“Cracked Asphalt” Sree Sen (Fly on the Wall Press) – book review

Sree Sen Cracked Asphalt book cover

“Cracked Asphalt” is a journey from Mumbai to Dublin exploring issues of identities, what makes home and why someone might leave the country they were born in and wisdom gained on a physical and emotional journey. An early poem, “frames”, suggests a day as a series of freeze-frames, snapshots of memories capturing,

“(to myself)
just a number
like the first-class master’s degree
gathering Latin dust

(rain downpour)
glossy brochure photos
kids with cracked lips
me, peddling sorrow, afraid to sip

(beware)
urinary tract infections
long waits at bus stops
racists, invincible under streetlights

(exhaustion)
my hand holding a chapati
can’t make the journey
from plate to mouth.”

Someone with a master’s degree is going door to door, fundraising. The rain could be a mood as well as the weather. The phrase glossy brochure suggests wealth but shows children barely surviving in poverty. As she works, the speaker chooses not to hydrate because it’s safer than facing sexist/racist reactions if she asks to use a bathroom. She gets home too tired to feed herself.

Later, inspired by the story of a white stork that migrated from Africa to Germany with an arrow stuck in its side, the speaker compares and contrasts her new home to her former home, in “pfeilstörche”

“i make fresh coffee with roasted Kenyan beans

from O’Connell supermarket
of polite nods at safe distances vs.
probing questions from Pari kaku who sold
instant coffee at the store in my old neighbourhood

back at the window
dusty feet on cracked tar
497 miles towards home on a pastel Bengal road
teeth stained with raw tobacco & melting gur

human chain of fractured spines
a class forgotten in a hurry
Pari kaku stares at me, unblinking, a dagger
between muscle & bone”

The Irish maintain a polite distance and don’t ask invasive questions of their neighbours. Back in Mumbai, neighbours lack restraint and grocery store owners aren’t asking from politeness but to pass on news and spread gossip. There’s no sense that one is superior to the other, rather than some middle ground is desired. That her Irish neighbours open up a little more and her Mumbai neighbours dial down the nosiness.

Distance is picked up again in the haiku, “loss”,

“your letter carries
the scent of jasmine desires
trapped in papercuts”

Jasmine is a scent of home, a reminder of the person who sent the letter. But the letter causes papercuts, which sting. This contrasts with “semantics” where the reasons for leaving are remembered,

“leaving my hometown, i was told,
i’d be a second-class citizen
in a first-world country
as if being a brown girl
in a brown country
was any different
as if i wasn’t scared
all the time
my character attached to my neckline

………….as if i wasn’t familiar with brutality
………….at home, on streets, inside my head
………….groped on the staircase
………….arthritic fingers of friend’s grandfather

…………..who walked us every morning
…………..to the school bus stop
…………..my breasts starting to show
…………..holding out my elbows in crowds
…………..to deter horny men with hard palms
…………..that practised speed-fondling”

Here the problem is sexism, not racism (although in Dublin, the two may intersect). There’s an irony in being told she’d be a “second-class citizen” in a European country when she’s one at home thanks to the harrassment she already suffers. The poem ends,

“in a home not my own
here, cherry blossoms are
clouds trapped by branches
dreaming of the sky
hard lines of guilt, softening
i’m free to chop off my hair
grown long for men
in the territory of humid scalps
……………sometimes, i still cower
brown country is for brown men
……………& a visa for me”

Her new home offers freedom she didn’t have in Mumbai. She doesn’t have to dress or wear her hair for the male gaze. But she’s not entirely free and has become to feel as if she is a visitor in both countries.

“give yourself permission” offers a sense of peace, an acceptance that life doesn’t have to be perfect for someone to be content, the speaker gives herself permission to,

“do……..what you’ve been planning to
…………….but haven’t yet—
…………….grow plants, spray paint,
…………….bake desserts in a rusty oven
…………….argue with the mirror

make….plans A, B, C, D & then E, or don’t,
…………..forgive yourself for wallowing,
…………..for sudden tears at the long-forgotten
…………..anger: years lost in a frenzy
…………..of doing more, being more

now…..give yourself permission
………….on this day,
………….a gentle wave of breeze
………….whispering that spring
………….follows winter, year on year”

Don’t wait for the perfect moment, seize the imperfect opportunities too and be kind to yourself. These aren’t empty mantras, but earnt wisdom.

Sree Sen’s journey throughout “Cracked Asphalt” is a geographical and emotional one, moving from Mumbai to Dublin. The speaker is realistic and doesn’t assume that she can move away from the harrassment she suffers in the country she was born in and neither does she pretend everything’s rosy in her new country. The move puts her in a limbo: she’s now a guest when she returns to her country of origin but not complete at home in the country where she has settled. However, she finds joy in small things: food, planting, art and refuses to beat herself up for difficult days where regrets surface or that day’s tasks feel impossible. There’s a reminder that winter does eventually turn to spring. Hope can poke through the darkest of soils.

“Cracked Asphalt” is available from Fly on the Wall Press.


Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

Featured in the Top 10 Poetry Review Blogs on Feedspot.

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