The American Poetry Review
The way we see ourselves changes as we grow older. And for poet Natasha Rao, self-awareness is precious. It shows us how reality works against our memories and dreams. In his first collection Latitude, who won the 2021 APR / Honickman Award, Rao becomes aware of her animal being – wanting food, companionship, sex – as she shamelessly walks through what she desires from the world around her.
Throughout the book, the poet’s main approach to “knowing herself” is an examination of how she clings to her past. In the very first poem, Rao’s speaker wants to remember the “sweet melody” of her brother’s “precocious voice” – instead, she hears “the streaming down of a basalt fountain”. Entitled “Old Growth”, the poem examines what it means to realize that one has grown up, but only after the fact.
“… I felt safe before I knew
the word for that. But how to fossilize a feeling, maintain it
in amber? I keep dreaming inside out until I reach
a quiet stretch of forest … “
Latitude has been aware of his constant pursuit for some time, but he does not live in the past. On the contrary, his gaze on nostalgia comes up against the poet’s attachment to today’s desire. Consider this line from another poem to his brother: “Now / I get off the plane / and keep waiting for the part / where you still need me.” A strong sense of place keeps us rooted in the poet’s search for a special sense of childhood – that sense of security of the first poem.
But there is friction between the poet’s sense of integrity and the intensity of his desires. Even the title of the book, Latitude, refers both to a geographic awareness and to freedom of action and thought. The poet wants to know everything and be everywhere, but understands the brevity of his life. Here is a striking short poem titled “World View”:
“Envious of the fly
who has enough eyes
take it all
and the snake
who can swallow it
The sensual details take Rao’s poems in a lyrical direction; her South Asian culture and her family expectations probing the nature of her desires. In the title poem of the book, which is divided into 10 prose lines, the poet grabs the memory to make sense of the friction she feels: “In the liquor store, I remembered the progress. from a friend with unexpected pleasure. She wants to feel wanted – what she calls “the precedent of shame”. She identifies his “recklessness” and kisses him. “Really, the smell of semen in the air didn’t bother me,” she wrote like a secret to herself, breaking any rules she might have felt the need to follow.
Likewise, one weekend she is at the park, watching dogs go by: “Not knowing the names of the breeds like my white friends did, I sat in embarrassed silence as they discussed their preferences for dogs. dachshunds and dobermans. Here, the silence refers to a familiar immigrant experience, where the language sheds light on who is here and who is “the other”.
But just two lines later, she admits to feeling “light and fearless by proxy” to a driver when seated in the passenger seat of a car. Letting go of control isn’t hard for Rao – maybe it actually is fun. And when they enter the park and she sees a “geyser surging”, the sound she lets out is “like a small round pebble”. It’s “the same mineral gasp” she let out the first time she felt “a man burst inside. [her]. “The poet accepts the complacency that accompanies her silence, just as she recognizes the power of her voice. It is her alone, to keep or share.
The American Poetry Review
This self-performance by voice is key throughout the poem, as well as the book. “This week, I am unable to contribute to the conversation, determined to hear all voices at once,” she wrote in a later section. But this tension around her desires wakes up again as she confesses, “I’m taking it back, I don’t want to be a fly, to know everything that’s going on at once.” The poet is not afraid to admit that she sometimes finds her voice unreliable, just as she is not afraid to have whatever she wants.
Finally, it is the change in his desires that gives the poet the most latitude. She basks in this uncertainty, writing in another section: “To cut all ties. So as not to know what comes next. To see my nails grow longer, having forgotten to pack the mower. Here, Rao’s precinct is back on a plane, gently attending to his desires. “What a relief, finally, to admit that I’m in love with turbulence.”
By dissecting family memory, sexual arousal, and feelings that were once new but are now old, Rao allows himself to grow in his many versions. She listens to the complexity of her desire as part of her changing life. Self-aware and direct, Latitude is timeless in its honesty.