Object Lessons

What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems. 

In our current series, Object Lessons, we’re thinking about the relationship between the experienced and imagined world. We have asked our editors and invited poets to present one of their own poems in combination with the object that inspired it, and to meditate on the magical journey from object to poem. 
Each essay is accompanied by a writing prompt which we hope you will find useful in your own writing practice or in the classroom.

Vivek Narayanan on “Ode to Cement”

One night, visiting Bangalore (Bengaluru) from Delhi, sometime in ’05 or ’06, I met up with my dear friend the architectural historian Curt Gambetta. We had dinner at some relaxed “restobar” then, happily intoxicated, took a walk out on the town—Frazer Town, to be precise. This was an eon ago, of course, before the new Hindu fascism had taken root in ways we wouldn’t even have been able to imagine then, before the entire discourse of the city changed. Curt was interested in the period of great house-building from the 1940s to the ‘60s, when new architectural ideas and designs had zinged like memes through the city. Most of all, however, Curt was interested in cement, its powerful malleability. Cement could allow you to fashion new things never before seen on the landscape, or it could just as well slink back to imitate the forms that were already there. I, on the other hand, was not a ready fan of this material. I couldn’t deny that it disgusted me, had always disgusted me, but now especially, when the hum of construction was all-present in Indian cities as to never stop. Cement was simply a mainstay in the air we breathed; the migrant labourers who worked closely with it were among the human sacrifices our society chose to make. Curt, however, was convincing me that there was also more to the story. If ever there was needed a proof of a ‘real’ world of real matter outside of us, cement had a texture that could not even easily be reproduced in nightmares.      

At the time I’d just started writing a series of sonnets that tried to explore a new set of deities for the city, any city. My idea of a deity was not an omnipotent father-figure, but something much more earthly and flawed, as in some Indian and African traditions I was familiar with, no doubt many others. In this world, spirits—ancestors, numinous, ambivalent beings like the djinns or the smallpox goddess who both brought and took away smallpox—were neither good or bad, and both. My own deities were more archetypes, things or perhaps properties in the world I lived in that repulsed and entranced me, and that I also felt somehow dependent on.  

By the end of the night, thanks to our walk, cement had become one of these. New mysteries arose as we grappled with it, touched, observed it. We realized, among other things, that someone, some group of people, perhaps builders or masons or homeowners, had been secretly “signing” various fronts and entrances with art-deco-like ornaments, perhaps even sets of symbols, which were at once imitations of a style and something not quite seen before. The photograph below, also taken in the same city, is not the same ornament that we saw that night, that appears in the last lines of my poem, but something akin to it.

Photo: Curt Gambetta


Writing Prompt

Bring some non-human thing, quality or property that is alien but palpable in the world around you, something that resists you, maybe even alien to language itself, into a poem. Write with or to it as (almost) an ambivalent, imaginary deity.

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Vivek Narayanan

Vivek Narayanan

Vivek Narayanan’s books of poems include Life and Times of Mr S and the forthcoming AFTER: a Writing Through Valmiki’s Ramayana. A full-length collection of his selected poems in Swedish translation was published in 2015 by the Stockholm-based Wahlström & Widstrand in 2015. He has been a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University (2013-14) and a Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library (2015-16). His poems, stories, translations and critical essays have appeared in journals like The Paris Review, Granta, Poetry Review (UK), Modern Poetry in Translation, Harvard Review, Agni, The Caribbean Review of Books and elsewhere, as well as in anthologies like The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem and The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poetry. Narayanan was the co-editor of Almost Island, an India-based international literary journal from 2007-2019. He currently teaches at George Mason University.