Close Reading


The Fall of Icarus, Jacob Peter Gowy, 1635-1637

by Sumana Roy

“My parents are divorced,” Amla says proudly, as if that were a part of the code of her teenage rebellion.

Some of her classmates are angry – they feel deprived of this experience. Their parents are still a team, more than eighteen years after they were born. It’s a surprise to them, that ‘forever’ could be that long, longer than school life.

I pretend to not notice. I’m not going to let a student’s divorced parents hijack the reading of a poem.

But Amla is insistent. “Your parents are divorced too, right?” she says to Sabiha, who’s sitting next to her but behaves as if she’s far away. She speaks to everyone in the tone of someone who’s at the other end of a long-distance call.

No is the answer.

But she doesn’t have to remain disappointed for long. Two seats away there is endorsement and identification. “Yes, I read it like you too,” says Priti. “My parents are separated”.

I’ve heard that tone before. I keep thinking where. It comes to me soon, Akash saying to me, “I am gay”, when we meet eighteen years after school. I’m not an immigration officer and you’re not declaring your citizenship, I’d said. Forced humour. Six years ago.

The rest of the class is looking at the poem we will read together. This piece of information that comes from two of their classmates are like red highlights in their hair that they don’t care to notice. When I tell them to read it to themselves once, before we begin working as literary detectives to decipher codes in the poem, I pause for breath. And wholesome attention to each of their faces as they read or snatch a glance of a friend reading. I compare, though I don’t want to: they are half my age; I didn’t have a single friend whose parents were divorced. That was only two decades ago. What happened in these twenty years? I turn divorce into a disease and I look for its causes. The internet. I blame it first, like every parent today, though I’m not a parent. (I’m not even married.) Satellite television. The workplace that hijacks the day and its possibilities of togetherness.

My time for investigation is over. I return to the class, to the students. But something has changed in these few minutes. I sense an annoyance in me whose source I can’t locate. It is as if I want to be angry.

“Close reading,” I correct Shruti, “Not closed reading”.

Shruti apologises. I don’t look at her.

“Stanza. Not paragraph,” I correct again. I feel uncomfortable with the sharpness in my voice but don’t know how to rid myself of it.

“Do you like the poem?” I ask, and am immediately angry with myself. As if liking should be the trigger for close reading! The intelligence services closely study only what they are suspicious of. And the words tumble out of me, though I didn’t mean to say them at all. “Are you suspicious of the poem?”

They raise their heads together. It’s a rare moment when I have their attention. (We used to study every pleat of the sarees our teachers wore, even notice missing stones in wedding rings. My students wouldn’t know the colour of the shirt I wore yesterday.) I feel slightly nervous. Their collective stare reminds me of the time I was in college, when groups of boys would study me as if I was a dead body and they students of anatomy.

I notice that Jyoti is about to say something. I must stop her. I sense my word turning into a question in her mouth. “Suspicious?” That’s what she’d say. She loves questions. We – all her teachers – know that about her. I suddenly remember the remark I left on an essay she showed me last week: “There’s a difference between ‘last love’ and ‘lasting love’ – in no other place perhaps has ‘ing’ been so powerful …” – but I can’t remember what her essay was about. This betrayal by my memory shocks me. It makes me conscious of my birth certificate.

In a flash I’ve imagined the parents of all my students. I’ve given their marriages health certificates – the faces and body weight and clothes of my students, their children, are enough. Jyoti’s parents couldn’t be divorced, I am certain. She smiles a lot in class. But so does Amla. I’m not getting it right, I am not. I abandon the thought.

I return to the poem I’d left. How kind of the poem to wait for me, how kind of poems to wait for us. How well-behaved they are, never to show their impatience. How restful poems are.

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrances of things past …

I have been intoxicated by these lines for years, for decades. The sibilants – sessions, sweet, silent, summon, remembrances, things – are whispers, I’ve told my students. Thoughts are whispers, close your eyes and imagine someone saying them – you’ll feel the breath of these words on the back of your shoulders, as if a lover was standing behind you and saying them to you. The eroticism of those lines makes me shiver, I get goose bumps. I think of the man I wanted to marry.

No, no, I’m not a lover. I’m a teacher. I’m supposed to teach this poem, not be drugged by it. I have to be the poem’s surgeon, expose its veins and arteries and hidden tickling places to this group of fifteen girls. I’m not its masseur.

“But we finished reading Sonnet 64 last week.” It’s Jyoti. This statement ends with a question mark even though she can’t see it.

I return to my senses. I have to bluff my way out of this now. “Yes,” I say, “I wanted to remind you of these lines so that you notice how the character of intimacy is different in every relationship. The proximity of bodies, of whispers, in Shakespeare’s sonnet is not for this married couple. Even when they sit next to each other it is a long-distance relationship …”

I sneeze. It’s the air-conditioning. I hate its taunting cold air.

I notice Jyoti laughing, as if a sneeze were like a fall, a prompt for others to laugh. I am annoyed – I want to tell her that her teeth are always stained with food from her last meal. I scold myself. I find myself turning into a stereotype – the cranky spinster. Do they think of me as that, my students, even though I teach them the most passionate love poems in the world?

“Every poem is a love poem,” I tell every group on the first day each semester. Let us not categorise them as anything else. The teenagers agree without resistance. Love is my religion, one of them will inevitably declare seriously every year, and I will air my fake-funny remark: “But that doesn’t mean that every poem is a religious poem.”

It is true, I read every poem as a lover. I wonder whether it is because I wanted to marry a poet. Something stirs in me suddenly. I feel guilty for my annoyance with Priti and Amla.

I think of the history of reading – how every reader reads from his own sense of victimhood. All philosophy was born from a sense of deprivation: Marxism and feminism and postcolonialism and race and class and caste, everything. We pine for what is not? That is the code of reading – we seek in literature what life will not give us. That is why every poem is a love poem for me. And why Amla reads her classmate’s poem about a long drive as a poem about a divorced couple.

Sarcasm is climbing against gravity, I have to close my mouth from stopping its flow. It’s like a tiny hammer inside my head – I think of race and class and minority studies used to study literature for the last half century. The newer disciplines come to my mind as well: disability studies. I’m trying to think of others but they are squatting at the back of my mind. They are shy, perhaps because they are new. I let them into my lectures and discussions from time to time. These moments of entry make me self-conscious about my generosity. I read Milton’s “On His Blindness” with Tanizaki’s “A Portrait of Shunkin”. What is the common thread that binds them? Blindness, of course. “It has been said that the deaf look like fools and the blind like sages: the deaf, in their effort to catch what others are saying, knit their brows, gape their mouths, and goggle their eyes … while the blind, because they sit calmly with their heads bowed a trifle as if in meditation, appear to be extremely thoughtful.” This ‘sit calmly with their heads bowed … in meditation’ was exactly what Milton meant in the last line of his sonnet: “They also serve who only stand and wait”. I smuggle the density of these new disciplines into my English Literature class. I feel proud of myself. These are the moments I miss having someone to return home to, someone to cook khichdi for, someone who’d bite into a gravy-swollen chilli and rush to the water filter like a fireman.

I return to the poem.

I decide to start from the beginning. “Failing and Flying” by Jack Gilbert. I repeat myself twice. A teacher’s tick.

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.

I read the poem once and wait. It’s like waiting for meat to marinate.

“What’s the title?” It’s Shruti, the quietest student I’ve had in fifteen years of teaching. There’s the preface of a cough in her voice.

“Failing and Flying,” I repeat.

“F-words!” says Mayurika. I can never be sure of her, whether she treats me as one of her friends, or whether she is indifferent to my presence. Her responses in class are a bit like the bed hair with which she walks into class every morning – an indifference to decorum.

I pretend not to hear. Increasingly these days, I have to do that – pretend to be air.

“Why does everything bad begin with F? Failure. Fuck. Fuck.” Mayurika again.

I’m not going to give up so easily, I decide. “Really? What about ‘first’?”

“Flower,” Shruti adds to the list. I look at her. This is the first time she’s speaking in class this semester.

“Fool.” That’s Mayurika.



They’ve begun treating this like a badminton match. I’m losing control of the class.

“Flying and Failing,” I say.

“Failing and Flying,” Jyoti corrects me.

I smile, trying to hide my nervousness. Why do these young girls make me anxious when I know more about everything than they do, more about life and literature, more about love and loss?

This thought, instead of calming me down, takes me on a different route. “Look at the words beginning with ‘l’, how beautiful they are,” I find myself saying, “Life, love, literature …”

“Lust …”

“Laziness …”

I want to tell them that lust and laziness are not necessarily bad things, but I must return to the poem.

“Are we studying this poem for sounds?” It’s Mayurika.

“Why do you ask?” I adjust my hair.

“With the exception of three – perhaps four – lines, all the lines have ‘l’ sounds.”

I rush to investigate the poem. This fact, undiscovered so far, wasn’t a part of my reading. I don’t know what to do with Mayurika’s discovery. It’s like an unnecessary dish ordered at a restaurant, one that doesn’t fit in with the rest of the ordered dishes.

Mayurika doesn’t stop. She never knows how to. “I mean, if it’s the sounds that are important for poets, why not more ‘d’ sounds. Die. Divorce. Doom. Why isn’t the poem called “Dying and Divorcing”?”

I feel unprepared to teach this class anymore. All my years of teaching – and learning, all the nights spent with the French thinkers and English writers and American academics – seem useless against what these girls, half my age, are telling me. I am partly to blame for this, I know: I’ve spent the last week telling them about the use of sounds in poetry. It’d been a fun class. We’d walked out of the classroom talking about the similarity of sounds in words across languages: the “ap” sounds in “slap”, “thappar”, “jhaapar”, for instance.

I smile and begin reading again.

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake …

I pause to breathe. It is September. The humidity has affected my asthma like it does every year. But there is no space for the illness of teachers in a classroom, not unless one is on medical leave. I don’t like the classroom, its cold artificiality, its elision of emotions, its turning of relations into input-output ratios. Only once did I tell my students that I wanted to finish the class three minutes before time because I was famished, that I couldn’t carry on anymore. I said it in fear, not knowing whether it’d be held against me, not just in my student evaluations but for generations of student gossip that would follow. Later, walking back to the faculty residential quarters, I thought to myself: how hunger and thirst are rarely, almost never, discussed in the way we respond to literature.

Returning to the poem seems to get more difficult each time. Before the ten minute break we’d read a poem each by all of them. Sabiha’s poem had been about her parents talking to each other in a car, after dropping their daughter in boarding school. “Why did you marry me?” That was the refrain in the poem – the mother’s words to the father every time the car braked. I’d been touched by the affection in the poem, the quasi-rhetorical question that brings in immediate intimacy. The surprise of Amla’s question still hadn’t left me. “Your parents are divorced, aren’t they?

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.

“Apart from the leaping reference to Icarus, you’ll notice that there are no metaphors in the first seven lines of the poem,” I say.

“Why, is it to represent the seven year itch?”

It’s Mala. She’s smiling at me, like someone who’s just discovered her smartness.

I’m flummoxed. I smile at her, and then at the rest of the class, which is, for the moment, an abstraction.

“Look at the verbs in the lines: fails, work, doing … They seem borrowed from a capitalist work-life, don’t they?” I say.

“There’s a fridge magnet in my father’s new apartment which says – ‘Marriage is a lot of work. I opted for Voluntary Retirement’. These words remind me of that.” It’s Amla, chewing the end of a curl of hair.

“My mother says that she’s working all the time. If a relationship also needs work, then she’d rather not be in it. I agree with her. Who wants to be an employee 24X7?” Priti joins in.

“Notice that the poem is relying on axiomatic and idiomatic lines. See the first line about Icarus – you could take it out of the poem and it’d stand alone. Almost like a proverb …”

“Almost like how a marriage stands out in the history of all relationships one makes or breaks in a lifetime.” Mayurika – she doesn’t complete her own sentences, she doesn’t let others complete theirs.

“I agree,” says Priti, “They have ‘Marital Status’ on all these stupid government forms. They don’t ask you whether you’re someone’s brother or sister or friend or enemy!”

“’But anything worth doing is worth doing badly’. See how this adage is used to justify …” I feel my asthma returning. I am angry that no studies of victimhood will consider a teacher in a classroom a victim even if she’s asthmatic, suffering from diarrhoea, dysmenorrhoea, or heartbreak.

“Why don’t we have a discipline – or a course – called ‘Relationships?’ It’ll be far more useful than studying race and gender and caste and …”

“And Marxism!”

Priti and Shruti are completing each other’s sentences. I wonder whether they know that my relationship didn’t work out. Students find out everything. They are worse than detectives. This generation that decides on the value of books from reading blurbs before reducing them to an ‘ism’ – the fault of the education system that taught them to do this – will they understand that my parents refused to let me marry Arup because he was a poet who did not have a steady income? Will they frame our relationship within a Marxist framework? If this was not a classroom, I’d have laughed at myself, at these inconsequential and hilarious imaginings. And so I force myself to return to metaphor.

Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island whiles
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch.

“Notice how after the generic lines about love and marriage and their success and failure the poet begins chasing metaphors …”

“Like chasing women once you have acquired a wife!” Mayurika is laughing at her own joke.

Before I can intervene, Amla imports her own interpretation. “I know what you mean. My mother says that my father did exactly that! But my understanding of these lines is different. The first few lines are the equivalent of taking the saat pheras or a walk down the aisle. It’s the same for everyone. Only after that does the marriage begin to become customised. Hence the metaphors.”

I like her interpretation though, of course, there is no theory to back it. No ism, as my students say in shorthand, particularly before exams. Once, I overheard a conversation between two girls in a women’s toilet: “Which ism will be asked this semester, you think?” “Feminism and Socialism were asked last year” “We might get that multi-ism this semester then” “Not multi-ism, man, multiculturalism” “This paper should be called Multiply-ism, so many isms, just too much yaar!”. The reliance on isms bothers me as much as it does them. I suppress laughter thinking of Priti’s suggestion to have a paper or course called ‘Relationships’. Surely no stupid theorist will turn that into an ism – Relationshipism?

This is what they’ve done to literature – like photo filters on our cell phones that exaggerate or diminish something from the original and seemingly imperfect or incomplete photo, these isms, imported from across the corridor, from the social science departments, are supposed to be filters through which we look at literary texts. It is as if these texts have no existence outside of this, as if everything is to stand for everything, to mean something. I call it ‘Meaningitis’ in class sometimes. The students laugh, I imagine that as their support, their call to be liberated from these isms.

Sabiha, the best poet in this group, quiet for so long, speaks up at last. “It is as if the poet has decided to treat ‘My Better Half’ literally.”

“What do you mean?” I ask. I sense all the students looking at her.

“Like the person’s discovery of his partner, his ‘better half’, the poem too follows that pattern – it is the better, no, the best, part of the poem. Marriage might be generic, as Amla said, but his partner is not – hence all these unique metaphors and comparisons. Her infinity, which is what must seem to a newly married man, is quantified through metaphors of the unmeasurable: the summer ocean, the huge sky, the stars …”

I am loving her interpretation. “Whoever compares a lover to an antelope?” That’s Amla, principal dissenter in class.

“If you can compare a lover to a teddy bear, why not an antelope?” Priti will have something to say always.

“That’s for a reason,” says Sabiha calmly. “The man’s gaze is narrowing – from her seeming infinitude, the ocean and the star and the sky and their vastness, the distance between the man and the woman is growing smaller. He can now see her – she is the antelope, with horns yes, but don’t miss the word ‘grace’. His vision in the marriage is growing sharper: the endlessness of the ocean and the sky, the blur of the misty dawn, and even the halo that she seems to be carrying around her … At last, we – and he – can see her up close. For even when he sees her in bed, she is distant. Then she sits opposite him, eating lunch, this creature of light, an angel, and she becomes a woman. And therefore the marriage must die …”

I want to clap. But Amla is a bull waiting to strike. “So, distance is best in all relationships. Even in marriage. Is that the moral of the poem?”

No one answers. I have decided that I won’t.

“What is the moral of a marriage? If a marriage has no moral – I don’t mean morals – then how can a poem about a marriage have a moral?” I sense a hint of annoyance in Shruti’s voice. She rarely speaks in class, and certainly not in this assertive tone.

Amla ignores her, as she does almost everyone else, beginning with her parents. “I noticed something else,” she says, and without waiting for us to ask – she never does – continues, “I notice that as long as the woman is only an object to be seen and viewed, things are fine. The marriage, and the metaphors are beautiful. As soon as the woman begins speaking – ‘Listened to her while we ate lunch’ – the marriage begins to collapse, at least in the poem. It reminds me of an essay by someone called Mary Beard, on the history of women’s forced silence …”

I’m beginning to grow tired. I feel like a marriage counsellor. I am relieved that I’m not married.

How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.

I read these lines very slowly, almost coaching myself to believe in them, as if they were a DIY thing for happiness in relationships. ‘We are returning to Icarus at the end of the poem. Why?’

“Return to singlehood. As alone as Icarus after the marriage.” Amla again, her responses almost always immediate.

“Is the man going into the forest the same as the man coming out of the forest?” asks Mayurika. I know she’s a Philosophy minor. “We see the marriage and its end in the poem itself. And then we see the lonely man, failing after flying, and hence the title – Failing and Flying – of course. But it’s not the same man. That is why the first and the last lines of the poem are not the same. How can they be? I’m not the same girl I was before the summer vacation.”

We look at her, all of us – the effect of her words are immediate. Her face is in her hands. We see the tears we can’t see. The silence that follows is unbearable, longer than any stanza-break can accommodate. I don’t know what to do – it’ll be an hour soon, and I still haven’t spoken about the craft in the poem. I’m unable to get myself to Mayurika’s chair, to comfort her. The place was pretty but its food greasy – the thought from the poem refuses to leave me. It comforts me – how prettiness is not all. My insecurities about my appearance return. Would my marriage have ended the moment I became visible from a close range?

I am brought back from my self-obsessed thoughts by the sound of sobbing. Sadness is contagious. I feel the urge to cry but I fight back my tears. I think of Arup – I wonder which of us is Icarus, he or me. I wonder whether he still writes poems. I still read poems, like I used to. Why would he stop writing then?

There’s mascara on Mayurika’s cheeks. Sadness is pretty only in a poem.

The classroom is handicapped by decorum, the students and I paralysed by some invisible glue that doesn’t allow us to move towards the girl in tears. It is as if the governing ethic of the academic essays – with their yoke of objectivity that keeps the self at an antiseptic distance – has seeped into our blood. The isms are all good theoretically but they do not penetrate beyond skin, they do not change us. There is no ism for sadness, for failure of relationships, for tears.

“What happened in the summer, Mayurika?” I ask, walking towards her, slightly unsure of whether I’ve used the correct preposition. Should I have said “during”?

The girls get up from their chairs as soon as I do from mine. We walk towards her. There are no words. Later, when we’ve gathered around her seat – and she’s the only person sitting – she pulls the sleeves of her top to near her elbow. Near her wrist is something that looks like a scribble but must be a tattoo. I adjust my glasses to look closely. The girls have their heads focussed on the tiny inscription (what else does one call it?). Their eyes are like microscopes.

“What is it?”

“I can’t make out either.”

“Yeah, it’s like a smudge.”

“Is it a fly?” Sabiha asks shyly, as if saying something inappropriate.

“K.” That’s all that Mayurika will say.

“Kafka? A spider? You like …”

“K for Krishna,” Mayurika clarifies.

“The K looks like a fly.”

“That was the idea,” she explains, wiping her nose on her sweater sleeves.

“What happened? Why did you break up?”

“Where is he now?”

“Flown away. Like a fly.” It’s Amla.

I’m scared – and sad – that it’s a cruel joke, but I see Mayurika sniff and then smile.

That gives Amla courage. “Failing and Flying,” she says.

I leave the classroom three minutes before time. Just before the door closes behind me I see Shruti inspect the tattoo closely.

“Close Reading,” I hear one of them say.


About the Author:

Sumana Roy’s first book, How I Became a Tree, a work of non-fiction, was published in India in February 2017. Her first novel, Missing, was published in April 2018. Her poems and essays have appeared in GrantaGuernicaLARBDrunken Boat, the Prairie SchoonerThe Common, and other journals. She lives in Siliguri in India.