Book Review

Gaja Rajan writes in the first poem of Moth Funerals, “You’ve heard this one before,” but honestly, we haven’t. Her voice is fresh and lyrical. Yes, she may tackle familiar topics such as loss and growing up, but she does so in a way we haven’t heard yet—by discussing youth not in retrospect but as the poet’s current lens. As readers, we are able to get the real-time perspective of growing up and not just from the decayed memory of a mid-career poet. The motif of a moth appears throughout this book. This is notable since a moth isn’t the cliché metaphor a butterfly would be. The moth is to the night as the butterfly is to the day. The moth is the poet’s insect, that harbinger of solitude, seeking out a porch light in the night. This motif beings in “Juliet I,” the first poem of the chapbook: “my desire into / a moth striving toward light,” and “I consider shedding my body / like a pair of moth wings.” But what is a moth without its ability to fly? What is the poet without the ability to write? What is the self without the body? Rajan can’t separate the two—self and body, poet and page—in this book. Her desire for self-destruction is equally met by the continual act of creation, each poem breathing life into both reader and poet. She states in “Necromancy”:

                    Some people get legends
and others a ghost that replaces them,
good men ripping out their obituaries

              to pray, look away.

This chapbook is about a poet writing the legend of themselves while they’re still alive, before anyone else tries to tell what Rajan’s speaker calls “my myth” first.

The pacing and overall arc of Moth Funerals is structured around three poems that help continue the moth motif: “[self-portrait as pupa],” “[self-portrait as cocoon],” and “[self-portrait as moth],” each spread out with roughly three to six poems between them. In “[self-portrait as pupa],” Rajan explores both the etymology of the Latinate “pupa” and the firsthand experience growing up as a young girl. Rajan’s poems are so powerful because they have gymnastic technical control and pack a gut punch. With each poem, there is both close attention to craft and the emotional nuance to raise the stakes. Her attention to enjambments and meter reminds me of Natasha Tretheway, particularly in Native Guard. Rajan states: “I pin my ordinary heart to clotheslines, / litter its sparks into every open palm.” This line, in its lyrical leaps, comes right after images of “wildfires / staining the sky yellow.” The larger world’s tragedies are filtered through this speaker’s heart until they become sparks in her hand. However, it is important to note that this poem (and chapbook as a whole), isn’t about defeat. Rather, it is about triumph. Rajan closes this poem with “my body has always been mine.” Even in the face of larger tragedy, the speaker’s triumph is the feminist reclamation of the self, of the body. As a woman writing in America, she is speaking back to both men and America at large, both who continually try to control women’s bodies. Her poems are her reclamations and her rebellions. Rajan’s voice in Moth Funerals reminds me of Ada Limón, particularly in Bright Dead Things. Both Limón and Rajan are intent on staking their claim to themselves and their place in the world.

Rajan’s poems reach out for belonging, both to herself and to a country that is hostile toward her. In “Nostalgia Is the Prettiest Liar,” Rajan interrogates the idea of white people romanticizing the past, when she “watches a white woman cosplay 1930. / She says it must’ve been simpler back then.” Rajan pivots to the detention centers both ‘back then’ and currently along the US-Mexico border. Rajan actively engages with current political conversations in this chapbook; another one of her poems (“Poem Inside a Locker Room”) includes a quote from Trump. She states in “Nostalgia. . . ”:

                                                                  Only some
can imagine the past and see a mission. The white
woman’s nostalgia flicks blond light on
in the city and rides over skyscrapers. Doesn’t see
the people below, fleeing.

Here Rajan critiques white people’s selective attention and how they bend the past to the shape they want, willfully ignoring the injustices they either caused or were complicit in. Formally this poem ends with a conjunction, without punctuation: “drinks until crimson smears / down its jaw, drinks until blood rushes / to its eyelids, drinks and drinks and.” This brilliant conclusion remains open-ended and continuous, implying that the bloody landscape white people have made and perpetuate is ongoing. The tone Rajan is able to modulate in this poem reminds me of Aimee Nezhukumatathil, how both poets work with understatement and irony to make their arguments for how damaging even microaggressions of racism can be.

The chapbook continues with the elegiac themes it begins in the poem “We Were Birds.” This poem is not an elegy for the self but rather an elegy for a friend who “wore a white shirt and leapt / into the river. Didn’t surface for air.” This poem is as much about the loss of this friend as it is how the speaker processes grief. And for the speaker, she processes her grief on the page: “Suppose I woke and saw only lightning. / Suppose the birds burned their songs / that summer.”

Moth Funerals’ themes of flight are continued here in “We Were Birds,” with the birds replacing the moths. Rajan states, “I screamed Peter / which meant pray which meant please. How a name can sound / like a clock. A grave in a field full of ticking.” The poem closes on a turn away from grief toward the natural world, marking a step forward by the speaker through her grief: “I gave my bones to the water. Feathers wavering / in the river. / A blackbird in the oaks.” Rajan uses images of the natural world in her lyrical imagination to hopefully influence the reality of her grief—as if the poet could conjure the lost person in the poem and, however briefly, bring them back to life.

The themes of loss, particularly of Peter, continue in “Poem In Which I Do Not Become A Bird.” The speaker opens the poem with a suicide hotline, both for themselves and as a way to bring Peter back, an earthly tether for the dead:

                                                                              Your thoughts ache

            a bestiary of wings and teeth and how
                              your friend died on a river. Then the dream
where he is alone with an armful of birds,

            and they are leading him closer to the water—
never mind.

The only space the speaker can access the dead is either in dreams or in poems. However, this poem moves the arc of the chapbook, and the arc of the speaker’s grief, forward toward closure, or some form of resolution: “I know / the truth. His death was his death, his life his life, the birds / just birds.” The speaker acknowledges even the limits of her own metaphors, that no metaphor can bring back the dead, and that ultimately:

                                                                  I am not a metaphor,
                        I’m just a girl kneeling small enough to live

            for a moment, the city’s breath feathered
as I bury my pleas in the dark.

The poem “We Were Birds” begins in the night, in the moment of loss, and “Poem In Which. . . ” ends with the speaker in the act of prayer—in the act of poem-making—also in the dark. These moments of night are the natural parallel to loss. This formal choice gives us symmetry, the night offers us rest, offers us closure. But the speaker’s loss isn’t resolved: her prayers are pleas, not praise. Her loss continues on outside the page.

Moth Funerals takes on heavy topics, such as loss and identity, as well as racism in America. In “To the Man Who Yelled ‘Go Back to Your Own Country,’” Rajan uses the imperative mode to directly address and command this man and the systemic racism he represents and perpetuates:

the country you live in is not the same as mine.
In the country you live in, the moon is yours. You don’t

need poems. Laws and cops give you
all you need: safety, blood.

This poem operates as a powerful rebuttal, one that reasserts the speaker’s desire for belonging and safety in a country that, despite masquerading as unified and just, constantly proves to be built on and uphold white supremacy. Rajan retorts, “Do not say I’ll cower in an alley, or retreat / into my skin.” The man in this poem is a microcosm of the system Rajan works to tear down. White supremacy expects people of color, especially women of color, to stay silent, maintaining the imbalance of power through their forced silence. Rajan is speaking up and speaking back with beautiful, powerful poems. Rajan is a poet intent on marking her place in the world, a poet who’d “rather be a girl than a ghost.” Gaia Rajan is a poet fully alive in the world and in the world of her poems. Watch for her; she is a poet with wings.

About the Reviewer

William Fargason is the author of Love Song to the Demon-Possessed Pigs of Gadara (University of Iowa Press, 2020), winner of the 2019 Iowa Poetry Prize and the 2020 Florida Book Award in Poetry (Gold Medal). His poetry has appeared in The Threepenny Review, New England Review, Barrow Street, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Colorado Review, The Cincinnati Review, Narrative, and elsewhere. He earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Maryland and a PhD in poetry from Florida State University. He lives with himself in Sparks Glencoe, Maryland, where he serves as the poetry editor at Split Lip Magazine.