Echolocation reviewed by JoAnne Dionne in The Pacific Rim Review of Books ( Issue Two, Fall 2005), reproduced with permission.
One morning in spring, I took a walk with Mani Rao. She plucked a eucalyptus leaf from my neighbour’s tree, crushed it violently, green and sticky in her palms, then lifted her hands to her face, closed her eyes, and breathed deeply. Her eyes flashed open. ‘Smell this!’ she said. On the ocean’s edge, she picked an amber slice of seaweed off the wet sand and held it up to the sun. ‘It looks like photographic film!’ she shouted. Later, on a cliff edge, she pulled a small kernel from a stalk of wild grass, tore the husk away and picked out the soft grain. ‘I think we can eat this,’ she said, placing the thin seed on her tongue. Back in town, passing a tall shrub, she closed her eyes and rubbed her cheeks against its white blossoms. ‘Soft,’ she murmured. ‘Like breasts.’
I highly recommend taking a walk with Mani Rao.
And if you can’t do that, read her poetry. It will tear your mind wide open. She will show you things you hadn’t noticed before (although, as she argues in a line from one of her poems: ‘You don’t need me to show you the visible’). She will stop you in your tracks.
Mumbai-born, Hong Kong-based Mani Rao is the author of six books of poetry. Her last few volumes, particularly the small, blue Salt, gave us a taste of her urban surroundings. Here we saw the “young people chin up and chest out in pubs”. We experienced the city’s subway (“Every three minutes a syringe draws up and sucks the platform of life”) and its bus rides. We did the math to calculate the number of people living in a high rise. We met “the guard with no name who knows you by your floor”.
However, her most recent book, Echolocation, is filled with images of the natural world. At the same time, the poems are grittier than they have ever been. There is conflict here, violence even. And death. Lines from the first page set the tone:
The demon and dog whirl in space, the knives are out, flashing,
She makes you eat spit and he who gives you shelter is already a refugee.
She is a carrier for screams and he has lost his fuck.
If you have the nerve to turn the page, Echolocation treats you to Rao’s startlingly fresh view of the world. She points out the “Knowing smile in the arc of a pendulum.” She reminds us that “War is a place all thoughts have left, green salad fields sprinkled with blood / and bone.”
Her lines often have an element of shock (“the cigarette drops from your hand as you water the plants with gasoline”) or sweet surprise (“The bees grow taller, whirlpool and vanish into a pottery class”). Rao is fascinated by words, their possibilities and, more, their limitations. She treats words as playthings, or fugitives (“When you know the word for it, call off the detectives.”) or even organic matter (“Lily the adverb came home with me. The florist says she will last, I dare not imagine how many days.”)
And, just when you think you can relax, you get, “For lipstick she used a razor, a bloom in slow-mo, her mouth a widening blur”.
But there are quiet truths running throughout Echolocation, too. Witness: “How fast the buildings grow, how slow the trees.”
Echolocation wrings us out, turns us upside down. It forces us to look at things we might not want to on a normal day. (“Blood smells of blood, recognize it.”) It ends with what sounds like a threat, or a promise:
How did you think you would stop talking to me, I never hung up the telepath.
I have not remembered you, but I have not forgotten you.