Sundress Reads: A Review of Atlas of Lost Places

A lament and a love song, Yamini Pathak’s Atlas of Lost Places (Milk & Cake Press, 2020) charts the distance between past and present and childhood and adulthood for a narrator who is an immigrant to the US from India. Each of these poems pulses with a longing for home, but the narrator cannot return home, not simply because of the geographical distance, but because what was once home is no longer home, as both she and the place have changed. That is what makes the place lost.

“Nowadays they are all extinct or endangered: grandfather tiger / Northern white rhinos (which were the ugliest / but closest thing we had to unicorns) home-made pickles,” Pathak writes in “The Northern White Leaves the Page,” mourning the aspects of her childhood in India which have been lost. Some things became lost due to the passage of time (her grandfather). Some became lost because of poachers and hunters (tigers, white rhinos). Some became lost due to a shifting of cultures (home-made pickles).

And the more time passes, the more things grow lost. The further the distance grows.

The desire to shorten the distance is felt on every page. The first poem, “Ahimsa,” is visually formatted in two disjointed columns with white space between. Each line appears as if it’s being pulled apart and the overall effect is a whole being torn into halves. This is how longing affects the body. It rips it apart.

In the opening poem, the narrator asks, “Would you judge me a fool if I said my love / is a parched well that never quits reaching for the aquifer?” The aquifer: home, the past, India. Yet, despite how much the “parched well” of her love reaches for it, it will always be out of reach. And yet, she doesn’t stop reaching. However, as she remarks, she is no fool: this reaching is a testament to her devotion.

The India that she yearns for is one bursting with color and scent. In the titular poem, she writes, “His clipped / wings dream of flight, scarlet-tipped verdant arrows that spear blue skies, of siesta in the / guava grove, of orgies succulent with wild mango.” Scarlet, blue, guava, mango—these images bloom off the page. One can almost taste the fruit. Yet, even in this line, there is sorrow: the bird has clipped wings and cannot fly, and thus, the guava grove remains an unreached destination.

This is not the only instance the narrator likens herself to an injured bird. In “Excerpt from Field Guide for Broken Birds,” Pathak writes, “The Maimed Sparrow seeks the healing of turmeric skies.” Like the prior example, the bird’s inability to fly prevents it from being able to return home, and we feel its sorrow. Instead, it resorts to “[confining] itself to small spaces dense with the incense of familiarity.” This line suggests how the bird finds a home away from home when it cannot return home. Surrounding herself with aspects of her culture—of turmeric, of incense, of familiarity—is a salve for her longing. If she cannot go home, she can bring home to herself.

It is through community she finds home as well. In one poem, the narrator describes getting pedicures with a friend: “We sink into massage chairs / slip on the shared skin of / Hindi slang that belongs alone / to us.” In this moment, for the narrator, the act of self-care is not receiving the pedicure; it is being in the company of a friend with whom she can be herself, someone with whom she can share her culture. This moment of belonging feels intimate, like secrets whispered in the dark for no one to hear but the tellers.

Ultimately, it is with her sons that the narrator finds the closest thing to home. In “The Geography of Bedtime,” she describes reading her son to sleep, how “his [eyes] are shuttered, already / at rest in that borderless town / in a country all our own.” In this tender moment, home is the love between a mother and her son. That love has no edges. It goes and goes, past the limits of the atlas. For the narrator who feels torn between two worlds, this is a moment of peace, a moment in which she is no longer split, but whole.

A love for her sons is at the root of each of these poems. “Where shall you go my sons?” she asks in “Elegy for the Way Home,” and this becomes the collection’s metaphorical refrain. A mother wants to provide her sons a map through which they can navigate the world, but where to go when the map is dotted with lost places, when the route has faded? Even the poem’s title—“Elegy for the Way Home”—tells us that the path back is gone. 

Like their mother, the narrator’s sons will be raised of two cultures, and while she yearns to share her culture with her sons, she regrets it won’t be learned firsthand: “It takes practice to scoop dal with your fingers, taste spice on the honey / of your hot skin before you swallow, this is my sorrow.” But, still, she will teach them, and these teachings will become their path forward. As Pathak writes, “I will be your compass.” She will lead them towards a new home, one they build themselves.

The end of the collection brings a shift. In the first poem, the narrator describes her love as a parched well, always reaching for the aquifer. By the end of the collection, Pathak writes, “the river I swallow runs underground you / the rock in the tide-pool I / the moss that cleaves.” This image suggests the narrator is no longer always thirsty, but coursing with water, full to the brim. In this line, her sons are the rocks in the tide-pool and she is the moss that cleaves. Her sons are planted firmly in the river of her love; as long as she clings to them, she will never be thirsty again.

This fierce love makes Atlas of Lost Places a memorable collection, along with Pathak’s mastery of language, vivid images that bloom an entire world off the page, and twin currents of joy and sorrow that run through every page. This collection is about coming home, which Pathak illuminates as a process less having to do with maps, and more having to do with how you love.

Atlas of Lost Places is available at Milk & Cake Press.

Kathleen Gullion is a writer based in Houston. Her work has appeared in the Esthetic Apostle, Coachella ReviewF Newsmagazine, and others. She holds a Master of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.


Leave a Reply