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The Volcanic Feminine in “A God at the Door”

The Volcanic Feminine in “A God at the Door”

  • A review of Tishani Doshi's new book, "A God at the Door."

Tishani Doshi’s fourth volume of poetry, following 2018’s Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods, marks a transition in her exploration of growing and aging as a woman. Where her earlier work focused on the internal and the bodily, A God at the Door reinvents the ancient equation of femininity and the natural world in order to address the intersections of female experience and a larger set of issues, including aging and mortality, war and poverty, environmental disasters like climate change and the pandemic, and legacies of racism and genocide. 

By invoking the mythic associations of femininity, fertility, and the environment, Doshi imbues her meditations on modern-day devastations with a sense of wonder. Even as she writes about issues as current as COVID-19, she never loses sight of the smallness of our moment and the knowledge that even if we do not live to see it, there will be new growth where there has been loss. Doshi’s explorations of mortality are always rife with joy and a sublime confidence that there is beauty to be found— one must only look to the women and the world.

In her reinvention of these tropes, Doshi is careful not to cast the Earth and its women as passive recipients of violence whose only victory will be outlasting their oppressors. In her world, one of nature’s great beauties is its capacity for instilling terror. Her two adjacent poems “Advice for Pliny the Elder, Big Daddy of Mainsplainers” and “Roots” each use images of volcanoes to depict the coexistence of destruction and production in feminine power. In the former, she alternates descriptions of the harmful properties Pliny ascribed to menstruating women in his misogynistic writings with images of the volcano that killed him. She writes, “Once a month, when the blood comes, I go out and lie in whatever field I / find to feel the scorch rise and the crops wither,” and then, “The earth never tires of giving / birth. If you get too close / to a volcano, you should / know it may erupt.” Doshi undermines the cliché of associating femininity with crops and harvests by creating a new and more violent connection between women and the natural world with her image of a volcanic eruption as a birth.

In “Roots,” Doshi pushes this connection between birth and eruption further by linking images of the volcano to nursing: “Remember how it was / to feed at the breast, that wild / need to hold on because you knew, / even then, that the mystery of beginnings was held in explosions. // That the end / may be a whimper but to begin / is always rupture or is it rapture.” In an image that could be tender and sentimental, she finds an explosive power so superhuman, or perhaps so deeply human, that it approaches divinity. This too is an argument of Doshi’s— that the human body is a wonder so extraordinary we hardly notice it until it is threatened. She writes, “Every summer I vow to find / a way back into my body. / Usually after a friend dies, / or is about to die.”

Doshi strikes a delicate balance of tone in A God at the Door. Even in her celebrations of a feminine natural world resisting masculine attempts to dominate it, she makes sure to hold a space for mourning, for making visible the many women who have been disappeared by our world. Doshi takes on this documentation both personally and politically. She addresses “Variations on Hippo,” among other poems, to women she has lost in her own life, writing, “I heard of your death / and began writing this poem, / which confused you momentarily / with another friend who died / in summer, also too young, / also a poet.” There is a sense of accumulation in this poem, and in the book as a whole— a sense of a life lengthening and filling up with layers of slight variations on the same joys, and the same griefs.

As Doshi cycles through repeated images and ideas in the book, she is after more than just documentation. She endeavors to recognize the women victimized by systemic violence, but she also seeks to turn the epidemic nature of their disappearance into a possibility for power. She opens and closes her poem “I Found a Village and In It Were All Our Missing Women” with images of guns, writing “I found a village and in it were all our missing / women, holding guns to the heads of birds,” and then, “The sound of house swallowed by sinkhole, // crater, tunnel, quicksand, quake. / The collective whoosh of a disappearing, // the way a gun might miss its target, / the way 21 million might just vanish.” 

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The opening image of the women holding guns is surprising, as thus far in the collection we are used to women’s violence aligning itself with nature. Weapons have been associated with men in other poems, such as “After a Shooting in a Maternity Clinic in Kabul.” However, by the closing lines of the poem, the women’s own disappearances have expanded into their ability to disappear others, houses, whole worlds even. The gunshot misses, but the engulfing natural world is more powerful.

In these turns of repetition and reinvention lie Doshi’s great affinity and ability for mythmaking. The enormous scope of the book lends itself to a kind of universality, an attempt at truth across time and place, but one that treasures nuances and strives to maximize the number of stories told. Doshi’s ambition in writing a feminist poetic that at once engages with archaic tropes and undermines them, that simultaneously responds to contemporary wounds and eternal ones, and all the while requires us to acknowledge an ever-present beauty is a feat at which she herself must wonder, as when she asks in her poems, “Why are you not astonished?”

A God at the Door
By Tishani Doshi
Copper Canyon Press
Published November 9, 2021

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