The Promise of Rust
by Hari Alluri
Mouthfeel Press, 2016, $10
Reviewed by Arthur Kayzakian
Ever since Plato denounced poetry in Book X of his Republic, a dark question looms over every poet who writes in a world that largely favors dominant values: What is the purpose of poetry? The world needs poets who can speak, argue, and respond to this question with intellect and emotion. Hari Alluri’s poems do just that. The Promise of Rust by Hari Alluri is a provocative chapbook consisting of six poems threaded together into one continuous journey that engages the reader with conversations about displacement, war, oppression, territorialization of land, and an amalgamation of camaraderie combined with the process of gendering masculinity, just to name a few subject matters. The poems move from large to small spaces using elements of macro/micro sequencing to illustrate sharp images with metaphorical texture. What makes these poems magical is that they elucidate what happens to language in a body when it moves through the process of displacement and war. The Promise of Rust then becomes a metaphor of how warfare influences the tongue.
Rust is change. Rust is a visible remnant of history, a coating that mutates iron at an atomic level over a period of time due to oxidation from oxygen and moisture. Rust is also a result of what happens to a mind of a person after he or she undergoes a traumatic experience, and sometimes that rust is a subtle trauma that transforms a person over a long period of time. Many dimensions of rust take place in these poems to show the reader how language can change in the midst of territorial takeover—Alluri materializes this reality for the reader.
The chapbook opens with the lines, “Here, he said, sun. // And he said it like soda pop cans, like the downpour on streetlights we love.” Alluri utilizes the macro/micro technique by panning the cinematic lense from the sun to the soda pop cans, and finally to the streetlights. The pronoun “we” is an inclusive term of endearment that signifies love and the feeling of a roughneck admiration holding that love together under streetlights—a sense of camaraderie. To withstand the dark alleys and the streets and still be “we” is a form of love that cannot be denied. Alluri’s use of moving linguistically from a large sun, to the small soda can, and then to the larger streetlights builds a landscape filled with violence that is held by the tension of these macro/micro lines. He then writes, “Teach evening how city is at odds with night, how we must work / with the wind to free ourselves from the wind.” These lines implicate the reader just enough to witness how the night disagrees with a landscape marked for conflict.
In the first poem of the series, “In a Time of War,” Alluri stays faithful to his macro/micro technique by describing a particular moment of what a war can do to people. “A woman who kills,” writes Alluri, moves from a particular image of a woman (micro), to the vast landscape of a valley (macro), and back to the “woman beside / the animal she eats” (micro). The first line, “A woman who kills,” sets the tone for the poem. In dominant society, usually men are portrayed as hunters or warriors who go on quests to kill and conquer land. Alluri flips the gender code to shatter the binary of dominant beliefs. The reader is immediately drawn to “a woman beside / the animal she eats.” The sharp detail of how “The war has changed the valleys shape – this grass beside a woman’s lungs” embodies a woman’s breath so close to the ground that the landscape is part of her life support; the detail — and the absence of detail — is enough to spark the reader’s imagination for a multiplicity of meanings.
The poem’s metonymic and metaphorical images of “grass” and “lungs” surprise us with discovery because they represent questions we should ask of history: What can the land teach us about equality? What can a war-ridden valley un-teach us about survival? Media and official history depict women as stay-home figures who acquire local jobs and take care of the family during war while the men go off fighting for their country. Alluri’s poem locates the woman in a field, in a war of her own during a time of war. She is surviving on her own regard; she is a hunter. Therefore, Alluri’s poem makes possible the shattering of binary systems and ideological practices made rigid by history and grand narratives.
In another of the titled poems, “A Song,” the speaker, a burglar, speaks to God pleading the lord not to sing anymore. The surprise in the second verse is when the burglar calls God a “butter thief.” But then the poem moves into a plea: “grant this burglar / the archery of your voice.” God’s voice becomes a weapon for people marginalized from the state during times of domination. To summon God is to “Give ear to the low hum in the trees.” Sometimes silence is the only option, the best way to preserve language. If language is always loud and expressive, besiegers are more likely to capture and conquer the natives who speak the language; therefore, the low hum of silence is better left low-key in order to not draw attention to besiegers. In this respect, perhaps a song is not as beautiful when it represents a terminal point of expression. The poem is a prayer that shows us how language begins to fade from the body. One can even argue that language transforms to song before leaving the body in the same way a body turns to soul before its departure. The process of rust has begun.
In “Filth! You Filthy Piece of Trash, Whaddaap?!” the speaker moves us into an experience of raw friendship, the camaraderie of two drunk friends who lurk the streets. The reader becomes aware of this in the opening line, “Later, he ducked off to piss.” The language in this poem is coded with street dialect and guarded within the territory of friendship. This is the secret life of language moving from body to body in motions of slang, culture, and experience: “I miss most: raps on our pager, greetings.” However, the speaker lets us know that language must be protected because language can be taken and reshaped by dominant society; it can be “diminished for melody.” The confidential language of “inside jokes” and how they are now “dank against his skin” implies race and colonization forever pushing language back into the dark corners of itself, turning language into a song or melody before it is pushed out from the body and lost forever.
In the final poem of the series, “The Language I Lost,” the speaker expresses the intimacy of writing poems in English. While the title of the poem may imply a submission of language, the poem shows us that poetry can save the intimacy of the tongue, the language of the body. The process of writing is how Alluri saves his language. Even though “the gentlest marching is an act of violence” Alluri perseveres, “I smoke a lot, write even more.” Languages die, and their ancestors rust upon the dominant language of the land. The Promise of Rust teaches us that a poet’s vocation can save any language even if the language is already dead. As Alluri gracefully writes, “The lockpick work of thieving death from death” is how language rusts from its death even against the influence of war.
The Promise of Rust is crucial to poetry and civilization. The book can be read as a brilliant book of poetry with fascinating lines. A poet may read it to learn technique, and an avid reader might read it to decipher meaning. What Alluri has concocted together line by line is a necessary book of poetry because it is a defense of poetry. When Plato writes Socrates’ pronouncements about poetry and its detrimental effects on society, he asks a rhetorical question: “Shall, we, then, speak of Him as the natural author or maker of the bed?” Plato argues the poet is thrice removed from civilization because he is the imitator of the bed which is an imitation of the Eidos itself[i]. Alluri speaks directly to Plato’s denouncement when he writes:
A chair speaks in riddles and a table’s
denial is flat. But the footstool is honest:
even when it’s stored away, it yearns to break down.
If Plato believes the Eidos is the ultimate reality, and thus the bed, the footstool, the chair, and the table become the imitations of the non-physical idea of these objects, then the poet who describes these objects in words is an imitator of an imitation. In Plato’s eyes, the poet is not a craftsman and is of no use to society.
But in a world of ongoing multiplicitious colonization and imperial war—displacement, gendered violence—all objects face dissolution. The people in power who thrive on exploitation harvest physical and emotional control of society by way of propaganda and language. Perhaps Alluri debunks Plato by placing the focus on language. Language currents more power than Eidos because it materializes ideas. An indigenous or displaced language may decay under oppressive social conditions, but even the chair, the footstool, and the table have something to offer. Objects speak a language of their own in The Promise of Rust, even within the empire’s imposition of ideological control. With urgency, Alluri “feel[s] like . . . [he must] hold to the language of one empire in face of another.”
At first glance, The Promise of Rust is a title that seems to draw on the metaphor that any marginalized language will always deteriorate by the reign of a dominant language. However, Alluri’s book is a promise of soul preservation by way of keeping the remnants of language and by internalizing the rust of that language against extinction—that promise is poetry.
[i] In Plato’s Republic, particularly the Theory of Forms, Plato argues that the Eidos (Greek word for idea) is the metaphysical but most precise reality of the form. For example, the Eidos of a chair is the quintessence of the chair. Anything replicating the chair (a craftsman who makes a chair) is considered an imitation of the Eidos.