,” in which she compassionately rereads the way that the tanpura, an Indian stringed instrument meant for harmonizing, has been defined. Menon offers the internet’s top two less-than-flattering definitions of the tanpura (e.g. “string instrument that cannot play a melody”). She imagines the instrument as one abused:
in the sun,
its songs worn & ripped
its neck manhandled,
its strings plucked away.
“i know what it’s like / to be called names / to be named & renamed,” Menon offers, drawing the audience into a trick of the light in which every overlooked object deserves a measure of our tenderness.
Analytical tenderness is a rare virtue these days, which is why Menon’s memoir-of-verse is so exceptional. She charts her disparate origins of self—birthdays, grandparents’ old stories, the surging love of a mother, the longing for and discomfort in one’s ethnic traditions, local shopping malls, Hindu theology—lovingly and with acuity. Menon not only models how we might understand ourselves, but also how we could regard each other as specific and universal: each of us a multimodal collage, each of us a network of our own infinite allusions.
Purchase Hands for Language here
Veronica Toth is fascinated by the interconnectedness of things. She studied creative writing and psychology at Taylor University, earned an MA in literature and cultural theory at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and has been trying to integrate disparate disciplines ever since. She teaches high school English and philosophy at University Liggett School in Michigan, where she will mask up to study utilitarianism, The Great Gatsby, and biblical literature with her students this year. Veronica’s work appears or is forthcoming in Rock & Sling, Windhover, and The Other Journal.
Photo by Ilja Tulit on Unsplash
Dr. Baker! It means so much to hear from you. I’ve thought of your class often as I teach. Analytical tenderness is not a bad term for the way you reviewed our papers, come to think of it :) I hope you are well.
You make me want to read the collection, Veronica—and I love your term “analytical tenderness.” Indeed, there are no binary opposites in complex imagery and thought. So glad to see your continuing work.
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Linda Mills Woolsey
October 12, 2020
Thank you for this lovely invitation to Una Menon’s work. The lines and passages you cite made me thirst to read more and your thoughtful reading of her weaving of specific and universal as in invitation to empathy is itself a joy to read. I, too, find “analytical tenderness” not only apt, but itself a seed for contemplation.