“For every time in this life I have thought of dying, let me / yield that much fruit in my next”—these lines from Natasha Rao’s debut poetry collection Latitude are a declaration of inner selves, an acknowledgment of the abundance within desire. In the poem “In my next life let me be a tomato,” the speaker emanates a singular truth, and a universal feeling, in their “biped incarnation”: in the human form our free will coaxes the belly of our moral codes. And throughout our lives, we adhere to and deviate from these ethics with varying degrees of delight and guilt. What ignited my desire and flung me headlong into this collection was the embodiment of the erotic, the sensuality of a world rife with “airy / afternoons licking wood spoons” mingling with “bodies vibrating / like guitar strings plucked / to life.” Rao’s poems remind us that amid our daily internal conflicts, there are libations, eros, and flowers.
In “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” Audre Lorde reclaims and recontextualizes the erotic as “a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.” Rao exhibits her acumen for vulnerability in her observations and creative muscularity. Throughout the collection, Rao, an Indian American poet and 2021 Ruth Lilly & Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, never writes in the vein of victor or victim; quite the contrary, she is measured in her approach to present the capacity to exist in the discomfort of complex human emotions, whether in the impatience for a parent’s mispronunciation of a word or in the sublime interconnectedness of siblinghood. Rao’s speakers are present in each moment of self-implication: “I / bloat full of lies. Spurred by my / capacity for ruin.” And in the fullness of their humanity, the speakers exude a palpable tenderness—even when they misbehave—in a space where their sensibilities inch along the asymptote of grace.
Even in the big year of 2022, women are still praised for their passivity—a presumed characteristic, the default feminine setting. Meanwhile, the speakers in Rao’s collection acknowledge their meekness, but they are not limited by it. Desire is a feeling most often thought of as detached from women. On the contrary, Rao luxuriates in the virtue of vices: “Being alone in a new, warm place fills me with / recklessness that I have never tried to quell.” Both earnest and wry, the speaker admits, “Often the bravest thing I do all day is open my mouth.”
When I consider the poet Kevin Young’s assertion that the power of poetry lies in the ability to console and express something inconsolable, I think of Rao’s recognition of the small cruelties ever-present in life’s contradictions. Rao’s speaker may blush at fresh sushi but is aware of the chain of actions that leads to her consumption. Never skittish with feeling, the speaker acquiesces:
What one might consider a typical sushi lunch, Rao scrutinizes with a keen eye. She looks inward while simultaneously zooming out on the scene to perceive the minor violences that remain ubiquitous in our daily indulgences without judgment or deviations in behavior. Violence just is and continues to be. In this lies the question of innocence. Am I the predator or prey? A question of impact that does not seek a resolution. Here are the indulgences. Here the lines of tension are named. Here the carnal and the sacred are made opaque. Here a Bloody Mary ignites the spirit.
Lorde asserts that the erotic “offers a well of replenishing and provocative force to the woman who does not fear its revelation, nor succumb to the belief that sensation is enough.” In my own life, I have not endured anything as infinite as the well of shame. Many who observe a religious or spiritual practice must confront the incessant naggings of indoctrination. In the poem “Divine Transformation,” the speaker articulates her desire to be a Jain nun, or at least to possess their discipline. Conversely, the speaker perceives herself as a pupal in its chrysalis: “I could have been a kind of fly. / I could have been kind.” Inevitably, we all must face our shortcomings.
Each of Rao’s poems recommits to this fullness of self from different vantage points as a sister, a daughter, a lover, and a woman. There is allure in all the ways the speaker reimagines themselves. She asks, “Why girl, why not mouse, moth?” A heralding heartthrow line. The speaker’s yearnings are multifaceted and textured: “I want / to pleat myself / into stone.” In the imagery of mass exodus from the body, from other countries, from the planet, Rao has the uncanny ability to hover above each action while remaining present in the sadness and the shame before the defenses can stifle recognition. There is no rejection of the self but a celebration of one’s presence and a desire to be better in this life or in another which thrills, reinvigorating the notion of our capacity to sustain contrasting feeling.
In her foreword, Ada Limón declares that Rao’s work is “singing in sorrow for an original innocence that is almost unbearable.” Limón, who also exercises candor, looks to nature, and observes with an unflinching eye, selected Rao’s debut collection as the winner of the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize.
Latitude is a startling debut collection, an example of Coleridge’s belief of “the best words in the best order.” Masterfully wielding the English language, Rao demonstrates Lorde’s idea of the erotic as sensation with feeling. Rao and her readers are rewarded with grandiose, lush language. Because what is a poem but a made thing? You do not confront phrases like “deciduous mouth” or “ursine sleep” in poems by accident. Readers bear witness to a four-year-old girl spelling “cornucopia for delighted adults” and her first memory of feeling pride. The mix of lyrical and narrative poems function within the multiplicity of its title. Latitude—from the Latin word latitudio meaning breadth—displays the distance of longing throughout our lives. My heart is so full of women who misbehave, women who dare to expose their urges. Women like Rao, who intern me in language and liberate me, page by page, from my own moral trappings. Rao’s pronouncements seize me in their astuteness and allow a stream of feeling to flood the collection.
Latitude by Natasha Rao (The American Poetry Review / Copper Canyon Press, 2021)